Holes in evolutionary theory?

The trial Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District was set to begin on September 25, 2005—over a year after the school board had touched off debate in their search for a new biology textbook. [1] Lebo had been immersed in scientific literature since the previous summer, and had been in regular contact with the Discovery Institute, the National Center for Science Education, and scientists at several universities and research institutions around the country. Bonsell and Buckingham, at the request of their lawyers, had stopped giving her interviews since their depositions.

As national media had turned their eyes toward Dover, Lebo had studied other reporters’ strategies for writing about evolution and intelligent design. She particularly admired the writing of New York Times science reporter Cornelia Dean, who in covering challenges to evolution in a Kansas school district for her paper’s science section that summer, had written:

Mainstream scientists say alternatives to evolution have repeatedly failed the tests of science, and the criticisms have been answered again and again. For scientists, there is no controversy. [2]

Lebo, however, had a different audience to serve. She was not a veteran science reporter like Cornelia Dean writing for people who were interested in science. She was a small-town reporter covering a real conflict in her community. Though she enjoyed considerable autonomy and had not encountered much interference from editors in her coverage, in August she got a hint that York Daily Record Editor McClure was not entirely happy with her approach.

Special Projects Editor Blanchard oversaw Lebo’s day-to-day coverage of the story, and in August 2004, a month from the beginning of the trial, he told her Editor McClure wanted her to research and write a story exploring the holes in evolutionary theory. Lebo felt the assignment was reasonable; she knew from her previous reporting that there was some debate among scientists about how evolution worked, though the vast majority of them accepted evolution itself. But she also suspected that McClure had other motives for assigning the story—that he was trying to impose balance on Lebo’s coverage of a debate her reporting told her was fundamentally unbalanced. Lebo recalls:

As I worked on the story, it kind of shifted and I simply wrote one that looked at the vacuousness of intelligent design. The main reason I did that was because, while questions remain about evolution, there is no question as to its validity and I had no intention of trying to raise questions about it in the interest of balance. I do remember consciously doing that. [3]

Lebo filed her story on August 13. That evening, Special Projects Editor Blanchard called her. He explained that what she had written did not make sense with the headline he wanted to use: “Are there holes in evolution theory? Some say they should be taught; others say there are no holes.” Blanchard suggested some changes that would emphasize more strongly the proponents of teaching “holes in evolution”—among them Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), as well as 55% of US adults surveyed by Time Magazine the previous week. Lebo found the changes unobjectionable. The York Daily Record published the story on August 14, 2005.

[1] National Center for Science Education, Kitzmiller v Dover timeline , October 17, 2008.

[2] Cornelia Dean, “Opting out in the Debate on Evolution,” New York Times , June 21, 2005. Quoted in Lauri Lebo, The Devil in Dover , p. 95.

[3] Lauri Lebo’s email to author, March 4, 2009.