Sunday, August 21, 2005

Welcome to Hogwarts

The New York Times has a backgrounder on The Discovery Institute, the think tank behind “intelligent design” and now a politically-motivated front group for the Religious Reich.

When President Bush plunged into the debate over the teaching of evolution this month, saying, “both sides ought to be properly taught,” he seemed to be reading from the playbook of the Discovery Institute, the conservative think tank here that is at the helm of this newly volatile frontier in the nation’s culture wars.

After toiling in obscurity for nearly a decade, the institute’s Center for Science and Culture has emerged in recent months as the ideological and strategic backbone behind the eruption of skirmishes over science in school districts and state capitals across the country. Pushing a “teach the controversy” approach to evolution, the institute has in many ways transformed the debate into an issue of academic freedom rather than a confrontation between biology and religion.


Like a well-tooled electoral campaign, the Discovery Institute has a carefully crafted, poll-tested message, lively Web logs – and millions of dollars from foundations run by prominent conservatives like Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, Philip F. Anschutz and Richard Mellon Scaife. The institute opened an office in Washington last fall and in January hired the same Beltway public relations firm that promoted the Contract With America in 1994.

The problem with the Discovery Institute, or any organization created (oops, bad pun) to further only one viewpoint, is that they lose any credibility with not just mainstream science but anyone in the general population whose understanding of science and nature has moved beyond the stage of believing in the Tooth Faerie.

Scientific research is and should be dedicated to finding out provable truths, no matter where it will lead. A true scientist will not only try to prove that Darwin was right, but also that he was wrong. The sweeping acceptance of a theory — be it natural selection or intelligent design — must be subject to objective validation. So far, no one has been able to come up with any valid scientific proof that intelligent design is anything more than repackaged creationism. Even proponents of intelligent design admit that they can’t prove their theory because, according to the Bible, mankind is not allowed to know the true nature of God and therefore we must take it on faith that he had a hand in creating the universe.

In a way, I can understand the motivation and appeal behind intelligent design. Mankind has always strived to find something more fantastic than the merely human reasons for our evolution from cave to McMansion. Books have been written about the ancient astronauts and the lost continents, weaving wonderful stories about visits by superintelligences from other worlds that left behind tantalizing clues to their existence. (“Spock! You left your tricorder on the planet’s surface! You’ve violated the Prime Directive!”) And there are just as many books that have been written to disprove them. But the True Believers stubbornly insist that there is some stone left unturned, some shard of pottery unexamined, and it will be the One Clue that reveals all. It would be nice, but unfortunately so far all science has been able to come up with is that mankind is that we did this all on our own.

The problem with the Discovery Institute isn’t that they’ve set out to prove and promote intelligent design; if they can actually scientifically test it and prove it to the level subjected to natural selection, fine. Unfortunately, though, they’ve become beholden to right-wing politics, bent on pushing an agenda that goes beyond scientific truths and into theocratic dogma, and they want to make it the law of the land. They hide it neatly behind the “teach the controversy” idea — offering intelligent design on the same level as natural selection and letting the high school students make up their minds. That would be fine if the two theories were on an equal footing, but they’re not; one has been tested in the laboratory and field for nearly 200 years; the other is a collection of myths and legends. They might as well teach Beowulf; it would certainly add some excitement to the classroom. But in terms of valid curriculum relevance and the advancement of knowledge and wisdom, it’s bullshit, and the educational system in this country is in deep enough trouble without having to add the additional burden of proving once again that the Earth is round and that Galileo was framed by a bunch of ignorant tightass prelates.

PS: Lest any reader who is a fan of the Harry Potter series take offense at the title Welcome to Hogwarts and assume that I am impugning the reputation of that fine institution by comparing it to the Discovery Institute, you must remember that to the Muggle world, the theories put forth by DI are just as outlandish and scary as anything taught at Hogwarts…but probably not as much fun.