Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Who Promotes Unlocking the Mystery of Life?

The Discovery Institute is whining that a PBS station is 'censoring' because it has withdrawn its plans to air the controversial program "Unlocking the Mystery of Life".

The original PDF file showing the religious foundation of this video has since long been removed from the Illustra Media Website but has been archived.

Unlocking the Mystery of Life The cut-off date to order this incredible
video is Friday, November 22, 2002. Until then you can pay the retail price for
8 copies and get 50 (which comes out to $3.69 each postpaid).

This is the most impressive evangelistic tool ever made. Using the latest computer graphics it displays the wisdom of God in the creation of the inner workings of the human cell.

November-December 2002 Mission Frontiers Link

The PBS station in Albuquerque, N.M., has canceled a scheduled showing of a documentary on the theory of intelligent design, eliciting charges of "politically correct censorship."

New Mexico teacher Phil Robinson says he worked with staff at KNME-TV to arrange for the documentary, "Unlocking the Mystery of Life," to air on Friday night. Robinson discovered Monday that the show had been pulled and newspaper advertising for it had been canceled.

The station says the scheduling of the program was a mistake caused by a miscommunication related to the transition to a new program manager and that there was concern about the fact that those who funded the film have religious ties.

It's good to hear that PBS stations are wisening up to the Discovery's Institute's Wedge projects and correctly identify the program as religiously motivated and not based on any scientific foundation beyond the usual appeal to ignorance so common with ID arguments.

The makers of the documentary were 'caught' marketing it as an evangelical tool and the inability of ID to formulate a scientifically relevant theory of design indicates that one should applaud the actions of this PBS station.

In fact I encourage PBS supporters to contact PBS and encourage them to drop the selling of this religiously motivated documentary and which is of little scientific relevance. Find your local PBS affiliate's email and send them the relevant information.

Other stations have also recognized the religious nature of this documentary although unfortunately they did decide to air the program.

WNYE's Disclaimer
When WNYE broadcast Unlocking the Mystery of Life on July 6, 2003, the following disclaimer appeared:

WNYE presents documentaries that represent many different viewpoints. The following documentary supports the thesis that Creationism rather than Evolution is the explanation for the history of life on our planet. WNYE believes that this is a position worth studying, but makes no representation as to its factual accuracy.

Domning's Letter to Maryland Public Television

Who Promotes Unlocking the Mystery of Life?

by Skip Evans, NCSE Network Project Director

According to the copy on the box containing the videotape of Unlocking the Mystery of Life, the tape "tells the story of contemporary scientists who are advancing a powerful but controversial idea -- the theory of intelligent design." Throughout the approximate sixty-five minute program, religion is barely discussed. You might expect that the video is being promoted by scientific organizations. Type "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" into the Google search engine, however, and the results might surprise you.

Unlocking is promoted almost exclusively by fundamentalist Christian organizations, who sing its praises as a tool to strengthen faith while converting skeptics. In ten pages of a Google search engine query on the title in mid-May 2003, virtually every link was to a fundamentalist Christian organization.

# The web site of Illustra Media, credited with producing Unlocking, appears near the top of the search results. (For documentation of the link between Illustra Media and Discovery Media, whose mission is "to utilize every form of available media to present the reality of [God's] existence through compelling scientific evidence and academic research," see Unlocking the Mystery of Illustra Media.) Purchases of the video from the Illustra Media web site are handled by Campus Crusade for Christ.

# The web site of Illustra Media also contains a page, not currently linked but still residing on the server, describing a special offer for the tape published in Mission Frontiers magazine, which described the tape as "the most impressive evangelistic tool ever made" (Mission Frontiers, November-December 2002). In an editorial comment in the same issue, Ralph D. Winter stated that "[n]othing in the last 100 years so powerfully displays the glory of our Creator God as does this video for the thinking intellectual who is overwhelmed by the secular perspective of our time." As its name suggests, Mission Frontiers is focused "on helping Bible-believing followers of Christ worldwide to bring the Gospel of Christ to every people and nation, as seen in Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 of the Bible."

# Focus on the Family claims on its web site to have "published" the video along with Illustra Media. Focus on the Family's mission is "[t]o cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and, specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of the family."

# Coral Ridge Ministries, which also sells the video, has as its mission "to evangelize, nurture Christian growth through biblical instruction, and act in obedience to the Cultural Mandate by applying the truth of Scripture to all of life, including civic affairs."

# Writing on Breakpoint, Chuck Colson claims that Unlocking "tells such a good scientific story that, earlier this year, PBS made the program available to all of its national affiliates". (This is false; PBS is not the distributor.) Breakpoint is a production of The Wilberforce Forum, whose mission is "to engage directly an increasingly secular culture with the weight of the Judeo-Christian intellectual tradition, and to equip the Church for that engagement."

# On its web site, the C. S. Lewis Society announces a project called Tsunami 2003. "God is building, through Unlocking ..., a great 'tsunami' -- a cultural sea wave," the group claims. The goals of the project include having the tape air on PBS stations nationwide and sending copies to 1,000 Christian leaders on university campuses in the hope of seeing "[y]oung lives transformed by the revelation of the love of their Creator and His gift of Jesus Christ for their sins." The purpose of the C. S. Lewis Society's web site is "to present Christianity as such an understandable, defensible, and compelling world view that any honest investigator will accept its truth and purpose for his or her life."

Added 7/28/03: The C. S. Lewis Society has notified NCSE of the following changes to its web site after this article appeared. First, mention of Unlocking has been removed from the sentence above about God's creating a great 'tsunami'. Second, all mentions of PBS's broadcasting the video have been removed. NCSE would like to thank the C. S. Lewis Society for notifying us of these changes.

In contrast, not a single national scientific organization, such as the National Academy of Sciences or the American Association for the Advancement of Science, recommend the tape. Nor do national science education organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association or the National Association of Biology Teachers.

It is clear from the statements made on these web sites that the motivating factor behind the distribution of Unlocking is evangelism.

Evangelism is of course a protected constitutional right. NCSE has always been religiously neutral, and supports religious free speech. Our members range from atheists to evangelical Christians, and include among them Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and practitioners of other faiths. NCSE's main objection to Unlocking is that it presents substandard science and misleads viewers about the strength of the science behind evolution, as discussed elsewhere on this web site.

But it is worth noting that this supposedly scientific video is not being promoted by scientific or science education organizations. Rather, Unlocking is being heavily promoted for religious purposes by fundamentalist Christian organizations for which its chief value is as an evangelical tool, rather than as an accurate documentary about science. We hope that the program directors of PBS stations take note.

July 3, 2003

Unlocking the Mystery of Illustra Media

by Skip Evans, NCSE Network Project Director

In the "Wedge" document setting forth the twenty-year plan of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (now called the Center for Science and Culture), an early objective is a "PBS show such as NOVA treating design theory fairly." Supporters may have achieved a simulacrum of this part of their agenda. The intelligent design video Unlocking the Mystery of Life is receiving PBS distribution: on April 27, 2003, the video was made available to public television stations via satellite feed from the National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA).

Although it is being aired on some PBS stations, Unlocking decidedly was not made by NOVA, or any other PBS producer. Who did make this video, then? It turns out that the company identified with Unlocking traces back to the Moody Institute of Science, a well-known producer of fundamentalist Christian videos. The connections require some detective work to uncover, however.

Unlocking was produced by Illustra Media. Its executive producer is James W. Adams and it was produced and directed by Lad Allen and Timothy Eaton. The script was written by Stephen C. Meyer of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and W. Peter Allen. Unlocking is the only production listed on the web site of Illustra Media, and no video production staff -- or any Illustra Media employees -- are listed on the site. Most film production companies' web sites have links to an "About Us" section detailing who is on the staff; the site for Illustra Media does not.

Illustra Media is linked with another production company, Discovery Media, which in turn is the successor to the Moody Institute of Science. When one conducts a "whois" search at the Network Solutions web site on two URLs, and, the following information is provided:

Discovery Media Productions (ILLUSTRAMEDIA-DOM)
PO Box 2711
La Habra, CA 90632-2711


Administrative Contact, Technical Contact:
Discovery Media Productions (20335406O) j.harned@GTE.NET
PO Box 2711
La Habra, CA 90632-2711
562-943-0914 fax: 562-943-0914

Discovery Media Productions (DISCOVERYMEDIA3-DOM)
PO Box 2711
La Habra, CA 90632-2711


Administrative Contact, Technical Contact:
Discovery Media Productions (20335406O) j.harned@GTE.NET
PO Box 2711
La Habra, CA 90632-2711
562-943-0914 fax: 562-943-0914

There are other links between Discovery Media and Illustra Media. Discovery Media lists its current president as James W. Adams, the executive producer of Unlocking. Jerry Harned, who is credited with editing the video, is Discovery Media's Post Production Supervisor. The Discovery Media team is rounded out by Lad Allen and Timothy Eaton, credited for producing and directing Unlocking. These links strongly suggest that Illustra Media was created as a shell company by Discovery Media for the purpose of marketing Unlocking the Mystery of Life.

Why might Discovery Media want to separate out this video from its other offerings? Unlocking is being marketed to PBS and to public schools as a "straight science" program. But Discovery Media is clearly in the fundamentalist film business. Their mission statement reads, "We believe that God reveals Himself, today, through His creation and the Biblical record. Our mission is to utilize every form of available media to present the reality of His existence through compelling scientific evidence and academic research."

Discovery Media's current video release is The Exodus Revealed, a documentary-style hunt for evidence to demonstrate that the Israelites' journey across the Red Sea was a true historical event. The video takes the viewer along the route the Israelites may have taken to the Red Sea, and also promises to show "coral encrusted remains possibly from the chariots of Pharaoh's 18th dynasty army," and "archaeological treasures [that] have been concealed for more than 3000 years." Its other productions include The End Times, "a compelling presentation of the major events that will immediately precede and unfold during the Tribulation including The Rapture of the Church, a time when Jesus Christ will appear and take the faithful to heaven instantly," and Heaven and Hell, which is intended to "strengthen the faith of those who believe and challenge the skepticism of those who doubt the existence of either place."

The fundamentalist flavor of Discovery Media's productions is understandable since, according to the "Wonders of Science" web site, Discovery Media is the successor of the earlier Moody Institute of Science, a well-known producer of fundamentalist science videos beginning in the 1940s. A further tie is that Unlocking's executive producer Adams is also listed as a former Executive Producer for Moody Institute of Science from 1972 to 1988.

In his glowing review of two "intelligent design" videotapes, Unlocking the Mystery of Life and Icons of Evolution in Christianity Today, Thomas E. Woodward writes "The stories they tell challenge the myth that Intelligent Design is a movement driven by religious bias." But if it is a "myth that Intelligent Design is a movement driven by religious bias," why do its proponents have to work so hard to hide their fundamentalist roots?

July 1, 2003

Bottaro's Letter to WNYE

by Andrea Bottaro

The following letter was originally sent to the WNYE PBS station in anticipation of their programmed broadcast of the Intelligent Design "documentary" "Unlocking the Mystery of Life". Eventually, WNYE aired the program with a disclaimer regarding its contents (see the NCSE site for the text of WNYE's disclaimer and other comments about "Unlocking").

Mr. Laing Kandel
General Manager
New York

Dr. Joe Klein
Dept. of Education
New York

Dear Mr. Kandel and Dr. Klein:

It was recently announced by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, WA, that the New York Department of Education's WNYE television station is planning to broadcast the documentary video "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" (hereafter, UML) on July 6, 2003. While I realize that the purpose of WNYE is to provide its viewers with the broadest and most diverse information from different sources and points of view, there are a few background issues about this video that I believe you and WNYE viewers should be made aware of.

UML presents itself as a well-crafted, purely scientific documentary, while it is factually misleading in many respects, and its main purpose is propaganda for a pseudo-scientific movement known as Intelligent Design Creationism. UML has its (strategically concealed) origins close to religious fundamentalist and Creationist circles, and displays a pattern of poor scholarship, including misrepresentation/omission of key scientific evidence. Ultimately, these result in a misleading picture of the facts and of current scientific knowledge, as well as of the ultimate goals of the documentary itself. (More details about these problems are found in the attachment to this letter.)

While as a scientist I fully subscribe to the free dissemination of opinions from any source, I think you owe WNYE viewers that such background information is made available to them, so that they may properly judge the documentary's message. Addition of a disclaimer to the broadcast, explaining that the documentary presents a one-sided view of a fringe, pseudo-scientific idea rejected by the overwhelming majority of scientists, and that its main purpose is religious/philosophical in nature, would probably be sufficient to alert your viewers of the true significance of "Unlocking the Mystery of Life".

Thank you very much for your consideration. Please feel free to contact me if you have further questions or require additional information.


Andrea Bottaro
University of Rochester Medical Center
Rochester, NY, 6/30/03


The source:
"Unlocking the Mystery of Life" is the first and only production of an entity called "IllustraMedia". In fact, "IllustraMedia" is one and the same with "Discovery Media Productions"1. Discovery Media is a production company whose previous videos are devoted to evangelical topics, such as "Heaven and Hell" and "The End Times"2. While there is nothing wrong with an evangelical video company producing a science documentary, the fact that to do so it was felt necessary to create a "shell" production outfit highlights the aura of ambiguity that pervades the entire enterprise (more examples to follow). Furthermore, the purpose of the video as a propagandistic and religious, rather than scientific/educational tool is underscored by how UML is being publicized within fundamentalist circles. For instance, Mission Frontiers, the Bulletin of the evangelical U.S. Center for World Missions, hails it as "the most impressive evangelistic tool ever made"3.

The contents:
As a documentary, UML is a skillful and sophisticated production, showing some well-made computer animations of cellular processes at the molecular level. In discussing such mechanisms, the video claims that the scientific evidence points to insurmountable difficulties for standard evolutionary theory, and supports instead the hypothesis that a superior intelligence directly intervened to create and/or diversify life (hence the name "Intelligent Design", or ID, Creationism4). The video discusses such purported evidence and devotes much of its time to the historical origins and philosophical underpinnings of the ID movement.

The fundamental question is whether ULM conforms to basic scientific standards of adherence to evidence and facts. In this, it fails at several levels. First of all, throughout the documentary mainstream scientific views, supported by the overwhelming majority of scientists, are not even independently presented. Instead, oversimplified, sometime downright scornful presentations of mainstream scientific theories and hypotheses are provided by supporters of ID (as a counterexample, the recent PBS "Evolution" series, though clearly favoring a scientific view, featured the opinions of several prominent representatives of Creationism). In UML, therefore, the viewers are treated to descriptions of scientific evidence and theories that have little connection with what is in fact going on in the science world. For reasons of space, I'll just mention a few examples.

The most glaring omission deals with UML's discussion of Origins of Life (OoL) science. The only non ID-based views on OoL discussed in the video are those proposed, in the late '60s, by one of the current ID proponents, Dr. Dean Kenyon. According to UML, those models have been later shown by Kenyon and colleagues to be insufficient to explain key aspects of early molecular and cellular evolution. In fact, most of Kenyon's original views have long been superseded by more thorough, and better empirically supported, scientific hypotheses - indeed, it was those hypotheses and evidence that led to the demise of Kenyon's ideas in scientific circles long before ID Creationism appeared on the scene. Alas, what is arguably the current (and has been for more than a decade now) favored hypothesis about OoL, the so-called "RNA World" model,5 finds no mention whatsoever in UML. This is not surprising, perhaps, since the objections raised in UML by ID proponents to Kenyon's original theory would not stand against this new model. Thus, the viewer is given the false impression that the current scientific choice is between ID Creationism and its outright miraculous Origin of Life, or Dr. Kenyon's outdated 1960's theory. Of course, our understanding of OoL is still very limited, and highly speculative. Nevertheless, it is far more advanced and scientifically solid than the UML parody would want its audience to believe.

Other mistakes in UML include an equally superficial, almost mockingly simplified discussion of cooption, a crucial evolutionary mechanism for which in fact significance evidence exists in the biological world. UML's "experts" even commit a basic error regarding the role of nucleic acids in the cell, which are presented as uniquely involved in genetic information storage and transfer, while it is now well known that they are directly active in crucial molecular processes functionally comparable to those carried out by protein enzymes - a key piece of evidence in favor of the "RNA World" hypothesis mentioned above (and the possible reason why it also went unmentioned).

The crucial argument underlying the whole ID philosophy, widely discussed in the video, is the concept of "irreducibly complex" systems, and the purported impossibility of conventional evolutionary mechanisms to generate them. Although it was quickly rejected by biologists on theoretical and empirical grounds,6 "irreducible complexity" has remained the main staple of ID Creationism. Ironically, this argument was just recently delivered a fatal blow in the prestigious science journal Nature, where a computer simulation based entirely on evolutionary principles (undirected random mutation and selection) was shown to be able to generate "irreducibly complex" outputs7. While of course the video cannot be faulted for not predicting the results of future scientific research, this episode serves as a good example of the shaky grounds on which ID reasoning is built. Indeed, not only does scientific evidence continue to accumulate contradicting the ID arguments, but even more damningly, in over 10 years from the onset of the "movement", no single scientific result supporting ID has been published in the scientific literature, despite its supporters continuing claims of the existence of such results. Indeed, even the ID advocates' own journal, the electronically published Progress in Complexity, Information and Design, has failed to publish any experimental result supporting ID8.

In short, despite the appeals by ID advocates to "let the evidence speak for itself", there is in fact no positive scientific evidence in support of ID, and on the contrary the theoretical arguments of its advocates are constantly being proven erroneous in the professional literature. To avoid facing this lack of evidence, UML resorts instead to systematic distortions of mainstream science theories and omissions of key ideas and pieces of evidence.

The people:
The experts interviewed for UML, and ID advocates in general, are fond to present themselves as "scientists", often accompanied by the qualifier "a small but growing number of". In fact, most ID advocates are not scientists by any meaningful definition of the term, and their numbers (for which "small" is an overstatement) are anything but growing.

Of the experts who appear in UML, 4 can in fact qualify as bona fide scientists: Michael Behe, Scott Minnich, Dean Kenyon, and Jed Macosko. The first two hold tenured positions in Biochemistry and Microbiology, respectively, at mainstream universities, but despite their own research experience and active labs, as discussed above they have failed to produce any evidence in support of the ideas they so eloquently argue for. Dean Kenyon was scientifically active until the mid-'70s, after which he has not published further in the scientific literature (however, he has since co-authored the notorious Creationist school textbook "Of Pandas and People"9). 16 Jed Macosko, whose image is accompanied in UML by the qualifier "Molecular Biologist, UC Berkeley", although a Berkeley graduate and former postdoctoral trainee, in fact is not, or has ever been, on the Berkeley faculty, as that title could suggest. Indeed, Dr. Macosko is apparently not even affiliated with UC Berkeley anymore; if he was at the time of interview, he certainly was there as a junior postdoc trainee, hardly an "expert" in the field by any standards. Currently, Dr. Macosko is listed on some ID web sites as teaching chemistry at the religious La Sierra University in Riverside, CA10, although he does not appear on the faculty list there either11. Such "generous" use of credentials is not unique in the documentary. One of the leading proponents of ID, William Dembski, is labeled as a "mathematician - Baylor University" in UML, although he is affiliated with Baylor's Institute for Faith and Learning, which focuses on theology and philosophy12. Indeed, almost the entirety of Dr. Dembski's vast published opus, with the exception of a mathematics paper in 1990, is about various aspects of theology, apologetics and philosophy13 (Dr. Dembski holds PhDs in Mathematics and Philosophy, and a M.Div. in Theology). Finally, Jonathan Wells, presented as "biologist" in UML, does hold a PhD in Developmental Biology from UC Berkeley. By his own words, however, he entered the program not based on any genuine interest in science and biology, but following the direction of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, with the expressed goal to "devote his life to destroying Darwinism"14. Not surprisingly, there is no record of Dr. Wells performing any meaningful research work after his training at Berkeley, and he has since entirely dedicated himself to anti-evolutionist propaganda (including the book "Icons of Evolution", some editions of which even contained stickers for students to deface biology textbooks15).

Thus, the definitions of professional background and academic affiliation used throughout UML are at the very least ambiguous, and clearly result in an inflation of the apparent academic clout and relevant expertise of the participants.

In summary, "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" is a depiction of a fringe, at best semi-scientific philosophical movement very close, ideologically and organizationally, to religious Creationism. The documentary misrepresents itself, its goals, the existing scientific evidence and its own experts in several significant ways. While it is your prerogative to air the programs that you believe best suit your audience's needs and interests, it is equally important that your viewers be provided with information that may help them put this product's contents and purpose in the appropriate context. This is necessary not only in the spirit of openness and full disclosure, but also to avoid that your broadcast of the documentary appear as an implicit endorsement of this new form of "stealth" Creationism by one of the largest Departments of Education in the country.

1. Verifiable by a "WHOIS" search for the domain name "": Accessed 6/30/03
2. Accessed 6/29/03
3. Accessed 6/28/03
4. For an in-depth discussion of ID Creationism, see "Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics", Robert T. Pennock, ed, MIT Press, 2001, ISBN 0-262-16204-0; review in Accessed 6/30/03
5. Accessed 6/30/03 Accessed 6/30/03
6. see for instance several articles by Dr. Ken Miller, Brown University: Accessed 6/30/03
7. Lenski RE, Ofria C, Pennock RT, Adami C. "The evolutionary origin of complex features." Nature. May 8 2003; 423 (6936):139-44
8. Accessed 6/29/03
9. , reviewed at the National Association of Biology Teachers web site Both accessed 6/30/03.
10. ; Both accessed 6/30/03
11. Accessed 6/30/03
12. Accessed 6/28/03
13. Accessed 6/30/03
14. Accessed 6/30/03
15. Links to reviews of Icons of Evolution can be found at the National Center of Science Education's web site Accessed 6/30/03
16. Note added July 8, 2003: After this letter first appeared on the NCSE web site, Dr. Kenyon kindly and quickly informed me that he has in fact one scientific publication later than the mid-'70s: "A Comparison of Proteinoid and Aldocyanoin Microsystems as Models of the Primordial Protocell", in Molecular Evolution and Protobiology [K. Matsuno, K. Dose, K. Harada, and D. L. Rohlfing, eds.], pp. 163-188, Plenum Press, 1984. My original statement was based on a search of the main scientific literature databases available: Pubmed, BasicBIOSIS, CSA Biological Sciences, and the Institute for Scientific Information's "Web of Science" Science Citation Index. The book article in question does not seem to appear in any of these databases, nor has it apparently ever been referenced by any other later publication also in the database. Nevertheless, for the record, the existence of Dr. Kenyon's 1984 paper should be noted.

Addendum, 8/5/03: Dr. Dembski has recently charged that my critique of "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" misleads readers. He's wrong:

Media strategy

Source: Geotimes Website

Helping support the ID effort, a number of PBS stations around the country have been airing a documentary, entitled “Unlocking the Mystery of Life,” about ID and its proponents. The documentary is co-written by a senior scholar at the Discovery Institute. After the documentary ran on Maryland Public Television, a Howard University medical school professor aptly described it as an infomercial for ID creationism.

While harsh, such a description is appropriate for ID proponents who have opted to take their message directly to the people and thence the nation’s schools, rather than to publish papers in scientific journals or to present their results to other scientists at meetings. They invest their effort in unscientific polling rather than in producing new evidence to support their theory, continuing to rely on the same small suite of examples that have long since been refuted in the scientific literature.

ID proponents are quick to point out that, as is often the case with revolutionary new theories, they have been blocked by an entrenched old guard. But what they fail to grasp is that such opposition is only part of the picture — true scientific revolutions are characterized by a swelling flood of new data and findings that eventually wash away the old thinking. Instead, ID offers a trickle, and, a recirculating trickle at that.

Until an Edwards-like Supreme Court ruling settles the acceptability of ID as classroom science, these skirmishes will continue. Meanwhile, at a time when scientific literacy is at an ebb, this battle is not the one we should have to be waging. Our economic security, health and vitality as a nation depend on teaching the best science to the next generation and not hewing to a narrow ideology being promoted outside of science.

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