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“Fake News” Isn’t a Phony Concept, as Media and Wikipedia Coverage of Intelligent Design Shows

fake news

Some critics assert that the concept of “fake news,” inescapable in the headlines, itself is phony as well as dangerous. Are they correct? In fact, I know they are wrong.

Sure, goes this line of thinking, the influential people in the business of informing the public may make mistakes. But these are readily corrected. There may be the occasional bad apple among reporters or editors. But these are weeded out. There’s no systematic faking going on.

This is really an issue in group psychology, and our own experience with intelligent design and its treatment by the media and on the Internet has settled the question to my satisfaction. It did so long before “fake news” became a familiar phrase. ID presents a helpful case in point.

There is an informal, leaderless mob out there that has shown itself perfectly willing to distort the truth about ID and feed that to a trusting general audience. This is important, not less important than anything else in the public square since it bears on the ultimate question of how life itself came to be as it is. It’s not about so-called “creationism.” It’s a controversy that goes back to Plato and Aristotle, in a millennia-long debate with Epicureanism about purpose in the universe. An interesting review the other day in the Wall Street Journal the other day gives some of the philosophical background.

An Epicurean mob? Strange to say, but yes. We’ve documented in excruciating detail the axe-grinding and distortions from a wide range of media sources whenever ID or academic freedom come up for coverage. There are a couple of big themes. The fake news equates ID with creationism, and it claims that design proponents seek to teach ID in public schools.

We’ve shown again and again that these notions are false. We talk with reporters. Write to them. Argue with them. Many simply refuse to listen, much less correct what they say.

And then there is Wikipedia, which has done more to mislead readers about ID than any other single source. It’s entry on intelligent design opens by calling the theory “pseudoscience,” a “religious argument for the existence of God,” which are all fake charges, and it goes on from there. It’s impossible to correct because the editors won’t permit it. Even the online encyclopedia’s co-founder, Larry Sanger, an agnostic and no fan of ID, has blasted Wiki editors for their “appallingly biased” coverage of the subject. This is the guy who came up with the name “Wikipedia” and formulated its original rules for neutrality. He “despairs,” though, of “persuading Wikipedians of the error of their ways.”

As we’ve reported here already, when the editors took notice of the Wikipedia entry for a prominent scientist who had come out for intelligent design, German paleontologist Günter Bechly, they erased him. In Stalinist fashion, they deleted his entry, claiming a sudden realization that he isn’t notable enough to be featured. Even Darwinists saw through that one. Another ID scholar, Walter Bradley, had his entry gutted to near nothing.

The interesting psychological issue here turns upon the question of whether these people in the media and at Wikipedia are deliberately lying or not. Maybe the critics of the “fake news” concept find it hard to believe that they are, since that would amount to a conspiracy, but a strange one with no leadership or discernible organization.

I don’t believe they are lying, though. At least not deliberatively. Instead, on certain ideologically and personally charged subject, people see what they want to see, and you can’t talk them out of it. If you read their User pages, Wikipedia’s editors are often frank about their perspectives. Reporters dissemble more, but the bias is still discernible.

What drives the self-deception? It’s been called worldview-induced blindness, but it also includes something more personal, the picture of yourself you carry around in your head. Pride very much enters into it. The complex of forces can make it difficult to see things other than how you wish to see them. There’s also an echo chamber dynamic where the memes become self-reinforcing. The result is fake news.

The example of ID is an illustration of how it happens, and that it happens, all the time. If it does so with regard to a contentious issue like evolution, it’s not hard to imagine that it occurs in the context of even more incendiary topics in current events. No, “fake news” isn’t fake. At least with regard to intelligent design, it’s quite real.

Photo: Reporter at a press conference, 12/14/15, by D. Myles Cullen, via Department of Defense.