March 31, 2008

After the 1964 election, a book appeared damning Conservatism’s debut as a “€œbrute assault on the entire intellectual world”€ and charging, “€œRepublicans as a party have been alienating intellectuals deliberately, as a matter of taste and strategy.”€ This withering critique of the politics of Senator Goldwater and his spokesman Ronald Reagan came not from Bill Moyers but a recently graduated pair of Republican Harvard roommates, stalwarts of The Ripon Society, who, like some of the liberal democrats who applauded their book, have been flung though a sort of political time warp to land on the anti-intellectual end of the neoconservative spectrum.

Bruce Chapman is now The Discovery Institute’s President, and George Gilder its preeminent Senior Fellow, together leading the Seattle group in a metaphysical assault on everything that smacks of “materialism.” Though founded with a Reaganite focus on cutting-edge technology policy and the electronic revolution, Discovery has morphed away from futurism and libertarian economics. What began as a spinoff of Herman Kahn’s Hudson Institute became the bane of scientific modernity, waging culture war on everything from Darwin to Einstein to stem-cell biotech and quantum indeterminacy, now even dark matter.

After becoming director of the Census Bureau in 1981, Chapman became Edwin Meese’s protégé, and soon his zeal in defending “€œtraditional morality”€ led The New York Times to declare “€œa converging of the intellectual Left with the religious Right … under the Reagan banner.”€ He also admired conservative legal guru Phillip Johnson, whose Darwin On Trial aspired to deconstruct evolution by applying legal standards of evidence to biology, the better to subordinate science to religion and protect Social Conservative norms from “€œmoral relativism.”€ The fact that O.J. Simpson has been “€œproven”€ innocent in a court of law reminds us why legal scholars shouldn”€™t leave their jurisdiction. William Jennings Bryan did win the Scopes Trial after all.


How two Rockefeller Republicans evolved, or devolved, into recapitulating Bryan’s Populist denunciation of Darwin is a puzzlement. Democrat Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, asserts the Discovery Institute’s original “vibe was forward-looking, futuristic, and intellectually contrarian.” From contemplating a Republican alternative to The Whole Earth Catalog to thinking the unthinkable slightly to the right of Cardinal Ratzinger is quite an intellectual odyssey.

Along the way, writes Mooney, Chapman and Gilder have “become everything they once criticized; their transformation highlights how … the anti-intellectual disposition they so aptly diagnosed in 1966 still persists among modern conservatives, helping to fuel a full-fledged crisis today over the politicization of science and expertise.” This has crystallized in their promotion of ’ Intelligent Design,’  the body of pseudo-science Wired calls “€œCreationism 2.0.”€

Though this odd construct exerts a powerful appeal for those educated in traditions of religious orthodoxy and Biblical literalism, whether Old Testament or New, it tends to repel minds trained to question ideological authority. It appeals to unreconstructed pietism in its aspiration to return metaphysics to precedence over science and win back a century’s loss of cultural turf to the Left, an erosion it blames on the rise of materialism. It focuses on the perverse Marxist use of the word, while playing down what it meant to Hume and Hegel. This is a strategic choice, for a defunct Evil Empire is easier to wrestle with than The Enlightenment as the Founders saw it.

This ambitious project is hardly Gilder and Chapman’s alone. They long ago realized that Culture War à la outrance takes more than the editorial enthusiasm of small magazines. Though Gilder is a frequent Forbes contributor, and former part-owner of The American Spectator, The Discovery Institute has forged alliances with like-minded souls at Heritage, AEI, The Bradley Foundation, and elsewhere in creating an ecumenical team that, though it produces none of its own, seeks to publicly discredit a broad spectrum of scientific research it finds metaphysically unattractive”€”and even to subject it to legislative and regulatory constraint.

A project that began with rearing academic objections to evolution in Commentary, First Things, and National Review has grown down-market into raising a village of religiously devout and politically reliable scientific idiots. Their enterprise has transformed Talk Radio and the No Spin Zone into engines of faith-based mis-and-disinformation that leave scientists of both parties gobsmacked by the sheer infantilism of it all. Pre-eminent among the tour guides to this alternative scientific universe is another Discovery Institute Senior Fellow, a writer of considerable gifts and Anglo-Catholic education named Tom Bethell. The original tagline to Bethell’s Politically Incorrect Guide to Science leaves no doubt as to his goal:

“Liberals have hijacked science for long enough. Now it’s our turn.”

Just as Discovery has redacted its statement of a “€œwedge strategy”€ for the religious re-enchantment of world of science and public policy, Bethell’s astute publisher has wisely removed this astounding blurb from the paperback edition.
Little wonder John Derbyshire took Bethell’s book to task on National Review Online. Here Derbyshire focused on its misrepresentation of evolutionary biology, being that Bethell is the literary lion of The Discovery Institute, but what of the rest of his science?

On global warming, Bethell invokes the standard canon of uncertainties, but not how science has acted to reduce them. Bethell’s preference for his own cohort’s climate polemics over the peer reviewed science literature is evident in the book’s deadpan claim that satellites show no warming trend— the overthrow of that unsound view by authentically skeptical scientists was front page news months before his book went to press. What gives?

In 2004, Reason science correspondent Ron Bailey asked Irving Kristol whether or not he believed in God, and Kristol famously responded, “€œI don’t believe in God, I have faith in God.”€ Bailey continues,

Well, faith, as it says in Hebrews 11:1, ‘is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ But at the [2005] AEI lecture, journalist Ben Wattenberg asked him the same thing. Kristol responded that ‘that is a stupid question,’ and crisply restated his belief that religion is essential for maintaining social discipline. A much younger (and perhaps less circumspect) Kristol asserted in a 1949 essay that in order to prevent the social disarray that would occur if ordinary people lost their religious faith, ‘it would indeed become the duty of the wise publicly to defend and support religion.’”

Bethel seems driven by the same imperative, for The Politically Incorrect Guide is as rich in the urban myths of faith-based policy as it is scientifically impoverished. Bethell deceives himself and his readers on everything from relativity to AIDS to molecular biology, deploying tabloid science and patently political op-eds in preference to peer-reviewed papers available from the internet or any university library. Disrespect for science is one thing, disdain from scholarship quite another.  More aberrant than’ incorrect’ the Guide is less popularization than a catalog derangé of Bad Science assembled as an alternative catechism for Dittoheads who last cracked a science text in junior high.

Bethell is one of many comically anxious to lay the ideological horrors of the 20th century at science’s door, but the historical reality is anything but funny. When he wasn”€™t setting the stage for famine, Stalin’s pal Commissar Lysenko passed the time damning the Bourgeois Biology of the Darwinian Class Enemies, while Hitler’s guru Johannes Stark earned the right to oversee the implosion of Annalen der Physik by staging a monster rally denouncing the Decadent Relativism of the Einsteinists.

Tom Bethell writes,

“A criticism of intelligent design is that the claim, “€˜God can do anything, therefore this critter was designed by God”€™ gets us nowhere. I agree that it doesn’t. But a very similar objection can be raised against Darwinism.” … [Darwinism’s] “partisans are at liberty to say of any organism whatever that it arose by mutation and natural selection”€”without having to produce any supporting evidence. In the end, it amounts to nothing more than the belief that supernaturalism must be avoided at all cost.”

Having winded his hobby horse , he hops back into the saddle to deliver the inevitable conclusion, “€œDarwinism is simply a deduction from a philosophy”€”the philosophy of materialism…” .

Yet if science has anything to teach about the material world, it is that laws at once impose limits on simple phenomena and give rise to complex ones. All critters great and small are, being made of matter, naturally subject to the laws of physics. Saying otherwise injects the supernatural into the discussion, which is exactly what Bethell did in the NRO exchange in which he accused John Derbyshire of being reluctant to do so. Gilder has likewise averred “€œthe Darwinist materialist paradigm … is about to face the same revolution that Newtonian physics faced 100 years ago.”€

This is 19th-century Vitalism warmed over. From the 21st-century perspective of the multi-billion-dollar enterprise of molecular biotechnology, Bethell and Gilder are less in denial than up the river without a paddle. Science is not a high-school debating tournament. The sophomoric invocation of statistical arguments about “€œinsurmountable complexity”€ falls flat in the face of algorithmic sophistication, let alone the insights of quantum computation. Synthetic biology blithely ignores ID’s arguments as it goes about the business of building living organisms from scratch.

Its practitioners can only scratch their heads at a stem-cell debate as doomed to historical obscurity as wars fought over guano to assure the Victorian guncotton supply. But, in a display of metaphysical solipsism bordering on the miraculous, Bethel simply insists things he finds inconceivable simply cannot be. Robots were already roving Mars when he wrote in 2005:

“€œWhen it sinks in that genetic and stem-cell engineering is beyond our ken, the anticipated downloading of our minds will also be postponed—indefinitely. (By the way, don’t they know we haven’t even been able to get robots to move around the room without bumping into the furniture yet?)”€

Really? Two years later, a cybertruck demonstrated downloaded horse sense enough to successfully negotiate the Mojave Desert, and the Ventner Institute uploaded a completely synthetic genome into an eviscerated bacterial corpse, in effect kick-starting Life Itself.  I hold no brief for machine consciousness, but in the light of what science gets up to nowadays, objections to the trend in artificial intelligence that fall much outside the realm of Moore’s Law seem increasingly, for lack of a better word, metaphysical. If the Politically Incorrect Guide‘s author has never succeeded in adding a page to the scientific literature he so epically misconstrues, it may be because he evidently reads so little of it.

Some years ago, physicist John Baez devised The Crackpot Index“€”a simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to science.”€ Bethell’s ID manifesto generates an exceptionally high score, as does his earlier polemic dismissal of Einstein’s work.

Baez assembled 17 criteria to aid science editors in separating claims of radical advances from the crackpot screeds major journals receive almost monthly, assigning points to the gambits cranks reflexively indulge. Since we all make mistakes, statements” widely agreed to be untrue” get just 1 demerit, but grandiosely “€œclaiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is”€ will earn 40. Under the Baez system , a science journal editor is justified in returning without comment any screed that racksup more than 100 points , both to spare the author’s feelings, and the time of the experts who shoulder the burden of peer review.

If you think Baez’s idea facetious, you have never opened a Young Earth creationist journal, or seen the vanity press offerings that flow over the book review transom of flagship science journals like Nature. Forget Darwin and Einstein”€”not even Newton’s Law of Gravity is safe these days.

So be forewarned, here come some excerpts from Tom’s deadpan reply to Derbyshire in NRO, punctuated with Baez’s criteria for Crackpotdom as they apply. Commencing:

“€œI wonder why Mr. Derbyshire drags in so many red herrings. [A 5-point starting credit.]

“€œLet’s posit a libertarian triumph so that public schools have been abolished.”€[1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false]

“€œNow does JD look kindly upon the teaching of intelligent design? Of course not.”€[2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.]

“€œHis real desire is to de-legitimize any discussion of the subject by identifying ID as creationism. He positively longs for a return to the good old days when creationist Bible thumpers could so easily be ridiculed.[“€œ20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories.]

“€œHe doesn’t seem very eager to get into a discussion of science, either. He objects to “€˜pseudoscience”€™ (but is big-hearted enough to be amused by it). He appeals to judicial authority; and to the “€˜consensus”€™ of scientists. Science is not properly based on authority, however.”€ [40 points for claiming that the “scientific establishment” is engaged in a “conspiracy” to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.]

“€œIntelligent design is not creationism, and repeating that claim over and over will not make it so. [20 points for talking about how great your theory is, but never actually explaining it.”€]

“€œStructures or signals of specified complexity permit an inference to design without any necessary recourse to the supernatural. There’s an institute in Mountain View, California, where scientists are involved in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.[30 points for claiming that your theories were developed by an extraterrestrial civilization.]

“€No such signals have yet been detected, but they are not giving up any time soon. [40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is.]

As Tom’s already past 100 points, let’s cut to the chase:

“€œIf an organism exists, it is “€˜fit,”€™ and therefore Darwinism accounts for it. But as Derbyshire may also have heard, a theory that explains everything, without any possibility of encountering a falsifying instance, is not really a scientific theory at all.”€ [10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is “only a theory,” as if this were somehow a point against it. Plus 50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.]

“€œA criticism of intelligent design is that the claim, “€˜God can do anything, therefore this critter was designed by God”€™ gets us nowhere. I agree that it doesn’t. But a very similar objection can be raised against Darwinism. [10 points for arguing that while a current well-established theory predicts phenomena correctly, it doesn’t explain “why” they occur, or fails to provide a “mechanism.”€]

Trespassing 10 of Baez’s crackpot criteria in 1000 words or less is a considerable achievement! And what of its impact on readers, including Derbyshire?

If the sin of scandal consists in conduct harmful to faith,  the fellowship of Christian apologetics may have cause to fear Bethell more than he fears Darwin. Mild mannered mathematician John Derbyshire entered the fray over The Politically Incorrect Guide To Science declaring:

“€œI am not a philosophical materialist, and I don’t know what grounds Tom has for supposing that I am. I have made this plain numerous times, on NRO and elsewhere. I even count myself a religious person, and have said that numerous times, too.”€


He departed the controversy the following year declaring himself a convinced atheist.

Epistemology is about why we think we know things, and in studying Intelligent Design people of faith risk a perilous epiphany:  it is about being prepared to believe that what science already knows can never be discovered. Tautology rarely rises to the level of the sin of despair in human intelligence, but this Big Idea is clearly exceptional. Though consigned to a brief footnote in the history of science, The Discovery Institute may go down in the annals of theology for articulating the Third Millennium’s first insult to the honor of God.

Russell Seitz blogs at Adamant”>Adamant.

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