Nonsense and propaganda

By Sean Carroll | August 21, 2005 1:20 pm

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.

  • PZ Myers

    My concern is that as a stand-alone article, it gives far too much opportunity to the DI to lie, and not enough to scientific rebuttals. I’ll wait for the remaining articles to see if I have to moan and groan more, or if I will be greatly cheered.

    The series has the potential to be a nasty kick in the nads to the frauds in Seattle. I hope it lives up to its promise.

  • Kasper Olsen

    Dear Sean,
    I think it is a very good point, you make here. ID is not even a “theory”, which we can say is wrong for these and these reasons. It is simply “nothing”, and it is in all respects “not even wrong”, if you know what I mean :-)
    One way to see this, I think, is by looking at the fact that ID is not really widespread in Europe, and sure – there are enough crazy people over here, who would think that teaching ID sounds like an important and very good idea. In Denmark, there is more or less only one person (Jakob Wolff) who has written a book about, and therefore promoted, intelligent design.

    This is not because the number of stupid people is relatively smaller in Denmark, than it is in the US. I suspect it is simply because the church is not as powerful, and the same can be said about the right-right-right-wing in Denmark, partly because it is very small.

  • Mark

    I agree entirely with the characterization of ID as politics and propaganda (can’t remember the previous comment Sean referred to). It’s something that quite a few academics don’t realize. I have mixed feelings about the article, and guess I basically agree with PZ’s take on it (as explained more fully in his post on Pharyngula) and will wait and see.

  • spyder

    Sean you hit on the point of focus when you wrote: “about defending sensible curricula in our public schools.” Given the recent release of public school test scores and the “ranking” of universities/colleges, the academic community needs to challenge ID and all its relations as a huge and unwise waste of money and resources. Do we, as a nation, need to spend another chunk of the school year training teachers to teach something that is nonsense to satisfy a political agenda?

    I wonder where the Deans and Admissions Officers are in expressing their displeasure with how ID will affect the quality of the future collegians? Are universities, in their silence, tacitly supporting the inclusion of ID into the curricula from which the students are evaluated for meeting the necessary requirements and qualifications to enter? The public school year is crowded with necessary to do’s, more than there exists time in which to cover all of them. Adding a whole new idiocy to it, just to appease some political constituency, certainly demonstrates the callous disregard the leadership of the right has for our future generations.

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  • Gordon Watts

    I think it is amazing that by sheer force-of-will (or $$) that ID can be elevated to the same level as a theory right in scientific history (like evolution). If you think about it — why not go after some other theory. Cold fusion? Magnetic Bracelets? What is to say that eventually, in order to support ID, they will go after the 2nd law of thermo – I can already imagine having to answer a qustion in my class “but the 2nd law isn’t proved, right?” Or some such nonsense.

    For a while I thought that this was an indication that we needed better science education in the US. But enough noise gets generated over this sort of thing that the facts usually work their way out: they are ignored by large groups of people. I don’t know how to address that. Next time you are in a plane talk to the person next to you. If they are on the other side of this debate ask lots of questions. It is an eye opener.

    The other thing that causes lumps to appear on my forehead (from banging it into the wall) is who cares!? Evolution is for science class. ID and Genisis is for religion class. Plenty of scientits who are religious hold both ideas in their head at the same time without suffering a Star Trek-style-robot melt down.

  • Anonymous

    On the upside of things, if our schools’ science curricula deteriorate and the US enters the dark ages, then Europe, China, India etc. will dominate all of the technical jobs, leaving the US irrelavent on the global stage. We’ll be that funny little country across the sea that once became so powerful that it started making up its own science. Then hopefully, ID dies with us. Hmmm… but we’ll still have nukes, which might be bad.

  • Lee

    I believe that the ID movement reflects what has almost always been the general public’s attitude towards science. For most people who are not scientists, there is no general understanding of why the questions science asks are important (how was the universe formed? how did we come to be?). The general public instead wants science to solve their immediate problems: how can I live better now?

    Remember that for thousands of years, religion answered the questions of the origin of the universe and of humanity to the satisfaction of most people. The history of science shows that many early scientific efforts arose from the efforts of some clerics to provide additional support for these religious answers. Perhaps the source of the Pandora’s box legend (and the apple in the Garden of Eden?) was the uneasy understanding by those clerics unwilling to go down the scientific path that scientific exploration must necessarily undermine some of the religious answers. The split between science and religion has widened greatly in the last 500 years.

    Civilization and modernization have not altered the terms of the relationship between the general public and scientists. Although the needs of the general public have changed over millenia, their demand on science remains: make my life better now. No matter that this demand confuses science with technology, what people want is a better MP3 player, a better satellite signal from their TV, a computer that doesn’t crash. To the general public, the more esoteric questions of origin remain less relevant and therefore, more susceptible to manipulation by those with a political agenda.

    It is interesting to me that the rise of ID has occurred almost simultaneously with the demise of creationism. It seems clear that many whose ancestors were in the creationist camp understand that you can’t continue to flog that dead horse and have now moved on to espouse ID.

    Scientists must understand that those pushing ID not only understand the general public’s attitude but also are using the modern techniques of advertising and political campaigns to exploit that attitude. Scientists must also understand that simply believing you have the right answer may not be sufficient. Look at the current general political situation. Although President Bush has now stumbled as badly as many liberals would have predicted upon his first election in 2000, the Democrats still have not been able to respond effectively because they seem to think that the general public’s increasing attitude that the President is wrong is sufficient.

    Effective responses need an understandable message and an organized method of transmitting that message. The genius (such that it is) of the ID movement is that it has an understandable message: to a general public that doesn’t have a clue how complex things operate, ID says that one of the most complex things of all was mostly designed by something way more complex than you. The Discovery Institute is organizing and funding the delivery of that message. Given the objectivity that the NYT probably feels must be brought to their stories, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the Times to attack ID itself; the real value of this article is revealing the organization that’s throwing its weight behind that message and perhaps making us aware that the struggle on this issue is likely to be protracted.

  • Richard E.

    The thing that struck me about this article was the snippet that the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation gives the Discovery Institute a million year — not to fund “Intelligent Design” but in support of the “Cascadia Project”, a public transit initiative in the Northwest, and pick up a third of the director’s salary.

    However worthy this project might be, I was shocked to see the Gates Foundation — whose weath is derived from the technology sector, and which funds massive health initiatives in devoloping countries — to be providing oxygen to the Discovery Institute, which is pushing a bandwagon that would lead to the evisceration of science education in the United States.

    I don’t share Mark and Sean’s disdain for all forms of interface between science and religion (I would cheerfully have taken the Templeton Foundation’s nickel, which Sean may want to remember in the unlikely even they ever ask him for alternative speakers ;-), but the Discovery Institute is simply dishonest.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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