Open Letter to the United Methodist Church on “intelligent design”

The Discovery Institute got upset that they weren’t allowed a table to promote “intelligent design” at the United Methodist Church’s general conference this year. The DI has been having quite the hissy fit over it, in fact, and has been encouraging people to be outraged about it and write the UMC to try to get them to reverse their decision.

I used the DI’s handy “email response” button to get the same mailing list, and put together my own letter to the UMC. Of course, I wasn’t doing the DI’s bidding in the content. Here’s a lightly edited version of that email:

I am taking advantage of the Discovery Institute’s suggested mailing list to direct this message to you, though I stand in opposition to the Discovery Institute.

Summary:

It is my position that “intelligent design” is a label created to lend cover to a subset of the tawdry, often-discredited arguments that formerly were used to promote creationism, then “scientific creationism”, and then “creation science”. The entire approach taken by the Discover Institute in promotion of “intelligent design” is deceptive at basis, and continues the same strategy that was called a “sham” by the US Supreme Court in its decision in 1987’s Edwards v. Aguillard case. The Discovery Institute encourages distrust of scientists and attempts to redefine science itself. As such, excluding persons who promote falsehood and error from the general conference is a moral good.

About me:

I am Wesley R. Elsberry, an interdisciplinary researcher with a background in the life sciences and computer science. I hold a Ph.D. in wildlife and fisheries sciences from Texas A&M University. In the past, I worked for the National Center for Science Education, advocating for good science education in the public K12 school science classrooms. I currently am on the boards of Florida Citizens for Science and the TalkOrigins Archive Foundation, both non-profit 501(c)(3) corporations. I was an attendee at Cleveland Heights Evangelical United Brethren church in Lakeland, Florida, when it joined the United Methodist merger in 1968. I became a member of the United Methodist Church around 1972. I have an interest in seeing that the United Methodist Church is not led into error.

Background:

In order to understand the Discovery Institute and what they mean by “intelligent design”, it is necessary to look back at the history of religious antievolution in the USA and beyond. I will start with the 1802 publication of the Rev. William Paley’s book, “Natural Theology”, a work of Christian apologetics. This book was highly influential, and its conceptual content can clearly be seen in the current argumentative content of the “intelligent design” movement. Paley gave various arguments which have been elaborated into the major arguments for “intelligent design”.

* The argument from organs of extreme perfection
* The argument from improbability
* The argument that the universe is finely-tuned for humans
* The argument from ease of advancement of knowledge

These arguments were often used in promotion of “creation science”. The first was most often seen as “gotcha” questions like “What good is half an eye?” or “What good is half a wing?” “Intelligent design” advocates simply changed the scale and asked, “What good is half a flagellum?” The second argument in “creation science” terms played up improbability of bringing together multiple parts into a functioning whole at once, with much discussion of “Borel’s Law” or that a “tornado in a junkyard” would not yield a functional car. In “intelligent design”, the argument was elaborated into a towering edifice of pseudo-mathematics under the synonymous rubrics of “specified complexity” and “complex specified information”. The argument that the universe is finely-tuned for humans was advanced by advocates of “creation science” and then by advocates of “intelligent design”.

The original religious antievolution movement which gave us Tennessee’s Butler Act (which was the law behind the Scopes trial in 1925) utilized these concepts. Religious antievolution incorporated negative argumentation as well, in the form of critiques against particular scientific research or findings. The motivation behind the early movement was at least honest, in that advocates disliked evolution and stated their preference for the primacy of literalist readings of the Bible.

In 1968, though, the Supreme Court ruled against an Arkansas law similar to Tennessee’s Butler Act, in the case, Epperson v. Arkansas. The court decided that the teaching of science in public school classrooms could not be suspended or altered to advance a particular sectarian stance. A dissenting opinion in the decision, though, stated that, of course, anything that was science could be taught in those classrooms. The religious antievolution movement stood at a moral crossroads at that point, where they could continue to make their arguments without modification in churches and outside the public school science classroom, or they could take up a deceptive stance that much of the same arguments previously made for creationism were scientific in nature and deserved a hearing in those public school science classrooms. Unfortunately for all concerned, they chose the immoral path of pretense rather than truth, and thus was born the concept of “scientific creationism”. A rhetorical flourish later would re-brand this as “creation science”.

Because the new venture in deception that was “scientific creationism”/”creation science” aimed to pass muster in the legal system, it had to try to make sense of its approach to argumentation. A philosophical foray here came to be known as “oppositional dualism”, or as it was referred to in legislation, “the two-model approach”. One usually only credits a conclusion based on the evidence and argument adduced for it, but since the class of argumentation that is *for* a conclusion of creationism is easily recognizable for its origins in religious argument (either because it is itself scriptural or because its provenance is demonstrable that of Christian apologetics), the “scientific creationism” movement had to assert that evidence that they felt made acceptance of evolution less likely was, in fact, evidence for whatever label they chose to call creationism this time around. This resulted in the curious contention that an argument whose sole purpose was to cast doubt upon a piece of scientific research, a field of science, or the practitioners of a particular field in science would, in fact, be “evidence” for their preferred alternative conjecture. This entire endeavor was instantly recognized and rebutted as simply being the logical fallacy of false dichotomy, but the rebuttal is simply ignored in the religious antievolution movement to this day.

Oppositional dualism was the foundation for the call in “creation science” for public school science classrooms to devote “equal time” to their rhetoric whenever evolutionary biology was taught. It was decisively rejected by the courts, both in the 1982 McLean v. Arkansas decision and in the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard Supreme Court decision. But it continues on in religious antievolution, making an appearance in the defense’s argumentation in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case, where arguments against evolutionary biology were said to be evidence *for* “intelligent design”.

Ministers of the United Methodist Church took a stand against the deceptive approach to antievolution by becoming plaintiffs in the McLean v. Arkansas case decided in 1982. The Discovery Institute’s “intelligent design” simply recycles and reuses the same arguments that the “creation science” advocates made in that case.

Beyond the deceptive practices the Discovery Institute uses in promotion and defense of “intelligent design”, there is the simple issue that there is neither a secular purpose to teaching falsehoods to children, nor is it defensible on grounds of morality. And what has been published by the Discovery Institute’s staff, fellows, and fellow travelers is rife with error, dis-ingenuousness, and misleading statements. What they offer as reasoned discourse on scientific topics is most charitably described as poppycock.

The Discovery Institute’s adroit use of rhetoric allowed them to garner a credulous following for “intelligent design” from the late 1990s to 2005, including notice in major newspapers. This was an intentional campaign. I was present at a conference in 1997 where Discovery Institute advisor Phillip E. Johnson’s plenary talk quite frankly discussed the importance of “legitimating the question”, and thanked the critics attending the conference (who had not been advised that its goal was the promotion of “intelligent design”) that their very presence did help to “legitimate the question”. The reliance on rhetoric and the experience the Discovery Institute’s advocates had in deflecting and deferring criticism came to an abrupt reality check in the trial phase for the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District case. With sworn witnesses placed on the witness stand, the ability to simply put off answering inconvenient questions was curtailed, and the resulting paucity of substance surprised even the press. Journalist Lauri Lebo, who covered the cross-examination of Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Michael Behe in court, was pressed by her editors to write about something positive for Behe. Lebo responded that there was nothing positive to report, that Behe had been destroyed on the stand. (Though Behe himself appeared to have been unaware that his performance on the stand was anything other than competent throughout.) Discovery Institute Fellow Scott Minnich stipulated in his cross-examination that various of the arguments made by “intelligent design” advocates were fairly described as repeating what “creation science” advocates had asserted years previously. When the circumstances were such that answers had to be produced that addressed critical questions, the arguments of “intelligent design” were demonstrated to be wanting on their own, or to be part of the provenance of previous deceptive forms of religious antievolution.

The deceptive techniques chosen by antievolution strategists since 1968, including the Discovery Institute in promoting “intelligent design”, “academic freedom”, “critical analysis”, and “strengths and weaknesses” (all labels aimed at advancing the same old argumentative content seen in “creation science”), have as necessary side-effects the devaluation of scientific expertise and fostering confusion over the nature of science. “Intelligent design” advocates have acted to try to have alternative definitions of science used, ones where the empirical nature of science is diminished or discarded and mere logical consistency substituted as a suitable basis for science. These actions cannot serve except to do harm to humans who are becoming ever more dependent on technology to enable the production of sufficient food to feed the hungry and in finding ways to help heal the sick. Those tasks will only be made more difficult when clarity over what science is becomes a casualty of the sectarian push to improperly privilege the Discovery Institute’s concept of “intelligent design”.

I support the decision of the United Methodist Church to exclude the Discovery Institute from its general conference. I encourage the UMC to remain steadfast in supporting the separation of church and state, and also its stance against the particular errors of deceptive religious antievolution embodied in “creation science” and its subset, “intelligent design”.

Wesley R. Elsberry, Ph.D.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

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