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Wired magazine reporter criticized for agenda driven reporting

SEATTLE, OCT. 13 — Wired has now gone where no pure science magazine has gone before. In an apparent effort to boost the magazine’s sex appeal, the latest issue wades into the imaginative world of science fiction.

“We applaud their move into Sci-Fi,” says Rob Crowther, director of communications for the Center for Science & Culture at Discovery Institute, referring to an article written by Evan Ratliff and published in Wired’s October 2004 issue. ‘The Wired piece, called The Crusade Against Evolution,’ is an imaginative blend of science fiction, conspiracy theory, and farce.”

Crowther did express some concern, however, about what he termed the War of the Worlds syndrome. “Remember Orson Welles” radio version of H.G. Wells’ famous novel about a Martian attack? The presentation sounded like a straight news story and folks panicked. The Wired yarn runs the same danger. Because of their deadpan presentation, some of Wired’s readers might mistake that story for factual news.”

In an effort to keep the line between fiction and reality distinct, Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture director Stephen Meyer was asked to comment on the story. “The piece portrays the theory of intelligent design as a religiously motivated political crusade rather than what it actually is, an evidence-based scientific research program,” said Meyer. “It portrays our scientific research and publications as a nefarious plot to infiltrate the public schools with a virulent new form of creationism. We’re hoping they’ll follow up this yarn with a non-fiction piece about the real attempts to shut down discussion of the weaknesses of neo-Darwinism.”

Hyped as “The Plot To Kill Evolution” on the magazine’s cover, Evan Ratliff’s story could easily mislead readers because the piece ignores the work of Discovery Institute scientists and misrepresents the Institute’s recommendations for science education policy. Indeed, to tell his story Ratliff had to ignore many inconvenient facts and flatly misrepresent others.

Some of the most obvious fictions in the article include:

  • Ratliff repeatedly conflates creationism and the theory of intelligent design. Yet intelligent design differs from creationism in both its content and methodology. Intelligent design is inference based on data from biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy not a deduction from religious authority. It provides an explanation for the complexity of life, not a theory about the age of the earth or the days of creation in the book of Genesis. For more click here
  • Ratliff claims falsely that Ohio public schools will now include intelligent design in high school biology lessons. Instead, Ohio biology students will be required to critically analyze aspects of neo-Darwinism. In practice this will mean knowing the scientific strengths and weaknesses of the theory.
  • Ratliff claims incorrectly that Ohio’s model lesson teaching students to critically analyze evolution is “based on ID literature.” Instead the scientific criticisms of Neo-Darwinism enumerated in the lesson are based on critiques of the theory found in standard biology journals, often written by evolutionary biologists. This can be verified by checking the references in the model lesson on the State of Ohio Department of Education website. Click here to read the lesson plan.
  • Ratliff claims falsely that Dr. Stephen Meyer, director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, teaches in the School of Ministry at Palm Beach Atlantic University. Instead Dr. Meyer is an at-large University Professor in the Conceptual Foundations of Science, who reports directly to the provost.
  • Ratliff claims that design theorists have made no progress in their publishing program since the publication of Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box in 1996 and William Dembski’s The Design Inference in 1998. Yet design theorists have published numerous articles in peer-reviewed or peer-edited scientific books with publishers such as Michigan State University Press, Wessex Institute of Technology Press and Cambridge University Press.Some of the errors of omission include:
  • Ratliff did not describe in any detail the central arguments for the theory of intelligent design. In particular he did not explain why many scientists think the presence of nanotechnology—circuits, miniature machines and digital code—in living cells points to the intelligent design of life.
  • Though we provided Wired with an advance copy, Ratliff did not report on the publication of a peer-reviewed science article by Stephen Meyer in a biology journal published at the Smithsonian Institution. Yet since its publication Science, Nature and The Scientist have all run news stories about the publication of this article. The article develops one of the main lines of argument in support of the theory of intelligent design, namely that the information required to build new animal forms defies explanation by reference to Neo-Darwinism and instead points to intelligent design. Click here to read Meyer’s paper.
  • Ratliff interviewed two prominent, pro-design biologists (Professor Michael Behe, a biochemist from Lehigh University; Scott Minnich, a microbiologist from the University of Idaho), but did not see fit to quote these scientists, to describe their work or to explain their reasons for favoring design.
  • Ratliff claims that design theory has been debunked, but neglected to acknowledge or describe the content of the scientific responses to those critiques, effectively deciding the issue on the basis of his own judgment rather than simply reporting on the existence of the debate between scientists–such as Professor Michael Behe and Professor Kenneth Miller–of equal standing.
  • Ratliff neglected to mention that more than 325 scientists, including 60 biologists, have signed a statement of Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.
  • Ratliff neglected to report that many scientists now see evidence of design in fields such as cosmology, astronomy, and physics. He also neglected to report on Center books, such as The Privileged Planet by Iowa State astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez and Discovery senior fellow Dr. Jay Richards, which make the case for design based on developments in astronomy and planetary science. Again he gives the false impression that the work of the Center is guided by the sole imperative of influencing secondary biology instruction.

“One has to wonder why Ratliff omitted so many relevant facts in telling the story the way he did. The only reasonable conclusion is that he came to the story with an agenda and decided to suppress information that didn’t fit with it,” said Crowther. “In other words, he sat down to write fiction, not fact.”

Perhaps because he sensed the piece was imbalanced, Wired senior editor Chris Anderson solicited a response from Discovery senior fellow George Gilder, a well-known tech writer and frequent contributor to Wired. Gilder’s response explaining his own reasons for favoring design was heavily edited, however, again depriving Wired readers of the whole story.

Crowther said he assumed the demands of the genre drove the editor’s decision. “Fiction writers talk about cultivating in their readers a willing suspension of disbelief. George Gilder’s full, fact-filled piece undoubtedly would have spoiled the effect of Ratliff’s imaginative world, a bit like having an astronomer poking his head into the Death Star sequence at the end of Star Wars and explaining that space ships wouldn’t really roar in space because there’s no air to carry the sound waves.”

About Discovery Institute
Discovery Institute is a non-profit, non-partisan, public-policy, think tank which promotes ideas in the common sense tradition of representative government, the free market and individual liberty. Current projects include: technology, the economy, science and culture, regional transportation, and the bi-national region of “Cascadia.”

Discovery Institute

Discovery Institute promotes thoughtful analysis and effective action on local, regional, national and international issues. The Institute is home to an inter-disciplinary community of scholars and policy advocates dedicated to the reinvigoration of traditional Western principles and institutions and the worldview from which they issued.