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The New York Times Makes Progress on the Controversy (But Needs to Make More)

The New York Times’ successive two front page (Sunday and Monday), above the fold articles on Discovery Institute and intelligent design (ID) were better than we feared, which means we moved from the 90 % negative view long evident on the Times’ editorial page and the comments of executive editor Bill Keller to, oh, about 60 percent negative, 40 percent positive in these two unprecedented analytical news articles. This is progress. 

We were apprehensive when told six weeks ago that a “team” of Times writers and editors had been organized to examine Discovery Institute and the Center for Science and Culture (CSC). We assumed that the purpose was to discredit both and, if possible, find—or imply—a scandal. Almost all the questions from Jodi Wilgoren during countless interviews with our staff, fellows (in and out of the CSC), former fellows, funders of the CSC and other programs, present and past board members, Congressmen and old friends of mine and others in Seattle, seemed predicated on an effort to dismiss the institute’s interest in ID as political and religious. We believed that the story line had been decided in New York ahead of time, and then, like a CNN script, Discovery people were being sought out to validate it. Likewise, going in, Ken Chang’s attitude was one of a firm Darwinist who was skeptical of the credentials and research of Discovery scientists. 

But I think journalistic professionalism trumped bias in both these individuals to some extent as they got to know us. To Jodi Wilgoren’s credit, she made clear, as most reporters will not, that Discovery’s ID program is a research project and that our education program is to teach the evidence for and against Darwin’s theory, not to impose instruction of ID. (We wish the editorial page writers would note this reality the next time they write on the subject.) She even illustrated my frustration with ignorant, if enthusiastic, folk at some local districts, such as Dover, PA, who want to require intelligent design to be announced, at least, in classrooms. She obviously read the various paranoid reports from the Darwinian left about our supposed hidden religious/political agenda, but forbore repeating their portrayal of us as closet theocrats. She did quote from the much-abused “Wedge” document that was one fundraising presentation here some years ago, but also seems to have realized that it was not the smoking gun offered up by the National Center for Science Education. (See “The Wedge Document: So What?” on our website.) She, or her editors, also did try to drive a wedge of their own between us and our funders with what I call “push-interviews”, the sort that ask questions that a person previously had not even considered—such as whether we have embarrassed our funders with the ID issue. The hope, one supposes, was to find that we were losing support. But all that emerged was a put down quotation from the irascible Dennis Hayes of the liberal Bullitt Foundation that once upon a time gave Discovery all of $10,000 for a program unrelated to ID. Small beer, indeed. 

At the same time, many complimentary observations were made—all well-earned, we think. In the end, we couldn’t help liking the brash and relentless, but generally scrupulous Wilgoren. Among other things, she has a sense of humor, which is more than can be said about most reporters we encounter on this topic. As for Ken Chang, once it was obvious that he was dealing with real scientists, and that they were doing real research and that other scientists he respects regard them well, he settled into a fruitful dialogue that both sides seemed to enjoy. From the beginning, incidentally, Chang avoided smarmy innuendo about ID scientists’ personal, as opposed to scientific, views—a cause for jubilation all by itself. In the end, Chang’s article could not help showing, on balance, that there really is a scientific controversy underway. So even if it also stacked the deck for Darwinism—giving the Darwinists the last word in most cases—it was a sober treatment conducted without the dismissive rhetoric that is employed routinely on the Times’ Science and editorial pages. This is an important article in that regard. Maybe some of the so-called science journals should take note.

We are far from satisfied with the two Times articles, of course, because of errors of fact and interpretation in both. Since these are both extensive treatments, given the venue and the prominence of the coverage, we will analyze them later in depth. At least two fellows, John West and Guillermo Gonzalez, believe they were misquoted, and they should be heard.

Suffice for now that we are sad that, once again, reporters (and editors) found it necessary to write ABOUT our definition of intelligent design—and getting it wrong—rather than quoting what WE say is the definition. We don’t believe reporters are dense or hard of hearing, only that they think there just has to be a trick in there somewhere and, by golly, they are not going to fall for it. Or is it because our definition (that “intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process like natural selection”) is just not sensational and objectionable enough? If we cannot be quoted trying to get God into classrooms, the words will have to be imputed to us. 

The media might find the trust level of the public reviving a bit if they would just let both sides of any given issue speak in their own voices. Instead, on intelligent design (ID), we get Ken Chang invoking, supposedly on our behalf, a “higher being” in the very first sentence of his article. Straw man propped up, he then proceeds to knock it down as “unscientific”.

Then there was the Wilgoren reference to the “Christian” publishers who print books by ID authors, a half-true statement, since it ignores—especially for some of our most significant scientific works—such academic and trade publishers as Cambridge University Press, Michigan State University Press, Palgrave/Macmillan, The Free Press, Regnery, etc. 

But the most regrettable offense was describing “most” of our fellows, excepting David Berlinski, as “fundamentalist Christians.” It just isn’t true. Surely, Jodi Wilgoren and her editors know better. “Fundamentalist” refers to someone who is a biblical literalist. We have nothing against such people, but to describe the Discovery fellows that way is ludicrous. First of all, their religious views are nobody’s business but their own, but beyond that, even if you omit the general run of Discovery fellows—including quite non-religious as well as religious sorts—and just concentrate on scientists of the Center for Science and Culture, the characterization not only doesn’t wash, it is contrary to much of the rest of the Wilgoren article. None of the leading lights of the ID movement affiliated with Discovery—among them Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc.— is a fundamentalist. We could accept “orthodox” or “conservative” or “traditionalist” for “most” of them, but we think that kind of description was omitted because of an editorial desire to stigmatize and marginalize critics of Darwin’s theory.

We note with gratitude that Ken Chang did mention the “405” scientists, including “70” biologists, who have signed a public statement dissenting from Darwin’s theory. (By the way, the number is up to 416 as of this morning. Publicity helps.) But that acknowledgement—showing again that there is a controversy in science—contrasts with the bald claim in the article that “Darwin’s theory…has over the last century yielded so many solid findings that no mainstream biologist today doubts its basic tenets, though they (sic) may argue about particulars.” This isn’t true; it is dogma.

Look at the circular logic here and you’ll get an insight into the muddled thinking of Darwin apologists. To be called a “mainstream” biologist in the Times, you apparently have to support Darwin’s theory. All 70 biologists who have dared speak out against that theory, many at personal career risk, are thereby denied the appellation “mainstream”. Then, only with that limitation firmly in place, may the Times assert (in the spirit of the National Center for Science Education) that “no mainstream biologist” doubts Darwin. Well, even that, is progress, I suppose, because it used to be said that “NO biologist” doubts Darwin. Now we learn that the only biologists who doubt Darwin are those biologists who doubt Darwin. Might we hope for an embarrassed ray of light to shine out from under the closed door of The New York Times? 

Let me add just one final remonstration. The scientists who do dissent from Darwin have, in many cases, been slandered personally (Jonathan Wells, Richard Sternberg, Caroline Crocker, Dean Kenyon…the list goes on and on). People who would leap to defend such individuals if they were, say, supporting Fidel Castro or animal rights violence, either turn their back on incidents of rank suppression of academic freedom in this field or—as the Times did in a craven editorial on Saturday regarding the persecution of Richard Sternberg at the Smithsonian Institution—try to present the scandal as a mere matter of public relations that one examines without judgment or even tries to spin by implying that the renegade scientist deserved what he got.

There has been no mention in the evolution series (so far) or elsewhere on the Times’ news pages of such cases of academic freedom under attack, no evident curiosity about who these dissenters are as human beings or what evidence in science (as opposed to personal faith) drove them to risk the wrath of the thought police. Richard Sternberg has TWO doctorates in evolutionary biology and over 30 published peer-reviewed science articles. In the Times’ claim that “no mainstream biologist” dissents from Darwin, what is Dr. Sternberg, chicken liver?

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.