Religious studies professor examines Intelligent Design academically
Published: Monday, October 4, 2010
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 17:11
Why are some SMU professors disappointed in last week's Intelligent Design event, which was sponsored by a campus ministry? Why do they question the credentials of the speakers and characterize their presentations as "pseudoscientific" and even "dishonest"?
I cannot, of course, speak for my colleagues in the sciences, and readers interested in scientific issues should go to biologist John Wise's detailed critique of errors, flawed logic and misrepresentations from the event (http://faculty.smu.edu/jwise/big_problems_with_intelligent_design.htm). But as a scholar who studies what is sometimes called the "Religious Right," I hope that I can clarify aspects of this controversy.
Intelligent Design (ID) has not gained much traction in the scientific community. It originated within certain religious circles and has credibility only within those same circles—mostly theologically conservative Christian groups that find aspects of evolutionary theory threatening.
Some ID proponents have degrees from prestigious institutions, an accomplishment that merits respect. However, a degree alone is not enough to gain legitimacy in the academic community.
Few ID advocates hold full-time professorial positions in pertinent fields at mainstream colleges and universities. Those who do hold such positions have often seen their institutions and immediate colleagues openly distance themselves from ID. Many ID proponents with academic positions work at religious institutions devoted to promoting particular theological views.
ID proponents have published very few articles in peer-reviewed journals. To make up for this lack, they have created their own in-house journals that they describe as "peer-reviewed." Suffice it to say that universities do not consider a self-serving house organ as truly peer-reviewed; such venues are regarded as fake journals.
As has been observed before, in the entire history of the ID movement, all of its advocates combined have published so few articles in legitimate scientific journals that often a single scholar at a research university like SMU has a longer list of publications.
IDers sometimes publish books—but most of these are with religious, not academic, presses.
When scientists argue that ID representatives are not genuinely doing science, they are in part observing that ID research is not rigorous, substantial or convincing enough to be published in genuine academic venues. Rejecting such research is not "censorship"; it is quality control, which is at the very heart of the academic enterprise.
Why the sensitivity over IDers' appearance at SMU? Here, historical context is important.
Unfortunately, the Discovery Institute has a track record of using SMU's prestige and academic reputation to bolster its own claims to legitimacy. Consider this quote from Phillip E. Johnson, a chief ID architect: "The movement we now call the Wedge made its public debut at a conference of scientists and philosophers held at Southern Methodist University in March 1992."
Johnson goes on to characterize that conference as "a respectable academic gathering." This language implies that SMU sponsored an academic conference in which ID proponents participated as full-fledged scholars. In fact, the 1992 event, too, was sponsored not by any academic unit of the university but by a campus ministry—a detail conspicuously absent from Johnson's description.
Unpacking Johnson's reference to "the Wedge" is essential for understanding why so many scholars regard the ID movement's representation of itself as a scientific and academic group misleading.
In 1998, the Discovery Institute drafted an internal strategic plan called the "Wedge Document."
Eventually leaked, the document described the group's intention to be a wedge that would split the tree of the dominant scientific paradigm and "replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." Its goals included fostering religious renewal movements that would "repudiate theologies influenced by materialism," having "major Christian denomination(s) defend(s) traditional doctrine of creation"; encouraging seminaries to "repudiate naturalistic presuppositions"; and bringing about a "positive uptake in public opinion polls on issues such as sexuality, abortion and belief in God."
The document is well worth reading to understand why ID is best understood primarily as a religious and political movement rather than an academic or scientific one (http://libcom.org/library/wedge-document-intelligent-design-exposed).
Thus, ID spokespeople often attract the ire of scholars for multiple reasons. Unable to publish their work in legitimate academic venues, they nonetheless present it as cutting-edge science. Unable to gain acceptance in the scientific community, they nonetheless claim to be gaining momentum. They deny or obscure the fact that ID is grounded in a particular religious worldview and yet regard it as a tool to promote socially and theologically conservative Christian positions.
It is perhaps unsurprising that both the National Academy of Sciences and a federal court have identified ID as a religious belief rather than a scientific theory.
Many religious groups—Christian and other—do not regard evolutionary theory as a threat. For many people of faith, science and religion go hand in hand. When scholars criticize ID, they are not attacking religion. They are only asking ID proponents to be transparent in their agenda, accurate about their representations of scholarship, and willing to play by the same rules of peer review and quality control that legitimate scholars and scientists around the world follow every day.
Dr. Mark A. Chancey is the chair of the Department of Religious Studies. He can be reached for comments or questions at email@example.com.