THE ISLAND OF DOUBT
An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
The Doubter's Companion:
Skeptic Magazine: www.skeptic.com
Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal: www.csicop.org
A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
Chris C. Mooney
The Meaning of
the Island of Doubt
"Fossils at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History have been used to prove the theory of evolution. Next month the museum will play host to a film intended to undercut evolution." (John Schwartz, May 28, 2005)Before we get too excited, there is a caveat: the Smithsonian rents out the Baird Auditorium to all sorts of organizations, at a price. In this instance, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute will be contributing to the maintenance of the fabulous Washington, D.C., museum's upkeep to the tune of $16,000. And, after all, what's wrong with a little critical analysis of evolutionary theory?
Well, that depends on what you make of the Discovery Institute and its primary contribution to North American culture: the "theory" of intelligent design, which is also the subject of the documentary. It is the idea that life is so full of "irreducibly complex" parts, like the mitochondrion and the flagellum, that an intelligent designer had to be responsible for at least some of evolutionary history of life on Planet Earth.
Is "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe" is a sincere attempt to examine Darwin's theory that all species on Earth evolved from some form of simple life through mutation and natural selection of the fittest variants of each species in the context of the existing ecological conditions? If so, then bring it on.
Biological evolution is widely understood to be one of the most rigorously tested and robust theories ever developed. What's the harm in subjecting it to a little honest skepticism? Especially on the Island of Doubt.
But what if intelligent design (ID) isn't science? What if it's just a disingenuous attempt to put faith where it doesn't belong? Sadly, that seems to be the case. Documents from the Discovery Institute itself strongly suggest the ulterior motive is theological -- to sneak creationism in through the back door. Consider this excerpt from its now infamous "Wedge Strategy":
Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature. (See here for the rest.)Few of its proponents are scientists. They consistently ignore mountains of scientific evidence against "irreducible complexity." In short, it isn't even sloppy science, it's fantasy.
An essay by biologist Paul Decelles is a good summary of ID's shortcomings in a scientific context. To wit:
For instance, how would an ID person logically explain the presence of vestigial structures, structures that we share in common with other animals but are greatly reduced in function? Why aren't women better designed to give birth? Indeed for all the complexity of living things, they seem to be almost jury rigged or put together like a Rube Goldberg device.So, should the Smithsonian provide a forum for ID? At a time when ID supporters are making gains in the public education systems of at least 20 states, it would be easy to argue that ID needs to be examined before it further infiltrates our schools. (I haven't written about the recent hearings on ID before the Kansas school board because others have done so at length.) But the Smithsonian, a publicly funded institution, must make every effort to maintain a healthy distance from religion. If this event, scheduled for June 23, goes ahead, two conditions should be met.
First, it must be made clear that the Smithsonian is not co-sponsoring the screening, only providing the space as a public service. Second, the event must be transformed from a forum for promoting ID into a critical analysis of ID. At the very least, it should be accompanied by a panel of scientists willing to respond to the film's arguments.
Anything less would risk undermining the public's already shaky understanding of the role of skepticism in science.