There are elements missing from the layman's whole language/phonics discussion which are present in the more rigorous scientific discussion. I would like to add several of those simpler elements in, free of jargon, simply to elevate the level of discussion -- on both sides.
Everyone claims their method works better. Their arguments, however, tend to revolve around why each method should work better. Because good readers move quickly to whole language, why not skip the phonics step altogether? Or contrarily, If you can read phonics you can decode almost anything without assistance. Additionally, there is the sense that phonics is the old-fashioned way, whole language is the newer, advanced way, each side drawing some adherence on that basis alone.
In languages more consistently phonetic, such as German, there is no question. Teaching phonics is so obviously superior in such situations that whole language is not even considered. At the other extreme, there is no sense in teaching phonics in China, as the writing is pictographic. Spanish and French are phonetic enough that phonics is superior.
English lies farther out. It is essentially phonetic, but so littered with exceptions that phonics is not an infallible key to decoding. As with irregular verbs that we have to "just learn" because there is no rule, there are irregular spellings which we have to "just learn" to pronounce.
The scientific evidence is mixed, but tends to favor phonics. That is more a statement about the English Language than it is about the teaching method. If English were more phonetic, phonics would look even better. If English were less phonetic, phonics would be less useful. The reason that we have a controversy at all is because English is predominantly, but not entirely, phonetic. There are readers who learn almost entirely by the whole language method, but when you break down what they are doing, they are reverse-engineering their own phonics methods when they encounter an unfamiliar word, usually making inspired guesses on the basis of the first and last letters and the word length. Less often, something very unusual about a word will make it stand out, such as the two z's in "pizza," which children often pick up on their own once they start reading, moving back and forth between the context cues, repetition, simplified phonics, and bright neon, reminders to take in the whole word.