A New York Times article by Jodi Wilgoren talks about the Discovery Institute, the folks pushing Intelligent Design creationism. Entitled “Politicized Scholars Put Evolution on the Defensive,” it goes through the history and funding of the DI, and touches on their relationship to the conservative and evangelical movements.
My reading was that the article was a step in the right direction. It’s being criticized, I would say a little too harshly, by the pro-science side of the blogosphere — Arthur Silber, Carl Zimmer, and even Atrios, although PZ Myers is somewhat more measured in his condemnation. I think the difference in reaction comes down to the same distinction that arose in a previous post on intelligent design, where I suggested that it was “propaganda” and Mark commented that it was just “nonsense.” Scientists quite understandably want everyone to know that ID is completely non-scientific nonsense. And of course that’s true, but you’re just not going to get a non-opinion article in a major newspaper entitled “Intelligent Design — Nonsense, or Bullshit?”
But I don’t think we necessarily should be arguing the scientific merits of ID in the newspapers, precisely because there aren’t any. We should be shifting the debate by making it clear that this is not a scientific controversy — it’s a self-conscious propaganda machine. Again, real scientists publish articles and give talks at conferences, they don’t try to push their ideas onto school boards. I would say that the message we most need to get out there is that the entire notion of ID is absolutely nothing more than a political movement, not a scholarly dispute. Wilgoren’s article, while annoying in many ways, takes important steps in that direction:
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…
Financed by some of the same Christian conservatives who helped Mr. Bush win the White House, the organization’s intellectual core is a scattered group of scholars who for nearly a decade have explored the unorthodox explanation of life’s origins known as intelligent design.
Together, they have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin’s defenders firmly on the defensive.
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.
That’s exactly what I want people to hear. Yes, it’s annoyingly misleading to be described as “on the defensive,” but we are on the defensive — not about the tenets of evolution, but about defending sensible curricula in our public schools. On blogs or in conversation it’s fun to demolish the usual ID arguments about transitional fossils or the second law of thermodynamics, but once we enter into those arguments in the public sphere, we’ve lost — the IDers can always throw out enough buzzwords and lies to make it sound like there really is a controversy. But if the popular view of the ID movement were that it was a well-financed propaganda machine without any connection to academic discourse, we’d be in much better shape.