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Intelligent Decline

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Bwog is proud to bring the third installment of “Lecture Hopping,” in which correspondents go to speeches, lectures, and public displays of erudition so you don’t have to.

ID: The Politics of Intelligent Design
February 27
Roone Arledge Cinema, Lerner Hall

Few titles herald a more dismal evening than “The Politics of Intelligent Design,” a panel hosted by the Columbia Political Union on Monday night in Roone Arledge Cinema. Fortunately, CPU had the good sense to invite a crazy person.

But first, a brochure, handed out the door, called “A Non-Partisan Guide to I.D.” Its ‘he said, she said’ summary of the topic highlighted the problem with hosting such a panel in the first place: CPU had apparently given “intelligent design theory” credit for being intellectually legitimate just because it exists. It isn’t, and in the absence of substantive controversy, I couldn’t see what there was to talk about. I prepared for two tedious hours of ideological shadowboxing.

The panel began with an introduction by moderator Joel Cracraft, trained biologist and Lamont Curator of Birds at the American Museum of Natural History. He introduced the topic as “intelligent design creationism,” saying, “I’ll call it creationism because that’s what it is.” On that note, Cracraft launched an impassioned defense of rational inquiry and the social importance of science. The audience applauded enthusiastically.

Next up was Nick Matzke, Public Information Project Director for the National Center for Science Education, and an advisor to the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover, 2004’s highly publicized Pennsylvania Supreme Court case on intelligent design. With the help of Powerpoint, Matzke established that the modern intelligent design movement is directly descended from the “creation science” of the 1970s and 80s. One slide showed the audience a draft of an intelligent design textbook in which “creationists” had been incompletely replaced by “design proponents,” yielding “cdesign proponentists.” It must have been a great courtroom moment, and I laughed with everyone else, but I couldn’t help but wonder if public debate would be better served by a thorough refutation of intelligent design’s claims, however specious their origin.

Barbara Forrest, who had been an expert witness in the Dover trial, followed with a brief profile of the modern intelligent design movement, listing its connections to various right-wing politicians and think tanks. It was nothing new to anyone who reads the papers, and as she detailed Rick Santorum’s flip-flopping on the issue, the discussion began to drag. Apparently our government hands out—get this—agriculture subsidies to red states.

After Forrest had finished, Cracraft introduced, with open contempt, the evening’s pièce de résistance: Reverend John Rankin, Harvard Divinity graduate and president of the Theological Education Institute, an organization he founded in Connecticut. From what I can gather from its website Rankin is a kind of evangelical Don Quixote, whose life’s work is to do battle with modern skepticism using old-fashioned, “radically theological” weapons.

He didn’t use Powerpoint, and he spoke clearly, if quickly. At first I was entranced: where the other panelists had told given dry, straightforward lectures, Rankin said things like “Yahweh Elohim is greater than space, time, and number.” He alluded to esoteric Hebrew scholarship and asked more than once what came before the “hot Big Bang.”

He didn’t talk about the politics of intelligent design. Instead he delivered a rapid-fire, ten-point lecture on the theme that all human knowledge and morality can be derived from—and only from–the Book of Genesis. He betrayed a peculiar fondness for formulaic repetition: each point began, “Only Genesis has a positive view of … ” The things of which only Genesis has a positive view include, but are not limited to, God, communication, human sexuality, science, “hard questions” and human rights. Rankin concluded by joking that God had made the dinosaurs to help the Smithsonian fundraise.

The question-and-answer portion of the program was, as one might guess, anticlimactic. Many of the questions for Rankin sounded like they’d been prepared before he’d given the fiery speech, and no one took up his ideas. One questioner asked—sensibly, since the issue had been almost completely neglected—why intelligent design isn’t science.

The last question brought us back to the surreal: an elderly man of the cloth asked Rankin if he’d heard of the fundamentalist website Answers in Genesis, which claims that the world was created in seven literal, twenty-four hour days. “I can demonstrate conclusively that’s not the case,” Rankin said. If you had his knowledge of Hebrew, you could too.

—Brendan Pierson

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1 Comment

  1. Rev. John C. Rankin

    Brendan Pierson says I did not talk about the politics of intelligent design. Quite the contrary. At the beginning of my prepared comments, I stated that the politics of "intelligent design" boil down to "theological baggage," that is, to the real concern of imposed religion hurting good science. Then I set forth my biblical ethics to address that concern, and in such context argued for good science and the scientific method. I also had a very good conversation with Dr. Joel Cracraft afterward. Mr. Pierson also states that no one took me up on my ideas per se, and he dismissed the questions I received as pre-prepared. No -- each questioner was engaged in the present tense. Another perspective would note that no one objected to the biblical ethics I presented on how best to address the debate over the politics of intelligent design.

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