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On reporters and deception: Some thoughts


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 do 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.

EJ Klone: Your comment took a while to appear because it was stuck in moderation. We have to be fairly heavy-handed here since otherwise we'd get buried in a flood of abusive comments (never mind spam). Patrick
Ok, Regarding undercover reporting, a great piece of under cover reporting was done by Altvegot when he outted Paul Mirecki and basically succeeded in kicking Mirecki out of his chairman ship after Mirecki tried to teach an anti-ID course at University of Kansas. Although, to the best of my knowledge, Altvegot did not need to commit any deception. Sal scordova
I was glad to read when the IDEA clubs stopped requiring that their leaders be christians. That may have influenced some club members to think that the clubs were about evangelizing, rather than ID. EJ Klone
bebbo // Oct 11th 2006 at 2:08 pm "...Sure, Britain has problems, but probably no more than any other industrialised country, including the US..." FYI: Denyse posts from Toronto, Canada. russ
There should be a safety net where people in need are helped. No one should be allowed to go hungry or sleep on the streets in rich countries. The problem is that if the net is too easy to fall into and too comfortable once you're there a lot of people choose to stay there. Put another way, a majority in the new world believe in equal opportunity whereas in the old world they increasingly believe in equal outcomes. Wealth most assuredly doesn't buy happiness but the pursuit of it does buy progress. DaveScot
Denyse, First off, as a Brit I'm not sure exactly what "societal failures" you're referring to. I followed your link to an article that made some general comments about Britain and mentioned the tax burden (which is actually, AFAIK, no more it was under Maggie Thatcher). Sure, Britain has problems, but probably no more than any other industrialised country, including the US. We also have societal successes and a growing economy. As for the New Scientist piece "13 things that do not make sense" it's not at all clear to this "Brit toff" that materialism has anything to do with why the placebo effect "does not make sense". To me the article was about unexplained things with no convincing answers yet. If you think materialism is a problem I'd encourage you to present an explanation as to how a non-materialist paradigm explains the placebo effect and mind/brain interactions. Interested readers can find the New Scientist article here: http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=mg18524911.600 bebbo
Where real damage can be done by an undercover reporter is if the identities of students and faculty who are at risk of reprisal are revealed. One of our IDEA regulars at GMU was Caroline Crocker, and all the press she received was the end of a promising teaching career. I wanted to plead with her not to come forward with her story last year..... I encourage some of the biology students (particularly the PhD candidates) to go underground lest they be outted. I have pleaded with some of the students not to identify themselve to reporters, but some felt it their moral obligation to speak out. One of our pro-ID students who spoke to a Washington Post reporter was verbally abused by GMU faculty after her story was published this past February. The young lady was in tears for 3 days, and I can only hope that is the extent of her troubles. IDEA members were able to offer her solace and support. Other members have got mild forms of humiliation.... That said, at least 3 publicly professed pro-ID PhD biologist graduated from GMU (Timothy Standish, Gordon Wilson, Tim Brophy). May there be many more. scordova
"estimated at 1/4 to 1/3 of biology majors on some secular campuses here in Virginia" That's going to be a big wake-up call to secularists when these majors become researchers and start publishing. johnnyb
Regarding the new organizaiton in Virginia, here were some of the considerations for its formation in contrast to IDEA. IDEA is now organized on a secular basis to promote discussion of the scientific issues. However, what I have found on the secular campuses is that biology majors and science students already fairly adept in the knowledge of ID. No kidding! This is good news. I mean, they can debate their peers and prevail. So educating them on the basics is something of a secondary issue. The issues I'm having to deal with and help students with are more personal, such as getting students feeling isoloated in touch with others. Helping them meet others who faced issues getting through a Darwinist run university. We have professors verbally abusing pro-ID students and saying derogatory things about people of faith in class. Dealing with such issues is not quite in the scope of IDEA, but that is more along the lines of where I see some real need on the secular college campuses. Some of these guys are already post docs. They need a supportive community.... Thankfully, it has been my experience that just a little bit of the right exposure is enough to set someone on the right course. They are greatly helped when they are made aware of people, books, and internet resources that can help them. I meet pro-ID freshman biology majors feeling down trodden. But getting them in touch with the right materials will usually solve their anxieties. The truth is liberating, and the rest tends to take care of itself when they know where to find it. scordova
In reference to your suggestion, Denyse, regarding IDEA, here in Virginia a pro-ID evangelical creationist association with roots in McLean Bible Church (the same one hosting the big ID/Apologetics conference in November) is exploring the formation of a separate organization to address ID to the evangelical community on college campuses since the demand is fairly substantial (estimated at 1/4 to 1/3 of biology majors on some secular campuses here in Virginia). That hopefully address some of the issues, however, it's my belief that no matter what IDEA does, critics will find a way never to be appeased.... scordova
One of the things that could be done is to invite people like Celeste Biever, Stephen Morris or any other public critic here to ask questions to see what they can find. If there is anything to hide it would probably be revealed by someone on this blog. My experience is that anyone coming here with a pro Darwinist or pro materialist view point quickly learns that they have little on which to base their view point. They may not change but they are never able to defend their belief system very well. Whether that person would honestly report/communicate their experience here to others is another question. jerry
Well, there is nothing to fear if there's nothing to hide. However it does go against Christian ethics to "bear false witness", journalist or not. WinglesS

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