Evolution entered my life as a reporter on August 11, 1999. Before that day, I’d never written a word about it. But our education reporter/evolution expert was far away with her family in a cabin rented months earlier, so for two days, as speakers made their final pleas, I observed the tension building in a packed Kansas Board of Education meeting in Topeka. Finally, the board members cast their long-awaited vote. It was close, six to four. Those who wanted the state’s public school science standards to downplay evolution had prevailed. Creationists had won a huge victory. And people noticed. After The Kansas City Star published my story about the vote, e-mails from across the world clogged my computer.
Big story, I thought. Indeed, it is, and a tough one to tell. Just how tough became clearer to me when I inherited our paper’s evolution beat in 2002.
The changes the state’s board of education made in 1999 were significant and daunting for anyone to try to describe and explain in a few paragraphs of a news story. Nowadays, this same challenge holds true for the intelligent design-inspired changes that the board approved this fall. The most recent proposal in Kansas calls for students to “learn about the best evidence for modern evolutionary theory, but also to learn about areas where scientists are raising scientific criticisms of the theory.” The proposal also calls for changing the definition of science from “Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us,” to “science is a systemic method of continuing investigation that uses observations, hypothesis testing, measurement experimentation, logical argument, and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.”
Proponents of intelligent design (I.D.) contend that the current definition limits scientific inquiry because it allows only “natural” explanations. Scientists who oppose the proposed change say the new definition opens the door to “supernatural” explanations, which have no place in science.
Those are the proposal’s highlights—and certainly these points are what will most likely appear the most in headlines as this debate is covered, though there’s more to the proposal than this. By the time a reporter explains the changes and describes why their supporters want them and why opponents object, readers might feel like they’ve been pulled into something akin to dirty quicksand, or what I refer to as “The Land of Muck.”
It’s my belief that our newspaper’s readers and its editors want students in Kansas to receive a good science education. So when proposals are put forth that cause them to feel that education is being threatened, they care. But they don’t like The Land of Muck. And with stories about evolution—and its teaching in the public schools—this land can be hard to avoid, especially when reporting on daily news developments. What’s helped me get through it is learning a few things about the terrain.
Who’s Who—Or Does It Even Matter?
There are creationists, young-earth creationists, and supporters of creation science. Then there are supporters of intelligent design. Usually the ideas of the I.D. supporters match up, but even among them there are differences. When Kansas adopted its new science standards in 1999 (which a newly elected board voted out in 2001), the outcome was influenced by young-earth creationists, who interpret the Bible’s Genesis account literally and believe God created the world in six days. In their minds, the earth is no more than 10,000 years old.
In 1999, as a result of the board’s vote, questions were deleted from our state’s science assessments about the age of the earth, the big bang theory, and macroevolution, which refers to one species changing into another as it adapts to its environment. What this meant is that teachers in Kansas were no longer responsible for teaching about these scientific topics. The state’s science standards also were changed to reflect rejection of the idea that evolution is a unifying principle in the sciences. Even the definition of science was altered to having it be a discipline that sought “logical” instead of “natural” explanations, which is a difference significant to those who challenge evolution.
Creationists hold the same basic views as young-earth creationists, but believe the earth is much older. Those who support the teaching of creation science believe the manifestations of creation can be explored scientifically. One doesn’t hear the term “creation science” much anymore; today, talk centers on intelligent design, the idea that the world is so complex that it must have been designed. But the creationists are still out there, and they’ve rallied around I.D.
From what I can tell, creationists’ motives are likely different from I.D. proponents’, but it is possible their motives are the same. But this is hard to determine because neither group seems willing to say much about their motives, and this makes it difficult for a reporter to really know how to accurately characterize the motives of I.D. proponents. In Kansas, I.D. proponents like to talk about intelligent design being “objective science,” but this is a term that national I.D. leaders with the Discovery Institute shy away from.
According to intelligent design leaders here, the current definition of science in Kansas promotes a “nontheistic” point of view because it allows only “natural” explanations of the world. That view, they say, promotes naturalism or materialism and eliminates the possibility that some form of intelligence played a role. They want to change this definition to include a “theistic” point of view. Combining theistic and nontheistic views, they say, will result in “objective science.” As one Kansas I.D. leader puts it, “When you can detect design in a living system, the implications of that are very significant. If you conclude the system is designed, it shows life has an inherent purpose.”
All of this sounds a little like the ideas espoused in the Discovery Institute’s “wedge” document, an internal memo first publicized in 1999 that talks about the “devastating consequences of the triumph of materialism.” The Discovery Institute has tried to distance itself from this memo and claims that the news media have misinterpreted it.
Is it important, as a reporter, to understand these differences among those who support these similar ideas to be able to convey this information to readers?
To readers, I don’t think it matters all that much, since all of these forces are in some way involved in pushing intelligent design into the science curricula. But for reporters who are covering this story, knowing the background of these different groups and figuring where their perspectives and strategies diverge can help to cut through the confusion that seems to envelop this story. This knowledge puts a reporter on more solid ground, and that can be important to prevent the slide into The Land of Muck.
When Ohio adopted its science standards in 2002, the Discovery Institute put out a press release lauding the vote. Interestingly enough, so did the National Center for Science Education. How could that happen? And what did this mean? After all, the two were on opposing sides during the debate. As it turned out, each side reached a different interpretation of some compromise language that read, “Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolution.” Attached to this clause there was a note that said this language did not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design.
The Discovery Institute latched onto the words “critically analyze” and claimed these words supported their push to “teach the controversy” about evolution. The National Center for Science Education claimed that the language didn’t change anything because scientists continually analyze evolution. It certainly is not unusual for opposing parties to end up in such a place, and by checking beyond the press releases—and interviewing leaders in Ohio on both sides of the issue—a clearer picture emerged. I ended up with a front-page story about the debate that went on in Ohio.
Also, bear in mind that I.D. proponents tend to be very particular about how their views are presented in news reporting. There’s a lot of very specific language that some of them want to get into the public discourse, and the Discovery Institute even set up a Weblog to “educate” reporters by critiquing their stories. Even with these watchful eyes hovering over the stories we write, what reporters learn on this journey is that not even the most conscientious among us will ever get through The Land of Muck by parroting what people say, no matter what side of the debate they are on.
The Real Deal
When all is said and done, the story is all about religion. Or the story has nothing to do with religion. Reporters hear both. So what is this story about? Surely it’s about more than showing that evolution doesn’t answer all the questions scientists have about where we came from. I once pressed a Discovery Institute leader to explain the fervor behind the movement: he said the real issue was academic freedom. When I brought up the motives espoused in the “wedge” document, he responded to each of my questions with a question.
I have listened to intelligent design proponents explain their rationale for hours. I can report from those conversations that they believe in what they are saying and think they are working toward some greater good. But even if one accepts their assertion that the world was designed, where does that leave the issue? In a science classroom, if a designer is acknowledged, isn’t it time then to turn back to science?
After my years of coverage, I’ve reached the conclusion that the most worthwhile stories to pursue are those that shed light on the emergence of these movements and the passion driving them forward. This means also investigating how these movements are funded, at their inception and also now. Reporters also have to try to help people to understand the motivation of those who are behind them. For example, are today’s I.D. proponents part of the conservative Christian faction trying to infuse their view of religion into the public school curriculum? If so, this information needs to be part of the coverage the issue receives.
Questions such as these need to be explored. And if reporters can dig out information to help in answering them, then slugging through the muck might just be worthwhile.
Diane Carroll is a reporter for The Kansas City Star. She has been following the debate on the teaching of evolution in Kansas since 1999.