John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

Intelligent Design Might Be Meeting Its Maker? Ignorance on Display in the New York Times

Published at Evolution News

If you want another example of superficial analysis from the once-venerable New York Times, check out Laurie Goodstein’s ill-informed effort to disparage intelligent design in today’s edition. Among other things, Ms. Goodstein mangles the definition of intelligent design, misrepresents the content of the Kansas science standards, and displays her ignorance of evangelical Christian higher education and the academic supporters of ID.

Some background: Last Thursday Ms. Goodstein contacted Discovery Institute because she wanted to interview me for a story. Her deadline was later the same day, so she contacted Discovery right before she planned to file the story. When I called her, it was clear she already had written most of her story. All she was looking for was window-dressing.

Ms. Goodstein told me her article was on the future of intelligent design. She obviously had been working on the story for some time. Given her topic, I found it interesting that she waited until the last minute to call the leading organization supportive of ID. Our conversation got off to a rocky start when I asked her who else she had interviewed for the story. She didn’t want to tell me. When I asked her why it was such a secret, she bristled. She eventually revealed that she had talked with long-time ID critic Charles Harper at the Templeton Foundation and someone (who she wouldn’t name) at a place called Vanguard University.

Ms. Goodstein was clearly surprised to learn that there are some scholars at evangelical universities who are critical of ID. In her own mind, she interpreted their criticism as disillusionment by those who had initially favored ID. As she writes in her article: “Even at conservative schools, scholars and theologians who were initially excited about intelligent design say they have come to find its arguments unconvincing.”

I told Ms. Goodstein that it was hard to respond to such a claim unless she gave me more specifics—such as the actual names of the scholars she was talking about. I also pressed her as to how she knew that these “scholars and theologians” had ever been open to intelligent design. As our conversation progressed, it became clear that Ms. Goodstein did not know that many evangelical scientists and theologians are Darwinists who have been critical of intelligent design from the very start. Much like Catholic Darwinist Kenneth Miller, these evangelical Darwinists were never open to intelligent design, so it’s preposterous to argue that they have somehow become disillusioned by it. I pointed out to her that the American Scientific Affilation, the major association of evangelical scientists, has long included many proponents of Darwinian theory who are hostile to intelligent design. When Goodstein told me she had never heard of the American Scientific Affiliation, it became clear just how shallow her knowledge of the views of evangelical scientists and academics was.

I don’t know how much research Ms. Goodstein did for her piece, but it wasn’t enough. The article is riddled with factual errors and misleading interpretations. Take the following assertion of fact:

The only university where intelligent design has gained a major institutional foothold is a seminary.

Really? Biola University in Los Angeles has held several national academic conferences on intelligent design and has even started a new master’s program that prominently features the study of ID. In addition, professors at a number of other colleges have instituted courses that fairly examine the debate over intelligent design. (See, for example, this article about a new course at a college in Illinois.)

More ignorance is on display when Goodstein writes about Baylor University’s harsh treatment of pro-ID mathematician and philosopher William Dembski. Goodstein exhibits surprise that Baylor did not embrace Dembski, writing that he “should have been a good fit for Baylor” because of its “Christian” worldview. Goodtstein shows absolutely no awareness of the acrimonious internal struggles at Baylor to define its identity, struggles that recently led to the resignation of Baylor’s president. Given the sharp ideological disagreements that exist among Baylor faculty and administrators, the treatment of Dembski was not exactly surprising. In any case, the Baylor example in no way provides evidence for Goodstein’s thesis that many evangelical scholars who were open to ID later became disillusioned by it. The hostility toward ID at Baylor was there from the start.

Goodstein’s discussion of Baylor is equally misleading because she seems to think that William Dembski was the only scholar favorable toward ID at Baylor. She quotes disparaging remarks about ID by Derek Davis, the Director of the the Dawson Institute at Baylor, as if he speaks for the entire faculty. Goodstein apparently does not realize that the Associate Director of the very same Dawson Institute (Francis Beckwith) has written extensively about the legitimacy of discussing ID in science classes. Nor does she seem to know that Walter Bradley, Baylor’s distinguished professor of engineering, has published articles in pro-ID academic anthologies. Nor does she seem aware that noted Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark has expressed public skepticism toward Darwinian dogmatism. The views of these scholars at Baylor would suggest that the academic debate over Darwin is alive and well at the university.

Finally, Ms. Goodstein in her article makes a big deal of the Dover school board case. It’s clear she is trying to set up the case as a make-or-break decision for intelligent design. In doing so, she gives an utterly misleading presentation of Discovery Institute’s position on Dover. She writes:

If the judge in the Dover case rules against intelligent design, the decision would be likely to dissuade other school boards from incorporating it into their curriculums…

Advocates of intelligent design perceived the risk as so great that the Discovery Institute said it had tried to dissuade the school board in Dover from going ahead and taking a stand in favor of intelligent design. The institute opposed the Dover board’s action, it said, because it “politicized” what should be a scientific issue.

Now, with a decision due in four or five weeks, design proponents like Mr. West of Discovery said the Dover trial was a “sideshow” – one that will have little bearing on the controversy.

“The future of intelligent design, as far as I’m concerned, has very little to do with the outcome of the Dover case,” Mr. West said. “The future of intelligent design is tied up with academic endeavors. It rises or falls on the science.”

Goodstein claims that Discovery opposed the Dover policy because it feared that a negative court decision would be used to disuade other school boards from incorporating intelligent design into their curricula. This would be an odd fear for Discovery to have given that the Institute doesn’t even favor having school districts incorporate ID into their curricula! In fact, Discovery opposed the Dover policy because it has consistently opposed efforts to mandate ID, and it opposed the Dover policy well before any lawsuit.

Goodstein further implies that Discovery Institute began downplaying the importance of the Dover case only after the trial ended. Yet the views she attributes to me are points I have consistently made to reporters since the very start of the trial. As I’ve told reporters, interest in ID is fueled by the scientific evidence, and that evidence cannot be made to disappear by judicial decree. Darwinists who think otherwise are in for a rude awakening. It used to be said that one of the best ways to make a book a bestseller was to have it “banned in Boston.” If ID is “banned in Dover” by court decision, such a decision may well generate even more interest in ID. Most Americans don’t like being told by the government that there are certain ideas they aren’t permitted to discuss.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
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