Friday, August 21, 2009

A Brief History of the Discovery Institute

I missed this one a few years back. In 2006, Roger Downey wrote a column for the Seattle News about the history of the Discovery Institute (or "Disco. 'Tute", as Josh Rosenau has been given to calling it). The article was written a short time after the Dover-Kitzmiller trial that saw all of the gains that the intelligent design washed away. According to the story, the public attention to the Discovery Institute began with the discovery of the "Wedge Strategy" and a part-time employee by the name of Matt Duss:
Curious, Duss rifled through the 10 or so pages, eyebrows rising ever higher, then proceeded to execute his commission while reserving a copy of the treatise for himself. Within a week, he had shared his find with a friend who shared his interest in questions of evolution, ideology, and the propagation of ideas. Unlike Duss, the friend, Tim Rhodes, was technically savvy, and it took him little time to scan the document and post it to the World Wide Web, where it first appeared on Feb. 5, 1999.

The unnamed author of the document wasted no time getting down to his subject. "The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Yet little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science." Such thinkers as Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and, above all, Charles Darwin promulgated a "materialistic conception of reality" that "eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and music."
This has always been one of the Achilles heels of the DI in its quest to divest intelligent design from its religious roots. It was clearly obvious from the start that the DI's Center for Science and Culture had, as one of its main goals to remake society and science in a theistic manner. ID was simply a means to that end. As the movement gained momentum (and attention), it became clear that there were a great many people that did not share their vision. Consequently, they began to change tactics:
Indeed, as more and more school boards seriously took up consideration of intelligent-design programs, the Discovery Institute became concerned that some of the people they were trying to influence might grow so enthusiastic as to push the newly moderate ideological envelope. They professed no knowledge of the origins of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture's founding Wedge document. They also dropped the loaded word "renewal" from the name and ceased demanding that intelligent design replace Darwinism in the high-school curriculum, or that it even be actively taught there. All that was asked now was that students be apprised that there was a controversy.
Then came Dover. Although several of the Discovery Institute's fellows, Michael Behe and Scott Minnich, agreed to testify, William Dembski pulled out of the trial. It has been suggested that he did so because of the withering pre-trial testimony of Jeffrey Shallit, who had originally been called to testify against Dembski's expertise. Shallit's expert rebuttal is here. It is, indeed, withering. As all reports have indicated, the trial was an unmitigated disaster for the purveyors of ID. One peculiar aspect of it, though, was that it was not clear who was using who. It is clear that the ID crowd was using Dover as a test. It is also clear that the local creationists were using the ID crowd to gain a degree of legitimacy. Eventually, the facade was discovered. As Judge jones put it:
In the realm of the lay witnesses, if you will, some of the school board witnesses were dreadful witnesses and hence the description “breathtaking inanity” and “mendacity.” In my view, they clearly lied under oath. They made a very poor account of themselves. They could not explain why they did what they did. They really didn't even know what intelligent design was. It was quite clear to me that they viewed intelligent design as a method to get creationism into the public school classroom. They were unfortunate and troublesome witnesses. Simply remarkable, in that sense.
Although the decision was rendered narrowly, no one actually thought that school boards across the country were not paying attention:
No one believes that Judge Jones' decision, even if it's replicated in courtrooms across the country, is going to stop the campaign against materialism and for a God-centered worldview. But it surely must be seen as a catastrophic defeat for the notion of intelligent design, and no single institution is so identified with it, and has more of its financial and intellectual resources tied up in it, than the Discovery Institute of Seattle. Maybe the group can regroup and make a comeback, but for now, the mighty wedge is irreparably blunted.
Since the writing of this document, the Discovery Institute has shifted its tactics once again and is now focused on "academic freedom" to the extent that it has drafted a document that is a blueprint for legislatures across the country sympathetic to the cause of ID to use. In its public relations, the DI has been increasingly vocal about its dislike for all things evolution and has come to resemble many young earth creationist organizations in the approach that it has taken, especially when arguing against the evidence for evolution. As I have written previously, this now should be considered in the realm of culpable ignorance, since the evidence has been presented and rejected for no good reasons.

The "academic freedom" legislation has fallen on rocky ground, however, with several bills falling short (Florida, New Mexico, Iowa, Missouri) and others passing with bad press, like that in Louisiana.

What will be their next move? It is hard to tell. One thing is for sure: they will not go ahead blindly like their YEC cousins, who have almost become a caricature of themselves, so academically isolated they have become. The ID crowd will certainly try a new avenue to get the message out.

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  1. Anonymous3:49 PM

    Please be careful not to conflate the "ID crowd" (assuming you mean DI and their associates) with any and all who are interested in the question of scientific detection of telic causes within biological forms. Views vary widely. Many of us have no use for the DI and its objectives.

  2. Good point. I suspect the same is true of the BioLogos group, which probably has no use for the DI either.