The Republican War on Science
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Chapter 11: “Creation Science” 2.0

(Continued)

Nevertheless, ID hawkers have crisscrossed the United States arguing that public schools should “teach the controversy” over evolution—a controversy they themselves have manufactured. These advocates have even outlined First Amendment legal strategies to justify their approach. In Ohio, one state where they have enjoyed considerable success, the state board of education adopted a model lesson plan in early 2004 inviting students to “critically analyze five different aspects of evolutionary theory.” In fact, the lesson plan contains spurious critiques of evolution that scientific experts have rejected and was explicitly opposed by the National Academy of Sciences. In the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania, meanwhile, local antievolutionists have actually gone further and explicitly introduced intelligent design into science classes (a tack the Discovery Institute has come to oppose, probably because of its obvious unconstitutionality). In late 2004, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Dover district, touching off a case that would set a historic legal precedent.

As these activities suggest, ID proponents have adopted many of the same political tactics practiced by the old-school creationists. Granted, ID diverges in some respects from earlier forms of American antievolutionism. It certainly isn’t synonymous with “creation science,” which provided an allegedly scientific veneer for the biblically based belief that the earth is only between six thousand and ten thousand years old. “Creation scientists” seek to debunk radioisotope dating, which geologists use to determine the age of rocks. As we saw in Chapter 4, they also rely on the feverish nonsense of Flood geology, and wrongly assert that evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics.

Intelligent design officially endorses none of these positions, and its proponents tend to shy away from espousing biblically literalist views in their publications. (With traditional creationists you didn’t have to dig as far to find quotations from the Bible.) None of this, however, rescues ID from the broader “creationist” label. Philosopher of science Robert T. Pennock defines creationism as “the rejection of evolution in favor of supernatural design.” ID clearly fits this description, even if we must now distinguish between “intelligent design creationism” and the other species that have cropped up in the United States, such as “young-earth creationism” and “creation science.“

In fact, the peculiar characteristics of the ID movement are a direct response to the tactical and legal failings of earlier creationists. Its strategies actually represent a natural evolution of the “creation science” movement, proceeding still further in the direction of claiming the mantle of science while denying religious intentions in argument. Although ID has improved and perfected them, one can even detect many rudiments of the current ID approach among earlier advocates of “creation science.“

As a legal strategy, “creation science” proved a dramatic failure. In the 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, seven out of nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of “creation science” as a counterpoint to evolution violated the First Amendment by promoting religion. Instrumental in the case was a statement from the real scientific community. Seventy-two Nobel laureates signed an amicus brief favoring the overturning of Louisiana’s law, arguing that “teaching religious ideas mislabeled as science is detrimental to scientific education.“

But though “creation science” failed politically and legally, the ID movement has taken its tactics—recruit Ph.D.s who are also conservative Christians, claim repeatedly to be doing science, and disavow religious motives—to a higher level. As Discovery Institute fellow Francis Beckwith boasts, advocates of ID have “better credentials than their creationist predecessors.” “Instead of young-earth creationism, which can be laughed out of the room, intelligent design creationism has a few scientists who are not crackpots defending it,” observes Harvard’s Steven Pinker, a prominent defender of evolution. “I don’t think scientists have woken up to it enough,” he adds.

ID officially eclipsed “creation science” as the leading antievolutionist strategy following a classic overreach by traditional creationists in Kansas. In 1999, state board of education members voted to strip evolution and even the Big Bang from state standards, prompting a national outcry. Several of the offending individuals were promptly thrown out of office in the next election. But as Kansas’s young-earth creationists beat an embarrassed retreat, ID advocates seized the opportunity. In the wake of the furor, the small Kansas town of Pratt flirted with including ID in its curriculum.

Since then, the ID movement has continued its quest to infiltrate academia, while the Discovery Institute has recruited a wide range of Ph.D.s to serve as fellows. ID claims, repeatedly, to represent a scientific innovation, even though “creation scientists” had always made the Paleyesque argument that living things, in their bodily and organizational complexity, show evidence of the hand of a designer. Even ID’s “teach the controversy” program—which advocates instructing public school students in the alleged weaknesses of evolutionary theory, rather than in ID itself, and has actually been adopted in Ohio—had emerged in a rudimentary form among “creation scientists.” Following the Supreme Court’s Edwards v. Aguillard decision, the Institute for Creation Research (ICR) prepared an intriguing evaluation of what the movement should try next. Among other points, ICR noted that “school boards and teachers should be strongly encouraged at least to stress the scientific evidences and arguments against evolution in their classes . . . even if they don’t wish to recognize these as evidences and arguments for creationism.” As Glenn Branch, of the anti-ID National Center for Science Education, has observed, this comment shows that the “teach the controversy” strategy was “pioneered in the wake of Edwards v. Aguillard.“

 

Clearly, ID proponents follow in the footsteps of their “creation science” forebears, especially when it comes to conveying the impression that they are doing science, instead of trying to advance religious and moral goals. Yet the express strategic objectives of the Discovery Institute; the writings, careers, and affiliations of ID’s lead proponents; and the movement’s funding sources all betray a clear moral and religious agenda. That might be a mere oddity if ID were actually producing good science, but it isn’t. In their book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, philosopher Barbara Forrest and biologist Paul Gross exhaustively demonstrate that the movement is all religion and no science. The remainder of this chapter will take a similarly two-pronged argumentative approach.

First, ID is unmistakably a religious movement. The most eloquent documentation of this comes in the form of a Discovery Institute strategic memo that made its way onto the Web in 1999: the so-called Wedge Document. This seven-page paper represents the antievolutionist equivalent of the tobacco industry documents revealed as a result of litigation, or the American Petroleum Institute’s internal memo laying out a strategy to undermine mainstream climate science. The Wedge Document, though, outlines an agenda to undercut science not in the service of corporate goals, but rather to further those based on religion—or as the document states, “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.“

A broad attack on “scientific materialism,” Discovery’s manifesto asserts that modern science has had “devastating” cultural consequences, such as the denial of objective moral standards and the undermining of religious belief. In contrast, the document states that intelligent design “promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” In order to achieve this objective, the ID movement will “function as a ’wedge’” that will “split the trunk [of scientific materialism] . . . at its weakest points.” Much like the strategy implicit in the American Petroleum Institute memo, part of the Wedge strategy involves currying influence with “individuals in print and broadcast media.” The document actually expends far more energy outlining media strategies and achievements than in describing a program of scientific research.

The Wedge Document puts ID proponents in an uncomfortable position. Discovery Institute representatives balk at being judged on religious grounds, and accuse those who probe their motivations of engaging in ad hominem attacks. Yet given the express language of the Wedge Document, it is hard to see why we shouldn’t take them at their own word. Discovery’s ultimate agenda—the Wedge—clearly has far more to do with the renewal of religiously based culture by the overthrow of key tenets of modern science than with the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Discovery’s antievolutionist branch, the Center for Science and Culture, was even previously named the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture.

As it happens, I played a minor role in the history of the Wedge Document. As I worked on a highly critical article about the Discovery Institute for the American Prospect in late 2002, the organization still had not officially admitted that the memo was theirs. In an interview for my story, however, Discovery’s Stephen C. Meyer, a pro-life religious conservative who directs the Center for Science and Culture, admitted ownership of the Wedge Document for the first time, telling me that it “was stolen from our offices and placed on the Web without permission.“

Discovery has since broadly acknowledged the document as its own, describing it as an “early fundraising proposal.” The institute mocks the notion that the strategy paper outlines a conspiracy to “replace the scientific method with belief in God,” which it attributes to “our somewhat hysterical opponents.” Instead, Discovery describes its attack on “scientific materialism” as, of all things, a defense of “sound science.“

But though Discovery claims to support science, the Wedge Document makes it clear that the group actually hopes to radically redefine the very nature of scientific inquiry, smuggling assumptions about the supernatural into the very fabric of research and turning science into something much closer to pre-Enlightenment philosophy. The advances of modern science have relied on a “naturalistic” methodology, one that assumes continuous causal processes rather than supernatural interventions. Discovery’s radical agenda of reconstituting a religiously imbued science thus represents an assault on modern science itself. In fact, according to creationism historian Ronald Numbers, Discovery’s philosophical critique of modern science is probably the main thing that sets it apart from older forms of antievolutionism.

It is important to realize how radical this critique actually is. Consider a 2001 article published in World magazine and on the Discovery Institute’s website by Nancy Pearcey, a senior fellow of the organization and most recently the author of the book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. The article imagines that it is the year 2073, and ID’s theistic version of science has triumphed. Darwin has been overthrown, and the moral consequences have been dramatic: The threat of a “new era of eugenics” has been averted. Roe v. Wade has (apparently) been reversed. Science itself has led to the affirmation of Christian morality: “Human beings have an intrinsic nature and dignity only if the world is an embodiment of the Word, the Logos, the language of a personal Creator. Amazingly, it was the genetic revolution that brought this truth home, transforming the entire American culture.” ID theorists, apparently, have a very high opinion of themselves, believing that they are fueling a scientific revolution of Copernican proportions. ID proponent Michael Behe has even written that the alleged discovery of design in nature “rivals those of Newton and Einstein, Lavoisier and Schrödinger, Pasteur and Darwin.”

But Discovery’s critique of “scientific materialism“—Bruce Chapman has denounced the view that “unless you can see it, smell it, taste it, feel it, it doesn’t exist“—crumbles on examination. Philosophers of science distinguish between “methodological naturalism“—science’s procedural approach to studying nature by assuming that continuous causal processes occur without supernatural intervention—and “philosophical naturalism,” the atheistic conclusion that the supernatural doesn’t exist at all. Methodological naturalism can be justified on purely pragmatic grounds—it works. Indeed, it allows researchers of all religious beliefs to meet on common ground. Philosophical naturalism, in contrast, goes beyond science into the realm of metaphysics. Science, which studies only the natural world, can neither prove nor disprove the existence of the supernatural or God. And wisely, it doesn’t try.

In disingenuously pretending that modern science basically amounts to institutionalized atheism, the Discovery Institute wrongly conflates methodological and philosophical naturalism. But many religious scientists—including Brown University cell biologist and Finding Darwin’s God author Kenneth Miller, a leading critic of ID—accept the former but don’t endorse the latter. The truth is that science isn’t necessarily at war with religion at all, although the ID movement certainly does seem to be at war with modern science.

And just in case the Wedge Document doesn’t speak eloquently enough, leading proponents of ID, too, give explicitly religious reasons for their “scientific” advocacy.

The ID movement’s central strategist and popularizer, University of California, Berkeley, emeritus law professor and Darwin on Trial author Phillip Johnson, turned to Jesus “at the advanced age of 38” and went on to publish several books critical of evolution. Leading ID proponent Jonathan Wells, author of Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth?, has written that the words of Unification Church leader Sun Myung-Moon, as well as his own studies and prayers, “convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism.“

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