Probing beneath the Surface of the Intelligent Design Controversy: '... to Truly Understand I.D., People Need to Look at Things in Ways That Are Different from Our Accustomed Patterns.'

By Totheroh, Gailon | Nieman Reports, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Probing beneath the Surface of the Intelligent Design Controversy: '... to Truly Understand I.D., People Need to Look at Things in Ways That Are Different from Our Accustomed Patterns.'


Totheroh, Gailon, Nieman Reports


On October 21st, Cornell University's Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III gave the school's annual State of the University speech. Almost from the beginning of his talk, Dr. Rawlings attacked intelligent design (I.D.). The Cornell Daily Sun called the president's attack a "condemnation." Why would I.D. be an issue that would sidetrack Rawlings from focusing on the usual topics college presidents talk about? Rawlings explained that the threat to science and education from I.D. was too great to remain silent.

Other news reports tell of British philosopher Antony Flew's change of mind about the existence of some sort of super-intelligence being involved in creating the universe. Last December Flew, a lifelong atheist, said in a video he released entitled, "Has Science Discovered God?" that biologists' investigation of DNA demonstrates "by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved." He says that he still rejects Christianity and monotheism in general, indicating that his was not so much a religious conversion as an empirical one.

From my position as science and medical news reporter with The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN, an avowedly evangelical Christian organization), my sense is--as stories mentioned above indicate--that there are very deep issues involved in coverage of this topic. This sense comes from my personal observations and reading during the past 20 years, as well as from my reporting experiences for nearly that long with CBN News. For example, woven into this story are such critical issues as public education, freedom of speech and religious liberty, academic censorship, the nature of science, and the essence of religion.

I believe that being well informed and self-conscious about one's worldview can help reporters to convey the bigger picture as we cover the I.D. controversy in this country. At times I fear that reporters, and I include myself, are not asking the important questions we should be asking. In part, this situation might be blamed on the dearth of awareness of the underlying philosophies connected with evolution and intelligent design. I also fear that too often, because of

this lack of awareness, we use cliches and boilerplate accusations in our reporting instead of working harder to understand the issues. What this means is that journalists might be missing or misinterpreting many stories related to our origins, design and evolution.

Reporting on Intelligent Design

I began to report on intelligent design just as the issue was entering the public dialogue. In September 1992, I first interviewed Phillip E. Johnson, the University of California at Berkeley law professor, who had written "Darwin on Trial." Johnson, whose specialty is evidence, had been on sabbatical in Britain a few years earlier and had seen and read books by the noted evolutionist Richard Dawkins. He analyzed Dawkins as being weak in evidence and claimed that he relied too much on naturalistic philosophy to make up for that absence. From my own reading about weaknesses in evolutionary theory, I was aware of some of this, but Johnson impressed me with his command of the issues. I left my interview with him with a sense that I'd now be better able to direct a critical eye toward science reporting when, for example, such events as fossil finds were in the news. In 1993, Johnson met with other scholars interested in intelligent design and they sparked what became the intelligent design movement.

This fall an important legal case involving the teaching of I.D. in the public schools, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, was argued in Pennsylvania. Even when a decision is reached, appeals might go on for some time, and one day it is possible this case might lead to a Supreme Court decision about whether I.D. can be taught in public schools. Even now, the testimony in this case speaks to some of the deeper issues animating public interest in this issue. …

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