Barbara Forrest – The Wedge of Intelligent Design

February 16, 2007

Barbara Forrest is a philosopher and public intellectual at Southeastern Louisiana University. Widely praised for her compelling expert testimony in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial, she is a tireless defender of science education and the teaching of evolution in U.S. public schools. With Paul R. Gross, she is co-author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2004), which examines the goals and strategies of the intelligent design movement and its attempts to undermine the teaching of evolutionary biology.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Barbara Forrest examines the intelligent design movement, its history and its agenda, and the so-called “wedge strategy,” including the ID movement’s public relations efforts and other methods the movement has used to advance the widespread public acceptance of intelligent design. She also talks about the Discovery Institute and the implications of the theory of evolution for belief in God.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 16th, 2007. 

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I’m pleased to be joined on the show this week by Barbara Forrest, a philosopher and public intellectual at Southeastern Louisiana University. You might know her as one of the expert witnesses at the Dover Intelligent Design trial in late 2005. She’s coauthor with scientist Paul Gross of Creationism’s Trojan Horse, The Wedge of Intelligent Design, put out by Oxford University Press a couple years ago. Professor Forrest joins me on point of inquiry today to talk about the intelligent design movement and what’s called the wedge strategy, the hédi movement’s public relations efforts, which have been trumping scientific research throughout the country. She joins me on the phone from the Center for Inquiry’s Washington, D.C. branch, where she is participating in a congressional briefing that we’re putting on for the House Science and Technology Committee with Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey. Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Barbara Forrest. 

Well, thank you for having me, Barbara. 

Let’s start off by. Well, I’m interested in why you’re interested in the intelligent design movement rather than just letting people believe what they want to believe. This is a democracy. You’re challenging them. You’re going after certain beliefs. How did you first get involved in fighting the ideas movement? 

Well, I got involved at the beginning as a parent when a number of creationists attempted to get a creationist curriculum guide into my children’s public schools in the mid 90s. And that effort that was made by some creationists from New Orleans actually was my first look at the intelligent design movement, because about the time that was winding down in around 1996, I became aware of the establishment of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. So my first Andre into this issue in an active way was as a parent. Then afterwards I began to write about it because I have the professional background to be able to do that. 

What’s this? Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture? 

The Discovery Institute, which is a conservative think tank in Seattle, Washington, established a creationist subsidiary in 1996. And at that time it was called the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture. Two or three years ago, the Discovery Institute changed the name of that organization to the Center for Science and Culture. But that is the Discovery Institute’s creationist wing. And that’s actually their most active project that they pursue, although they have other interests. 

I mentioned in the introduction that you’re in DC today. Part of our congressional briefing that we’re putting on. Do you think members of Congress really care much about science education, especially how ideas might threaten it? 

I think there are members of Congress, certainly, that care about science education. I’m not sure how aware they are of the intelligent design movement. I know that intelligent design creationists do have their supporters in the U.S. Congress. So those people are aware of the movement. But I guess it’s it’s anybody’s guess as to how much other members of Congress actually know. I think this is an excellent opportunity for us to make sure that they become informed about the intelligent design movement since the Discovery Institute. People have actually got their supporters in Congress and have tried to make use of the legislative process on their own behalf. So I hope that today will be an opportunity for us to begin the process of educating the members of Congress about how important it is to support science education and to listen to the experts about that, rather than to listen to creationists who have very influential connections in the U.S. Congress. 

Barbara, if a congressperson asks you what harm does it do if our students in high schools all over America learn alternative views about life’s origins? Well, what do you say? What’s the harm? In my high schooler learning these alternative views? 

Well, the harm is that the premise of the question is mistaken. There aren’t any alternative views. And so if you teach your child that there is some scientifically viable alternative to the theory of evolution, you’re harming the child by misinforming the child. There is no other scientific explanation for the way life forms have been shaped on planet Earth except for the theory of evolution. So the harm comes from telling children something that just isn’t true. Now, that also contributes to a decline in the scientific literacy of the American public, which is already pretty low. So you certainly don’t want to take time in a science class to tell children something that is just simply going to lower the overall level of American scientific literacy. I don’t think children are ever helped by being told things that are not true. And of course, to tell them that there’s an alternative theory is not true. 

But isn’t this discussion of what’s true and what’s not? Something of a matter of opinion? Sure, there’s a consensus view, but there are other views out there. You say it’s not science. But here’s the question. We live in a democracy, a democratic republic. Why should this group of unelected scientists be the only ones deciding what is, in quotes, true? What’s taught to students about these central questions? 

Well, what is what is true in science isn’t decided by a majority vote. Science is not a democracy. Science is a process in which people who do research gradually come to a consensus about what their data mean. And that’s not a political process. And the idea that there are many opinions and that every opinion is just as valid regarding science is simply it’s an argument that that the creationists periodically try to use because it’s to their advantage to do so. But in science, it’s not the case that every opinion in a classroom should be heard, just as science is not a democracy. Neither is a public school classroom. It’s a classroom of minor children who are depending on adults to give them the results of the best scientific scholarship available. And so you don’t put things like that up to majority vote. That’s not the way science works, and it’s really not the way the educational process works. 

I want to talk about some of your critics in a moment. But before we get to that, just do me a favor and sum up for me what scientists say about ideas, why scientists say it’s bunk. I mean, why did Judge Jones and anyone else who followed the Dover trial that you were a part of conclude that intelligent design is just not science? 

Because the intelligent design creationists have never produced any science. They don’t do science. These people are simply the newest version of the creationism that has plagued American education for decades. Creationists in the past and these new creationists, the intelligent design creationists, don’t do any science. And the reason they don’t is because it would be very hard to do science. There is no way that science can support the supernatural. The reason that Judge Jones and the Kitzmiller trial declared intelligent design unconstitutional when it’s taught in a public school science class is that it’s very easy to show because the intelligent design people themselves have said that intelligent design is a religious idea. And so you don’t even have to really work very hard to see that intelligent design is basically a religious belief. It’s rooted in the gospel of John, as stated by its own proponents. So once that became clear to the judge, it was very clear the way he had to rule. This is a religious idea and as such cannot be taught as science. 

But can’t religious ideas be scientifically valid? 

I don’t see any way that the idea of the supernatural can be considered scientifically valid. The supernatural is beyond the reach of any empirical methodology that scientists have, and science operates on the basis of empirical data which are gleaned by the use of empirical methodologies. Intelligent design rejects modern scientific methodology, which means that scientists out of pragmatic necessity because they can’t do otherwise, limit themselves to searching for natural explanations for natural phenomena. So to even ask whether intelligent design is science simply is to overlook the fact that by its own proponents definition, it is a belief in the supernatural and there is no way that scientific data can address that question at all. 

I want to talk about you specifically as someone who’s railing against intelligent design. I want to get into your agenda. If you have one here, you were a key expert witness in the Dover trial. This Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial in 2005. By all accounts, your testimony hit the ball out of the park. But other people have criticized, if not your message, at least the messenger, at least you as kind of this person railing against ideas. You are an out secular humanist. You serve on the board of a secular humanist organization in New Orleans. So isn’t just that fact doesn’t prove that you have a bias. Aren’t you a.. Idea. Because you have a personal agenda to fight against belief in God in our culture. 

Absolutely not. That’s absurd. My my agenda. If you want to call it that is to defend the Constitution, to defend the process of public education by defending the Constitution. The reason the intelligent design side tried to use my association with the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association in order to have me excluded from the trial. And I’m the only expert witness. Trying to have excluded because they could not impugn my research. And so they used that as a red herring to try to draw attention away from the fact that my research was very important to the case. So rather than address the question of the data that I had put together in my book, Creationism’s Trojan Horse, which is what got me called into the trial, they simply chose to go after my personal associations, which actually are irrelevant. And there is there is absolutely no reason for me to try to hide or be ashamed of the fact that I’m associated with the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association. The reason that I am. Is because very early in after they organized, they invited me to give a lecture and asked if I would, as a favor to them, serve on their board in case they ever needed any advice or assistance. And I was glad to do that. There are very small organization of people who are seeking the company of like minded people. And I think it’s it’s very wrong to begin with to even think that one’s association with a humanist group in some way undermines one’s credibility. And so I have no personal agenda. My agenda is that of a civic minded American citizen who just wants to see the Constitution preserved earlier. 

Barbara, you mentioned the Discovery Institute and there in Seattle, Washington, this conservative think tank. Tell me a little bit more about their goals. And do you think they’ve changed at all in their tack since Dover? 

Well, the Discovery Institute in 1996 established the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which is now called the Center for Science and Culture. Their goals are what they’ve always been. Their immediate goal is to get intelligent design taught as science into the public school classroom. Now they deny that that’s their goal. In fact, they now deny that since Kitzmiller, that they’ve ever advocated that. But it can very easily be shown that they have advocated this, that they have actually tried to bring it about. Ultimately, their goal is to undermine the foundations of secular democracy. 

Jim Underdown that is a major charge you’re making against the Discovery Institute. 

It is. But they themselves have talked about the fact that they don’t like the way that modern science, especially Darwin’s ideas, has undermined the idea that that man was created in God’s image. If you read their strategy, document the Web strategy. It starts off with the observation that the West was founded on the idea that man was created in the image of God. They very much dislike the fact that we live in a secular society and that we have a secular government with a secular public education system. If you read their writings and some of their peripheral writings, for example, essays in a book called Unapologetic Apologetics, which was edited by William Damski and Jay Richards, who are both fellows at the Discovery Institute. They openly and very blatantly criticize the whole idea of secular society. They don’t like it and they would like to undermine it and substitute for it. Something more in line with their own religious preferences. That is a major charge. But again, it’s a major goal that the Discovery Institute has now as their goals have not changed. But their tactics have even before the Kitzmiller trial. They were working themselves away, backing away from the use of the term intelligent design. They were reluctant for people to use that term in proposals to school boards. That was because it had been by. Oh, at least I would say late 2003, early 2004, exposed as creationism. So that began to change their terminology even before the Kitzmiller trial began. 

What was the new terminology that they were using? 

They are using a number of code terms instead of talking about teaching intelligent design in the public school science class. They are now reverting to some of the old standby terms that creationists have always used. For example, they want to teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution. They want to teach the evidence for and against evolution and teaching the controversy. 

They say teaching the controversy. Right. 

And those are now terms that they prefer that their supporters use when they make proposals to school boards because they know that the term intelligent design is now a legal liability, which certainly proved to be in the Kitzmiller case. That is why the Discovery Institute urged the Dover School Board to either rewrite their policy on on intelligent design or to withdraw it because they knew that term was a liability. So their their tactics have changed. They were altering their sanitizing their terminology to try to present themselves as something different. But their goals have not changed. 

You just mentioned the wedge document. Tell me more about the wedge document. Why did it get your hackles up so much? It seems like people on our side of the fence there, you know, my bias. But as a secularist, a science advocate, whatever, I’m alarmed by this stuff. And I read about the wedge document and it really seems like this can. Curacy document to really take charge of the American educational system. 

Well, I don’t have to say that that it got my hackles up. That sounds like I was just reacting in a personal sense. I was reacting as a citizen to what was clearly a plan to undermine public education. This document was drawn up in about 1998 as a fundraising document by the Discovery Institute. It was not intended for public view. A photocopier in a Seattle office was given this document to photocopy. He noticed that it was marked top secret. This information, by the way, came out after the trial and we found out who the who the leaker was. His name is Matt Does of Seattle, Washington. He was given this document to photocopy. It looked like something which was fairly important. It was an unusual thing for him to photocopy. So he made a copy for himself and gave it to Tim Rhodes of Seattle, who stand it and put it on the Internet on a Web site of the discussion list that they were on the virus discussion list. I think it was calm. This is in February 1999. And this was the first look that people were able to get of the way. The Discovery Institute Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture actually viewed its own program. So once this document became known, I looked at it and I was preparing to do an article on the establishment of the Michael Palani Center at Baylor University, which was an intelligent design think-tank that William Dempster’s set up on the Baylor campus. And as I looked at this document, I noticed that all of the aspects of the strategy that were listed and they have goals extending over a period of 20 years were being carried out, except, of course, doing science that they had not even tried to do. But I noticed that the other parts of the strategy were being executed, for example, trying to get intelligent design into public school classrooms and other things, the use of the media forming alliances with various groups. And I was the person who actually authenticated that it was their document by finding things in an old directory on the Discovery Institute Web site with large chunks of the identical wording. So that document gave me and other people interested in following intelligent design a way to measure how much of their strategy they had carried out, and also a look at how the Discovery Institute themselves viewed their program. And that document proved to be a central piece of evidence in the Kitzmiller trial. I had to want Judge Jones through that document and show him that in the words of the Discovery Institute, creationists themselves, they view their program as an overtly religious one. 

And it should be said Judge Jones himself as a religious person, he just followed the evidence, was persuaded by your testimony. You’re the one that ferreted out the wedge document. Was the Discovery Institute’s, even if now they tried to distance themselves from it? 

Well, it was actually several years went by before they would even claim the document and they did not acknowledge it. That that it was theirs until after I wrote about it. 

You tracked it back to them and proved that it was their document. And they can’t distance themselves from it now. 

No, they certainly can. I was poking around on on their Web site one night and knocking off pieces of the Web address. Nihei you go behind a backslash and you’ll knock off a little piece and hit enter and see where you end up. 

Right. You could see parts of the directory that available. 

Exactly. And I ended up in an old directory that apparently was was part of their earliest Web site. And there were documents stored in that directory which had large pieces of the wording from this, what we call the wedge document. So I knew it was there. There I had independent authentication, that it was their document. So I I wrote about that in an article that I wrote about the Intelligent Design Movement. And I expanded the discussion of how I authenticated that in Chapter two of the book that Paul Gross and I published Creationism’s Trojan Horse after I authenticated it and wrote about it. They still continued to kind of distance themselves from from the document. Chris Mooney for an article that he wrote, actually asked them about the document. They finally admitted that it was there that had been stolen from their office and placed on the Internet without their permission. So Chris Mooney finally got an outright admission from them. And they, of course, pressure had been building on them to acknowledge the document. Ever since I had written about it. So he did get it out of them. 

I’d like to let our listeners know that you can get a copy of Creationism’s Trojan Horse through our Web site point of inquiry dot org. Barbara, you’re talking about the wedge document as something like evidence of conspiracy, maybe to change science education, to undermine it in America, to replace it with intelligent design, not just in science classes, but in other areas of culture. But doesn’t the wedge document say that? What it really wants to do is use science to advance theism. What’s wrong with that science? They say science is consonant with theism. We have champions of science who use science to argue there is no God. What’s wrong with trying to use science to argue there is a God? 

Well, first, I have never called the the pursuit of the word strategy a conspiracy. Everything the Discovery Institute has done, they’ve done right out in the open. They just were reluctant for some reason. Their reasons are their own, I guess, to acknowledge this document. I think they were, you know, a little bit nonplused that that the strategy that they were using to try to raise money was out in the open for everybody to see. I’ve never called it a conspiracy. And if people for religious reasons choose to interpret nature as pointing to God, I have no objection to that. People can draw whatever conclusions they want and put whatever interpretive framework around the natural world that they would like. But you just can’t call that science. And so what I object to is not the particular religious or even the non-religious interpretations people may personally or philosophically draw based on their understanding of the natural world. 

I have lots of friends who go in both directions on that. But that is not science. That is where you step beyond science into either your personal theological preferences or your personal philosophical views. That those are a matter of personal choice and preference. But they are not science. Science is a very limited enterprise. It’s very powerful. 

And it’s the most powerful way we have of understanding the natural world. But it cannot step beyond the reach of the natural explanations that scientists come up with for the data that they have. So my only objection is that people sometimes consider what the Discovery Institute, what they are doing as science, and they’re not doing science. They’re doing religious interpretation of science. 

So if you’re right that science can’t step beyond the natural world, can’t describe the supernatural, can’t really say anything about the supernatural. Do you agree with the Discovery Institute and our cultural competitors on that side of the fence who say that the evolution ideas debate does definitely have major implications for religious belief? It does seem to be central in this kind of culture war between the secular and religious in our country. 

Well, people all over the map on that one, I think it depends on on the particular proclivities that you bring to the issue in the first place. If you are religiously inclined, then you are more than likely to see science as if you are if you are comfortable with science, you are more than likely inclined to see science as something that points to God. If you are not religiously inclined, you’re simply not going to, you know, to do the same thing. 

But do you think there are real implications for religious belief coming out of the theory of evolution? If if you buy into evolution, do youth? In other words, do you understand why they seem to feel so threatened by the theory of evolution? Isn’t isn’t it atheistic? 

No, it’s not atheistic. I mean, it’s a process. Science is not intrinsically atheistic. The intelligent design people are, are they? They like to ask people on the religious right generally try to do anything that leaves God out is to them tantamount to atheist. But leaving God out is not the same thing as atheist. It’s merely to decline to address it because science doesn’t have a way to do that. Now that I understand why they object to evolution. Evolution is a natural process. It means that human beings have emerged in a world shaped by processes that have shaped all other life forms. I think that’s kind of neat, you know, because it gives us a relationship with other forms of life on the planet. Intelligent design creationists, on the other hand, are worried that if we are the product of natural processes, then we have no soul, we have no value, life has no meaning. Well, it’s demonstrably untrue that life has no meaning if we are the product of a natural process. People who, for example, don’t believe in God are perfectly comfortable with the idea that they are the product of a natural process. Their lives are as meaningful as the lives of anybody else. And the people who are the religious people are inclined to accept evolution, have managed to reconcile, but reconcile it with their personal beliefs by looking at evolution as God’s chosen mechanism to shape life on Earth. That’s a position called theistic evolution. And all mainstream religions have pretty much come to that particular position. I might point out, though, that the Discovery Institute does. Want to allow people, even that degree of accommodation, they reject the idea of theistic evolution out of hand. It’s certainly not the case that they’re rejecting that the ISM part that the effect park. They are rejecting the evolution part. So they don’t really want any accommodation made between science and religion. In fact, they call the position of mainstream religions that have done that, that have worked out this reconciliation. They call that accommodation ism and they use it as a pejorative term. So they allow very little leeway for interpretation of what the scientific data show. They they feel very threatened by the idea that that human beings are the product of a natural process. 

I really appreciate being on the show. I want to finish up by asking you if our listeners if someone gets kind of fired up about this issue, they’ve listen to this conversation. They read your book. What can they do to join the fight in quotes? What can they do to get involved? 

Well, to join this effort, I think the first thing people should do is to get involved locally. They should let their schools, especially if they have children in the schools, but let the school officials know that they support teaching evolution and science classes and possibly create organizations at the local level that can provide resources and assistance to schools in order to do that. There are now about a dozen citizens for science groups in a number of states. And even though those groups have sprung up in order to meet the problem of intelligent design in their various states, a lot of those groups also do education outreach because there are scientists and educators in those groups that work with work with the local teachers. So I think that’s a very good thing to do. Another thing that people can do is to join organizations and support through their membership the efforts of people who are working in a broader sense. For example, the National Center for Science Education on whose board of directors I presently serve. People can join that organization and support what we do with their membership contributions. They can also join organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union, which provided part of the legal defense in the Kitzmiller case, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which provided additional legal assistance. And they can also join organizations like the Center for Inquiry because the Center for Inquiry gives a great deal of support to the teaching of evolution. They publish free inquiry in which our literature is is frequently about that subject, and they are sponsoring this hearing today before the House Science and Technology Committee. So all of those organizations have been in the forefront of preserving both the integrity of public education and the Constitution. And anything citizens can do to support that work and to support the teaching of science locally I think is a valuable contribution. 

Thank you so much for joining me on Point of Inquiry, Barbara Florist. 

Well, thank you so much for having me, D.J. I listened to the show all the time. 

Well, thank you. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer Paul Kurtz. When Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Dwalin, contributors to today’s show, including Debbie Goddard and Thomas Donnelly. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.