In God's Country

William Dembski thought Baylor University would be the perfect place to investigate a scientific alternative to Darwinism. Little did he realize he would be crucified for his cause.

Baylor Provost Donald Schmeltekopf defends the university's actions by pointing out that there are more and more people in academia interested in questioning the naturalistic assumptions of the scientific establishment and that Dembski is one of the most visible among them. "We thought it would be an interesting thing for Baylor to get into the conversation and to be a participant," he says.

But Weaver says Baylor faculty members have been asking these questions about the relationship between science and religion for years in the school's interdisciplinary Institute for Faith and Learning. "The inference that some of us have drawn is that we must have come up with answers that aren't those we were expected to come up with," says Weaver, who is a Presbyterian elder. "My faith background is one of asking lots of questions and living with a lot of doubts, and those may not be qualities that are valued at Baylor anymore. It may be that those of us with certainties are better adapted for the environment."

In any case, Schmeltekopf's conversation was about to turn into an argument, and a nasty one at that. In April, Dembski's Polanyi Center hosted a conference on naturalism sponsored by the Discovery Institute, a conservative think tank where Dembski is a fellow, and the Templeton Foundation, whose monies have gone a long way to bankroll the intelligent-design movement. The conference sought to answer a very unusual question: Is there anything beyond nature? An impressive collection of scientists from all over the world attended the conference, among them Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg. Of course, Weinberg titled his presentation "No," a straightforward answer to the conference's central question. And other speakers announced that they were going to give their honoraria to organizations that promote the study of evolution in schools.

Is it chance, or is it design? Dembski's explanatory process is laid out for laymen in his book, Intelligent Design.
Is it chance, or is it design? Dembski's explanatory process is laid out for laymen in his book, Intelligent Design.

Baylor faculty, by and large, boycotted the conference altogether. But that wasn't all. Just days after the naturalism conference, the faculty senate voted 27-2 to dismantle Dembski's center. If there was to be a center studying the intersection of science and religion at Baylor, they held, it should be rebuilt from the ground up -- with faculty input. In an editorial published in the Houston Chronicle, President Sloan charged that this uproar over faculty input was a cover for the real issue: the substance of the work being done by the center. "In my experience," he wrote, "people often object to "the way things were done' as a rhetorical substitute for what was done." Sloan refused to dissolve the Polanyi Center, citing issues of censorship and academic integrity.

He hit the nail on the head. A lack of input might have annoyed the faculty, but it was the center's promotion of intelligent design that made them angry. Dembski claims to be doing science, a science that hopes to question the very validity of naturalism and give Darwinism a backseat to design. And that is something that Baylor's mainstream scientists cannot abide. "You can always look at something and say, "That's something that God did,' " says Weaver. "Well, what can I do to prove you wrong?If I can't prove your theory incorrect, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's wrong, but it means it's not science."

Weaver says that intelligent design is little more than an ego trip. How do we know a biological system has been intelligently designed? Because it's designed the way we would have designed it, in a way that we can understand it. "That's a nice little egotistical thing, isn't it?" he says. "It's designed to make us feel more comfortable. We do best when we believe ourselves to be at the pinnacle of creation. And it doesn't have much to do with theology; it has much more to do with our insecurity as a species."

Intelligent design has been completely ignored in professional literature, Weaver says. No real scientists take it seriously. "Dembski's got a whole long list of places where he's written articles and published books, and none of them are peer-reviewed. They're not done in scientifically or philosophically respectable places," Weaver says. "We judge things in the academic world not by how many books are sold at Waldenbooks," but by what a scientist's peers think of his work. Dembski's peers in mainstream science have hardly even dignified him with a response. The famous Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who visited Baylor in the wake of the Polanyi Center controversy, dismissed intelligent design as nothing more than modern-day creationism.

But Charles Garner, an organic chemistry professor at Baylor who says he prays with students when they come to him with problems and criticizes evolutionary theory in class, argues that it would be virtually impossible to get intelligent-design articles peer-reviewed fairly by a pro-evolution scientific establishment. "Remember," he says, "you're going to be upsetting people's worldviews with this stuff."

Sloan wouldn't shut down the center, but he had no problem holding Dembski's work up to the light of peer review, especially if it would help smooth things over with the faculty. He assembled a group of nine biologists, philosophers, science historians and theologians -- primarily from other universities -- to look into the legitimacy of the center and intelligent design. Dembski was furious. The Baylor administration knew his work; he was hired because of it. Now, they were going to risk his academic reputation with a very public review by scholars he wasn't even sure were qualified to assess his work. "The peer review committee, from my perspective, was called for purely political motives, to assuage the angry faculty," he says, "but in doing that they put me in the frying pan."

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