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Defend Science Commentary

Assessing What is Going On Today:
To say the attacks on science continue states the obvious. But Bush and the Republicans appear to be in political trouble, and there has been rising opposition to the attacks on science, including important victories. So how to assess what is going on? This article will examine this by focusing on the question that concentrates the overall assault on science and scientific thinking - the creationist attack on evolution.

"Science is a human endeavor transmitted from generation to generation. If the principles and best practices of science are overthrown by religious or political extremism, the institutions of science may be damaged irreparably. This would be an unimaginable calamity for the human race." - from a comment written to the Defend Science website

"In the United States today science, as science, is under attack as never before. The signs of this are everywhere. The attacks are coming at an accelerating pace, and include frequent interventions by powerful forces, in and out of the Bush Administration, who seem all too willing to deny scientific truths, disrupt scientific investigations, block scientific progress, undermine scientific education, and sacrifice the very integrity of the scientific process itself -- all in the pursuit of implementing their particular political agenda. And today this dominant political agenda is profoundly allied and intertwined with an extremist (and extremely anti-science) ideological agenda put forward by powerful fundamentalist religious forces commonly known as the Religious Right." - from the Defend Science Statement

Consider just a couple of the major developments this year:

- The Bush administration adamantly continues to refuse to do anything serious about global warming. Harassment of global warming scientists and suppression of global warming science continues. In late September, according to an article in the journal Nature, the government suppressed a report by government scientists that suggested that global warming contributed to the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. Bush and company carry on in the face of outrage and concern from broad sections of society; the consensus of the global scientific community that global warming is driven significantly by human emission of greenhouse gases with possibly disastrous consequences for humanity and the planet; and even in the face of the defection of sections of evangelical Christians from the denial of global warming.

- Determined to promote fundamentalist Christian moral codes among the population, Bush vetoed the stem cell bill which had been passed by Congress. The consequences are that he is continuing to block Federal funding of a major new field of science with potentially huge impact on human health. Bush’s veto went in the face of very broad support for stem cell research that included Republicans like Nancy Reagan and Dr. Bill Frist (who set some kind of record in contempt for scientific methods when he diagnosed Terry Schiavo after briefly watching her on video.) In Missouri, where an initiative in favor of stem cell research is on the ballot, the Kansas City Star reported that: "Local and national opponents of Missouri’s stem-cell initiative came together Monday in a rousing church revival that was part prayer meeting, part science lecture and part political rally. Former presidential candidate Alan Keyes compared the initiative to terrorists who take innocent human life and to slaveholders who justified slavery by arguing that blacks were different...And Rick Scarborough, a Texas minister who founded the conservative organization Vision America, called early stem-cell research ‘a devilish science’ and urged church members to get involved in the campaign to block the initiative."

To say the attacks on science continue states the obvious. But Bush and the Republicans appear to be in political trouble, and there has been rising opposition to the attacks on science, including important victories. So how to assess what is going on? This article will examine this by focusing on the question that concentrates the overall assault on science and scientific thinking - the creationist attack on evolution.

As everyone knows, despite the fact that evolution is as established as any theory in science, the attack on evolution left the margins of society and entered the mainstream. There is a creationist movement across the country, largely focused tactically for now on state and local school boards, but backed by powerful forces, including from the office of the President. Bush’s science advisor assured us that evolution is in fact real, but Bush’s own statements in the public record remain and he has not retracted them in any way: he spoke in favor of teaching about "intelligent design" in the schools, "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought", and "the verdict is still out on how God created the earth." Astonishing words coming from the leader of the dominant "developed" country on earth in the twenty first century. And this is no minor matter. Evolution is foundational to all of biology, and beyond that, foundational to much of modern science. And the attack on evolution, particularly in its latest incarnation of "intelligent design", centers on fundamental epistemological questions, questions of how we can know and change the world, which are at the core of the battle over science overall.

In Kitzmiller v. Dover, the major Dover, Pennsylvania Federal Court case on the teaching of evolution in public schools, at the end of 2005 Federal Judge John Jones issued a sweeping verdict: intelligent design is not science, but a form of religious expression which has no place in science classes. He firmly upheld the separation of church and state. This verdict was not legally binding outside of Jones’ district, but it has had major political impact nationally. In both Ohio and Michigan, for example, state school boards which had been involved in political battles with creationists over opening the door to "intelligent design" in science classes, ended up deciding not to allow this under the influence of Kitzmiller. And in the battle ground state of Kansas, the creationist majority on the state school board was voted out. For now.

Dover was a real and important defeat for intelligent design, but a powerful and multi-sided assault on evolution remains. The Christian fundamentalist forces that are a key component of the attacks on science have greatly grown in influence over the Bush years (as evidenced by the Missouri stem cell battle noted above, among many many other things.) Despite the fact that the leading theorists of "intelligent design" try to make it appear (at times) that they have purely "scientific" objectives and are not essentially religious, "intelligent design" is in fact an important component part of the movement that has been compared to an "American Taliban". And creationism in its various forms continues to be funded and promoted by powerful forces, beyond the White House. As physicist Lawrence Krauss noted in the New York Times (speaking of the creationist defeat in Kansas elections): "any celebration should be muted". He went on to say: "With their changing political tactics, creationists are an excellent example of evolution at work. Creation science evolved into intelligent design, which morphed into ‘teaching the controversy,’ and after its recent court loss in Dover, Pa., and political defeats in Ohio and Kansas, it will no doubt change again."

In considering the possible future "evolution" of political tactics on the part of intelligent design, we should put this in the context of the strategy and larger goals of that movement. Earlier forms of creationism, largely appealing to a less educated and sophisticated audience than intelligent design, claimed to be "scientific" - by which they essentially meant that by mercilessly twisting and distorting science (and just making stuff up), they would "prove" that the creation story in Genesis is literally true. "Intelligent design" on the other hand, has set that absurd pursuit to the side, and has set its sights on radically transforming science and the scientific method itself, in society as a whole.

Phillip Johnson, architect of intelligent design and the wedge strategy, outlined the larger objective of intelligent design in a 1999 article for Church and State magazine: "The objective is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the nonexistence of God. From there, people are introduced to 'the truth' of the Bible and then 'the question of sin' and finally 'introduced to Jesus.'" The larger aim, in short, is not scientific at all, but religious, to shape the terms of debate and discussion in society away from the truth of evolution to ultimately win people to Jesus. (Not every single proponent of intelligent design is a Christian fundamentalist, and not all of them share all of the same philosophical approach. But key intelligent design strategists, the movement’s links to larger political and religious forces, and the actual effect of ID as a movement, do in fact aim for the ends Johnson outlined.)

These aims of intelligent design are carried out through an aggressive attack on the foundations of scientific thinking and method. One place this is revealed most directly is in the "wedge strategy" which was originally an internal paper of the Discovery Institute, a key intelligent design think tank. After this was leaked to the internet, the Discovery Institute at first denied ownership - it revealed too much of their extreme religious thinking and aims. They eventually admitted it was in fact their own document.

The document shows how the intelligent design movement aims to throw out what has been at the heart of science for centuries - that science should, and can, seek to understand (and change) the natural, material world. The "Wedge Strategy" paper aims to uproot historically developed scientific method that seeks answers in the natural world and does not base itself on the intervention of God. (Some ID proponents say that the "designer" might not be God but some other super-intelligent force. Right. And that’s why Pat Robertson threatened the people of Dover with God’s punishment when they voted out a creationist school board). The "Wedge Strategy" says, "The social consequences of materialism have been devastating - we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist world view, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." This basic aim of the intelligent design forces came out openly in Kansas in 2005, when the state school board (the majority of which was ousted in the last election) changed the definition of science to allow supernatural causes - i.e., God - as an active agent in science itself.

Intelligent design, which presents itself as a criticism of evolution in fact contains a sweeping and radical attack on all of science. They want to get rid of the basis on which science has made advances over hundreds of years in understanding and changing the world. They want to eliminate the need to develop scientific theories that actually correspond to reality and have to be testable by experiment. And instead to bring in a supernatural force to explain the way the world is - they want to build God into the heart of modern science. Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, has pointed out:

"Evolution is a concept that applies to all sciences, from astronomy to chemistry to geology to biology to anthropology. Attacking evolution means attacking much of what we know of the natural world, that we have amassed through the application of scientific principles and methods.

Second, creationist attacks on evolution are attacks on science itself, because the creationist approach does violence to how we conduct science: science as a way of knowing."

Of course, the intelligent design forces do not say all of this openly, even though the Discovery Institute has been forced to admit its relationship to the "wedge strategy". They have been trying to get in the door (especially inside science classrooms) under the guise of "let’s allow a diversity of views and freedom to criticize theories", let us just discuss criticisms of evolution. But this has been merely a (very dishonest) legal and tactical approach. They can and will adjust it. And they will have to adjust, as the Kitzmiller decision ripped apart their charade that intelligent design had nothing to do with religion. But every indication is that their underlying aim will remain, as the "Wedge strategy" puts it, to seek "nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies."

And one sobering thing to understand in relation to their future efforts is that it was only with the emergence of intelligent design in the 1990's, and its attack on the foundations of science, that the creationist movement got powerful financial backing (and other kinds of backing) from big-time American capitalist forces like Weyerhauser, which has funded the Discovery Institute. And there is no sign that this kind of backing will stop.

A further sign of the seriousness of all this is that the attacks on evolution and science have unfolded for years now and the leadership of the Democratic party has not been stunning in its silence. Al Gore barely mentioned global warming in the election in 2000. In explaining this recently in the context of the important things he says in "An Inconvenient Truth", he told the San Francisco Chronicle that his advisors told him not to talk about it. And in 2004, Kerry hardly even talked about Bush’s appalling stand on evolution in the 2004 election campaign. And to this day, what leading Democrat has gone on an offensive and sharply raised the question of how can you lead a country like this and be working to undermine evolution and the scientific method?

So, we have a problem. Powerful forces and growing movements are relentlessly attacking science - and the opposition to this is still far too quiet and disorganized. There have been and continue to be some really important and even heroic efforts, as in Dover and in a number of battles at the state and local level across the country. But it is still the case that biology teachers in many many parts of the country cannot teach evolution in public schools - and when they do try, they often face the wrath of administrators, some parents, and elements of the community. And many people who do understand what is going on are still too much agonizing in silence.

This needs to change, and it can change. There is a determined assault on science, but there is at the same time a growing vulnerability and weakness in this crusade. The verdict in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case DID tear open the lie that intelligent design has nothing to do with religion, and this has had real impact. Millions are outraged at things like the suppression of stem cell research and are agonizing over the implications of global warming. There is a real chance and potential to turn the situation around and defeat the attacks on science - but those millions need to find the ways to enter into the fight. And it will take a fight. Deeply entrenched and highly motivated forces remain firmly behind creationism and the overall attacks on science, and these are not people who will fold up their tents because they lost a lawsuit.

All of this is why the Defend Science Statement is an important part of the foundation of the kind of battle it will take. It aims to rally the scientific community to speak broadly to the population about the heart of the matter. It aims to reach very broadly to the people across the country who are most in danger of having science and scientific thinking ripped away from their lives and the lives of their children, and to call on them to defend science.

As the Defend Science statement concludes,

"It is up to us. It is time to take a clear and decisive stand in defense of science. This is of crucial and urgent importance not only for scientists but for people throughout society, for humanity as a whole and for future generations."

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