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Why David Coppedge’s Story Isn’t Being Told

David Klinghoffer

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That’s the memorable opening line in Joan Didion’s essay “The White Album” and, in following the Darwin debate, I often think of it. Making sense of disparate personal experiences and bits of information gleaned from the news or other sources, we are powerfully moved to weave a narrative that makes sense of it all. Darwinians and creationists alike have complained precisely that intelligent design refuses to offer a tidy historical narrative of how a designer might have exercised “his” creative influence. This refusal annoys and confuses people beyond belief.
Of course, some stories are true. Others are fabrications, maintained only by steadfastly turning your face away from contrary evidence. Either way, human beings are incorrigible storytellers, and information that doesn’t fit our story tends to get ignored. This may explain why news venues have so far mostly declined to report on what happened to David Coppedge.
He is a top-level computer specialist on the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Cassini mission to Saturn whose supervisors demoted and humiliated him for raising scientific issues about intelligent design. Last week he sued in the Superior Court of the State of California, complaining of religious discrimination, harassment, and wrongful demotion. Sounds like a news story, doesn’t it?

Intelligent design isn’t religion, but Coppedge’s supervisor, Gregory Chin, harangued him for “pushing religion” after Coppedge merely offered apparently interested colleagues DVDs of two documentaries on ID, Privileged Planet and Unlocking the Mystery of Life. Coppedge had every reason to think the films related to his work at JPL. Part of Caltech and operated under a contract with NASA, JPL has a longstanding program called Origins that seeks information on the origin of life on earth and hypothetically on other planets. Neither film includes religious statements or references. In fact, Privileged Planet explores cosmological issues illustrated by interviews with scientists at NASA and JPL. But since supervisor Chin called this “religion,” and since religious speech is legally protected, Coppedge seeks redress for religious discrimination. If Chin had made no mention of religion but harassed and demoted Coppedge simply for raising doubts about Darwinian evolution, as Unlocking the Mystery of Life does, that would also violate free-speech protections.
Anyway, here we have government and government-contracted agencies, NASA and JPL, denying constitutional rights to a citizen, punishing and humiliating him for exercising his right to free speech. Yet the story as of yet has merited no significant attention from any prominent local or national news source. Why not? Well, obviously because this isn’t a story that fits the larger narrative as favored in prestige circles like those of the media. In that favored narrative, it’s always Darwinists, never Darwin doubters, who fall afoul of censors, persecuted by powerful forces in academia arrayed against orthodox evolutionary theory. Yeah, you know those powerful forces. They’re over there, in a shoebox under the bed.
Fictionalized to begin with, this story was first told fifty years ago in Inherit the Wind. In the social demographic that champions it, it hasn’t been looked at critically since. Thus, as readers of ENV know well, you can have a string of genuine and grievous cases of discrimination and suppression directed at Darwin doubters in research and teaching positions — Sternberg, Gonzalez, Crocker, Marks, Minnich, Dembski, now Coppedge, along with other suppressed scientists yet to be named and still others too worried about reprisals to let themselves be identified — and this entirely escapes liberal media attention. It’s like a dog whistle. The favored narrative sets an audible frequency range beyond which, blast away as long and as “loud” as you like, a dog’s owner simply can’t hear anything even as the dog himself comes running.
On the other hand, if a story can be squeezed, molded, and manipulated so that an editor or news gatherer is reminded of the Scopes trial as depicted in Inherit the Wind, then yes — that does merit attention. Thus when Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke resigned from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, after the BioLogos Foundation trumpeted a video interview with him on “Why the Church Must Accept Evolution,” that won Professor Waltke a phone call from Diane Sawyer with ABC News. Waltke had not been forced out for endorsing evolution — he had not been forced out at all — and indeed he hit the ground running (at age 79) with a teaching offer from another seminary. But there was an imagined scent of Scopes about the matter and so, despite the fact you can be sure no one on Diane Sawyer’s producing staff previously had any clue who Bruce Waltke or the Reformed Theological Seminary is, it merited attention from ABC World News. (To his credit, Waltke declined to be interviewed by Sawyer and sought to clarify his views on Darwinism.)
By the same token, when a biology professor at Louisiana State University was relieved of her teaching responsibilities for being too tough a grader, USA Today managed to insinuate in its coverage that somehow student complaints about her teaching on evolution and the age of the world had got her in trouble. In fact, the only student complaints that were relevant had to do with the prof’s not engaging in grade inflation. But again, here was a story the reporter was clearly burning to tell — about Southern fried Bible-belt religious fanatics persecuting a poor innocent Darwinian scholar — even if the facts of the matter were all against it.
I’m not saying anyone was being dishonest, not in any of these instances. The stories we tell ourselves, if they’re false, actually deafen us. A deaf person can’t be blamed for not hearing. Most Darwinists couldn’t hear the truth if it was blown like a whistle right their face.