Paul Krugman on the Politics of Intelligent Design

By Mark Trodden | August 5, 2005 6:39 am

Paul Krugman’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times makes an interesting point; lumping the ID movement in with a host of other political attempts to discredit objective research. I’ve certainly always felt that ID is part of the greater attack on science that is taking place in this country, and Krugman indeed mentions climate science as another field suffering in this way. But it is also interesting how this approach fits into a larger political strategy of dealing with truth.

Referring to Irving Kristol, the former editor of The Public Interest, Krugman writes

Back in 1978 Mr. Kristol urged corporations to make “philanthropic contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate preservation of a strong private sector.” That was delicately worded, but the clear implication was that corporations that didn’t like the results of academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say something more to their liking.

That this is precisely what is going in with ID is underappreciated by the public, who are struggling to deal with an issue for which they are technically unprepared and who are in desperate need of guidance in the face of the stream of lies and distortions. More surprisingly, I think the politics guiding ID is also underappreciated by many academics, some of them even scientists.

I have had several conversations with academics who are frustrated about the ID movement because they just can’t understand why the people at the Discovery Institute can’t see that their arguments make no sense and don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. These people are educated enough to see at a glance that ID is not science and should be ignored, but they haven’t looked into it enough to see that the ID movement, at its heart, is a political one, for which science is an enemy, not a tool. And if there are scientists who don’t realize that this is the real agenda, then we’ve got an incredible amount of work to do if we are to help the public understand how they are being played with.

  • Joe Minahan


    I thought that this was one of Krugman’s more insightful columns. What is disturbing
    about the entire “debate” is how the press treats the Discovery Institute as a scientific organization
    when it is clearly a political institute. If one needs any proof, consider these remarks from Bruce Chapman, DI’s president:

  • Mark

    I agree Joe -I have mixed feelings about a number of his columns, but this one was right on the money. Actually, Tom Friedman’s piece today is also unusually good.

    Thanks for the link.

  • FishEpid

    I believe that the failure to understand the fundamentals of the scientific process is very widespread, even amongst those who have been trained to the level of a BS or higher in a scientific discipline, and will take a very long to undue. I am an example. Only after obtaining my PhD and teaching at the graduate level (perpetuating the oversight) did I realize that I did not understand the fundamentals of science and began reading books on the philosophy and history of science on my own initiative. I believe the responsibility for this failure is widespread; in short, as academics we have done it to ourselves. I’d wager that most science or engineering curriculums do not require any philosophy of science or history of science classes as part of a bachelor of science or graduate degree. Professional curriculums that are supposed to be based on science, such as medicine or dentistry, certainly don’t. Instead, the analogy is that of learning to drive a car. One can learn how to drive a car (do science) without having a deep understanding of how it works, including the reasons and paths of its evolution to its current forms. Academic historians tend to offer far more classes on the political, cultural and economic aspects of history; history of science classes tend to be few and far between. Teaching the history of science well requires a significant knowledge of science and most good historians of science were scientists trained to the graduate level first. For the most part, science teachers at the high school or lower level do not have this fundamental understanding of science either, not realizing the distinction between laboratory demonstrations (known outcomes) and true experiments or between theories and hypotheses when they are providing students their first introduction to science. I believe this is a huge problem that is going to take a long time to solve and that academic scientists responsible for academic curriculums and survey courses need to educate themselves first and next to put their house in order. Otherwise, I believe that the success of those Krugman writes about will continue.

  • Suz

    This post is totally on the mark, Mark.

  • Andre

    While on the topic of nice articles about intelligent design, here are a couple by H. Allen Orr (in the Boston Review and the New Yorker). Being an evolutionary biologist, he provides good arguments against the weak ID creationist arguments but also puts this latest issue in the larger context of criticisms of evolution. He highlights two important facts with examples of successful criticism of evolution (see the end of the first article): evolutionary biologists are not close minded scientific zealots and there are good reasons why Michael Behe will never get a Nobel prize for “irreducible complexity”.

  • Simon DeDeo

    Take a look at the DI’s so called “wedge strategy”:

    The DI is definitely not a scientific group and scientists who claim otherwise are either lying or duped; they are careful not to use words like “Genesis” and “Christ” in the current debates, but forcing a particular form of Christianity into the public schools is definitely part of their goal.

    I have to wash my hands now.

  • Mark

    Oh yes Simon, I couldn’t agree more. Be sure to scrub well.

  • Wolfgang

    Simon and Mark

    I was also opposed to ID and DI until I found this website:

    I mean the chart explains even global warming …
    It convinced me and maybe it will convince you as well !

  • Simon DeDeo


    I think you just blew my mind.

  • David

    Maybe I’m being too picky here but your piece aroused a thought that perhaps there is a contradiction in what you and Krugman have said. Hopefully you can clear it up for me.

    Referring to the quotation in your piece:

    “Back in 1978 Mr. Kristol urged corporations to make “philanthropic contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate preservation of a strong private sector.” That was delicately worded, but the clear implication was that corporations that didn’t like the results of academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say something more to their liking.”

    What’s wrong with a private company funding research that advocates for that private company? Isn’t it a form of censorship to demand that; the private company should spend it’s money in a different way? If the researcher accepts the money from the private company to develop invalid research is it not the researcher’s fault and not the company’s? I would say; yes it is the researcher’s fault. For all you know, the company believes that the researcher they have hired is ethical and the research valid. Besides, in the case of “advocating (or not advocating) a strong private sector”, the research is more often than not an opinion at best.
    If the research is highly scientific (what I mean by “highly scientific is in effect very close to a “yes or no” answer (which research is not, usually, in advocating or not advocating for a private sector)) well then it is clearly the fault of the researcher, should that research be incorrect. Indeed in acting to defend itself and protect it’s interests, the company is surely doing a great social good. It is funding hard research that, assuming the researcher is ethical, will contribute greatly to general knowledge. How is this a “distortion”? You might answer “because the scientist is unethical and the company is funding an unethhical scientist”. Well, if the scientist is unethcial he won’t be a scientist for long, if his peers have anything to do with it! He will be proved unethical by his peers and the company can no longer associate itself with him. Am I being naive here? Do I have too much faith in scientists’ ability to police themselves? You might say here “well, ID advocates have gotten scientists to vouch for them”. My answer is: I don’t think these “scientists” are held in very high regard. The case against them is so strong that only faith can save them!”

    I therefore don’t understand the supposed analogy here. Namely, the public is presented with obviously valid, hard scientific research and obviously invalid, faith-based mysticism concerning ID. And in the former case (the private sector Krugman quotation) we have the opinion of one side or the other to the validity of the private sector, which is based on a wide number of variables and really is a matter of your political/philosophical persuasion or worldview or “opinion”.

    What you are advocating, therefore, isthe equating of censorship with the application of reason. That (unless clarified) is a contradiction.



  • Simon DeDeo

    I should be working on my thesis, but…

    Hi David,

    The problem is that companies (and now religious groups) have learned how to purchase the outcome of a “research” program. It is (most people agree) OK to purchasing advertising, but in this case the companies (and “researchers”) are being unethical by claiming that a form of advertising is actually research. It’s a form of deception.

    Note that the Bill of Rights permits unethical actions, and it is not “advocating censorship” to criticize speech or suggest someone should stop saying something because it is deceptive.

  • S. McHugh

    I agree, FishEpid, it would be nice if a good understanding of the scientific method didn’t have to be delayed until so late into one’s professional developement. And it doesn’t need to be. One of the physics profs here teaches a summer course to high school students in which they construct a geo-centric model for the solar system. It’s obviously very involved and taught with a straight face. I think he even manages to convince a lot of students that reality is as such contrary to popular opion. He eventually reveals an unremediable error in the model if no student finds it first. Then shows how elegantly the helio-centric model performs.

    Teaching an obviously outdated (erroneous) theory draws strong interest from the student since they *know* it’s wrong. And it seems to be a nice lesson in model-building.

  • Ian

    The NYT takes another well-deserved shot at the ID nonsense in the wonderful article: “Independently, Two Frogs Blaze the Same Venomous Path” ( well-known principle of evolutionary convergence “exemplifies just how non-random and ostensibly purposeful natural selection can be, and how readily it may be mistaken for evidence of supernatural ‘design.'”


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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