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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

On reporters and deception: Some thoughts

(Note: Light blogging for a couple of days because I will be on Open House Australia (by phone, more later, and have a bunch of stuff to read) and then talking to students about environment issues tomorrow and Friday.)

Re the dustup about Celeste Biever pretending to be Maria from Cornell while investigating IDEA clubs:

Now, I hope I am not opening a big can of worms here but I naturally approach it from the perspective of a journalist of nearly 35 years pounding beats....

I don't think it wrong in principle for a reporter to go undercover.

A lot depends on two things: whether the public interest is at stake and whether key information could be obtained otherwise.

(I am assuming, of course, that no laws are broken, no one is thoughtlessly harmed, and no private business that should remain private is heedlessly exposed.)

At the Discovery Institute's blog, John West quotes from the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

which helpfully highlights the issue. Incidentally, the original adds "Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story" - another important consideration. Readers have a right to know how the information was obtained.

Undercover media investigations have often served the public interest by exposing rackets, corruptions, shoddy practices, and deceptions, in situations where it was really true that the information could not be obtained in any other way.

So here is where the issue gets tricky, in my view: Celeste Biever's editors may very well honestly believe that

1. All IDEA clubs are run by six-day creationists,

2. They are lavishly financed (of course!) by fundie whackjobs, and

3. Their real purpose is to impose theocracy on the United States.

Brit toffs unashamedly display amazing ignorance of North America. I supposes it is harmless if it helps them forget their own massive societal failures.

So now: What if the New Scientist editors assume that the IDEA clubs are actually deceiving the public when they say, no, that's all nonsense.

In that case, Biever's story editor will think it's no good asking the IDEA-ers for information. The reporter must go under cover in order to catch them "really" doing what the editors think they do.

The first thing we need to see here is that New Scientist is so reflexively materialist that it actually ran a feature in March 2005 on "13 Things That Don’t Make Sense" - and the placebo effect, of all things, was number one on that list.

The placebo effect just means that your beliefs about the effectiveness of a treatment can play a major role in the treatment outcomes.

For decades now, drug makers have had to demonstrate that their proposed remedy performs better than a placebo - not because placebos do not work but precisely because they do.)

However, the placebo effect doesn’t" make sense” if you are a materialist and therefore you need to assume that the mind either does not exist or is powerless.

The effect makes complete sense to me, but then I am not a materialist.

So the editors of New Scientist are exactly the sort of people who would be unable to believe that anyone could see evidence of design in the universe or life forms unless they were ignorant, stupid, or insane, or wicked - and presumably, unlike Richard Dawkins, they would rather consider that.

I respectfully suggest that, for self-protection, the IDEA clubs work hard at keeping their focus on the study of ID and not gradually morph into an outreach of the evangelical Christian community from which so many ID enthusiasts currently come (though that is changing).

Don't misunderstand. I think such outreaches are socially invaluable and often irreplaceable.

Indeed, for that precise reason, the temptation will always exist. There is no shortage of troubled youth out there, and they do benefit greatly from discovering that there really is a purpose for their lives.*

But the study of design in nature will suffer if IDEA clubs lose focus.

In other words, I don't think IDEA clubs need worry much about infiltration by journalists if they keep their focus firmly on the formal study of ID. Indeed, if they succeed - after a while - no one will want to send an investigator because the investigator will disconfirm the rumors - which is precisely what detractors don't want.

As for misrepresentation, usually if a medium wants to misrepresent, it should commission as little story research as possible.

Case in point: Recently, I was informed that some people who are (ahem) NOT fans of ID believe that I am getting money or favors from the Discovery Institute. I told my informant no.

Now, that person probably did want to know the facts of the case. But as for some others, ... aw shucks, a great rumor - down in flames! For all I know, some wish I had never been asked. The conspiracy theorists can still take a whack at it, of course, but such sources are credibility suicide.

*I was surprised to discover that my own book, By Design or by Chance?, which investigates the origin and development of the ID controversy, in fact had that precise effect on some readers, even though I hadn't particularly intended it to. So there's no getting away from the "purpose in life" effect, but keeping a focus on formal ID is critical for IDEA clubs.
Are you looking for one of the following stories?

My U of Toronto talk on why there is an intelligent design controversy.

A summary of tech guru George Gilder's arguments for ID and against Darwinism

A critical look at why March of the Penguins was thought to be an ID film.

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove’s critique of Darwinism.

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being granted tenure at Baylor after a long struggle - even after helping in a small way to destroy the Baylor Bears' ancient glory - in the opinion of a hyper sportswriter.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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