"Intelligent design" at NMNH?

On May 28, 2005, readers of The New York Times were surprised to discover that The Privileged Planet -- a film based on the book of the same title by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Wesley Richards, both affiliated with the Discovery Institute -- was scheduled for a private showing at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. A spokesman for the museum explained that its auditorium is available for use by private organizations in return for a donation -- the Discovery Institute donated $16,000 -- and that "[i]t is incorrect for anyone to infer that we are somehow endorsing the video or the content of the video." Such events are described, as a pro forma courtesy, as cosponsored by the museum. But the language of cosponsorship obviously holds the potentiality to mislead: Denyse O'Leary, a Canadian author and blogger sympathetic to the "intelligent design" movement, headlined her announcement of the event as "Smithsonian Museum warming to intelligent design theory," perhaps prompting the Discovery Institute's Bruce Chapman to tell the Times that the museum "certainly didn't say, 'We're really warming up to intelligent design, and therefore we're going to sponsor this.'"

The double disavowal of the museum's endorsement of the film notwithstanding, there was still widespread dismay about its being screened at one of the world's leading natural history museums under its prestigious, even if pro forma, cosponsorship. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State remarked, "The Smithsonian will walk away with a black eye if this movie is aired at the museum. So far, the scientific community has rebuffed ID proponents, leaving them to wage a public relations battle to convince Americans that their ideas are scientific and worthy of serious study. If the film airs at the museum, it's a sure bet ID proponents will start saying, 'Look! Even the Smithsonian says our ideas are worthwhile!'" And the James Randi Educational Foundation went so far as to offer the museum $20,000 to refund the Discovery Institute's money and not to screen The Privileged Planet, quipping, "And the JREF will not require the Smithsonian to run any films or propaganda that favor our point of view..."

Perhaps in response to such concerns, the museum decided to withdraw its cosponsorship and to refund the Discovery Institute's $16,000, on the grounds that it "determined that the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution's scientific research," although the film will still be screened. A report in the June 2 issue of the Washington Postquoted the Discovery Institute's Chapman as lamenting, "We're disappointed ....We met all their conditions ... and then some mention of this in the media, and now they want to backtrack to some degree, and we don't get it." Americans United's Rob Boston responded, "Perhaps a little clarification would be helpful for Mr. Chapman: The Smithsonian is one of the world's premier scientific organizations. Intelligent design, meanwhile, is a tool increasingly used by evangelical Christians to cast doubt on Darwinism and win converts. Not surprisingly, the Smithsonian can't promote that." James Randi applauded the museum for taking "a proper and wise decision ... [that] will satisfy the regulations in place while disarming the creationists of any advantage they may have sought in obtaining this venue."

In its June 3 editorial "Dissing Darwin," the Washington Post observed that "[w]hile 'The Privileged Planet' is an extremely sophisticated religious film, it is a religious film nevertheless. It uses scientific information -- the apparently 'perfect' position of Earth in its orbit and in its galaxy, the uniqueness of its atmosphere -- to answer, affirmatively, the philosophical question of whether life on Earth was part of a grand design, and not just the result of chance and chemistry. Neither God nor evolution is mentioned. Nevertheless, the film is consistent with the Discovery Institute's general aim, which is to drive a wedge into the scientific consensus about the origins of life and the universe and to give a patina of scientific credibility to the idea of an intelligent creator. The museum was naive or negligent not to recognize this, and more naive not to anticipate the backlash," adding that the museum's eventual decision to refund the money and withdraw its cosponsorship was "an embarrassing about-face, but not as embarrassing as the original decision."