Thursday, September 29, 2005

Guest Column

Below is a letter written by my friend, Mark Reddig, to the Associated Press. Mark is a very, very, very bright individual. He is also a devoted journalist who embodies the best of the profession. I'm pleased to present this letter as the first ever "guest column" on my blog.

Dear Sir/Ma'am,

I wanted to send a comment regarding a story produced by AP headlined "Nobel Laureates Frown on Curriculum Plans."

In that story, which I read on Yahoo, I read this passage regarding the debate between intelligent design and evolution in Kansas: "That increasingly popular theory argues that some features of the natural world are best explained as having an intelligent cause because they are well-ordered and complex. Its followers attack Darwin's evolutionary theory, which says natural chemical processes could have created the basic building blocks of life on Earth, that all life had a common ancestor and that man and apes shared a common ancestor."

Let me get right to the point: Intelligent design does not meet the scientific definition of theory. While your reporter did mention one reason at the end of the story - that it cannot be tested - it meets virtually none of the definitions for what constitutes a theory under the universally accepted rules of science. And I very carefully chose the word "universally" here - most of those who adhere to intelligent design are not, in fact, scientists. Just as veterinarians don't write the rules for architects, members of the religious community don't write the rules for science - and vice versa.

For this reason, I am concerned about the use of the term "increasingly popular theory" in reference to it. While my assumption is that this is an attempt at fairness and objectivity, it is in fact an inaccuracy when reporting on scientific matters. Frankly (please excuse a little hyperbole here), it's a little like saying a striped bass is an increasingly popular form of bicycle.

Sesame Street said it best - "one of these things is not like the other ones."

Let me offer some definitions of what the word "theory" means in science:

From the American Heritage Dictionary:
"A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena."

From Princeton University:
"A well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world; an organized system of accepted knowledge that applies in a variety of circumstances to explain a specific set of phenomena; 'theories can incorporate facts and laws and tested hypotheses'; 'true in fact and theory.' "

Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary:
"The general or abstract principles of a body of fact, a science, or an art. ... a plausible or scientifically acceptable general principle or body of principles offered to explain natural phenomena a theory of organic evolution."

There are countless others. But you get my point, I'm sure.

To put it more simply: Ideas in science start life as a hypothesis - as my old science teacher put it, an educated guess.

If that hypothesis is tested against the known facts, used in experimentation, subject to review and criticism by other scientists (and survives), can adopt to new facts as they become available and meets numerous other criteria, in science, it can - not automatically does - become a theory.

This differs from the common definition of the word "theory," which is not even quite hypothesis.

Intelligent design is not an "increasingly popular theory" - it does not meet the definition of a theory in science at all. It cannot adopt to new facts. It cannot adopt at all. It does not allow for itself to be disproven.

There are volumes of evidence - not conjecture, but real evidence - behind evolution. And evolution is not just about the origins on man, or the creation of life. It is, and always has been, a complete theory of life, about how species originate and develop over time. It is what gave us our definition of species. It is biology. Until evolution, there was no unified science of biology.

You can't just declare something a scientific theory, anymore than I can run out in the middle of my street and declare myself a congressman. Saying it does not make it true. And just because I said it, I doubt that you would report it as fact.

Intelligent design is and always has been at best a hypothesis - an educated guess. Until it meets the requirements of a scientific theory, it cannot be one.

As a journalist, my concern is this - in an attempt to be objective and fair, to give reasonable coverage to both sides of an argunment, are we instead misrepresenting science itself, and misrepresenting facts to our readers?

And although I realize you cannot recite the definition of theory every time you write a story on this topic, you are not required to repeat a source's inaccuracies each time you report on him either.

To be quite blunt, inaccuracy is not the same as objectivity or fairness. Out of good instincts, you do a disservice to your readers, who you should be educating and informing.

Rant over. And thanks for taking the time to read.

Mark H. Reddig

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