Contesting Science's Anti-Religious Bias

Article excerpt

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 antimaterialist 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. …