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Attempting to Win the Debate over Intelligent Design through Stereotyping


stereotype… an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic… especially: a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment.

Throughout history, people have used stereotypes to silence, subjugate, and dehumanize those they oppose. In American history, blacks, Jews, women, Catholics, and others have all been victims of this kind of mistreatment. Because stereotyping is so pernicious, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics wisely instructs journalists to

Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the issue of intelligent design (ID), many journalists throw their professional training out the door. Reporters who would never dream of caricaturing a woman or a gay person uncritically repeat as fact the tendentious claim that intelligent design proponents are “creationists.”

Reporters usually do this without even defining what creationism is, although the term is presumably meant to conjure up lurid images of (take your pick) Inherit the Wind, Bible-thumpers, witch trials, religious fundamentalism, and humans cavorting with dinosaurs a few thousand years ago.

Now I understand perfectly why opponents of intelligent design seek to caricature it with the term “creationism.” They are trying to win the public debate without doing the hard work of actually rebutting the arguments offered by intelligent design proponents. Even some critics of intelligent design openly acknowledge that this is what is going on. Anti-ID historian of science Ron Numbers admitted several years ago to the Associated Press that “the creationist label is inaccurate when it comes to the ID movement,” but added that critics of ID use the label because they think such claims are “the easiest way to discredit intelligent design.” (To his credit, Numbers was not defending this tactic; he was simply acknowledging it.)

Reporters, of course, are supposed to be fair and impartial in their reporting, not partisans of one side of a debate. It’s one thing for the critics of intelligent design to use straw-man arguments and stereotypes to smear ID proponents. It’s another thing for news reporters to offer such stereotypes as a neutral description of intelligent design. Unfortunately, the cavalier and unthinking application of the term “creationist” to intelligent design proponents — and anyone else critical of traditional Darwinian theory — is rampant in the news media.

Consider the recent New York Times story that repeatedly invoked the terms “creationist” and “creationism” without bothering to define them, even insinuating that a scientist who accepts standard geological dating for the age of the Earth is a “creationist.”

Or consider the recent article in the Muncie Star-Press in which reporter Seth Slabaugh wrongly claims that Discovery Institute is a “pro-creationism … think tank.” Come again?

As I pointed out to Slabaugh in subsequent correspondence, and in a letter to the editor published by his newspaper, Discovery Institute does not advocate creationism, nor does it favor its teaching in public schools. I highlighted for Slabaugh the following clear statements from our website:

Does Discovery Institute favor including the Bible or creationism in science classes or textbooks?

No. Discovery Institute is not a creationist organization, and it does not favor including either creationism or the Bible in biology textbooks or science classes.

Is intelligent design theory the same as creationism?

No. Intelligent design theory is simply an effort to empirically detect whether the “apparent design” in nature acknowledged by virtually all biologists is genuine design (the product of an intelligent cause) or is simply the product of an undirected process such as natural selection acting on random variations. Creationism is focused on defending a literal reading of the Genesis account, usually including the creation of the earth by the Biblical God a few thousand years ago. Unlike creationism, the scientific theory of intelligent design is agnostic regarding the source of design and has no commitment to defending Genesis, the Bible or any other sacred text. Why, then, do some Darwinists keep trying to conflate intelligent design with creationism? It is a rhetorical strategy on the part of Darwinists who wish to delegitimize design theory without actually addressing the merits of its case. For more information read Center Director Stephen Meyer’s piece “Intelligent Design is not Creationism” that appeared in The Daily Telegraph (London) or Center Associate Director’s piece “Intelligent Design and Creationism Just Aren’t the Same” in Research News & Opportunities.

Slabaugh responded by citing a description of intelligent design offered by the anti-ID National Academy of Sciences. The description repeatedly described intelligent design as creationist but never bothered to define the term. I countered with the definition of intelligent design provided by intelligent design proponents themselves (who presumably should have the right to define their own theory). Slabaugh then responded by citing Judge Jones’s ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover that intelligent design is tantamount to creationism (yes, Judge “Cut and Paste” Jones, who copied more than 90% of his decision virtually verbatim from plaintiffs’ legal briefs, right down to the factual errors).

It seems strange to me that a reporter looks to the critics of intelligent design as neutral and authoritative sources for what intelligent design proponents believe. Would a reporter rely on a pro-life group to supply an impartial description of Planned Parenthood? Or a group of conservative medical doctors to supply a neutral description of Obamacare?

I do not want to be too hard on Mr. Slabaugh. Although clearly hostile toward intelligent design, he has quoted Discovery Institute accurately in his coverage of the intelligent design dispute at Ball State University. That is a lot more than can be said about many reporters. However, his false stereotyping of Discovery Institute as “pro-creationism” was unworthy of him; and his unwillingness to acknowledge and correct the error was frustrating.
Thinking that we might be talking past each other, I decided to ask Slabaugh a question:

Would you please provide me with your definition of creationism? Presumably you have a definition since you are using the term in your stories. I would like to be able to report this in our coverage of your reporting on Evolution News & Views.

In our subsequent correspondence, I asked Slabaugh to answer this question no fewer than three times. Each time he basically avoided answering it. I suspect he was becoming increasingly exasperated with me in the process. He finally wrote:

I’ve answered your question. I’m sorry you don’t like the answer.

In fact, he hadn’t answered my question. So I tried one last time:

Actually, you haven’t answered my question, and I don’t understand why. You haven’t told me your definition of creationism. You simply keep citing people who claim that intelligent design is creationism. OK, I get that — I understand that you are calling ID creationism because you’ve decided to repeat as a neutral description other people’s claims that ID is creationism. I disagree with what you’ve done, and I think it’s unfair; but I understand it. However, that doesn’t tell me what you think creationism itself is. It seems to me that asking for your definition of creationism is not an unreasonable request, especially since you seem intent on applying this label to intelligent design proponents and Discovery Institute.
Although you may not think so, I am actually trying to understand your position. But you are making it hard for me to do so!

Slabaugh then responded:

I’m not a dictionary. My personal opinion is creationism is a belief that supernatural forces are responsible for the origin and/or evolution of the universe, as opposed to it originating by accident or chance.

I appreciate Slabaugh’s honesty, and his final willingness to provide his own definition of creationism. I thanked him for his answer, but I also asked him to think about the following: His definition of creationism basically counts as a “creationist” any traditional monotheist (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, or Muslim). This includes the Christian scientists who say they accept modern evolutionary theory — e.g., geneticist Francis Collins, physicist and Nobel laureate Charles Townes, and Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich. It includes the Catholic priest and physicist who first proposed the Big Bang. It includes those who read Genesis metaphorically along with those who read it literally. And it includes about 90% of the American public.

As I explained to Slabaugh, it seems to me that any definition of creationism that lumps together so many divergent viewpoints spreads a lot more confusion than clarity. This is especially the case when the term “creationist” is commonly understood and applied by most people — including most reporters — in a much narrower manner. In my experience, when most people refer to “creationists” they mean Biblical literalists who think the earth was created in seven 24-hour days a few thousand years ago. A few people may also include old-earth creationists who who think the days of Genesis were lengthy periods. But rarely does someone define “creationist” to mean pretty much anyone who happens to believe in God. When a reporter uses the term in this idiosyncratic way without any explanation, I think he is engaging in stereotyping, not promoting understanding. And frankly, such an all-encompassing definition of “creationism” makes the term pretty useless and un-illuminating as a descriptor.

I also pointed out to Slabaugh that the modern theory of intelligent design does not actually claim that science can determine whether the intelligent cause active in nature is supernatural or natural. This has been a key point made by leading intelligent design proponents like Michael Behe and William Dembski since the 1990s. Intelligent design can be used as part of a larger argument for the existence of God (just as unguided evolutionary theory can be used as part of a larger argument that God is a “delusion”), but the modern scientific theory of intelligent design on its own is not an argument for the existence of God. It requires additional arguments from philosophy, history, and other disciplines to make that case.

The really discouraging thing here is not that reporters are critical of intelligent design. It is that so many of them apparently see nothing wrong with preventing intelligent design proponents from defining their own position. This is a very strange way to do journalism, and if journalists started to apply their approach to intelligent design to other topics, I think it would become manifestly clear how unfair it is. Imagine, for example, a journalist deciding to use “Marxist” as a neutral label for President Obama based on the views of certain right-wing academics and political activists. Would that be regarded as fair or impartial by most journalists? Of course not. What if a reporter redefined Marxist to mean anyone who supports more active government? Would that make applying the term to Obama in a news story more defensible? Hardly. Yet when reporters label intelligent design proponents “creationists,” they are essentially doing the same thing.

What is really going on here is censorship. When reporters use as a “neutral” description of intelligent design a polemical smear invented by its critics, they are effectively silencing intelligent design proponents by not allowing them to speak for themselves. They are poisoning the well so no one will be willing to listen to the actual views expressed by intelligent design proponents. Journalists who write about intelligent design should re-read the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, especially the provisions calling for them to “Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant” and to “Give voice to the voiceless….”

Whatever a news reporter’s views on intelligent design, he or she has a professional duty not to simply spread stereotypes and caricatures. That duty means nothing if it only applies to news coverage of groups and positions with which the reporter agrees. The real test of fairness for reporters is how they treat those with whom they disagree. When it comes to intelligent design, sadly, many reporters are failing the test.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.



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