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

(Continued)

And that’s just the beginning. William Dembski, another of ID’s leading proponents and armed with Ph.D.s in philosophy and mathematics, recently left Baylor University to head the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s newly established Center for Science and Theology. Commenting on his appointment to Baptist Press, a Southern Baptist national news service, Dembski welcomed the opportunity “to mobilize a new generation of scholars and pastors not just to equip the saints but also to engage the culture and reclaim it for Christ. That’s really what is driving me.” (Dembski left the position a year later, moving to the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.)

And then there’s the aforementioned Stephen C. Meyer, a Cambridge history and philosophy of science Ph.D. who seems to have developed ID’s philosophical critique of modern science to begin with. A conservative Christian with a background in Republican politics, Meyer has been described as “the person who brought ID to DI” by historian Edward Larson (who was a fellow at the Discovery Institute prior to its antievolutionist awakening). Seeking to institutionalize the ID movement, Meyer turned to the late timber industry magnate C. Davis Weyerhaeuser, a major funder of Christian evangelism in the U.S. through his Stewardship Foundation. Weyerhaeuser provided key “seed money” to establish the Discovery Institute’s ID program, according to Larson.

Meyer is also a “university professor” at Palm Beach Atlantic University, in West Palm Beach, Florida, a “Christian liberal arts college” that puts its professors in what can only be described as an intellectual straitjacket. According to the school’s “Guiding Principles,“

All those who become associated with Palm Beach Atlantic as trustees, officers, members of the faculty or of the staff, must believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments; that man was directly created by God; that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin; that He is the Son of God, our Lord and Savior; that He died for the sins of all men and thereafter arose from the grave; that by repentance and the acceptance of and belief in Him, by the grace of God, the individual is saved from eternal damnation and receives eternal life in the presence of God; and it is further resolved that the ultimate teachings in this college shall always be consistent with these principles.

ID proponents often denounce evolutionists for being closed-minded and perpetuating groupthink. Yet it appears that Meyer could not accept human evolution and still remain employed by Palm Beach Atlantic University.

The funding of the Discovery Institute, too, betrays its religious agenda. In addition to the Stewardship Foundation (which has generally funded mainstream, moderate evangelical activities), religious right tycoon Howard F. Ahmanson, Jr., has heavily supported the group and sits on Discovery’s board of directors. Other ideologically oriented Discovery funders include the Tennessee-based Maclellan Foundation, which describes itself as “committed to the infallibility of Scripture, to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to the fulfillment of the Great Commission.“

As befits this litany of evangelism, ID proponents cannot seem to keep out of churches and the company of old-school creationists. For example, at a 2004 conference held at the Community Bible Church in Highlands, North Carolina, leading ID advocate Michael Behe, a Catholic Lehigh University biochemist and author of Darwin’s Black Box, spent time with young-earth creationists from the Institute for Creation Research, ministers, and prison evangelist (and former Watergate felon) Chuck Colson. In so doing, Behe closely followed the Wedge Document, which observes that ID proponents must win “a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians.“

 

Clearly, intelligent design proponents draw fuel from a radical religious agenda to reform American culture and counteract what they see as the corrosive influence of modern science (and its perceived moral implications). But if ID represents a religiously based strategy, it nevertheless claims to conduct scientific research. However questionable ID’s definition of science, then, it is worthwhile asking whether any work that ID’s supporters have published actually helps intelligent design qualify as science, or alternatively, whether the ID movement simply aims to dress up its religious agenda in scientific clothing.

The prima facie evidence in this regard does not look very good for ID proponents. In a 2002 resolution, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) firmly stated that “to date, the ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim that ID undermines the current scientifically accepted theory of evolution.” Indeed, literature searches have failed to turn up scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals that explicitly present research that supports the ID hypothesis. As Brown University’s Kenneth Miller, a practicing Catholic, has put it, “The scientific community has not embraced the explanation of design because it is quite clear, on the basis of the evidence, that it is wrong.“

The ID movement initially appeared to gain a shred of scientific credibility in late 2004, however, when a review essay explicitly supportive of ID by Stephen Meyer appeared in a little-known taxonomic journal called Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (that’s D.C.). But as the subsequent fallout over Meyer’s paper demonstrated, this work’s publication represents a startling anomaly and came about through irregular means. The ID movement will have to do much better than this if it wants to be taken seriously on a scientific level (much less have its critiques of evolution taught in public-school classrooms).

The saga of Meyer’s paper bears telling resemblances to the story of the Soon and Baliunas paper on climate history, discussed in Chapter 7. In both cases, little-known journals published highly questionable papers, generating massive controversy in the process. Then, apparently thinking better of it, the journals backed away from the work.

Like the Soon and Baliunas article, Meyer’s article did not present original scientific research or data; instead, it reviewed and commented on existing literature. Focusing on the well-known “Cambrian explosion“—which occurred roughly 570 to 530 million years ago—Meyer argued that evolutionary theory could not account for the appearance of new organismal forms in a relatively short period of geological time. Instead, Meyer concluded by suggesting that “intelligent,” “rational” agents may have been responsible for the “origin of new biological information.” Even the Discovery Institute acknowledged that this marked the first time that an article openly advocating ID had been published in a peer-reviewed biology journal (though the group claims previous publications in peer-reviewed books and other outlets).

But soon after the article’s publication—which was accompanied by considerable media attention and apparently caused angry journal subscribers to pester the editorial offices demanding an explanation—facts came to light that cast doubt on whether the work should have appeared at all. It turns out that Meyer’s paper was accepted for publication by an editor named Richard Sternberg, who has signed a Discovery Institute statement entitled “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism.” Sternberg’s credits also include sitting on the editorial board of the Baraminology Study Group, which studies “creation biology” and whose website is hosted by Bryan College, a fundamentalist Christian school in Tennessee fittingly named after anti-Darwin crusader William Jennings Bryan.

Although Sternberg later created a website on which he protested that (unlike most members of the Baraminology group) he did not subscribe to young-earth creationism, he also did not describe himself as an evolutionist. Sternberg also explained that although he no longer edits the Proceedings, his resignation preceded and had no connection to the publication of the Meyer paper.

According to the Biological Society of Washington, which publishes the Proceedings, Sternberg “handled the entire review process” for Meyer’s paper, a move that is “contrary to typical editorial practices” at the journal, which include review by an associate editor. Sternberg, for his part, counters on his website that “as managing editor it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors, I chose myself, something I had done before in other appropriate cases.” But the fact of Sternberg’s connections to evolution deniers raises questions about how he may have handled Meyer’s article.

In any case, the Biological Society of Washington has since backed away from the work, claiming that Meyer’s piece represents a “significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history” and “does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings.” In so dramatically undermining a paper published by its own journal, the Biological Society of Washington also explicitly endorsed the AAAS resolution on intelligent design. (In response, the Discovery Institute has accused the society of imposing a “gag rule on science.“)

Granted, by its own admission, the Biological Society of Washington doesn’t specialize in the type of arguments Meyer makes in its journal. So it is conceivable the group was unfair to him. Just to make sure, I sought to learn what paleontologists knowledgeable about the Cambrian explosion thought of Meyer’s “science.“

After reviewing Meyer’s paper at my request, Yale University Cambrian expert Derek Briggs, president of the Paleontological Society, responded by e-mail with what he termed the “obvious” criticism: “Meyer finds explanations for the appearance of evolutionary novelties inadequate . . . so he substitutes one of his own that is totally untestable, so-called intelligent design.” Briggs’s critique highlights a key reason that ID fails as science. By postulating a supernatural cause involved in the origin and history of life, the ID movement has advanced a mysterious idea that science lacks the tools to evaluate fruitfully.

As an account of the origin and history of life, ID doesn’t have any meat to it. It doesn’t provide any details that scientists might confirm or refute through future experimentation. And most crucially of all, it doesn’t explain anything or predict anything, a key requirement for successful scientific theories. As three of Meyer’s scientific critics have noted, “’An unknown intelligent designer did something, somewhere, somehow, for no apparent reason’ is not a model.“

Another expert who commented on Meyer’s paper for me presented a related assessment of both the article and the intelligent design movement generally. “Presumably, this is their best work,” wrote Franklin and Marshall College paleontologist Roger Thomas.“Consequently, one must ask, where are the data in support of their position? Where is the fully developed positive case for the necessity of ID, backed by appropriate evidence, that one might expect? It is simply lacking.“

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