Which Controversy? Discovery Institute vs Science

At the intersection of science and superstition

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.

I found this sign to a popular attraction on a visit to Branson Missouri over the fourth of July, and the juxtaposition of science and the supernatural struck me as emblematic of our times. It was only later when I got home that I noted the crazed clown stuck between seemingly confused as to which is which. The clown makes the picture perfect – just zany and paradoxical enough to print. [Click on the thumbnail to enlarge.]

Science is under attack in our country from several groups, from those who would twist it to their political purpose to those who would attack it through philosophy, to those who attack it through religion. More people in this country currently believe in astrology than plate tectonics, some people still come up with bizzarre conspiracies about how the moon landing was faked. From the superstitious luddite crowd in Greenpeace to the far right fundamentalist religious extremists they attempt to paint science and reason as the root of all evil.

It’s a love hate relationship however: these fringe groups are perfectly happy to adopt the authority of scientific facts when they think the facts fit their worldview, and ignore those facts which don’t – witness the 9/11 troofers use of pseudo-physics to support their arguments.

Neither politics nor religion belong in science, and contrary to the love of Euros for technocracy, science does not belong in politics. Science is what it is, and Plato was just as wrong with his ideas regarding Philosopher Kings as he was with his ideas on eugenics.

The US is largely Christian, and the people who don’t believe the science behind evolution outnumber those who do. That doesn’t dismay me because to a large extent they are ok with only science and facts being taught in science class, and with religion being taught in homes, private schools, and churches. This apparent dichotomy is easy to fathom if you think on it – whose version of creation gets taught if religion gets into science class? Do we follow the Young earth creationist creed, or does cracking that door open allow Wiccan, Sharia, and other forms of creationism in?

The Discovery Institute however has mounted an attack on “materialistic science”, and their intent is to get the supernatural, the unfathomable, and unexplainable taught in schoolrooms as science. Even though they’ve met with defeat in numerous cases on divisive social issues like this, they continue to rally the troops and currently hold much greater sway with the religous right than their roots and their aims should allow for. They’ve even made a great deal of headway as not only is “their controversy” of ID taught in a quarter of Biology classes, in 12.5 percent intelligent design is taught over evolutionary biology.

In our country there just aren’t that many scientists, they make up about 2.4 percent of the population and aproximately 5 percent of the work force [pdf here]. If you pull the engineers, psychologists, social scientists, and computer scientists, etc, out then you get less than 1.2 percent of the population being scientists focused on evolution and peripherally related fields (see 1995 distribution here.) You can see why Discovery Institute thinks they have an easy target in this small minority of the population.

Their anti-materialist bumper sticker is “Teach the Controversy” which doesn’t tell us much about their true aims or goals, but essentially it boils down to making reason and reality subservient to the supernatural in the form of {their} religion. That’s all fine and good in church, in the mall, in private schools, or pretty much anywhere else but science class.

Indeed, in modern society science classrooms are one of the few bastions of reason and reality in our country. In other classes you will find deconstructionism rampant and every subject made political. The anti-materialism of Discovery Institute is a direct attack on the basis of all science. The Empiricism of the scientific method relies on facts from the physical world to build our knowledge through hypothesis and test; making science “non-material” and introducing theism or the supernatural is like taking all of the numbers out of math and replacing it with a single answer applicable to all problems.

Science generally erects barriers between politics, religion, and their studies, when they fail to do so they generally end up looking foolish. If you ask a few scientists off the record they’d probably be happy to tell you that Al Gore’s Malthusian nihilism and crisis mongering for MMGW is quite an embarrassment since he cloaks it in science although it’s obvious from “An Inconvenient Truth” that he is no scientist.

Discovery Institute’s 2006 defeat in the Kitzmiller case sent them on a new tack. We’ve seen them decrease their demands from orginally wanting to teach creationism in science class(1987,) to teaching it in guise of intelligent design in science class (2005,) to now “teaching the controversy” in science class. With advice from their PR firm they’ve also broadened that concept to include global warming, cloning, and stem cell research since they haven’t a large enough base to force their demands with crypto-creationism alone.

Think about that for a moment — there are plenty of controversies in Evolution, one only need to look at recent discussion and debate on sympatric speciation and the phylogenetic tree (or even if it should be a tree, or have roots,) to see that. So why have the Discovery Institute PR flacks made their latest bumpersticker about “the controversy” instead of “the controversies?”

From their fruits ye shall know them; do men gather from thorns grapes? or from thistles figs?

The answer to which controversy becomes evident in most everything they say and do, and it’s displayed amply in their previous history of intellectual subterfuge and distraction. Johnson’s wedge document is one example of what they consider The Controversy to be, and their assault on scientific materialism has been as continuous as their assault on the faith of other Christians. We also know they have a lesson plan ready, and we know the faults of it before they introduce it to Louisiana.

In his latest article Dembski whines that they are misunderstood while cavalierly dismissing yet another series of transitional fossils (normal fish to flatfish.) He then moves to slamming his former allies (the YECs) because associations with them past the Dover decision dooms the cause. It’s essential that Demski and company dismiss materialism because facts get in the way of their agenda.

As noted above there are now so many transitional species fossils that the classifications are becoming much harder to make — where do you draw the lines when you find species that exhibit characteristics of two superclasses? In the end historic genetic reconstruction of the ancestral paths will get us the answers needed among other things like the fossil record. When do you use pure cladistics, and when do you apply classic taxons? (for a primer about why cladistics are best now, go here,) When all is said and done the answers to those questions will be decided by the facts produced from more paleogeology, genetics research, and understanding of both earth’s and the animal kingdom’s history. The answers will be produced using empirical evidence. Introducing anti-materialistic supernatural means as the Discovery Institute wants to produces only one answer and really doesn’t extend our knowledge.

Discovery Institute is destructive to both the right and to Christianity – if you delve into the most divisive issues within the right this century you will detect their hand at play in most. The credence of their arguments has gone up in flames but they persist in their determination to deconstruct science, even as other institutions of faith distance themselves.

Over time science solves its controversies and then creates new ones as more evidence is found — it’s an evolution you see. In the end a bit of good might come of this, I’ve seen more progress the past ten years in evolutionary biology than the previous 20, that’s due to several factors, but some of it is the desire to close the gaps that people point out.

More resources:

Little Green Footballs has several posts on the subject, you’ll see me in some of the discussions.

Here’s a Reason article on two of the main figures in the background of Discovery Institute, Rushdoony of Chalcedon, and H. Ahmanson. The vitriol, lies, blood libels, hysteria, and bile against reason and science seems to generate there first.

Here’s Talk Origins, an old usenet group that tends to counter most claims (warning: for the same reasons that some Christians promote their faith, you will find some rabid secularists there as well. Most of the posts however are reasoned with tons of reference links at the bottom to back up what they say.) The key claims of creationists, YEC’s, old earth Creationists, and ID proponents are countered there in numerous faq’s and references.

Here’s a history of constitutional challenges to Evolution and Religion in classrooms.

Here’s NCSE on the Louisiana Bill.

Here’s the Discovery Institute

12 thoughts on “Which Controversy? Discovery Institute vs Science”

  1. The real problem here is that science was once granted great respect and authority and credibility, and threw it all away.

    Forget attacking the religious. Science needs to get its squandered credibility back. As soon as it does, the religious people become irrelevant. But as long as science ignores why people are “voting with their feet”, the problem will continue to grow.

    All those grand promises science made? Instead of curing disease, we still die – but now we’re alone and without dignity, in a ridiculous little hospital gown, in a cold industrial room. Instead of feeding the world, our food supply is tainted and untrustworthy. Drug company profits are soaring but our drugged kids aren’t thriving. Marriage counseling doesn’t save marriage.

    The scientific community likes to claim credit for miracles, but it acts like the unintended consequences arising from those miracles “just happened”. Drug resistant TB? Global warming? Traffic jams? Pollution? Can’t imagine where THOSE came from!

    Credibility starts with listening to all the people who are screaming at the top of their lungs that they do not like the decisions being made by “experts” on their behalf.

    If people do not want to eat engineered foods, maybe it’s worth actually considering that people have a right to care about what they put in their mouth. The one trying to change the world should always be the one who carries the burden of establishing trust. (I personally changed my mind about whether “food engineering” people could be trusted when someone started adding chemicals to beef, to keep it red even after it goes bad.)

    And even when science does seem to know what it’s doing, it seems to be putting all that knowledge and technology to use helping the parasites instead of making the world better. Science likes to pretend it has no moral responsibilities, but let me ask you, are these drugs really safe for kids? Are the economists really helping America stay economically strong? If scientists can’t be expected to provide us with the truth, who can?

    Science needs to either stop pretending it has the right to make ethical decisions (for instance, having an opinion on who or what does or does not qualify as “human”), or it needs to start taking that ethical responsibility seriously, and stop arguing OTOH that ethics is somehow outside the realm of science, as if science were merely about gathering data. If science is merely about gathering data, then scientists aren’t qualified to make ethical determinations. If scientists want to be treated as having more clout than ordinary citizens, then they can’t be amoral anymore – they have to understand and accept that the power of science cannot be allowed to do harm.

  2. Neither politics nor religion belong in science, and contrary to the love of Euros for technocracy, science does not belong in politics.

    This is true (although political policies should certainly be informed by science), however what about scientific ideas that can have devastating political and moral consequences (e.g. theories of racial differences). It is easy to dismiss these theories as “pseudoscience” and therefore irrelevant, but that is simply too convenient: whether this or that theory happens to be true there are inevitably going to be scientific facts that can be used to justify immoral politics. The problem with eugenics is not that it is based around poor science (it isn’t), but that regardless of the science behind it, it is incompatible with individual rights.

    The question is whether we have the willingness to concede that those advocating evil policies have the scientific facts on their side and resolve to fight them entirely on moral terms, or is it simpler to try and head them off at the past and claim that their science is bogus (a “white” lie)?

    A lot of anti-racist campaigners attack the notion that race is even a scientifically meaningful concept, reasoning that if race is undermined as a concept then any political ideology based on it will also be compromised. Unfortunately, statistical analysis seems to show that “race” really does exist (albeit merely as a form of statistically significant genetic clustering). Google “Lewontin’s Fallacy”. This doesn’t mean that racism is justified (a category error, since a moral conclusion can not be wrung from an empirical fact) but it does make it easier for racialists to gain a foothold. This leads us to the issue that underlies Darwinism versus Creationism: do the political/social consequences of a scientific idea count against its legitimacy? If you answer “no” in the case of Darwinism, do you not have to answer the same way where race is concerned?

  3. aNZu: I don’t understand why you are bringing in Eugenics and race at all; pre-scientific tribal peoples practice eugenics, evolutionary biology shows that it doesn’t work as proponents for it claim, and it preceded science. Perhaps You missed the note about Plato’s Republic above.

  4. Marc: I would normally just delete your comment because it’s full of sweeping assertions unbacked by reality and full of generalized ignorance. Instead I will let it stand to illustrate the neo-luddite mentality that Ben Stein boiled down to : “Science leads to killing people.”

    You are obviously fearful of knowledge, and perhaps need to go live in your own little garden where you can feed your T-rex lettuce.

    Science is a body of knowledge and theory, it can be applied well or applied poorly. Science can’t be good or evil, only people can. Science gets mis-applied when people are ignorant, it leads to good things when people are not.

  5. Also Marc, who do you think the “parasites” are? The billions of people that Norman Borglaur kept from starving through genetically improved crops?

  6. Thanos, I am not making “sweeping” assertions. I am making a single assertion, which you don’t agree with but I still believe to be true – namely, the claim that science, the institution, can eradicate its problem with the Religious Right by taking the time and trouble to understand why people have lost faith in that thing we collectively call “science”.

    My criticism has enough truth in it to be worth considering, whether you delete it or not.

    If you examine the transcripts of the Dover evolution trial, you will see that the witnesses go to a great deal of effort to establish that science is in fact a community, an institution, and that it – the community – has certain norms, standards, beliefs, etc. and therefore has a certain cohesion, a certain power. I make the argument that it is not using its power wisely and well. The arguments I would make, if I had all the time and space to make the arguments in full, would come entirely from science itself. Trust and defection. Social signalling. Ethics and cooperative behavior in evolution. The tragedy of the commons. The problem is not that religion has some appeal that it did not have yesterday. The problem is that science has a credibility problem and that it has lost the public trust.

    When you’re ready to change the ways that aren’t working, try not calling everyone who disagrees with you stupid. I don’t like being diagnosed, which is one reason I distrust scientific types: too many people who are eager to classify me (always for my own good, of course!)

    Just FYI, I am pro-science and pro-evolution. I have little faith in scientific creation stories (big bang) or apocalypse (singularity) or stories explaining our reason for being (which presuppose that the only data that matters is that which is currently observable) – all of those things are articles of faith, beyond what our current data can tell us. Science was better when it was open-minded in its search for truth. But here’s my article of faith: I can’t wait for the day when science replaces ockham’s razor with “first, do no harm”. It will be the death of Christianity and the single greatest thing that ever happened to human rights in the world all in one blow.

  7. Science is not a faith no matter how much the DI shills wish to make it so. It’s a method, and a body of knowledge, nothing more, nothing less.
    You have displayed your ignorance once again. “Stupidity” and “Ignorance” are two completely different things, a smart person can be ignorant of where the Islets of Langerhans lie and still have quite a blazing intellect. You can choose to suffocate that intellect in a cage of untested assumptions, or you can learn, your choice.

  8. aNZu: I don’t understand why you are bringing in Eugenics and race at all; pre-scientific tribal peoples practice eugenics, evolutionary biology shows that it doesn’t work as proponents for it claim, and it preceded science. Perhaps You missed the note about Plato’s Republic above.

    I’m bringing in eugenics in response to the note on Plato’s Republic, not because I missed it. Eugenics has not been disproved, although specific disorders that were thought to be inherited (leading to the sterilization of sufferers) have since been shown to be environmental. Eugenics and race are highly salient and related topics to the evolution debate because they highlight the question of just which theories about human nature are permissable, and whether scientists are responsible for the political misuse to which their theories may be put. If Darwin is not responsible for the misuse to which Hitler put his theories, why should scientists like Cvalli-Sforza be held responsible for the appropriation of theories of racial differences by racist groups?

  9. Typically the people who bring eugenics / race / culture up in these discussions are tribal identists/nationalists/supremacists or Discovery institute shills. The former because they are invested in “being special” because of inherited traits or culture, the latter because they are invested in being special through their beliefs. Neither is wholly true, so if you are trying to get to the Godwinian argument of “science=teh bad because of hitler, or x, y, z,” I’m not going to entertain it, I’ve been on that fallacious merry go round discussion too many times already. Thanks for trying however, keep shilling.

  10. Yes, take your DI shill talking points elsewhere, we’ve been round this circle before. For every single ill you can point out from science, millions and billions of good things can be illustrated. As just one for instance google “Norman Borlaug”, or think about all the diabetics living today who otherwise wouldn’t be, or think on the first stem cell treatments and how many people are alive through bone marrow transplants because that got started in the sixties.

  11. No I am not conceding at all because “Social Darwinism” is not science, it is politics. Now please try again DI shill. Any ill you can point at from Science is not science itself, but rather bad application of it by ignorant people. That was the point of the comments, which you are trying to ellude so you can get to the Ben Stein lie. People lead to killing people, get your mind around that fact.

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