Another View of Phillip Johnson

Phillip E. Johnson may believe six inconsistent things before breakfast, but we don’t have to follow his example — or trust his latest inconsistent pronouncement.

The Sacramento Bee recently ran an article featuring an interview with Phillip E. Johnson, the “godfather” of the “intelligent design” movement.

His main disappointment is that the issue hasn’t made more headway in the mainstream scientific community.

Johnson said his intent never was to use public school education as the forum for his ideas. In fact, he said he opposed the efforts by the “well-intentioned but foolish” school board in Dover, Pa., to require teachers to present intelligent design as a viable scientific theory.

Instead, he hoped to ignite a debate in universities and the higher echelon of scientific thinkers.

But Johnson said he takes comfort knowing he helped fuel the debate that has taken place so far. “Perhaps we’ve done as much as we can do in one generation.”

What has Johnson said and done in the past concerning this topic, though? Is it really the case that public K-12 school curricula were not an issue for Johnson at any point? What we can see from the record is that public education at the K-12 level has, in fact, been a particular hobby-horse of Johnson’s. I also went through all of Johnson’s “Wedge Updates” archived at “Access Research Network” to see what Johnson had to say about public education there.

This happens to be ground that I previously covered in my 2002 talk for the 4th World Skeptics conference.

First, consider a statement of Johnson’s reported in the SF Weekly on June 20, 2001, that looks perfectly compatible with his currently reported stance seen in the SacBee quote above:

But Johnson argues that forcing intelligent design theory into public schools is not his goal. “We definitely aren’t looking for some legislation to support our views, or anything like that,” he says. “I want to be very cautious about anything I say about the public interest, because obviously what our adversaries would like to say is,
“These people want to impose their views through the law.’ No. That’s what they do. We’re against that in principle, and we don’t need that.”

Let me slip into Paul Harvey mode here and give you the rest of the story.

The SF Weekly interview came out just about the time that we started hearing about the Santorum amendment. From the NCSE compilation:

On June 13, 2001, the US Senate adopted a Sense of the Senate amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Authorization bill, S 1, then under consideration. Proposed by Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), the amendment read:

It is the sense of the Senate that (1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why the subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.

There are a number of problems that aren’t immediately obvious concerning the phrasing of this amendment. The most important to keep in mind is that it singles out evolutionary biology among all the sciences, and that wherever anyone has attempted to invoke the Santorum language, what they invariably seek to have taught are a simple subset of standard creationist arguments against evolution.

The Senate’s adoption of the Santorum amendment into its version of the “No Child Left Behind” Act occurred a full week before the Johnson interview appeared in SF Weekly. Later, Johnson boasted of writing the initial draft of the Santorum amendment. So, at the same time that Johnson was delivering his polemic quoted above to the SF Weekly, he was also either also writing the draft language of the Santorum amendment, or, at the very most favorable, would shortly following the interview have reneged upon its statement of principle in order to do so.

This is not the only instance of Johnson’s actions, or even his words, belying his current stance.

Whether educational authorities allow the schools to teach about the controversy or not, public recognition that there is something seriously wrong with Darwinian orthodoxy is going to keep on growing. While the educators stonewall, our job is to continue building the community of people who understand the difference between a science that tests its theories against the evidence, and a pseudoscience that protects its key doctrines by imposing philosophical rules and erecting legal barriers to freedom of thought.

(Wedge Update)

If the public school educators will not “teach the controversy,” our informal network can do the job for them. In time, the educators will be running to catch up.
(Wedge Update)

The Battle of Ohio was joined this week, when the Ohio state Board of Education held a special meeting before a crowd of 1000 persons in a Columbus auditorium to consider alternatives to an aggressively pro-Darwinian science curriculum proposed by a drafting committee. For a good basic news account, see

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum contributed an opinion column on the controversy, emphasizing the bipartisan support for consideration of scientific alernatives to evolution, including intelligent design.

Complete articles on what happened in Ohio will be available in due course at this web site and at For now, the important thing is that Darwinism is facing a huge crisis both in American and Britain. In Ohio, the 13 presidents of the state’s universities have announced that they oppose any measure allowing the teaching of intelligent design, a desperate measure that indicates how fearful Darwinists are at the prospect of losing their monopoly over education. In Britain, much of the Prime Minister’s question time this week involved a single school that is teaching both evolutionism and creationism as alternatives.
(Wedge Update)

This installment was prepared with a mighty assist from John Calvert, a retired Kansas City attorney who was one of the friends of freedom who came forward to help in the Kansas Controversy of 1999. Eventually the Darwinists were able to employ their media monopoly and political power to intimidate the people of Kansas and defeat some of the courageous state school board members for re-election, whereupon the new board bowed to their will. I recall Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas asking me if I was discouraged by the defeat. Not at all, I answered. We have raised new forces, and forged an alliance between groups that were formerly suspicious of each other. We will fight again, and eventually the leaders of science will learn that the costs of imposing a pseudoscientific materialism on America are too great for them to bear. [The issue in Kansas was public school science standards. — WRE]

(Wedge Update)

The breaking news is that a full scale Kansas-style revolt against the dogmatic teaching of evolutionism has broken out on the Ohio State Board of Education.
(Wedge Update)

The big news this week is the home run scored by Jonathan Wells at Harvard, a sign that it is nearly inevitable that “teach the controversy” will become public policy. I sent this message to our friends Michael Ruse and Richard Dawkins:

Hi Michael and Richard:
Can it possibly be illegal or improper for a public school teacher to inform students that “This is the sort of debate that is now occurring in universities?”
– Phil

(Wedge Update)

By highlighting the religious agenda of many Darwinists, Ruse has given implicit support to the famous “Santorum Amendment” to President Bush’s Education Bill, which passed the U.S. Senate by a vote of 91-8. The Amendment seeks to promote good education by distinguishing the testable hypotheses of science from the philosophical or religious claims (typically naturalistic or materialist philosophy, that are so often presented with the authority of science. Determined to preserve its power to promote philosophy as science, and unwilling to concede that there is anything controversial about “evolution,” the scientific elite is resisting the move towards candor in education with all its might. An editorial in the Albuquerque Tribune for September 5, 2001, attacking the Santorum Amendment, concluded that “Evolution isn’t controversial among scientists, and it isn’t just about biology and human origins. It’s fundamental to our entire universe and how we see ourselves within it.”
(Wedge Update)

The most visionary leaders of the SBC frankly refer to their denomination as a “sleeping giant,” larger than all the other mainstream denominations combined, and full of people committed to a truly Biblical Christianity, but unprepared to meet the intellectual challenges of the universities, the public school system, and the secular media culture.


As readers of Chapter Three of The Wedge of Truth know, the national scientific establishment pulled out all the stops to strangle the babe of intellectual freedom in its cradle. As a result of the disinformation campaign that the National Academy waged, most newspaper readers still think that the Board banned the teaching of evolution in Kansas. Kansans who worship at the shrine of naturalism, and the greater number of Kansans who merely crave the approval of those who have money and power at their disposal, were relieved that some of the courageous Board members were defeated at the next election. Now it seemed that Kansas would go back to normal, and slavishly follow the fashions set in New York.
(Wedge Update)

When we argue that schools and universities should “teach the controversy,” Eugenie Scott likes to reply that there is no controversy to teach — within science.
(Wedge Update)

Finally, a huge bipartisan majority of the United States Senate has endorsed an intellectual freedom resolution for science education. The “sense of the Senate” is that “(1) good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science; and (2) where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.” Believe it or not, some science educators find that language to be frightening.
(Wedge Update)

At the end of this month the major Wedge participants will gather again in Kansas City for a two-day symposium sponsored by the Kansas Intelligent Design Network. The Kansas Intelligent Design Network grew out of the Kansas political controversy described in Chapter 3 of The Wedge of Truth, and it has provided a whole new dimension to the ongoing battle over science education standards in that state. The Calvin conference was basically by and for professors; the Kansas City conference will be basically by and for citizens who want to be well informed about how to counter the dogmatic advocacy of scientific naturalist philosophy in the science curriculum. The conference title is “Darwin, Design and Democracy II: Teaching the Evidence in Science Education.” I urge any of our friends from the midwest to consider attending.

The Wedge has at least three important components, maybe more. There is an academic component, illustrated by events like the Calvin Conference. There is a citizen component, illustrated by events like the upcoming Kansas City Conference. Finally, there is a religious component, illustrated by our many speaking events at churches and seminaries. An outstanding example of this third kind of event is the conference June 25-27 at The Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. The conference theme is “Equipping for Ministry in Today’s University Culture”, and I will be giving the primary plenary session lectures. [For information about the Conference call 1-800-626-5525, x 4119.]

I am constantly reminding people that all three components are important. We need to improve and expand our scientific work, and we need to pay careful attention to the sensitivities of the scientific and academic communities. We can win some people over that way, but we are opposed by powerful vested interests who will not be swayed by scholarly arguments alone. We also need to build our citizen base, and to educate the very large number of dedicated people in the religious world about how they can more effective challenge the ruling naturalistic definition of knowledge. We won’t achieve a breakthrough in science merely by making a scientific case, no matter how good that case is. We also need to build a growing community of educated people, especially students, who know what is at stake and who can’t be bluffed by authority figures who claim that they have overwhelming evidence that natural selection did the creating– but who don’t understand the difference between evidence and philosophical prejudice.
(Wedge Update)

Notice that the “citizen component” is the one whose focus is explicitly upon making changes in K-12 public school education.

Since the publication of his splendid book Icons of Evolution, Jonathan Wells has emerged as a popular lecturer. So far this month he has spoken to a large audience at the University of Washington, addressed a workshop on family issues in Washington, D.C., and lectured on the “icons” at Pennridge, Pennsylvania, where a high school senior named Joe Baker has been getting national media attention for challenging the errors in the biology textbooks. Jonathan also lectured on textbook errors at the annual meeting of the British Columbia Science Teachers’ Association, where he was introduced by the group’s President. A Canadian Wedge member who was present remarked that he had never seen the science teachers so eager to rush forward for copies of a speaker’s handouts. I wonder how long the Darwinist propagandists will be able to stick to their line that “we can’t teach the controversy, because there is no controversy to teach.”

The prime event of the past week was the “Banned in Burlington” teach-in at the Seattle area high school where science teacher Roger DeHart has come under attack for “teaching the controversy” rather than sticking to the official story about evolution in the textbooks. A mostly supportive crowd cheered DeHart along with Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman, Gonzaga University law professor David DeWolf, and Jonathan Wells. DeWolf made the point that even a law review article taking the Darwinist line agreed that DeHart’s teaching was within all legal boundaries. The opposition was represented by some faculty from Western Washington University, who were driven to the fall-back position that learning about the textbook errors is “too sophisticated” a subject for high school students. Of course the errors aren’t corrected at the graduate school level either, and most evolutionary biology professors still seem to think that the non-existent early embryonic similarities are “just what our theory predicts.”


As I was writing this update, a friend sent this personal account:

“My 14 year old son Spencer (freshman in high school in Colorado Springs) recently completed a ‘social issues’ project entitled ‘How Should Evolution Be Taught in the Public School Classroom?’ His assignment included selecting a controversial topic, reading a book, conducting an interview, watching a video, reading 5 magazine articles and 5 news articles, preparing a complete research notebook, and giving a 50-minute presentation to his class and administering a test on his presentation.

“When he presented his topic to the teacher, the teacher warned him that he might not be able to find enough material on the topic and suggested “State Water Rights” instead. Spencer persisted and the teacher consented. Spencer read Icons of Evolution, interviewed Jonathan, watched the Behe lecture video, and read 5 articles in the Touchstone magazine. He presented two of the Icons to his class (embryos and Miller-Urey) using the school’s biology textbook as an example. He also presented concepts of ID and ended with the punchline ‘let’s teach the controversy, let’s not censor information’. Afterwards the teacher asked many questions and told Spencer it was a very difficult subject and he had given one of the best presentations he had ever seen. He was also impressed with the professional backup (Icons book and Behe video). He wanted to know if Intelligent Design was being taught in any other schools.

“So when we are fed the line that ‘the truth is too sophisticated for high school students’, let’s respond with real stories and real data to the contrary.” Amen.
(Wedge Update)

Note the “Amen” from Johnson on that last one.

I was on the road lecturing this past week. I spent last weekend at the Christian Medical and Dental Association of Canada, teaching the Intelligent Design position and the Wedge strategy to a medical audience. Then, after a few days touring with my wife in the Winnipeg area, I few on to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to speak at the annual convention of the Christian Homeschool Association of Pennsylvania. This remarkable gathering annually attracts several thousand homeschooling parents and their children. When I was a young parent thirty years ago, it would never have occurred to me that parents could educate their children effectively at home. Now I am convinced that home schooling is the best way to go for many families. The children I met at the convention were just marvelous. They love their education, love their parents, are inquisitive and sociable, and are extremely well-behaved. They seem to avoid the usual teenage rebellious period, probably because they are not socialized by a teenage culture but by their own families. Christian home schooling families are mostly enthusiastic creationists/IDers (which is why I was invited to speak), and they understand the issues. Their young people are going to out-perform the students who are going through our miserable public educational system, and many of them will grow up to be intellectual leaders. The best estimates are that between 1.2 million and 1.6 million children are now being home schooled in the USA. That means that the prospects for the Intelligent Design movement in the next generation are very bright indeed. There also seemed to be quite an interest in the RealScience-4-Kids curriculum being developed by ARN for the homeschool market.

Favorable newspaper coverage of Intelligent Design has continued. The Tacoma News Tribune published a three-part series growing out of my lecture in Tacoma a couple of weeks ago. It included an article on teachers who are challenging Darwinian dogmatism and also a piece by a high school sophomore praising a teacher who makes science more interesting by teaching Intelligent Design as an alternative to Darwinism. I only hope this well-meaning student doesn’t get the teacher in trouble with the Darwinist thought-police.
(Wedge Update)

The past month has been the best ever for the Intelligent Design movement. On March 25 the Los Angeles Times had a good story about us on page one, featuring the “Inherit the Wind in reverse” Darwinist persecution of high school teacher Roger DeHart. DeHart has been ordered by administrators to stop trying to open the minds of his students, by (among other things) distributing Stephen Jay Gould’s article in Natural History, which acknowledges that the embryo drawings in the biology textbooks are fraudulent.
(Wedge Update)

Please do read some more on teacher Roger DeHart.

The best thing about the CNN program was that it exemplified the approach for teaching evolution that we in the Intelligent Design movement support. The public schools should “teach the controversy.” Students need to learn what the mainstream scientists believe about evolution, and why they believe it. Students also need to learn why there are so many critics, and why the critics are growing in number and influence.

If the science educators continue to pretend that there is no controversy to teach, perhaps the television networks and the newspapers will take over the responsibility of informing the public.
(Wedge Update)

So now when Johnson says that the K-12 public school setting as a place for delivering his ideas has never been an issue for him, you can make an informed decision about his credibility.

11 thoughts on “Another View of Phillip Johnson

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  3. Austringer Post author

    Got this in email:

    […] it’s somewhat disheartening that Phillip
    Johnson isn’t automatically assumed to be lying by any competent

    There’s a point here. Those who don’t know the history of the ID advocates in general are likely to falsely extend the benefit of doubt. I think that we can count on this being exloited for the foreseeable future, until such time as the media realizes that ID advocates are no more credible than various other sorts of denialists who don’t get a presumption of credibility any more.

  4. Liz Craig

    Hey, Wes —

    Thanks for the compilation of Wedge Updates by PEJ, which shows that he has lied, misrepresented, and still possibly does not understand that ID is not science. Tsk tsk.

    Johnson, like Calvert, had a traumatic experience (which I in no way wish to minimize or make fun of) which drove him to evangelical Christianity. How this tends to turn previously rational people to irrationality, I still don’t understand.

    Intelligence has nothing to do with it. It’s something else. I don’t know what.

  5. Paul Decelles

    Ooh I didn’t realise we had that much power! But hey, when in doubt blame some scarey bogieman…DARWINISTS!

    “Eventually the Darwinists were able to employ their media monopoly and political power to intimidate the people of Kansas and defeat some of the courageous state school board members for re-election, whereupon the new board bowed to their will.”

  6. Tim Makinson

    I think that we can count on this being exloited for the foreseeable future, until such time as the media realizes that ID advocates are no more credible than various other sorts of denialists who don’t get a presumption of credibility any more.

    I agree, and suspect that some sort of preemptive education is needed. If the science and religion desks of all major papers got supplied with a list of each of the more prominant ID advocates more juicy contradictory/crackpot quotes, it might prepare them to be a bit less naive in their acceptance of their positions.

  7. bill rohan

    Mr. Elsberry, What is so interesting to me is not the ID “arguments” against evolution but the fact that there are so many individuals who do not sccept evolution despite the overwhelming evidence. Those who criticize the science are unable or unwilling to understand its validity, or are simply dishonest. It is possible that some of the unable and a few of the unwilling could come to understand and therfore accept evolution through educational efforts, but I think something more fundamental is operating. It is this. Our free will natures allows us to assign meaning to experience. If information becomes available that is inconsistent with or contradicts our versions of the way things are, our egos become involved. Submit to the facts and admit to error or find a way of reaffirming one’s erroneous view, to protect and affirm one’s self-image/view. Another way of saying this is that life presents us with choices to be knowledgeable by assigning meaning in accordance with the evidence or by assigning meaning in accordance with our self protecting will. Bill Rohan

  8. Emanuel Goldstein

    You people should talk; I notice that Liz Craig (locally famous in Kansas for suggestion that the opposition should be portrayed in the worst light possible) is out giving psychological insights again.

    She should pay more attention to her own site at Kansas Citizens for Science which is currently dominated by a discussion of “Atheist Morality”…this of course has nothing to do with science but…whatever.

  9. Austringer Post author

    “Emanuel Goldstein”,

    Remind me… what logical bearing does whatever Liz Craig does or says have upon Phillip Johnson’s lack of consistency in what he says?

    I’m reminded of the classic advice for budding lawyers… “When the facts are against you, pound on the law. When the law is against you, pound on the facts. When both are against you, pound on the table.”

    Tu quoque is a table-pounding tactic, nothing more.

  10. TimI

    Oh gosh, I knew that I should’t have thrown out the reference to Johnson’s prediction of when the demise of Darwinism/Naturalistic* evolutionary theory would be generally accepted by scientists. I could have sworn he suggested something in the neighborhood of twenty years (and that was in the mid-’90s). Time’s running out for that notion.

    *Of the ‘methodological’ stripe…

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