21 August 2005

- The Work of Discovery -

An interesting article in this morning's New York Times on the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank that has played a large role in pushing intelligent design. Predictably, the Times gives a much more sympathetic spin to Discovery's mission than it deserves. Here, too, the institute is savvy in understanding that the Times science reporting valorizes those who tilt against scientific consensus, so that's the angle that Discovery's spokespeople took.

Nevertheless, the article is full of interesting observations

Pushing a "teach the controversy" approach to evolution, the institute has in many ways transformed the debate into an issue of academic freedom rather than a confrontation between biology and religion.

In cases like this, I always say following the money. So who is funding the institute? Some of it comes from the usual places, but there's this startling revelation:

A closer look shows a multidimensional organization, financed by missionary and mainstream groups - the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provides $1 million a year, including $50,000 of Mr. Chapman's $141,000 annual salary - and asserting itself on questions on issues as varied as local transportation and foreign affairs.

Yup, good ol' Micro$oft

There is also the AMDG Foundation in Virginia, run by Mark Ryland, a Microsoft executive turned Discovery vice president.

Here's a bit more:

The institute also has support from secular groups like the Verizon Foundation and the Gates Foundation, which gave $1 million in 2000 and pledged $9.35 million over 10 years in 2003. Greg Shaw, a grant maker at the Gates Foundation, said the money was "exclusive to the Cascadia project" on regional transportation.

Given the fungibility of money, it's highly questionable whether such "exclusivity" is possible. I also have to ask why the Cascadia project would fall under the auspices of the institute? Predictably, the reporter didn't pursue the issue. But it strikes me as highly suspicious. A means to give the "mainstream groups" a cover for their donations perhaps?

To get back to the primary mission of the institute, which is to promote intelligent design. So how do they go about doing it?

Since its founding in 1996, the science center has spent 39 percent of its $9.3 million on research, Dr. Meyer said, underwriting books or papers, or often just paying universities to release professors from some teaching responsibilities so that they can ponder intelligent design. Over those nine years, $792,585 financed laboratory or field research in biology, paleontology or biophysics, while $93,828 helped graduate students in paleontology, linguistics, history and philosophy.

The 40 fellows affiliated with the science center are an eclectic group, including David Berlinski, an expatriate mathematician living in Paris who described his only religion to be "having a good time all the time," and Jonathan Wells, a member of the Unification Church, led by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who once wrote in an essay, "My prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism."

Their credentials - advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California - are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

"They're interested in the same things I'm interested in - no one else is," Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. "What I'm doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It's not something a 'scientist' is supposed to do." Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

"I believe that God created the universe," Dr. Gonzalez said. "What I don't know is whether that evidence can be tested objectively. I ask myself the tough questions."

I suppose we can take some comfort that Discovery feels it still has to have the appearance of science. But note where the graduate student funding is going. Not into biology, but into paleontology, linguistics, history and philosophy. That tells us where the institute sees the future course of its "science." Yet that also suggests that the institute will use an appeal to the interdisciplinary to undermine the separation between the natural and the supernatural, the separation on which modern science is based.

Once again, the right seems so adroit at appropriating and instrumentalizing current academic fashion. They did this before with postmodernism, and we ended up with this lovely alternative reality of Bushworld. Now apparently the same thing is happening with interdisciplarity. What we treat as a mere intellectual plaything, the right works on politicizing. Our best defense in this case—the insistence on firm disciplinary boundaries—makes us into academic conservatives. Oh, the irony.