Research News & Opportunities July/August 2002

Sparks Fly Over Intelligent Design


by Various

Karl Giberson: Editorial Guidelines: Prejudice or Stewardship?

This month’s Readers’ Forum features an interesting cross section of thinkers speaking their minds on the topic of intelligent design (ID). The discussion was initiated by Jonathan Wells, one of the leaders of the ID movement. Wells argues that the editorial deck is stacked against the ID movement, with leading journals publishing negative reviews of ID books but refusing to give the authors space to respond to their critiques.

Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial, for example, received a remarkably scathing, hostile review in Scientific American (See “Impeaching a Self Appointed Judge” by Stephen Jay Gould, July 1992). The editors refused, however, to publish a response from Johnson. And, as Wells argues below, later books from the ID movement, like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box, have received similar treatment.

Because of the importance of this question and widespread interest in intelligent design, we invited a number of leading participants in the ID discussion to weigh in on this topic, responding where appropriate to the other contributors.

Wells’ charge of editorial bias is more complex than it might seem on the surface. If an editor chooses to publish a hostile review of a book, common politeness would suggest that the author ought to have some space to respond. But editors have a “higher calling” than common politeness, namely the editorial mission and guidelines that inform every decision as to what will be printed and what will be rejected. I have learned, since becoming the editor of Research News, common politeness is often in tension with editorial priorities.

The mission of Research News, for example, includes publishing the latest findings in science-and-religion, as reported by credible scholars in those fields. In my role as editor, I must make decisions about the “fringe” material at or beyond the boundaries of the established science-and-religion dialogue. In my editorial judgment, the collection of ideas known as “scientific creationism” (which is not the same as intelligent design) lacks the credibility to justify publishing any submissions that we get from its adherents.

I would go even further, in fact. The collection of creationist ideas (6,000 year old earth, no common ancestry, all the fossils laid down by Noah’s flood, Genesis creation account read literally, etc.) has been so thoroughly discredited by both scientific and religious scholarship that I think it is entirely appropriate for Research News to print material designed to move our readers away from this viewpoint. For example, we might publish a negative review of a book promoting scientific creationism (or astrology, or the healing power of crystals, for that matter), while refusing to allow the author a chance to respond. Is this an unfair bias? Or is it proper stewardship of limited editorial resources?

“Editorial guidelines” may occasionally be a cover for “editorial bias,” but every editor has to make choices regarding what to print and what to reject.

This month’s Readers’ Forum raises this very interesting question in the context of intelligent design.

Karl Giberson, Ph.D., is the editor of Research News.

For the complete article, including responses from the various ID proponents and critics, please click here.

File Date: 07.08.02