Focus on Intelligent Design:
Some Advice on Avoiding Journalistic Embarrassment

Peter S. Williams (MPhil)

Intelligent Design theory (ID) is attracting a growing amount of media interest. Unfortunately, ID is rarely allowed to speak for itself, and rarely taken at its word when given the opportunity. The claims of ID are repeatedly misrepresented, as journalists and science-writers fall back on stock assertions about ‘science vs religion’ and draw inaccurate associations with ‘creationism’.

A Case in Point

Focus magazine is a popular ‘science & technology monthly’ published by the BBC. The January 2006 issue (No 159) carried a two-page cover story, by Dr David Whitehouse (science editor for BBC News Online) on ‘the intelligent design furore’. The article was highlighted as ‘Darwin vs God’ on the front cover and entitled ‘Teacher vs Preacher’ (pp. 20-21). These titles should be enough to forewarn informed readers of the kind of treatment ID received. Whitehouse trod down the well-worn path of inaccurately portraying Darwinian evolution as a fundamental scientific truth on a par with the Earth being spherical, on the one hand, and ID as a non-scientific religious ‘belief’ - young-earth creationism by another name - on the other. (In point of fact, microevolution can be directly observed, whereas macroevolution is an inference, not an observation. It is therefore absurd to place it in the same epistemological category as the Earth’s not being flat.)

The Misrepresentation of ID

Whitehouse labels the furore over ID as a debate ‘pitching science against religion’ and he defines ID as:

the idea that all the living things we see around us, from humans down to bacteria, are too complicated to have been produced by natural processes. Instead, the theory maintains that some designer – most say it was God – produced the blueprint for all the cells and organisms on Earth.

However, ID does not theorize that ‘all the living things we see around us, from humans down to bacteria, are too complicated to have been produced by natural processes’, or that ‘some designer… produced the blueprint for all the cells and organisms on Earth’. ID does not suggest that no living things were produced by natural processes. Indeed, ID holds that evolution by natural selection is an adequate explanation of much that we see around us in the natural world. ID does theorize that natural processes did not produce some of the things we see around us. Furthermore, the criteria proposed to justify this hypothesis is not that (some) living things ‘are too complicated to have been produced by natural processes.’ The criteria is that some of the things we see around us exhibit a particular type of complexity, called specified complexity, and that the best explanation for anything exhibiting this particular type of complexity is intelligent design.[1] The inaccurate claim that ID is based upon the observation of mere complexity, rather than specified complexity, is one of the most frequent misrepresentations of ID in the media.

As for God, it is probably true to say that the majority of ID theorists believe as a matter of philosophical and/or religious conviction that the source of the design in question is monotheistic. However, the fact implicit in Whitehouse’s observation that ‘most say it was God’ is that some do not say it was God. Moreover, even ID theorists who do believe that the designer was God have been at pains to make it clear that this conclusion is not a part of Intelligent Design as a scientific theory. As Michael J. Behe writes:

my argument is limited to design itself; I strongly emphasize that it is not an argument for the existence of a benevolent God, as Paley’s was. I hasten to add that I myself do believe in a benevolent God, and I recognize that philosophy and theology may be able to extend the argument. But a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far. Thus while I argue for design, the question of the identity of the designer is left open... as regards the identity of the designer, modern ID theory happily echoes Isaac Newton’s phrase, hypothesis non fingo.[2]

Consider an analogy: many people believe that the best philosophical explanation of Big Bang cosmology is mono-theistic (indeed, there have been atheists who opposed Big Bang cosmology because they believed this), but this fact does not mean that Big Bang cosmology is not a scientific theory or that it cannot be accepted by atheists! Likewise with ID. As Geoscientist Marcus R. Ross correctly explained in a presentation before the Geological Society of America: ‘ID is classified as a philosophically minimalistic position, asserting that real design exists in nature and is empirically detectable by the methods of science.’[3]

It is interesting to draw a contrast between Whitehouse’s portrayal of ID as religion and the testimony of Professor Steve William Fuller, himself a naturalist: ‘ID is a legitimate scientific inquiry that does not constitute “religion” in a sense that undermines the pursuit of science’[4], wrote Fuller, who holds both an MPhil and a PhD in the History & Philosophy of Science:

ID proponents argue primarily by appeal to empirical evidence gathered in the laboratory and the field, employing methods of reasoning – both qualitative and quantitative – familiar from the other branches of science. The only difference here from Neo-Darwinists is that ID proponents tend to draw different conclusions… ID does not challenge science, only the artificially restricted conceptual horizons within which science is practiced under the Neo-Darwinist regime.[5]

ID Spokespeople are either misinformed or lying

Whitehouse references Robert Crowther of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute (which promotes ID), who:

says that creationism is based on religious texts and premises, while intelligent design is based on empirical data and the interpretation of scientific evidence. Intelligent design, he claims, does not defend any religious belief, nor is it based on religious assumptions.

However, by portraying the ID controversy as ‘Darwin vs God’ and ‘teacher vs preacher’, by constantly associating ID with creationism, and by asserting that ID is a religious ‘belief’, Focus magazine clearly implies that Crowther is either misinformed or lying! But as philosopher Francis J. Beckwith observes: ‘design theorists do not defend their position by appealing to esoteric knowledge, special revelation, or religious authority. They make philosophical and scientific arguments whose merits should be assessed by their soundness. . .’[6] Professor Thomas Woodward’s history of the ID movement repudiates the claim that ID is motivated by religious premises:

hearing how key Design advocates came to their current view,  it became clear that their entry into the movement stemmed from intellectual or scientific – not religious – reasons... Several of the founders frequently relate a vivid tale of how they previously had assumed the validity of Darwinian scenarios and were later shocked to discover major weaknesses in the case for Darwinism.  Typically this intellectual epiphany leads to further reading and research, which cements the new radical doubt about the theory’s plausibility.[7]

That was certainly my own experience. Whitehouse quotes Crowther:

‘Intelligent design theory is definitely science,’ says Crowther. ‘There are peer-reviewed articles published in the scientific literature. More and more scientists are admitting that it is science, even if they do not necessarily agree with the theory.’

But Whitehouse gives the last word to Darwinist philosopher Michael Ruse: ‘Not so, says Ruse, who thinks intelligent design is a cunning ploy to get more religion into schools.’ However, there are peer reviewed articles published in the scientific literature[8], and more and more scientists are admitting that ID is science. While Crowther is in a better position than I to know whether or not more and more scientists are admitting that ID is science, even if they do not necessarily agree with the theory, there do seem to be more philosophers in this category.[9] Moreover, since ID is a growing movement, more and more scholars of both stripes clearly think that ID is science. Of course, counting heads does not matter near so much here as the validity of the case for ID actually being a scientific theory.[10] Finally, while I happen to think that teaching ID would not be unconstitutional in America[11], ID is not some cynical ploy designed to achieve the goal of getting religion into schools.[12] The proper presentation of ID would not endorse any religious view. It might raise philosophical questions that lead some people in the direction of thinking about various religious views (not just Christianity), but that could be said of many scientific theories (including evolution!).

Scientific Arguments on Both Sides

Although Whitehouse dismisses ID as a religious belief rather than science, a cut out box accompanying his article briefly lists ‘scientific arguments of both sides’ (four arguments for evolution but only one – irreducible complexity – for ID). But how can ID have even one ‘scientific’ argument without being scientific? This is another apparent contradiction.[13] As an aside, it should be noted that the four arguments listed in support of evolution are compatible with the argument from irreducible complexity for ID. The cut out box presents a false dilemma.

Inaccurate (and Confused) Reporting about Science Education

Whitehouse references:

The recent case that hit the headlines kicked off in early spring 2005 when the Kansas Board of Education insisted in the interests of ‘balance’ that intelligent design be taught in a science class alongside evolution.

The science standards proposed by the Kansas Board of Education in 2005[14] (which were adopted in November 2005[15], but which don’t come into affect in 2007[16]), did not insist that ID ‘be taught in a science class alongside evolution’ as Whitehouse claims. In point of fact, the proposed standards even contained a disclaimer saying that they did not promote intelligent design theory. The standards did state that students should understand major evolutionary concepts, whist observing that some evolutionary concepts have been challenged in recent years by fossil evidence and molecular biology. As Casey Luskin, a spokesman for the Discovery Institute, said: ‘Anyone who reads the proposed science standards will see that they deal solely with science, are based on scientific debates in mainstream scientific literature and do not include any alternative theories.’[17] Furthermore, the new standards leave decisions about what exactly is taught in classrooms with 300 local school boards. As a report by USA Today stated: ‘The standards, broad guidelines that school districts use to write their own curricula, don’t force school boards to change what they’re doing...’[18] Whitehouse says that:

Scientists and teachers across the nation were incensed, saying that since intelligent design is not science, it should not be taught in a science class. The board countered that this was only one side of the argument. Teachers threatened to resign, court cases were started, and the media moved in. The formal verdict is due early in 2006.

I have two points of comment. First, Whitehouse’s account seems one-sided. Some people were undoubtedly incensed, but some were not. After-all, the board of education passed the standards by a majority 6-4 vote. Second, the ‘formal verdict’ due early in 2006 mentioned by Whitehouse has nothing to do with the Kansas Board of Education’s science standards. Indeed, no lawsuit concerning the Kansas science standards had been filed as of December 2005.[19] Rather, it actually refers to the decision of the Dover district school board in Pennsylvania USA to insist upon the following statement being read to students:

The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part. Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations. Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.

Whitehouse fails to differentiate between the Kansas science standards and the Dover statement case, giving the incorrect impression that the latter case is a verdict on the former, so it is worth pointing out that reading the Dover statement to students, whatever you think of its merits (and the judge ruled against the school board[20]), is still not the same thing as teaching ID ‘in a science class alongside evolution’. After all, as philosopher of science Bradley Monton observes: ‘Intelligent Design isn’t really explained in the disclaimer…’[21] Hence, whether one considers either the Kansas board of education’s science standards or the Dover school board’s statement, neither can be accurately reported as insisting ‘that intelligent design be taught in a science class alongside evolution’.

Should we ‘fear’ UK schools who want to use ID as ‘a Trojan horse’ to promote ‘radical evangelical teachings’?

The cover story title of ‘Darwin vs God’ is accompanied by a sub-title: ‘The UK schools that want to teach creation “science” p20.’ The cut out box dealing with this issue[22] reports on how:

creationism – the literal interpretation of the biblical view of creation – hit the headlines in 2002 when it featured in an inspection of schools in the north of England. Three Emmanuel Foundation religious schools... were said to afford equal importance to creationism and evolutionary theory. In response, the foundation said that the Biblical view of creation is taught in religious education classes, and that the science curriculum follows national guidelines.

This is neither breaking news, nor quite so scandalous as Focus magazine’s tag line might be taken to imply. Why shouldn’t so-called ‘faith schools’ teach about ‘creation science’ in religious education classes, so long as the national curriculum is being followed? Moreover, Nigel McQuoid, director of the Emmanuel Schools Foundation is quoted as saying: ‘We are watching the current debate on intelligent design with interest but do not wish to become involved at this stage.’ I suppose a cover story highlighting ‘UK religious schools that teach evolution in science classes and do not which to become involved with intelligent design theory’ just doesn’t have the journalistic edge over ‘The UK schools that want to teach creation “science” p 20.’!

The Focus article then warns that:

Nearly half of the government’s planned new flagship academy schools in England are sponsored by religious organizations, prompting fear that the programme could become a Trojan horse for radical evangelical teachings.

Purple prose about ‘fear’ of ‘radical evangelical teachings’ aside, there is far more danger of ID being a ‘Trojan horse’ if it is misrepresented in the way that Whitehouse’s article misrepresents it than if it is represented as it is represented by its actual representatives! As an ID advocate, I would take a dim view of anyone teaching students that ID offers direct evidential support for any religious belief, because it doesn’t.

But back to the purple prose – what ‘radical evangelical teachings’ are we supposed to ‘fear’ might possibly get smuggled into some of our schools along with ID, if people like Nigel McQuoid overcome their current caution about ID? Since ID argues for design on the basis of data from contemporary cosmology, astronomy, paleontology and so forth (all of which assume or postulate an ancient cosmos), it can hardly be young earth creationism that we are meant to fear. For example, it would be hard to teach a lesson on the cosmological fine tuning argument whilst smuggling in young earth creationism! Yes, some ID theorists are also young earth creationists, but many (I would say the majority – and include myself in that majority) are not. Indeed, ID has come under fire from some young earth creationists for not being biblical. Hence, so long as creation scientists have a clear understanding of the distinction between their theory and ID (and it certainly seems that they have a clearer understanding of the difference than most evolutionists) it is unlikely that they will use ID as a ‘Trojan horse’ to smuggle creationism into schools (although a growing acceptance of ID would probably make an examination of ‘creation science’ a live option for more people.)

Is evolution ‘the central unifying concept of biology’?

Whitehouse claims that ‘Evolution is the central unifying concept of biology.’ There is a sense in which this claim is disputable. As Fuller testifies:

as a matter of fact, reference to the claims of Darwinian evolution is unnecessary for the conduct of the vast majority of contemporary biological research… Neo-Darwinism functions more as a disposable ‘made for export’ world-view than a code of professional conduct.[23]

Fuller quotes historian of science Nicolas Rasmussen:

As a point of fact most biologists do not know, and do not need to know, much about evolutionary theory. It is unlikely that any of the life sciences deriving their basic logic from experimental physiology (including molecular genetics, classical genetics, biochemistry, pharmacology, etc.) would have to change its ways substantially in a Lamarckian or even Creationist world. Anatomical fields (including cell biology, if it does not fall under the physiological) are just as theoretically independent, as is ecology, insofar as they concern themselves with short time frames. Arguably, even systematics and paleontology might go on much as before without evolutionary theory…[24]

Rasmussen observes that less than 10% of the articles published each year in the journals included in Biological Abstracts are devoted to evolutionary theory: ‘At the very least,’ comments Fuller, ‘such a finding suggests that the status of evolutionary theory may be debated safely without worrying that its refutation might undermine the rest of biology.’ [25]

If there is a sense in which evolution is the central unifying concept of biology, this is only because it is currently the unifying paradigm within which ‘normal science’ takes place; a fact that does not mean evolution necessarily deserves such a status.

This article about the controversy is here to tell you that there is no controversy…

Whitehouse correctly reports that ‘The overwhelming view of the scientific community is that evolution… is the route by which so many species came into existence’ (he doesn’t touch on the question of how anything capable of evolving came about in the first place); but he over-plays this hand when he claims that: ‘If you question qualified scientists, you will find there is no dissent about the fundamental tenet of evolution.’ In context, the latter claim clearly stands in contradiction to the former, and it is easily falsified. An American television series on evolution in 2001 claimed that no scientists disagreed with Darwinian evolution. In response, one hundred and thirty two qualified scientists signed a joint statement saying: ‘We are sceptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life’[26]:

Signers of the statement questioning Darwinism came from throughout the US and from several other countries, representing biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, geology, anthropology and other scientific fields.  Professors and researchers at such universities as Princeton, MIT, U Penn, and Yale, as well as smaller colleges and the National Laboratories at Livermore, CA and Los Alamos, N.M., are included.[27]

By August 2005, over 400 academics (including over 70 biologists) had signed-up to the statement.[28]

As for Whitehouse’s claim that ‘There is no serious controversy raging over the basics of evolutionary science, in the same way there is about intelligent design’, it should be clear to everyone that the debate raging about intelligent design just is a controversy about the basics of evolutionary science!


Unfortunately, Focus magazine’s sloppy and inaccurate report on ‘the intelligent design furore’ is representative of media coverage given to ID. For any journalists thinking of writing a piece on the subject, here are five ways to avoid embarrassment:

  1. Go to ID theorists for an understanding of what ID claims and what it does not claim and why, without assuming that ID theorists are either misinformed or lying about their own theory. To accept the conspiracy theorizing of a Michael Ruse over the claims of a Robert Crowther flaunts the principle of charity and risks erecting a ‘straw man’ version of ID.
  2. Avoid using emotive language, especially when its use requires you to mischaracterize those to whom this language is applied (cf. point 1). If you are going to describe intelligent design theorists as radical, fundamentalist creationists, then you should describe evolutionists as rabidly dogmatic, religion despising, nihilistic atheists. Of course, since neither description is either polite or necessarily accurate, perhaps it would be best to leave such purple prose out altogether.
  3. Check your facts. For example, don’t report that a Kansas School Board has insisted on teaching intelligent design theory in class alongside the theory of evolution when it hasn’t. Don’t advertise a court case about a School Board in Pennsylvania as pronouncing the verdict on an Education Board in Kansas.
  4. Avoid making or implying blanket statements - such as that there is no controversy about evolution, that no qualified scientists doubt evolution, or that there are no peer-reviewed publications supporting ID – which can be easily proven wrong (cf. point 3).
  5. Check your work for self-contradiction. For example, don’t write articles on the ID controversy in which you claim that there is no controversy about evolution. The controversy about ID is a controversy about evolution.

Articles that followed these guide-lines would not necessarily be pro-ID articles. But they would be articles about ID, rather than a straw man erected by the assumptions of the author; and they would inform rather than confuse public debate.

Recommended Reading

‘Intelligent Design FAQ’ @

William A. Dembski, ‘In Defense of Intelligent Design’ @

Discovery Institute, ‘Peer Reviewed, Peer Edited and other Scientific Publications Supporting the Theory of Intelligent Design (Annotated)’ @

Bradley Monton, ‘Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision’ @

Peter S. Williams, ‘If SETI is Science and UFOlogy is Not, Which is Intelligent Design Theory?’ @

John G. West, ‘Intelligent Design & Creationism Are Just Not The Same’ @

Jonathan Witt, ‘The Origin of Intelligent Design: A brief history of the scientific theory of intelligent design’ @

‘Over Four Hundred Scientists Convinced By New Scientific Evidence That Darwinian Evolution is Deficient’ @

Francis J. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003)

Thomas Woodward, Doubts About Darwin, (Baker, 2003)


[1] cf. William A. Dembski, ‘The Logical Underpinnings of Intelligent Design’ @

[2] Michael J. Behe, ‘The Modern Intelligent Design Hypothesis’, Philosophia Christi, Series 2, Volume 3, Number 1, 2001, p. 165.

[3] Marcus R. Ross, ‘Intelligent Design and Young Earth Creationism – investigating nested hierarchies of philosophy and belief’ @

[4] Steve William Fuller, ‘Rebuttal Of Dover Expert Reports’ @

[5] ibid.

[6] Francis J. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), p. 153. cf. John G. West, ‘Intelligent Design & Creationism Are Just Not The Same’ @

[7] Thomas Woodward, Doubts About Darwin, (Baker, 2003), p. 10 & 20.

[8] Discovery Institute, ‘Peer Reviewed, Peer Edited and other Scientific Publications Supporting the Theory of Intelligent Design (Annotated)’ @

[9] cf. Bradley Monton, ‘Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision’ @;

Michael Cook interview with Dr Santiago Collado, ‘Is Intelligent Design Really Science?’ @

[10] cf. Stephen C. Meyer, ‘The Scientific Status of Intelligent Design’ @;

Peter S. Williams, ‘If SETI is Science and UFOlogy is Not, Which is Intelligent Design Theory?’ @

[11] cf. Francis J. Beckwith, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design, (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003)

[12] Jonathan Witt, ‘The Origin of Intelligent Design: A brief history of the scientific theory of intelligent design’ @

[13] Of course, this box might have been inserted into the article by the editor and written by someone other than Dr. Whitehouse.

[14] cf. ‘Science Standards 2005 – Kansas’ @

[15] cf. ‘Kansas Schools can teach intelligent design’ @; ‘Kansas School board redefines science’ @; ‘Kansas education board downplays evolution’ @

[16] cf. New Scientist, ‘Kansas backs intelligent design in science lessons’ @

[17] Casey Luskin, quoted in ‘Groups Weigh in Before Evolution Vote in Kansas’  @

[18] ‘Kansas Schools can teach intelligent design’ @

[19] cf. David Klepper, ‘Evolution wins round in U.S. court’ @

[20] cf. David DeWolf, ‘Judge Jones Follows ACLU, Ignores Contrary Facts’ @

[21] Bradley Monton, ‘Is Intelligent Design Science? Dissecting the Dover Decision’ @

[22] Of course, this box might have been inserted into the article by the editor and written by someone other than Dr. Whitehouse.

[23] Fuller, op cit.

[24] Nicolas Rasmussen, quoted by Fuller, ibid.

[25] Fuller, ibid.

[26] cf.


[28] cf. ‘Over Four Hundred Scientists Convinced By New Scientific Evidence That Darwinian Evolution is Deficient’ @

Copyright © 2006 Peter S. Williams. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 01.19.06