Once Over Lightly

Watching CNN’s “American Morning” today, CJR Daily learned that President Bush had spoken out in favor of teaching intelligent design in schools. Here’s how CNN’s Carol Costello broke it down:

President Bush reportedly said intelligent design should be taught in public schools. The president told reporters from several Texas newspapers that he believes intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution. The president, however, declined to share his own personal views. Christian conservatives have called on schools to teach intelligent design, [which is] the theory that life is too complex to be explained by evolution alone, implying that a higher power had a role in creation.

Hmm, intelligent design. What’s the president up to before his summer break?

Getting to work, we typed “intelligent design” into Google News and up came a flood of stories. Near the top of a list sat a link to the Web site of the San Francisco Chronicle which brought us the Associated Press’ version of the story, “Bush: Intelligent Design Should Be Taught.”

After quickly explaining intelligent design, the AP lapsed into its favored “he-said/she-said” framework: “Christian conservatives — a substantial part of Bush’s voting base — have been pushing for the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Scientists have rejected the theory as an attempt to force religion into science education.”

Knight Ridder’s Ron Hutchenson offered the most extensive take, discussing the president’s past views on creationism and making clear that the “The National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have both concluded that there’s no scientific basis for intelligent design and oppose its inclusion in school science classes.”

However, as Chris Mooney, a science reporter who has written for CJR Daily’s parent publication, points out, the coverage has failed to contrast Bush’s comments with those made earlier this year by his scientific adviser John Marburger.

As Mooney reported, at the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers, Marburger clearly stated, “Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory,” adding, “I don’t regard intelligent design as a scientific topic.”

Given Marburger’s position, Mooney wrote today, “[M]y follow-up question to Bush would have been, ‘Mr. President, are you aware that your very own science adviser says “intelligent design” doesn’t qualify as science? Don’t you consult with him about these things?’”

In addition, Mooney calls attention to the fact that president’s comments should be seen in context of a statement (804K PDF) the Bush campaign provided Science magazine in 2004, which claimed, “The federal government has no control over local curricula, and it is not the federal government’s role to tell states and local boards of education what they should teach in the classroom. Of course, scientific critiques of any theory should be a normal part of the science curriculum.”

But it could be worse. At least the national press called attention to Bush’s comments on a decidedly controversial issue that is embroiling many educators these days. Most of the local papers that were granted interviews with Bush buried his remarks on intelligent design. In fact, the comment was left out of the articles that appeared in the print editions of the San Antonio Express-News, Houston Chronicle, Austin American Statesman and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

To be sure, the president covered a lot of ground in his remarks yesterday — Karl Rove, base closings and immigration issues, to name a few. But it couldn’t have hurt to add in the president’s views on what should be taught in local schools and what should not. Something that, at least, the Dallas Morning News reported.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.