COLUMN: Intelligent design lecture an embarrassment
On Friday, the University of Oklahoma hosted a lecture by John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. The topic was “Seven Myths About the Darwin Debate.”
On Friday, I was embarrassed to be an OU student.
The bulk of West’s talk was an endless recitation of pro-intelligent design quotes attached to credentialed names. (Apparently Thomas Jefferson saw design in nature. Impressed yet?)
Astronomical numbers were bandied about, showing how unlikely it would be for certain complex structures to form purely randomly, something which no one is actually claiming has ever occurred.
A YouTube video of six men singing a song making fun of intelligent design was presented as proof that evolutionists have turned science conventions into “anti-religious revival meetings.”
Booklets handed out described “irreducible complexity,” an argument that has been universally discredited for years.
Unsubstantiated but fervent claims were made that Darwinism caused the Holocaust.
Just for the record, the Nazis actually banned books promoting “the false scientific enlightenment of primitive Darwinism.” Writings “that ridicule[d], belittle[d] or besmirch[ed] the Christian religion” were prohibited, as well.
West also displayed a strange preoccupation with running down Barbara Forrest, an author who apparently mentioned him unflatteringly in a book.
Coming from a mouthpiece of the Discovery Institute, none of it was particularly unexpected. But why was this gibberish being delivered in an auditorium of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History?
Psuedo science at best
It’s clear why intelligent design proponents would want to be associated with the university. Intelligent design is an idea that explains nothing, makes no predictions, has led to no discoveries and is rejected by more than 99.85 percent of U.S. earth and life scientists, according to Gallup.
Though West claims intelligent design is a purely secular idea, its roots in fundamentalist Christianity are plainly discerned by skeptics.
Intelligent design is creationism repackaged beneath a thin veneer of science — as journalist Geoff Brumfiel put it, “creationism in a cheap tuxedo” — in an attempt to circumvent the establishment clause and inject religious ideas into science classrooms.
In one instance, a proposed creation-advocating school textbook titled “Of Pandas and People” was revised to espouse intelligent design by simply replacing “creationism” with “intelligent design” and “creationist” with “design proponent.”
At one point, a botched substitution resulted in the phrase “cdesign proponentsists,” illustrating the extreme haste with which the publishers were able to turn a religious tome into a cosmetically secular one.
Numerous scientific organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as a federal court, have declared intelligent design religious. Furthermore, a confidential Discovery Institute fund-raising document leaked in 1999 describes the organization’s mission as “to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”
“Irreducible complexity” is the centerpiece argument of the intelligent design movement. The booklets distributed at West’s lecture apply the argument to the bacterial flagellum, asserting that, since, so far as they can tell, the flagellar motor cannot be simplified without losing functionality, it could not have evolved from a more primitive form.
In other words, “I can’t imagine how it could have evolved, so therefore it didn’t.” Ways in which the flagellar motor might be simplified and still retain functionality have been known for years, but even this is not necessary to show the most often repeated argument for intelligent design is both invalid and silly, whether it’s being applied to the flagellum, eye, immune system or whatever other structure has been declared irreducibly complex for the moment.
A religious fundamentalist group like the Discovery Institute benefits from borrowing OU’s high academic gloss. But why would OU want to sanction a view that’s about as well-regarded by biologists as Holocaust denial is by historians?
Perhaps administrators feared appearing biased, though I think an unapologetic bias against pseudoscience is commendable. Perhaps they thought it created a nice symmetry with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ impending March 6 lecture at the McCasland Field House on campus.
Perhaps they just didn’t want to give intelligent design supporters an excuse to cry persecution.
But, the fact remains, by allowing people like John West to speak, OU is lending credibility to a package of anti-science propaganda and doing a disservice to the professionals on its staff with a genuine interest in practicing science.
-Zac Smith is an English junior.