John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

Inside the Mind of the New York Times: My Exchange with Cornelia Dean, Evolution Partisan

Published at Evolution News

A few days ago, I took New York Times reporter Cornelia Dean to task for putting words in the mouth of Ohio Board of Education member Deborah Owens Fink. According to an article by Dean, “Dr. Owens Fink…said the [Ohio] curriculum standards she supported did not advocate teaching intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism.” But as I pointed out, Dr. Owens Fink did not call intelligent design “an ideological cousin of creationism,” even though Dean’s wording makes this appear to be the case. Those words represent Dean’s own editorial evaluation (in what was supposed to be a news article, not an editorial). According to Dr. Owens Fink, “the reporter… put words in the article that may represent her view but not mine.”

I contacted Ms. Dean to give her a chance to respond to my criticisms, and she graciously replied. What ensued was an exchange of views that helps illuminate the mindset of many reporters who cover the evolution issue. Here is Dean’s first response:

  1. As the article said, the standards Dr. Owens Fink supports “did not advocate teaching intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. Rather, she said, they urge students to subject evolution to critical analysis, something she said scientists should endorse.” I did not intend to say, and I do not believe a reasonable reader would conclude, that Dr. Owens Fink asserted in those sentences that creationism is an ideological cousin of creationism. However, as a precaution and in the interests of fairness, I consulted colleagues here who are more knowledgeable about grammar than I am. They agree.
  2. Intelligent design IS an ideological cousin of creationism. To say otherwise would be to mislead our readers. [emphasis added]
  3. As far as I know, the article you cite accurately represented what Dr. Owens Fink said in our telephone conversations.

I then e-mailed Ms. Dean as follows:

Thanks for the answers. The comment in question was part of a dependent clause in a sentence attributed to Dr. Owens Fink, so it was not independent of the earlier part of the sentence. The only way it can be justified is if the dependent clause was simply neutral explanatory information to help the reader understand the comments of Dr. Owens Fink. But the phrase was not neutral explanatory information; it was editorializing. Terms like “ideological” and “creationism” are highly pejorative. The fact that you apparently think this is merely an objective description shows just how biased you are. You apparently were so afraid of letting Dr. Owens Fink speak for herself that you had to append your own comments at the end of the sentence to make sure that readers would know the “right” way to view her comments.

If you really think this was simply objective description, I look forward to seeing your next article about evolution where you insert parenthetical comments like “evolution, an ideological cousin to materialism,” or “evolution, an ideological cousin to atheism” after the comments from defenders of evolution!

Ms. Dean responded as follows:

I have no desire to get into an argument with you, but I cannot resist responding to two assertions in this note.

I don’t know exactly what you mean by “materialism” but certainly science looks in the natural world for answers to questions about the natural world. That is what differentiates science from religion.

I would never write that evolution is an ideological cousin to atheism. There are far too many accomplished evolutionary biologists who are people of strong religious faith for that to be the case. I have written about some of them.

Let me know if you would like to know who they are and I will send you information about them. Perhaps you might like to add information about them to your blog.

I then replied:

You have made my point for me. Of course, there are theists who believe in evolution (although not many at the very top of the profession, if surveys of biologists who are members of the National Academy of Sciences, etc. are to be believed). So it would certainly be unfair for a reporter to describe evolution as “an ideological cousin to atheism.” But I would argue, similarly, that it is just as biased to refer to intelligent design as an “ideological cousin to creationism.” Creationism is generally understood (among the public, as well as among most reporters I’ve talked with) as an effort to try to defend the Biblical account of creation. Creationism starts with the Bible and then looks to the natural world for evidence to verify its account. Intelligent design starts with the facts of the natural world and asks what can be reasonably inferred from this evidence. The argument for design in the natural world predates the Bible and can found in Plato, so you would have been more accurate to call intelligent design “an ideological cousin to Plato.” It was also embraced by Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection; this was one of the issues on which Darwin and Wallace differed. As one of the many ID proponents who does not think Genesis is some kind of science textbook (and who also accepts the old age of the universe; and who also has no religious objections to common ancestry), I resent efforts by reporters to try to fit intelligent design into their preconceived stereotypes. When I was in journalism school as an undergraduate, stereotyping—especially of minority viewpoints—was something we were repeatedly warned against.

As for how I define materialism—I mean the claim that everything in the universe can ultimately be explained as the product of unintelligent matter and energy. Part of the debate here is the “nature of nature.” Do natural causes only include unintelligent causes, or do they also include intelligent causes? I happen to believe that intelligence is a part of nature. We see the effects of it throughout the natural world, and not just in human beings. When a beaver builds a dam or a bird builds a nest, or a monkey uses a stick as a crude tool, we see the reality of intelligence in nature. In each of these cases, we can infer intelligence based on its empirical effects. Positing intelligent causes in nature is not appealing to religion.

Ms. Dean did not reply to this. Of course, I understand that she has many other things to do than respond to be, and I appreciate that she responded at all, just as I appreciate her candid defense of evolution and attack on intelligent design. While I think that the exchange speaks for itself, I would like to point out the obvious: Ms. Dean sees her job as not only reporting on the debate about evolution, but advancing one particular side of that debate. She views intelligent design as warmed-over creationism, and she sincerely believes it is her duty to convince readers to share this view—using the news section of the New York Times. Note to journalists working for the old-line newsmedia: Do you really have no clue as to why so many people are losing their trust in you?

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.
Discovery Institute