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The Wedge Strategy Three Years Later

James Still

About three years ago, I reported on the "Wedge Strategy," a position paper authored by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute that described a sophisticated public relations campaign to sell intelligent design in the marketplace of ideas. (See "Discovery Institute's 'Wedge Project' Circulates Online".) The Wedge Strategy outlined a three-phase plan, the first two of which were to occur between 1999 and 2003, involving the wholesale marketing of the concept of intelligent design in order to shape public opinion favorably toward it.

According to the Wedge Strategy position paper "Phase I is the essential component of everything that comes afterward. Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade." Only when Phase I is complete can Phase II begin. The purpose of Phase II is:

"...to prepare the popular reception of our ideas. The best and truest research can languish unread and unused unless it is properly publicized. For this reason we seek to cultivate and convince influential individuals in print and broadcast media, as well as think tank leaders, scientists and academics, congressional staff, talk show hosts, college and seminary presidents and faculty, future talent and potential academic allies.... Alongside a focus on influential opinion-makers, we also seek to build up a popular base of support among our natural constituency, namely, Christians. We will do this primarily through apologetics seminars. We intend these to encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidence's [sic] that support the faith, as well as to 'popularize' our ideas in the broader culture."

Where do things stand now three years later? For those of you who have been following the exploits of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC) closely, you probably think that the public-relations cart has been put too far in front of the research horse. For example, in the last two years alone, we've seen at least two appearances of CRSC Senior Fellow Michael Behe on NPR's Science Friday radio program, a failed attempt to help the Kansas State school board engineer the removal of evolution from the state's science curriculum, slick video productions, made-for-television conferences, and numerous interviews in the popular press with ID godfather Phillip Johnson.

Additionally, the CRSC has been regularly sending its top spokesmen to lobby U.S. Congressional subcommittees and staff members on the need to craft legislation that would mandate that intelligent design be taught in the nation's classrooms. We've also witnessed the meteoric rise and stunning fall of Baylor University's Polanyi Center. Set up with funds from the Discovery Institute in October of 1999, the CRSC's William Dembski quietly created the Polanyi Center in order to to study "design in nature," thereby ensconcing himself within a top notch university's ivory tower. By borrowing the excellent reputation of Baylor, its distinguished faculty, and the name of Hungarian-born British scientist Michael Polanyi, Dembski and the CRSC hoped to legitimize intelligent design and to make the neo-creationist agenda a permanent part of higher education's landscape.

ID proponents wasted no time. Within a few months after setting up the center, Dembski and other CRSC Fellows organized a conference entitled "The Nature of Nature," to discuss whether or not there is evidence that supports supernatural design in nature. The Polanyi Center succeeded in attracting such notable scholars as John Searle, Alvin Plantinga, and Steven Weinberg. In a draft of an unpublished paper that she shared with me, Southeastern Louisiana University professor Barbara Forrest argues convincingly that notable secular scholars were invited to the conference in order that their reputations might lend a certain gravitas to the intelligent design movement. This "argument from coat tails" is backed up by the comments that one CRSC supporter made regarding the conference. In an article for Christianity Today, Nancy Pearcey writes, "These scientists' willingness even to address such questions [design in nature], alongside design proponents such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig, gives enormous credibility to the [intelligent design] movement."

Even though the conference was engineered primarily to market intelligent design, Glenn Morton, an attendee who wrote a review of the conference for the Jan-Apr 2000 issue of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, found that "the ID folks" had "put together some really interesting talks." (One speaker, Nobel-laureate Steven Weinberg, was a particular embarrassment to the CRSC, telling a shocked audience that "all gods are fairies" and that we should spend our time more wisely than looking for imaginary designers of nature.) Overall, Morton found that the four-day conference exposed the glaring weaknesses of intelligent design:

"It was starkly clear to most of the attendees that the ID movement offered no research program, avoided making empirical predictions, and basically engaged in philosophizing about, rather than explaining, the nature of Nature.... [The conference] succeeded in exposing the intellectual weaknesses of the ID movement."

The stealth plan to make the Polanyi Center a forward base within academia ran into serious trouble when biologists and other faculty members at Baylor learned of the conference and of Dembski's agenda. Joe Yelderman, a geology professor at Baylor, worried aloud that Baylor's reputation would be damaged by the Polanyi Center. "As a professor, I am concerned that people will make us guilty by association and assume that we are associated or linked to these organizations that have been established as pseudo-science," Yelderman told Baylor Lariat reporter Blair Martin. Yelderman expressed the same sort of concern that a homeowner faces when his neighbor puts a car up on blocks in his yard. Allowing a creationist to move in next door could bring the whole neighborhood down.

Worried that Baylor's reputation would suffer if the university tolerated creationism on campus, the science faculty banded together and pressured Baylor President Robert Sloan to send the Polyani Center packing. At first Sloan showed no sign of ceding to their demands. Then Lewis Barker, a well-respected psychology and neuroscience professor, left Baylor for Auburn university. After others left or threatened to leave, Sloan moved fast to cut his losses and appointed an independent panel to study the issue and make a recommendation to him. The panel reported back in October 2000 and recommended that the center be stripped of its name and moved to the philosophy and religion department. Sloan quickly followed the panel's advice. Dembski was outraged over the action and the next day issued a polemical press release accusing his "dogmatic" opponents of "intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression." In reaction to Dembski's outburst, Sloan demoted Dembski to associate professor.

The CRSC suffered another major setback in February when the Kansas State Board of Education voted 7-3 to put evolution back into the Kansas science curriculum. The CRSC has lobbied hard to have the board remove evolution, thinking that this would wedge open the door for alternative views such as intelligent design. But like the situation at Baylor, th

Published:
  2002-04-14

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