Whenever possible I avoid debating people about their religious beliefs. If their faith is genuine, then by definition it’s immune to reasoned critique. Besides I have no desire to deprive anyone of a source of hope and comfort in life, whether its rational or not. Religious people don’t always share this scruple. Many of them consider it their duty to impose their beliefs on others in the form of publicly supported symbols and ceremonies, enforced religious instruction, or even faith-based laws. Some pursue their ideological goals openly; others are surreptitious … like the Discovery Institute.
Located in Seattle, the Discovery Institute was founded in 1996 by Republican activists Bruce Chapman and George Gilder with funding from conservative philanthropist Howard Ahmanson, Jr. and the Christian MacLellan Foundation. According to it’s mission statement (1) the Discovery Institute aims to “make a positive vision of the future practical” by promoting “ideas in the common sense tradition of representative government, the free market and individual liberty.”
The statement reeks of conservative ideology. Sure enough, many of the Institute’s policy positions come straight from the radical right, including support for George Bush’s contrived “War on Terror” and reflexive hostility to progressive social programs. However, even a cursory inspection of the Institute’s website reveals a focus on the promotion of Creationism and Christian theology.
Having witnessed previous defeats of Creationism, especially in the courts, the founders of the Discovery Institute decided to project a different image by suppressing overt religious references in their public statements and by posing as a center for scientific research. Substituting the term “Intelligent Design” for “Creationism” was a Discovery Institute innovation.
Unfortunately for the success of their masquerade, in 1999 an internal memorandum from the Institute was leaked to the Internet, where it’s remained a source of embarrassment ever since. (Don’t you just love the Internet?) Known as the Wedge Document (2) because of a key phrase it contains, the memorandum reveals the true goals of the Institute in unambiguous language.
Calling the proposition that humans are created in God’s image a “bedrock” principle of Western Civilization, the document laments the materialistic philosophy that has “infected” society. Accordingly the Discovery Institute “seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies” and the establishment of “a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.” What they mean by this, of course, is the refutation of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and its replacement with standard Christian dogma of divine creation. Toward this end the Wedge Document lays out a detailed “five year plan” culminating in a grand public debate.
After initially denying the authenticity of the Wedge Document the Discovery Institute confessed that it was genuine and then adopted a strategy of rigid silence on the subject, presumably in the hope that it would eventually fade from public attention. (One of my goals in writing this article is to help ensure that this doesn’t happen!) Meanwhile they’ve pursued a program of ersatz scientific research designed to advance Creationist beliefs in both public and scientific circles.
They’ve had little success in either realm. Current polling suggests that around half of American adults agree with some form of Creationist doctrine. This might be taken as evidence that the Discovery Institute and similar organizations have influenced public opinion, but longitudinal studies by Gallup (3) over the past twenty-five years reveal remarkably little change in any demographic: around 45% of people believe that God created man in Her image; 10-15% think God had nothing to do with it; and the remainder adopt an intermediate position that God guided man’s development through natural processes. If there’s any trend at all, it’s a slight downward drift in Creationist sympathy and a matching upward shift in the percentage of doubters, but the changes are small and may be statistically insignificant.
Among working scientists the consensus is virtually unanimous that Creationism is nonsense. In 1987 Newsweek (4) reported a survey in which 700 out of 480,000 scientists with “respectable”academic credentials (or about 0.14%) expressed any confidence in so-called “creation-science." In a recent e-mail poll (5) of biology department chairmen at major research universities only 1 out of 73 responded that there was any “scientific controversy” among the biology faculty regarding evolution. The single affirmative response came from a theological medical school.
As one might expect the disparity between scientists and the general population in their views about evolution reflects in part the dismal state of education in the United States, particularly science education; but it’s also a consequence of the successful alliance of Creationists with right wing politics. A recent Gallup poll (6) shows suggestive parallels between conservative political belief, frequent church attendance, low educational level, and agreement with Creationism.
What about the oft-repeated claims that, unlike Creationism, “Intelligent Design” is a bona fide scientific theory and that the “scholars” at the Discovery Institute do genuine scientific research. In plain language those claims are bunk and the “research” is crap. Although the Institute’s website features impressively titled reports filled with technical jargon and references to the scientific literature, behind the window-dressing there’s little substance. Instead of presenting original observations the vast majority of Creationist publications simply rehash data that has already been published, trying to find inconsistencies and loopholes into which they can insert their own conclusions.
A recent article on the Discovery Institute website addresses the evolution (or rather “non-evolution”) of giraffes. Much of the article is devoted to the creation and then triumphant destruction of "straw man" arguments based on discarded evolutionary theory. Data about the feeding patterns of giraffes are cited as evidence for conclusions that they don’t actually support.* In another article, entitled Evolution's Thermodynamic Failure, I was stunned to see a reference to the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an obstacle to evolution, an idea with as much scientific validity as alien abduction! The author, a professor of mathematics forsooth, wriggles around and eventually manages to conflate the Second Law with other issues in order to disguise his error, but his ignorance of biology and physics is painfully obvious. Pared to its essentials, his position is, "I can't imagine how evolution could happen, so obviously it did not." This kind of intellectual farce is routinely passed off as genuine science at the Discovery Institute.
The Atheist/Agnostic website isn’t a proper forum for debating the manifold flaws of Creationism.** The point of this article is that a prominent, well-funded, and religiously motivated organization disguising itself as a scientific research institution is engaged in a program of public deception designed to introduce sectarian dogma into our public life. The United States isn’t alone in being targeted. In Turkey (7) Islamic fundamentalists have mounted an anti-evolution campaign so extreme that it makes their American counterpart seem tame, but the war on empirical science – and its teaching - is a world wide phenomenon. (8) The particular religious sects involved may differ; but in every case, the goals are the same: suppression of ideas that they consider impious and imposition of their own brand of truth on the rest us. And on our children!
* To show how subtle - that is, sneaky - some of this stuff can be, the paper quoted research from a respectable scientific journal regarding the feeding behavior of male and female giraffes (whose necks are of different lengths.) Since these giraffes fed without apparent competition, the author concluded that there was no evolutionary pressure - no natural selection - for longer necks. As any freshman biology student knows, competition and natural selection occur almost exclusively during periods of environmental stress, such as drought or disease outbreak, when the food supply becomes limited. The observations that this author cited were made with reference to an entirely different question and were inappropriate for the use he made of them.
** If you have questions about Creationism or its claims, or if you need help deciphering the garbage on the Discovery Institute website, send me an e-mail and I’ll help you find the answers.
(4) Newsweek magazine, 1987-JUN-29, Page 23, quoted from http://www.religioustolerance.org/ev_publi.htm
(5) “Turn out the Lights, the ‘Teach the Controversy’ Party’s Over”, Creation and Intelligent Design Watch, Robert Camp,
(7) “Turkish Scientists Confront Creationists’ Theory”, The
Independent, 14 July 2007, Nicholas Birch
(8) “The Threat from Creationism to the Rational Teaching of
Biology”, Biological Research, v40(2): 113-122, Athel Cornish-Bowden & Maria