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Contesting science’s anti-religious bias

Scholars from the Seattle-based Discovery Institute promote ‘intelligent design’ theory of universe. The think tank does research on transportation, military reform, economics and the environment.

The eight-year-old Discovery Institute is a Seattle think tank where research in transportation, military reform, economics and the environment often takes on the easygoing tenor of its Northwest hometown. But it also sponsors a group of academics in science affectionately called “the wedge”–as in the steel spike for splitting hardwood. The wedge is part of the institute’s four-year-old Center for Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), a research, publishing and conference program that challenges what it calls an anti-religious bias in science and science education. “I would say it’s our No. 1 project,” said Bruce Chapman, Discovery’s president and founder. It also has become a No. 1 target for those in science who say it is a slick new way to bootleg religion into the science laboratory or science classroom.

The wedge, which began with four people who wanted to question Darwinian materialism, now has expanded to 45 fellows with Discovery grants to do research and publishing. They nearly all are Ph.D.s in biology, math and science history or philosophy, and most have college or university posts. The moniker for their movement is “intelligent design,” a term coined in the late 1980s to say aspects of nature show design, and thus a purpose. Design, they say, is a valid scientific inquiry, even if it suggests a designer, such as God. “This is a very rapid movement [in making] legitimate the issue in the secular world,” Phillip Johnson, the Berkeley law professor who coined the term “wedge,” told a Discovery conference this month on “Life After Materialism.”

The intelligent-design movement has been opposed by some science academics, a National Academy of Sciences panel and the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued one high school science teacher for using an intelligent-design biology textbook, “Of Pandas and People.” This year, science philosopher Robert Pennock published “Tower of Babel” (MIT Press), which attacks the CRSC agenda and warns of the “size and renewed power” of what he calls the “new creationism.”

Elliot Sober, a philosopher of science at the University of Wisconsin, is working on a university-level criticism of intelligent design’s mathematical and biological arguments. “What they want to talk about is a supernatural designer, namely God,” Mr. Sober said in an interview. “They argue by claiming first that evolution cannot explain what we really observe.” In arguing for design in nature, “They are really saying what one observes is really very improbable,” he said. “Although the ID movement is a new-wave thing in the creationist movement, in fact it has been around for a few hundred years, but they have done nothing to explain the facts of biology.”

The intelligent-design partisans argued in “Life After Materialism” that materialism has been around since the Greek philosophers and still has not explained why nature appears so well-designed for life. “The material scientists have had no need for the ‘God hypothesis,’” said Stephen Meyer, a philosophy of science professor at Whitworth College in Spokane, Wash., and director of the Discovery’s CRSC. “The big-bang theory,” he said, for example, “has profoundly anti-materialist dimensions.” The widely accepted theory says the universe began at a point and expanded. Others have noted that the finely tuned laws of the first seconds allowed carbon-based life to emerge.

Such findings in cosmology, biology and the human brain open the way to consider a “God hypothesis” (that God has designed key aspects of nature), said speakers at the conference. They included people in biological science, political science, psychology and social science. Mr. Johnson, the law professor, called the “godfather and guru” of the intelligent-design movement, got the debate going with his 1991 book, “Darwin on Trial,” which challenged the atheistic assumptions of scientific practice.

In 1996, Discovery fellow Michael Behe, a biochemist, wrote “Darwin’s Black Box,” which said cellular life was so “irreducibly complex” that Darwinian evolution could not explain it. This year, fellow William Dembski, a mathematician and philosopher at the Polanyi Center at Baylor University, published “The Design Inference” with Cambridge University Press. It argues that when explanations for nature are not found in law or in chance, a final option may be design.

The theme “life after materialism,” the organizers said, suggests that current science has forced education and public policy to see humans as evolved species whose morals and values are fickle. The design idea, they said, suggests a cosmic order that defines what a human is and what kinds of values achieve that end.

Roman Catholic theologian John Haught at Georgetown University panned the “design” group in his recent book, “God After Darwin,” arguing that insistence on design points to a rigid, dictatorial God who does not allow freedom. Mr. Behe, also a Catholic, reviewed the Haught book and found the Georgetown theologian’s view of God’s influence in nature did not conflict with the intelligent-design argument, since it acknowledges that God infuses intelligent “information” into nature.

Discovery fellow John West Jr., co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion in American Politics, said intelligent design will reinvigorate debates about free will, traditional morality, the sanctity of life and will open science to new lines of inquiry. “I would submit that the concept of design does not necessarily lead to a Christian God,” said Mr. West, a political science professor, suggesting design’s openness to an array of beliefs and to agnosticism.

Discovery founder Mr. Chapman, a Seattle native who has served as ambassador, census director, and White House official specializing in think tanks, said the opposition to “the wedge” is expected. “We’re able to disagree with the majority culture without being disagreeable,” he said.

The Discovery Institute has a total of 65 fellows–mostly in university or research posts–and a 1999 operating budget of $2 million. Mr. Meyer said CRSC got $750,000 of that, and he hopes its budget will grow to $1 million in 2000. The main funders are the Fieldstead, Stewardship and McClellan foundations, all family foundations with Christian roots. Some CRSC fellows have in the past received grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Templeton Foundation, but Discovery has focused on science research that is too controversial for those channels. “For people who want to test Darwinist theoretical perspectives, the ideological pressures are real, so that’s where our center can help,” Mr. Meyer said.

Richard Rahn, the chief economist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s, is a Discovery fellow, along with the well-known technology futurist George Gilder. Mr. Rahn said that of the conservative think tanks–Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Hudson Institute, Claremont Institute and Discovery–the latter is “the most futuristic of the lot.” “How do you preserve liberty in the future?” said Mr. Rahn, citing his research on privacy and money in a digital age. With calls for a private-public future for Amtrak and leadership in the Northwest’s “Cascadia Highway Project,” Discovery also is promoting practical ideas in science, Mr. Chapman said. “We want to make a positive vision of the future practical,” he said.