You know that cliché about some stories writing themselves? Well, sometimes a reader fairly writes stories for us, too. It came this past week with a brief e-mail by James Stagg, a friend of this blog. He called our attention to mostly excellent interview with the Rev. George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory. Not without its issues, though. See below.
The Q&A-style interview, on Syracuse.com, has an adept triple news hook. For one, many people would be surprised that the Vatican even has an observatory. For another, as a priest and scientist, Coyne is chairman of religious philosophy at Le Moyne College, a Jesuit school. And the college is in Syracuse, providing a local angle for the interview.
Coyne also gives a "snappy interview," in Stagg's words. We're treated to inside info such as:
* The Vatican has two big working telescopes, neither of them in Italy.
* All 15 staffers with the Vatican astronomers are Jesuits.
* A meteorite laboratory and a library are part of the Vatican Observatory.
Why was the interview "mostly" excellent, then? Because of a "major ghost"spotted by Stagg himself. In the second-to-last paragraph, we see Coyne saying:
I have been a vocal opponent of intelligent design. It is not science, although it pretends to be. I am concerned that fundamentalist religious beliefs might continue to influence the role of science in the modern decision-making process.
"The reporter missed a BIG discussion about why Father Coyne opposes 'intelligent design,' which, as a Catholic priest, he should support in some form," Stagg writes. "What he is actually opposed to is probably the teaching of "creationism," which is fundamentalist in belief. BIG hole; otherwise good article."
Stagg is right. A basic premise of journalism is not to raise any questions you don’t answer. For instance, "How is intelligent design unscientific?"
I wonder if the reporter set up for an antagonistic answer in her question: "How do you feel about intelligent design, or the theory that rejects evolution, instead saying the physical world was created by an intelligent designer?"
This is a false choice. Michael Behe of Lehigh University, a champion of intelligent design, has said himself that he doesn't oppose evolution. He does teach "irreducible complexity," that some structures of living things -- analogous to the parts of a mousetrap -- could not have developed separately. But he has also said that, creation or evolution, the process had help from an intelligent source:
... it is important to understand that a hypothesis of intelligent design has no quarrel with evolution per se -- that is, “evolution” understood simply as descent with modification, but leaving the mechanism open. After all, a designer may have chosen to work that way. Rather than common descent, the focus of ID is on the mechanism of evolution -- how did all this happen, by natural selection or by purposeful intelligent design?
A second point that is often overlooked but should be emphasized is that intelligent design can happily coexist with even a large degree of natural selection. Antibiotic and pesticide resistance, antifreeze proteins in fish and plants, and more may indeed be explained by a Darwinian mechanism. The critical claim of ID is not that natural selection doesn’t explain anything, but that it doesn’t explain everything.
If Father Coyne didn’t know these counter-arguments, then he hasn't explored the thinking of this pioneer of intelligent design. But I suspect that the Syracuse reporter hasn't, either.
Other stuff? Yeah, there's some. The reporter says that Pope Pius XII ruled in 1950 that "Darwin's views could be embraced as 'serious hypothesis' but not as certain doctrine.' " If she means Pius' encyclical Humani Generis, the phrase "serious hypothesis" appears nowhere in the English translation. It does appear in a 1996 address by Pope John Paul II.
Second nitpick: The reporter quotes Coyne as saying he retired as director of the Vatican Observatory just before Pope John Paul II's death in 2006. John Paul actually died in 2005. Coyne probably said actually that he left after the pope's death.
The third: The article says Coyne retired from the Vatican Observatory in 2012. Then how could he have stepped down as director several years earlier? The answer is that he stayed on as president of the foundation, leaving in 2012 for Le Moyne College.
These are all comparative nitpicks, as I say. Overall, the reporter showed alertness and news sense to interview a first-rate authority in her own back yard. And James Stagg was alert, and kind, to give an assist to GetReligion.