September story

Curriculum Head Buckinghams plan to introduce the intelligent-design textbook Of Pandas and People into Dover High School seemed to Lebo a good opportunity to write a piece explaining intelligent design to readers. As she spoke to experts in the fields of evolution and intelligent design, she was acutely conscious of her own lack of expertise in either subject. That made it difficult to assess the credibility of her sources. She notes:

You do want to be fair. You dont want to say that somebody has a lock on truth At first, you keep giving everybody the benefit of the doubt If you don't know your subject, it's scary You don't want to get stuff wrong. So you do play it cautious and let them do most of the talking.

But over her months of reporting, she became more and more convinced that most scientists, even if they criticized the theory of natural selection as specifically laid out by Darwin, accepted the basic premise of evolution. Several scientists Lebo found at universities around the country echoed the sentiment. She found the evolutionary biologists she interviewed patient in explaining the subject to herparticularly Kenneth Miller, a Brown University biologist who had written the textbook the board had adopted.

She found intelligent design scientists at the Discovery Institute noticeably less helpful, however. She recalls:

Gradually I started to pick up that whenever Id ask the Discovery Institute these questions [about their theory], they'd recite the same words back and it seemed like they were trying to use long words And so it was always this sort of weird feeling that I don't think you guys are being straight with me I'm supposed to be alert to this. But when you're working in a subject thats way over your head, it's kind of hard to [tell].

She grew suspicious that the intelligent design theorists she interviewed were being at best disingenuous, and at worst misleading. In particular, the theorists she interviewed seemed unable to explain to her how intelligent design worked, at least in a way that she could understand. Evolutionary biologists like Miller provided detailed explanations of natural selection, the mechanism through which evolution workedbut Lebo was unable to identify from her interviews a parallel mechanism for how intelligent design played out in nature. Did the designer fashion each individual in a species, or just the first? Was the designer responsible for gradual changes over time, or only the sudden emergence of complex features?

By September, two months after she had first heard of intelligent design, Lebo felt comfortable enough with her knowledge of the topic to write a story explaining both sides of the debate. She and her colleague Charisse discussed how she should write it. It would be a difficult story. Lebo would have to explain complex concepts in readable prose, hopefully without oversimplifying to the point of inaccuracy. More complicated still was the issue of how to present both sides of the debate. Should she devote half the article to intelligent design proponents claims and the other half to the clear majority of scientists who supported evolution? Or should she organize her story to reflect the lopsidedness of the debate? How could she cover fairly a real political and educational controversy in her community while staying true to the science?

Just the way the words sound to us, intelligent design, seemed to make a lot of sense and not really be very arguable, Charisse says. I mean the idea that the wonder of creation might encourage one to believe in a creator. I mean, heck, thats in Darwin. [1] He encouraged Lebo to try to make sense out of intelligent design proponents arguments, and to be fair to them even if she disagreed. At the same time, Lebo and Charisse discussed whether fairness and accuracy were sometimes at odds. They considered various hypothetical reporting challenges: If people who believed the earth was flat were holding a seminar in York, should reporters cover it as they would any other science seminar? How should one report on historians who denied the Holocaust? Did they, too, deserve fair treatment? Charisse says:

My notion has always been well, put them out there and debate them and be willing to defend truth in the marketplace of ideas. But the other side is that, do you not give some credence to an otherwise absurd idea just by being willing to sit down and debate it? Arent there some ideas that are just so out there and ludicrous that what serves the higher truth, if you will, is to say no, Im not going to debate that with you. Thats absurd.

There was also the more concrete issue of how the Daily Record s readers would receive Lebos coverage. If religious readers perceived her story as biased in favor of evolutionregardless of the evidence she presented in its favorshe risked alienating a large section of the Daily Record s readership. On the other hand, being too receptive to intelligent design could sacrifice accuracy and draw ire from the other direction. Charisse says:

There are stories that, whatever your personal opinion of them you know theyre going to cause you grief in your market Theres no winning there No matter what you do, youre going to get raked over the coals.

Listen to Charisse describe guiding Lebo on her first intelligent design story.

Lebo decided to give a balanced description of the debate over Buckinghams proposal to teach intelligent design. She presented an example from the intelligent design textbook Of Pandas and People to illustrate the argument in favor of the theory, which she described as the idea that all life was created by a divine being. The books authors, Percival Davis and Dean Kenyonboth biology professors, creationists, and intelligent design proponentspointed to the giraffes neck as evidence of design. Lebo wrote:

The book argues that the giraffes long neck depends on a series of integrated adaptations that could not have happened separately, so they must have been present from the beginning of the species existence. A giraffes circulatory system includes a coordinated system of blood pressure controls. The book says pressure sensors along the necks arteries monitor the blood pressure and activate contraction of the artery walls. The complex circulatory system of the giraffe must appear at the same time as its long neck or the animal will not survive, authors Percival Davis and Dean Kenyon write. [2]

Lebo noted that supporters of teaching creationism say [Dovers debate over evolution is] about fairness, giving equal time to competing theories. But she also quoted extensively from evolutionary biologists she had interviewed. One of them, John Staver, director of science education at Kansas State University, said that since intelligent design theory could not be tested by replicable experiments, it was not science; he further noted that there was little controversy about evolution among scientists. Staver suggested: ID [intelligent design] folks are appealing to a public that we know has a relatively low level of scientific literacy. [3]

Lebo and Charisse felt the piece was informative and fair. Lebos primary editor on the story, Special Projects Editor Scott Blanchard, had few criticisms and did not change the story significantly. It ran on September 5.

Shortly after the story ran, the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit institution devoted to fighting challenges to teaching evolution, contacted Lebo with suggestions for further reporting and an offer to be a resource. Director Eugenie Scott told her that evolution was the foundation of modern biologythat was why the stakes of the educational debate were so high. None of the rest of biology made sense except in light of evolution, Scott argued, and if students did not receive a firm grounding in the scientific consensus on the matter, the rest of their biology education could suffer.

[1] Authors phone interview with Marc Charisse, on February 17, 2009. All further quotes from Charisse, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[2] Lauri Lebo, An evolving controversy; Dispute over teaching about the origins of life is likely to flare again this week, York Daily Record , September 5, 2004.

[3] Lauri Lebo, An evolving controversy; Dispute over teaching about the origins of life is likely to flare again this week.