Fifteen years or so ago, “nuclear winter” – the theory that the soot and ash of World War III could end human life by darkening the atmosphere and lowering global temperatures – enjoyed its moment in the shade. As science, nuclear winter contained more errors than my last high school chemistry test, but that didn’t deter its supporters. Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton wrote that, even if wrong, nuclear winter “serves us well” as an “idea.” Opined physicist Freeman Dyson:
“Nuclear winter is not just a theory. It is also a political statement with profound moral implications. Survival is more important than accuracy.”
And so it has gone, and goes, in field after field: ecology, psychology, public health, fill in your own favorite here. Over and over, scientists ignore, distort, or suborn the truth for the sake of their personal, political, and professional agendas. And now it’s happening again, in the battle between Darwinian materialism and the burgeoning Intelligent Design (ID) movement.
At this point, we stop for three brief announcements. First, much of the ID movement’s best work is done under the auspices of my own think tank, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. Second, I’m no creationist. Third, if you are, especially if you’re a creationist of the “Tell Me What I Want to Hear the Way I Want to Hear It” persuasion, now might be a good time to stop reading.
That said, we proceed. This new struggle has less to do with “Inherit the Wind” stereotypes and cliches – crusading scientists and liberals versus Bible-thumping buffoons – than with the future of scientific inquiry, indeed the very nature of knowledge itself. Yes, many of the movement’s researchers commit Christianity on a regular basis. Some are politically conservative. But ID’s significance extends far beyond the preferences of its practitioners. To adapt a Clinton-era formulation, “It’s the universe, stupid.”
As science, ID holds that it’s possible to seek and study evidence of intelligent design in the physical and biological worlds without positing either the identity or intent of the designer. So far, much of the work has centered on Darwinian materialism, which is not exactly the same thing as evolution. No serious scientist or informed layperson denies the fact of evolution, in the sense that species come, go, and change over time. There’s a fossil record of infuriating gaps, wondrous complexity, and endless surprises to ponder. The problem with Darwinian materialism is that, as a matter of faith, it holds that all this happened at random . . . and that, as a matter of dogma, no other explanations may even be considered.
ID considers other explanations. In “Darwin’s Black Box,” Lehigh University biologist Michael Behe shows that the “irreducible complexity” of even a single cell argues against random evolution within the few billion years allotted by geology and cosmology. Baylor University mathematician William Dembski works on what he calls “specified complexity” – discerning design via mathematical analysis. His first major work, “The Design Inference,” was published by Cambridge University Press, not exactly a bunch of creationist hooters. Last year, biologist Jonathan Wells published “Icons of Evolution,” showing that many of the standard textbook “proofs” were ambiguous, misleading, and in at least one case, openly fraudulent. The movement has also received fair and serious page-one Sunday coverage in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, as well as in publications ranging from “First Things” to Seattle and San Francisco city papers. There was even a conference at Yale.
The response of the Darwinian fundamentalists have been, to say the least, vicious. Leave aside Darwinian Richard Dawkins’ generic sneer that anybody who questions the materialist gospel must be “ignorant, stupid, or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).” Prof. Behe has been savaged by his peers. Prof. Dembski was removed from his position as director of Baylor’s Polanyi Center – an act described by Baylor President Robert B. Sloan as “related to matters of internal relationships and not to his academic work.” Dr. Wells has been virtually excommunicated from the scientific establishment, even though no one has refuted a single statement in his book and many Darwinians have admitted they knew about the fakery all along.
Why the denial? Why the rage? Well, scientists are human. They don’t like being told they might be wrong, or that their life’s work can be questioned. Some can’t get beyond viewing ID as back-door creationism; give in here today and the Inquisition will be stoking the fires tomorrow. But the most basic resistance, I suspect, involves a fear that dares not speak its name – the foreboding that science itself may someday demonstrate that science is neither the sole nor final source of verifiable truth concerning the universe and that portion of it known as us.
For scientists who cannot bear the thought, survival may indeed be more important than accuracy.