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Discovery Institute Pioneers the Mis-infomercial

by Skip Evans
NCSE Network Project Director

A post on the web site of Focus on the Family (FOF) dated May 8, 2002, was headlined "'Icons of Evolution' Coming to Ohio." It referred to television broadcasts of the video version of the book of the same name, written by Jonathan Wells, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. Writing in the journal Nature, Jerry Coyne described the book as "a work of stealth creationism, striv[ing] to debunk Darwinism using the familiar rhetoric of biblical creationists, including scientific quotations out of context, incomplete summaries of research, and muddled arguments." The video follows in its footsteps, focusing on the "icons" of Darwin's finches, homology and mutant fruit flies, among others. Difficult as it may be to believe, compared to the video, the book is actually better.

In addition to the material from the book, the video features the producers' spin on the story of Roger DeHart, a Washington state high school biology teacher who created a nationally reported controversy by introducing intelligent design (ID) into his classroom. At one point a picture of John Scopes, defendant in the famous 1925 "Monkey Trial," appears on the screen and then morphs into DeHart, enshrining him as anti-evolutionists' greatest martyr to date.

The broadcasts were shown on five different television stations, including three ABC affiliates in the largest of the state's markets, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. The video was broadcast by NBC affiliate WLIO-TV in Lima, ABC affiliates WSYX-TV of Columbus, WCPO-TV of Cincinnati, and WEWS-TV of Cleveland, and CBS affiliate WTRF-TV of Wheeling-Steubenville. Only the Lima station broadcast Icons free of charge. According to representatives of all three of the major markets ,the broadcasts in each of these were paid programming. The station in Wheeling-Steubenville made arrangements to split advertising proceeds between itself and the program's distributor. A person who works in the television advertising industry told NCSE that a rough estimate for the cost of each broadcast would probably be between four and five thousand dollars, for an approximate total outlay of between twelve and fifteen thousand dollars.

Before the program began on WEWS, it was prefaced with a disclaimer; "The following is a paid commercial program. WEWS assumes no responsibility for its content." This was undoubtedly a wise move on the part of the station.

Having failed to convince the scientific community they have any credible evidence for their "theory" of ID, the DI is now sharing the domain of late night real estate hucksters, the Hair Club for Men and the Ronco rotisserie -- the infomercial. However, a casual viewing of the video demonstrates that the DI has carved out a unique niche that might better be described as the "mis- infomercial." Rejected by the scientific community and fellow scholars, suffering a number of losses in statehouses and school boards, the advocates of ID have taken their battle to the public in a well-financed, disingenuous political campaign that threatens to undermine the quality of science education nationwide.

Further evidence that the advocates of intelligent design work in the political, and not scientific, sphere came at the end of the program when a message appeared, urging viewers to contact Ohio Governor Bob Taft and members of the state legislature urging them to support anti-evolutionism in the newly drafted standards.

It hardly seems a coincidence that the airings in Ohio over the weekend of May 11 and 12 came just as the Ohio Board of Education is embroiled in controversy over newly drafted science standards that treat evolution as the foundational theory of biology. Whether or not FOF and the DI got their money's worth, however, remains to be seen. A check of the ratings shows that out of a possible 40.5 points, Icons received only 1.5.

While the DI and FOF have a constitutional right to publicize their positions in any way their substantial budgets allow, it is to be hoped that Ohioans will recognize that this is not how science is done. Science is done by scientists who do research, present their ideas at meetings of their peers, and then publish in scientific journals. If their ideas are useful to science, other scientists will join in supporting them and the ideas will become accepted by the rest of the scientific community. One must wonder why the money spent on making Icons wasn't spent researching the intelligent design "model".

People should not confuse quality scientific programming, such as Nova on PBS, with paid political advertising. Ironically, the DI poured vast resources last year in a media campaign attempting to discredit the series Evolution, produced by Nova, WGBH Boston, and Clear Blue Sky Productions and broadcast on PBS stations nationwide to general critical acclaim. Perhaps one of the most interesting differences between Evolution and Icons is that stations didn't have to be paid by the producers of Evolution to show it.

The National Center for Science Education is a nonprofit organization, based in Oakland, California, dedicated to defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools. On the web at www.ncseweb.org.

Skip Evans, NCSE Network Project Director.