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Monday, August 01, 2005

Privileged Planet astronomer Gonzalez slams conspiracy theories

Apparently unable to deal with the possibility that the universe shows evidence of intelligent design, some zealous persons have decided that all the evidence is merely evidence of a plot to produce a theocracy
in the United States. For example, the following:

... the agenda of the Reconstructionists*, according the Chalcedony Foundation journal, was then, and remains now, that of remaking the U.S. into a Christian Theocracy: one that would be governed not by democracy (which they regard as heresy) but by a radical form of Old Testament biblical law.

Though far from being violent, the Reconstructionists seem to have in mind for Christianity, and the U.S. what the Taliban did for Islam and Afghanistan.

- John W. Patterson, in a letter to the Ames Tribune of central Iowa (July 6, 2005)
* The author apparently thinks that the Discovery Institute, which aids scientists pursuing research into intelligent design of the universe or life forms, is associated in some way with a far right Christian lunatic fringe.

(Note: If this is not the story you were looking for, see Blog service note 2 below or the stories listed in the sidebar. )

Having heard of this notion of a conspiracy to produce a theocracy from a reputable historian, I investigated it in 2003, while writing By Design or by Chance?. I found a lot of conspirazoid theorizing, but no real link. The only Discovery benefactor who was ever linked with that kind of thing years ago apparently no longer is.

But, frankly, as a general rule, if people stare at anything long enough, they are certain to see things - and it sure helps if they have fixed the idea in their mind to begin with.

Anyway, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, co-author of Privileged Planet, replied, saying,

Patterson spins a grand conspiracy theory around a funder of Discovery Institute, a think tank supporting the theory of intelligent design, and ends by, in effect, labeling me a member of the Taliban.

Early in his letter Patterson informs readers that “to those ignorant of the history and logic of modern science, the Intelligent Design (ID) arguments and inferences championed in ‘The Privileged Planet’ will seem scientifically sound, even compelling.” From this unsupported assertion it follows that Harvard astrophysicist and historian of astronomy Owen Gingerich, Cambridge evolutionary paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, and Notre Dame historian of science Michael Crowe are “ignorant of the history and logic of modern science.” They endorsed our book.*

Richards and I build our case for design from scientific evidence, not by appeals to the Bible or some private mystical experience. Our argument is also testable. Our particular design argument is falsifiable, vulnerable to the river of data about extrasolar planets, galaxies, and the larger universe flowing in from NASA missions over the next two decades.

(*Note: These people are all distinguished scientists.)

(Blog service note 1:) Unfortunately, you must register to see these items at the newspaper site, and you must also live in the United States, so far as I can see. I don’t, so my links are not directly to the Ames Tribune.

While we are on this topic, I find the conspirazoid theories about ID (= Step 1 to theocracy) that come from the States all the more bizarre because they usually revolve around American evangelicals/fundamentalists.

Anyone familiar with the ID literature knows that plenty of ID theorists/advocates do not fit that description. More to the point, professional literature on American evangelicals/fundamentalists shows that they mostly do not live much differently from most Americans:
... the pollsters started conducting scientific polls of the general population. In spite of the renewal movement's proud claims to miraculous transformation, the polls showed that members of the movement divorced their spouses just as often as their secular neighbors. They beat their wives as often as their neighbors. They were almost as materialistic and even more racist than their pagan friends. The hard-core skeptics smiled in cynical amusement at this blatant hypocrisy. The general population was puzzled and disgusted. Many of the renewal movement's leaders simply stepped up the tempo of their now enormously successful, highly sophisticated promotional programs. Others wept.

This, alas, is roughly the situation of Western or at least American evangelicalism today.

In my view, even if evangelicals had total power, they would not be likely to encourage legislation/education/whatever that would force them to live differently from others. When they don’t have much power, they support things that make them look good, at least to themselves. Whether the universe or life forms show evidence of intelligent design is irrelevant to their views and behaviour.

What makes the tinfoil hat theocracy theories even more absurd is the fact that many pop Darwinists (I call them the Darwinbots) rant when told to rant and rave when told to rave, in defense of their views. So I don’t know why they, in particular, need to fear a theocracy. As I have said before, the average theocrat* asks little more of his followers than that.

These, after all, are the people who thought that the Privileged Planet film they protested so strenuously was about evolution, presumably because someone told them it was. The film does not deal with evolution, but with the evidence for design and purpose in the universe itself.

On the other hand, to be fair, the pop Darwinists did some good. They provided the widest possible publicity for a fine little film whose producers could not afford the usual publicity routes.

I remember tracing the growth of the Privileged Planet story with amazement, from the hundreds into the thousands of mentions. I tried to estimate the costs of paid publicity for that level of exposure, but have no special skills and gave up ...

I personally think that the producer, Illustra Media, should reward the pop Darwinists who raised heck about their film with heaps of Starbucks coupons, but I would recommend that they first strike a deal with Starbucks, to get a good deal on the coupons. After all, they probably do not get public funding.

* Granted, a truly extraordinary theocrat will also ask his followers to riot when told to riot and explode when told to explode, but we do not address that sort of thing at this blog.

If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.
Blog service note 2: Did you come here looking for any of the following stories?

- the California Academy of Sciences agreeing to correct potentially libellous statements about attorney Larry Caldwell, who thinks that students should know about weaknesses as well as strengths of Darwinian evolution theory, click on the posted link and check the current daily post for any updates. UPDATED!: The retraction and Caldwell’s response have now been published in California Wild.

- The op-ed by Catholic Cardinal Schonborn in the New York Times? Note also the Times's story on the subject, some interesting quotes from major Darwinists to compare with the Catholic Church's view, as expressed by the Cardinal, and an example of the kind of problem with Darwinian philosophy that the Cardinal is talking about.

- the Privileged Planet film shown at the Smithsonian, go here for an extended review. Please do not raise cain about an "anti-evolution" film without seeing it. If your doctor forbids you to see the film, in case you get too excited, at least read my detailed log of the actual subjects of the film. If you were one of the people who raised cain, ask yourself why you should continue to believe the people who so misled you about the film's actual content ...

- the showing of Privileged Planet at the Smithsonian, go here and here to start, and then this one and this one will bring you up to date.
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