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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Is 'intelligent design' headed toward extinction?

A week ago, Laurie Goodstein wrote that the intelligent design publicity campaign has been going much better than the so-called science of intelligent design:

As a political cause, the idea has gained currency, and for good reason. The movement was intended to be a "big tent" that would attract everyone from biblical creationists who regard the Book of Genesis as literal truth to academics who believe that secular universities are hostile to faith. The slogan, "Teach the controversy," has simple appeal in a democracy.

Behind the headlines, however, intelligent design as a field of inquiry is failing to gain the traction its supporters had hoped for. It has gained little support among the academics who should have been its natural allies. And if the intelligent design proponents lose the case in Dover, there could be serious consequences for the movement's credibility.

On college campuses, the movement's theorists are academic pariahs, publicly denounced by their own colleagues. Design proponents have published few papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The Templeton Foundation, a major supporter of projects seeking to reconcile science and religion, says that after providing a few grants for conferences and courses to debate intelligent design, they asked proponents to submit proposals for actual research.

"They never came in," said Charles L. Harper Jr., senior vice president at the Templeton Foundation, who said that while he was skeptical from the beginning, other foundation officials were initially intrigued and later grew disillusioned.

"From the point of view of rigor and intellectual seriousness, the intelligent design people don't come out very well in our world of scientific review," he said.

The Templeton Foundation has been drawn into the culture-war dimensions of the ID publicity campaign, however, leading Harper to sharply criticize a Wall Street Journal news story last month that suggested that Templeton supports intelligent design scholarship:

Any careful and factual analysis of actual events will find that the John Templeton Foundation has been in fact the chief sponsor of university courses, lectures and academic research which variously have argued against the anti-evolution “ID” position. It is scandalous for a distinguished paper to misinform the public in this way.

Hmm: Worth noting here is that the leading philanthropic foundation committed to promoting better intellectual relations between science and religion objects to intelligent design on scientific grounds — and on the grounds that it is helping to "fan into flame a politicized ethos on university campuses." Nonetheless, Harper adds that some ID-associated scholars have offered important critiques, especially of the culture of science:

Indeed, it should clearly be recognized that some perspectives that scholars associated with the ID movement have brought to scholarly attention involve matters of very considerable public importance. ID scholars have been prominent critics of the abuse of evolutionary biology today by prominent philosophical interpreters arguing for modern science to be considered as if it provided a clear coherent scientific foundation for philosophical atheism. (Which it most certainly is not: such grandstanding does science a grave disservice in the United States). They also have most unfashionably, but importantly, brought to attention the catastrophic abuse of evolutionary biology by Nazi intellectuals in the 1930’s and 1940’s in support of racist “master race” eugenics, leading clearly and directly to the justification of genocide against the Jews. Such debates are important. They should not be suppressed. And we at the John Templeton Foundation will hold to our no-blacklisting policy. We will not distort standard proper open and fair philanthropic practices in the direction of ideological policing.

Which is to say that when an ID-associated scholar applies for funding for a project that passes muster in the peer-review process, Templeton will and has supplied funding. But these grants have proven to be rare: "The Templeton Foundation has made several thousand grants to university researchers, the vast majority of whom have been critical of the anti-science aspect of ID’s critique of modern evolutionary biology."

Among the other signs of ID's academic failure in Goodstein's article is the strange odyssey of ID champion William A. Dembski, who was supposed to be leading the charge from a new science institute at the Baptist-affiliated Baylor University — but who has ended up after a tumultuous battle at a seminary instead:

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., created a Center for Science and Theology for William A. Dembski, a leading proponent of intelligent design, after he left Baylor, a Baptist university in Texas, amid protests by faculty members opposed to teaching it.

Intelligent design and Mr. Dembski, a philosopher and mathematician, should have been a good fit for Baylor, which says its mission is "advancing the frontiers of knowledge while cultivating a Christian world view." But Baylor, like many evangelical universities, has many scholars who see no contradiction in believing in God and evolution.

Derek Davis, director of the J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor, said: "I teach at the largest Baptist university in the world. I'm a religious person. And my basic perspective is intelligent design doesn't belong in science class."

Mr. Davis noted that the advocates of intelligent design claim they are not talking about God or religion. "But they are, and everybody knows they are," Mr. Davis said. "I just think we ought to quit playing games. It's a religious worldview that's being advanced."

Those four paragraphs don't even begin to scratch the surface concerning Dembski's controversial time at Baylor. For a compelling story about intra-Baptist academic politics at Baylor, read "Professing Faith" in the current issue of Mother Jones, which puts the tussle over Dembski in the context of the ongoing fundamentalist takeover of Baptist institutions in the south. Happily, Baylor seems to have resisted the push for now.

Nonetheless, as long as there's conservative money fueling the publicity campaign — and bogeymen like Richard Dawkins frightening the children — intelligent design will remain part of the culture war, even as it continues to fail as science.

("Intelligent Design Might Be Meeting Its Maker," Laurie Goodstein, New York Times 12.4.05, reg req'd; "Official Statement on the False and Misleading Information Published in the Wall Street Journal November 14," Charles L. Harper Jr, John Templeton Foundation; "Professing Faith," Karen Houppert, Mother Jones 12.1.05)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 14 December 2005 at 8:04 AM

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Kevin McCulloch:

December 14, 2005 05:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's truly unfortunate that, in championing athiesm, Richard Dawkins has taken such a staunch stand against religion. I'm reading his recent book The Ancestor's Tale right now, and as an overview of evolutionary history and a tour of scientific problem-solving it's very good. It's fascinating to read how evolutionary biologists puzzle through anatomical, genetic and fossil evidence to reach their conclusions. It's a subtle and sophisticated form of inquiry. I'm sympathetic to Dawkins, who has been a primary target of creationists. It's easy to see how such a smart man would become completely exasperated by the blunt arguments ("gaps in the fossil record," and now "intelligent design") used against him.

That said, there are plenty of great scholars who put their foot in it when they comment outside their field. I think it's fair for intelligent design proponents to criticize Dawkins for his arguments against religion. But I'd like your readers to know that not all evolutionary psychologists take such a simple stand. It's true that evolutionary psychology sees religion as a material occurance, a product of the way our brains work. This is a big theological challenge to many religious perspectives. But it doesn't reduce easily to the assertion that religious belief is, by definition, untrue.

Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought by Pascal Boyer was recently recommended to me and it's next on my list. I think he'll be a much more thought-provoking commentator on religion than Dawkins. There's been a tiny explosion of books about psychology and religion in the last few years and there are more to come. Liberal religious bookworms should take note.


December 16, 2005 03:19 PM | Permalink for this comment

The article cited quotes various Christian scholars to the effect that evolution is consistent with Christianity. It is also worth noting that intelligent design is consistent with atheism. Indeed, non-theistic theories of intelligent design have long been a staple of science fiction. The most famous example is undoubtedly the film "2001" A Space Odyssey". But my fovorite is the Kurt Vonnegut novel _The Sirens of Titan_ in which the purpose of human existence is to deliver a spare part to an alien astronaut stranded in the outer solar system.


December 20, 2005 10:00 PM | Permalink for this comment

ID was sent to the principal's office today: The federal judge in the Dover intelligent design case ruled that the theory was unfit for the biology classroom because it was intended by the school board as a trojan horse for a particular religious viewpoint.

On a related note, the New York Times profiled the Republican judge in the case this weekend.

("Judge rules against Pa. biology curriculum," Martha Raffaele [AP], 12.20.05; "Intelligent design case in hands of willing judge," Laurie Goodstein, New York Times 12.18.05, reg req'd)


January 20, 2006 01:09 PM | Permalink for this comment

Kurt Vonnegut IS very funny, isn't he? What if he is, quite ironically, very much closer to the divine than he would ever dare to admit? What if God thinks Kurt is a real piece of work, because both share a similar "sense" of humor?

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