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‘Intelligent design’ center at Baylor gains support from review committee

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A controversial center at Baylor University researching the idea that life was created through “intelligent design” instead of evolution should be allowed to continue its work, an external review committee said Tuesday. The committee recommended that a faculty advisory committee be appointed to try to improve the academic center’s relationship with the rest of the university.
It also recommended that the Michael Polanyi Center change its name because Polanyi–a European chemist and philosopher who died in 1976–espoused views different from the theories being researched at the center. Although Polanyi challenged the notion that all knowledge could be reduced to the laws of nature, the committee said he did not necessarily believe in the existence of an external force such as intelligent design.

The intelligent design movement, which was born in the 1980s and grew in strength in the early 1990s, argues that some life forms and organic molecules are too complex to have been formed through known natural laws, such as chance mutation and natural selection. Proponents say they can use probability models to calculate whether natural phenomena are the result of chance or of a purposeful, intelligent design.

Many scientists at Baylor and other universities say intelligent design is akin to explaining little-understood phenomena by invoking spiritual forces. They say it is not a science because there is no way to verify the existence of an intelligent design agent through observation and because no intelligent-design research has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The nine-member external review committee, which was convened by the university in the spring and met Sept. 8-9, did not address two of the more controversial aspects of the Polanyi Center. Those are the secretive methods used by Baylor President Robert Sloan to establish the center in 1999 and whether it is being used to promote the teaching of creationism in public schools. Although a growing number of scholars nationwide are conducting intelligent-design research and many universities have held conferences on the topic, Baylor–a private college founded in 1845 with a Baptist mission–is the only university in the country to devote a research center to the issue.

Sloan, who has been accused by some faculty members of emphasizing religion over academics since he took over in 1995, said the university will comply with the recommendations. “I am pleased that the central mission of the center has been affirmed, and that the committee has underscored the fact that support of academic freedom includes protecting controversial ideas,” Sloan said in a news release. “We certainly could have, and should have, handled more effectively the program’s implementation, but we will correct some of those early mistakes by acting on the committee’s recommendations.” The review committee said: “Given the university’s tradition, there is a natural interest also in the relationship of science and religion. Research in this area ought to strongly be encouraged, at the same time recognizing that this goal is best served by promoting a variety of perspectives.”

Faculty members who have been publicly critical of the Polanyi Center could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Baylor spokesman Larry Brumley said the faculty generally had a positive reaction to the recommendations Tuesday. Molleen Matsumara, network projects director for the Center for Science Education, which promotes the teaching of evolution, said it would be wrong to interpret the committee’s findings as a validation of intelligent design’s claims to scientific legitimacy. Matsumara said the committee explicitly said it would be valid for Baylor, as a religious institution, to investigate the “mathematical arguments for intelligent design,” but she stressed that mathematics is not science.

The external review committee was chaired by Baylor philosophy professor William Cooper, former dean of the school’s college of arts and sciences. Other committee members were from universities around the nation. The committee’s expenses were paid by Baylor. Cooper said he had a fruitful meeting Tuesday with members of the faculty senate. “They were mindful of the recommendations, and they thought the recommendations provided a very good foundation to begin to address some of their concerns,” he said. Cooper said the committee did not address the methods used to form the center, because that issue was “past history.”

The faculty senate, which represents a cross-section of the university, voted 27-2 in April to recommend dismantling the center and starting the project from scratch with faculty input. The senate did not vote on the propriety of intelligent-design research but demanded that the administration seek faculty input before creating academic centers.

Cooper also said the committee did not investigate the center’s connections with the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes the teaching of intelligent design in public schools. Many intelligent-design researchers have been funded by the institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science & Culture. They say they rely on such private funding because the National Science Foundation and most universities won’t sponsor the work.

William Dembski, director of the Polanyi Center, is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s center, and Bruce Gordon, assistant director of the Polanyi Center, is a fellow at the Seattle organization. Dembski has received fellowships of $40,000 to $50,000 from the Seattle institute, and his salary at the Polanyi Center is paid from a $75,000 grant from the John Templeton Fund, which the institute distributes. Brumley said the university will pick up Dembski’s salary after the grant expires next year. Sloan has said Dembski and Gordon answer to Baylor and not the Discovery Institute. Dembski could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Gordon said he believes intelligent design should be taught in public schools only once it gains widespread scientific credibility.