American Media Discover the Intelligent Design Controversy-and Let the Big
Story Get Away
by Denyse O'Leary
When the mainstream American media really discovered the
intelligent design controversy (ID) in the fall of 2004, their response helped
to explain why their readership and ad sales have been falling for years.
Most media had an opinion-generally, a uniform, predictably negative
opinion-but few felt the need to know much about the real nature of the
The real controversy (short version)
The real controversy is that some scientists argue that life forms show
scientifically detectible evidence of intelligent design because of the
supercomputer-style complexity that even the "simplest" cells show. These
scientists argue that this level of complexity cannot arise by a slow Darwinian
process of random changes sorted by natural laws. It requires the input
of high levels of information, and high levels of information are always
generated by intelligent agents-hence the term "intelligent design."
If these scientists - among them Michael
Behe, Bill Dembski and Jonathan
Wells - are right, then Darwin was wrong. A pond full of amoebas
will not turn into the French academy by a long, slow, randomly driven,
undesigned process. No matter how long you leave the pond to ferment, the
change Darwin sought will not just "somehow" happen.
Intelligent design does not demonstrate that evolution did not happen, but
it certainly means that evolution cannot happen the way Darwin thought it does.
It cannot happen without design.
The stakes are high. If there is design, belief in God is more
plausible. If there is no design, atheism is more plausible. Evidence
must decide who is right. Or so you would think, anyway.
A plot against the secular religion?
Think again. So many influential people have incorporated Darwinism into
their world view that a huge, angry, and frightened reaction ensued in the
mainstream media, exactly as if the official public secular religion had been
attacked. And maybe it had. For example,
- A long article in Washington Monthly (October 2004) by Chris
Mooney, "Research and
Destroy", announced that ID is a focal example of the science of the
"religious right." Ah well, then, the evidence imprinted inside each cell of
our bodies does not matter after all.
- Wired picked up the cry with a cover story, "The Crusade Against
Evolution" (October 2004). Most of the article fleshed out the
religious right conspiracy thesis and underlined what quickly became a standard
line: Darwinian evolutionary biologists do not accept intelligent design and
therefore it must be false.
If you wonder whether those Darwinian evolutionary biologists might have a
stake in defending their turf, be warned, you are thinking wrong
And yet, Wired went on to do something almost unheard of in the
subsequent media meltdown. The editors permitted "technogeek guru of bandwidth"
George Gilder to argue for intelligent design. He was allowed to say,
Intelligent design at least asks the right questions. In a world of science
that still falls short of a rigorous theory of human consciousness or of the
big bang, intelligent design theory begins by recognizing that everywhere in
nature, information is hierarchical and precedes its embodiment. The concept
precedes the concrete. The contrary notion that the world of mind, including
science itself, bubbled up randomly from a prebiotic brew has inspired all the
reductionist futilities of the 20th century, from Marx's obtuse materialism to
environmental weather panic to zero-sum Malthusian fears over population. In
biology classes, our students are not learning the largely mathematical facts
of 21st-century science; they're imbibing the consolations of a faith-driven
19th-century materialist myth.
So for the first-and so far the last-time, humble readers got to hear the
real issue: Darwin and his contemporaries thought that cells were real simple
and could arise by chance in a primordial goo. Everything else follows
naturally, from goo to zoo to you. But given that cells are as complex as
supercomputers, then Darwin's story-the creation story of
atheism -should go back to rewrite.
The secular religion's view of the Christian religion
But you wouldn't hear a word of that from National Geographic, whose
dramatic November 2004 cover asked, "Was Darwin Wrong?"
A good question, and National Geographic's answer was a resounding
no. The magazine then proceeded to an astoundingly bad defense of the no
thesis, distracted by beautiful photography.
Darwin and his followers have never shown that a long, slow series of
non-designed changes turns goo to you. And neither did the
magazine. In fairness, art photography can only do so much. One really
interesting moment was editor Bill Allen's reassurance to the world in general
that Darwinism is not a threat to faith, "which lies beyond the possibility of
Now let's pause for thought here. Perhaps there are faiths that lie beyond
the possibility of scientific proof, but Christianity isn't one of them. For
example, when Paul chides some Christians at Corinth for doubting the
resurrection of Jesus, he notes that more than 500 people at one time saw Jesus
alive after his resurrection. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Those people had evidence
that amounts to scientific proof that Jesus was raised, and-Paul wants us to
understand-so would we if we had been there. So whatever faith National
Geographic promises not to threaten can't be the Christian one. We
Christians take evidence too seriously to put our faith beyond the possibility
of scientific proof or disproof.
They all fall in
In early 2005, the media feeding frenzy intensified, with the New York
Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, USA
Today, and a host of lesser lights weighing in, all denouncing ID in
uniquack (the groupthink language of old mainstream media).
One biologist, bored by their offerings, has suggested a list of keystroke
macros to guide the editorial writer who knows nothing about ID but has been
ordered to trash it in uniquack:
"more sophisticated than"
"alarming to scientists"
"all biologists accept"
"comparative religion classes" "no scientist doubts"
"concerned civil libertarians"
"science deals with natural"
The mainstream media also generally displayed a trait noted earlier that is
becoming a defining characteristic: Its practitioners do not think that they
needed to know much about ID in order to render a judgment.
For example, USA
Today got Gerald L. Zelizer, a rabbi who is a member of its board of
contributors, to huff against evidence for the design of life, on the grounds
that religion and science are two separate spheres that can work together
harmoniously. (But what of the evidence?) Zelizer explained to the public
regarding intelligent design, "Among its most prominent spokespeople are
scientists such as Michael Behe of Lehigh University, who point out major flaws
in Darwin's theory of a continuous evolutionary chain from a few original
forms. For example, many of the necessary transitional fossils that would link
ancient forms to their contemporary ancestors are missing. Therefore, only
design (or God) and not evolution could create the intricate diversity of life,
The only problem is that Zelizer is entirely mistaken about Michael Behe's
argument. Behe, a biochemist, is best known for coining the term "irreducible
complexity," which describes an organ that cannot arise by a slow series of
steps because only the completed organ is functional. Behe's favorite example
is the flagellum (tiny outboard
motor) of the bacterium. He accepts the common descent of life forms and does
not write about transitional fossils. The choice of Zelizer, who apparently
knew none of this, to reassure the public that we can all safely ignore the
evidence for the design of life speaks volumes about why today's public
increasingly looks beyond traditional mainstream media for information. USA
Today is so sure of the correct approach to the intelligent design controversy
that facts and evidence have become irrelevant.
Why do mainstream media all sound the same on this issue?
Most media operate within the framework of a big story that everyone somehow
"knows" is true. Understanding what mainstream US media "know" to be true helps
us understand why they don't think it matters if they get the ID story
wrong. Briefly, there is a big science story that governs mainstream
media's way of looking at all science issues.
It was and is well expressed by, for example, Carl Sagan and Richard
Dawkins. The universe and life on earth came into existence by
accident, and humanity pretty much has to make its own meaning on our minor
planet, perhaps one among thousands of inhabited planets in an unthought-of
galaxy. This view is beyond argument and science is expected to confirm
it in every detail. Media need only fill in the blanks, paper over the
cracks, and dismiss alternative viewpoints out of hand.
But every one of these propositions has been contradicted by science
evidence for years. The Big Bang shows that our universe has a beginning from
nothing[http://liftoff.msfc.nasa.gov/academy/universe/b_bang.html] (and a
Beginner?), the exquisite fine tuning of the
universe suggests a designer, planets like Earth are rare, and
the awesome complexity
of life forms argues for an intelligence behind the universe.
Philosopher Anthony Flew
became all too well aware of one implication of all these findings. One
of the world's most prominent atheistic philosophers, who debated C.S. Lewis in
the 1950s, Flew decided in 2004 that there is a God after all on account of intelligent design.
You sure see how mainstream media are missing a big story when a philosopher
finds it sooner than the reporters do.
Denyse O'Leary, a Toronto-based journalist, is the author of By Design or by Chance?
(Augsburg Fortress, 2004), an overview of the intelligent design