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  • 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 controversy.

    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 BeheBill 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 thoughts

    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 scientific proof."

    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:

    "slick"
    "more sophisticated than"
    "well-funded"
    "pseudo-scientific"
    "alarming to scientists"
    "all biologists accept"
    "comparative religion classes" "no scientist doubts"
    "ill-informed Americans"
    "manufactured controversy"
    "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, he says."

    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 controversy