June 30, 2005

Varnishing the Wedge

Ed Brayton and John West are having a discussion about the metaphysical implications/ basis of intelligent design creationism. The discussion was inaugurated by West's expressing frustration with what he called the "hijacking" the expression "intelligent design" by Utah State Senator D. Chris Buttars. You will remember that Buttars called for a bill that would allow the teaching of "divine design" in Utah schools. I stuck my nose into this the other day.

It looks to me that Ed Brayton has done a good job in defending himself and that John West has either missed the point or chosen to discuss some other point. I would like to look at just one complaint that John West brings up. Here is John West's complaint about Ed's use of the Wedge document.

Neither does an out-of-context quote from an old Discovery Institute fundraising proposal, most of which focuses not on ID as a scientific theory but on the cultural context of science and the harmful effects of the pseudo-scientific philosophy of scientific materialism. That document does mention that design theory is "science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions." So what? "Consonant with" means "harmonious with," not "identical to." Where's the scandal in such a claim?

John West can't bring himself to call the document the Wedge document he uses an euphemistic phrase and a circumlocution.

In defense of his point, Ed quotes the Discovery Institute's founder Phillip Johnson as follows,

The objective [of the Wedge Strategy] is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to "'the truth" of the Bible and then "the question of sin" and finally "introduced to Jesus."

Today I only want to look at John West's claim that Ed quoted the Wedge document out of context and then look at the document John West links to that gives the Discovery Institute's spin on the Wedge.

First, we need to understand what it might mean to take something out of context. The first possibility is what I call "out of internal context." Considering the Wedge document as a standalone piece of literature, did Ed quote it out of context? The second possibility involves being out of the extended larger context. For example, the institutional context of the document and or the larger context as defined by its author. Did Ed quote out of context?

Here is the passage from the Wedge document that Ed uses within the immediate context of his first post.

Or perhaps Buttars simply looked to the Wedge document itself, which describes in vivid detail the aims of the very organization that West represents and on whose behalf he is writing:
Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.

See, the problem here for West is not that no one is listening to the ID scholars; the problem is that we are listening to them and their own words are in direct contradiction to the tactical marketing campaign that the DI is trying so desperately to run.

The paragraph that Ed cites is all but the last sentence of the goal-setting paragraph for the remainder of the document. (The last sentence is "The Center awards fellowships for original research, holds conferences, and briefs policymakers about the opportunities for life after materialism."). From an internal point of view, it is not that Ed takes this quote out of context, rather, this quote and the rest of the introduction to the document is the context setting language for the remainder of the document. It isn't out of context; it is the context. Don't believe me? Then read the document.

So, how about the larger context? Part of that context is addressed in the passage from Phillip Johnson mentioned above. Additionally, John West wants us to read the Wedge Strategy in the context of it's being "from an old Discovery Institute fundraising proposal," and he links to a Discovery Institute document, "The 'Wedge Document:' 'So, What?'." This document was published, on internal evidence, in or after 2004. It cites without any complete reference, even in the scholarly looking footnotes, Forest and Gross, Creationism's Trojan House (2004).

{A side note: Not a single critic of intelligent design or of the Wedge document is listed in any of the "The 'Wedge Document:' 'So, What?'" document's fifteen footnotes; yet, claims concerning these critics are liberally sprinkled thoughout the document.)

Again, this strange document should be read. As John West indicates, it describes the Wedge Document as ". . . an early fundraising proposal for the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture . . ." Before I get into the content of the "So, What?" document, I'd like to make a point about its title. The title says in effect, "The Wedge Document: Forget it! It ain't nothing!" Well it is something. What that something is ranges from being the central goal setting and strategy of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture to a fundraising proposal for same. It will be beyond normal blogging to comment on every item in the "So, What?" document. I will look at a couple of items by way of illustration.

First, the "So What?" document tells us that Darwinists and "self identified 'secular humanists'" claim that the Wedge document is evidence for theocratic intentions of its authors. This is clearly targeted at Forest and Gross, Creationism's Trojan House (2004). Now, I do not have an electronic copy or a complete concordance of Forest and Gross so I can not be sure how often they refer to theocracy or theocrats. I did find one reference; on pages 270 through 273, they discuss "Alliances with Theocratic Extremists" such as James Dobson, D. James Kennedy and Beverly LaHaye. They do express concern about these alliances but the authors of "Creationism's Trojan House" make no claim, at least on these pages, that the proponents of the Wedge are themselves theocrats. It's been a while since I read Forest and Gross' book but, while they clearly (and correctly) state that proponents of the Wedge are motivated by religious interests, I have no memory of them calling those proponents "theocrats." If they do, it is far from a major component of their argument. Of course, others may have. However, the more you read the "So, What?" document the more you realize that it is targeted primarily at Creationism's Trojan House or, more correctly, a characterization of Creationism's Trojan House.

There is an obvious attempt to take the most extreme position ever offered anywhere by anyone and present it as normative. That approach may avoid the charge of "straw man" in the eyes of some but not in my eyes.

Much of the "So, What?" document contains attempts to refute fairly obvious interpretations of specific passages in the Wedge document. I will give one example from the opening lines of the Wedge document. "So, What?" comments on this, one of the most quoted passages from the Wedge document.

The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

This is dismissed as a "historic fact." Out of its larger internal context, it sure is an historical statement. It is not so clear that it is all together a fact. Here is the problem; this paragraph is stage setting for the whole Wedge document. It is also strange that "So, What?" claims that the Declaration of Independence is supportive of this "fact," when the Declaration of Independence says nothing at all about human beings being created in the image of God. In addition to the "historical fact" point, "So, What?" makes two other points about this Wedge passage. First, "one can believe in God and not want to impose a theocracy on our culture." This is true but this time I say "so what?" Second, one can do excellent scientific work and believe in God. Again, true enough but what does this point have to do with any real concern voiced by the scientific community?

The whole effort of "So, What?" is to devalue the Wedge document as a source of information about the intentions of the proponents of intelligent design creationism. The document is only an old fundraising proposal and it doesn't support the view that the goal of the Wedge is to establish a theocracy.

And this is where we want to leave the matter. In the end, the "Wedge Document," like the motives of an individual scientist, is irrelevant to assessing the questions that we are raising and the argument that we are making.

But it is not irrelevant to the questions and argument because it goes directly to the motivations for those arguments. If their motivations are to introduce reconvened results into the study of nature then they are not being scientific. Of course, the same would be true of any member of the science community. But in the Wedge document, we have evidence for the motivations of the community that at least once embraced it.

What should we say of the claim that the Wedge document is "an old fundraising proposal?" I think the best thing to say is "So, What?" One would hope that a fundraising proposal would explain the motivations of those seeking the funds and would outline their goals and strategies. It does just that.

My marketing team at one company I worked for called the production of a document like the "So, What?" document, "varnishing a turd." The goal of turd varnishing is to take something that you wish wasn't there and try to make it look as pretty as you can. One common way is to belittle the offense and ridicule those who point it out. That is what the "So, What?" document does for the Wedge document. John West adds another layer of varnish by not mentioning the Wedge document directly. In stead, he uses what he hopes will be a belittling euphemistic phrase, "an old fundraising proposal." When you feel required to use a euphemistic phrase for a document that is part of the tradition of your organization it is very likely you are trying to hide something or hide from something.

Posted by DuaneSmith at June 30, 2005 03:11 PM | Read more on Evolution |

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John West of the Discovery Institute gets very angry when people confuse Intelligent Design with creationism: If this legislator wants to promote creationism, he should say so plainly. But by invoking the term design, he wrongly conflates creationism w... [Read More]

Tracked on July 1, 2005 04:47 PM


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Posted by: search engine at July 3, 2005 04:00 AM


I share your evaluation of the Discovery Institute and its apparent motives. Its primary spokespersons, especially Jonathan Wells, William Dembski and Phillip Johnson, all come from a strong Christian background which, in my view, has transparently influenced their purposes which are to discredit materialism in favor of a particular religious ethic. I do not support such a movement which is one of several reasons why I have not become a member of the Discovery Institute.

My conclusions concerning Intelligent Design, which is admittedly implicit in the Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis, were reached without reference to any theological considerations and remain independent of them as far as I am concerned.

I see no evidence for a personal God in the past and certainly none at present. Nevertheless, like Einstein, I am a convinced determinist. Some force of unfathomable intelligence made possible all that we see around us and like Leo Berg, another determinist, see no role for chance for the history of life on this planet. I regard ontogeny as the best model for phylogeny. It is my conviction that both have proceeded through the controlled release of prescribed, autoregulated front-loaded instructions which have resulted in termination with the death of the individual corresponding with the extinction of the species. Creative evolution seems to be a phenomenon of the past as Grasse, Broom and Huxley have all indicated and as I have agreed.

All that we observe today is rampant extinction with no documented replacements in recorded history. Only ontogeny remains and that apparently only for some forms and, even for them, for an uncertain period of time.

Any evolutionary hypothesis that relies on chance in any way is, in my carefully considered opinion, doomed to failure. It is time for a new hypothesis for organic evolution. With the invaluable aid of some great evolutionists I have offered one.

Posted by: John A. Davison at July 5, 2005 07:42 AM


I'm sure you have heard all this before from people who are for more qualified than I am to explain it. First, evolution takes place one individual at a time in extremely small steps. It is very improbable that one could judge whether a single small incremental change in a given individual living thing would have lasting evolutionary relevance. So too does extinction occur one individual at a time. However, we can easily judge when extinction has occurred. There are no currently living individuals in that genetic line.

I'm not sure want you mean by, "no documented replacements in recorded history." There is certainly amply evidence of speciation in "recorded history." I'm sure you have seen the material on this on Talk Origins. As I said, I'm not sure what you mean by "replacement" but, if I am at all right in my understanding, "replacement" would take a very long time. Very likely, it takes much longer than the 6 to 8 thousand years that one might reasonable think of as recorded history.

You say that any "Any evolutionary hypothesis that relies on chance in any way is, in my carefully considered opinion, doomed to failure." I see two problems with this. First (and I'm sure you've heard this before), "chance" is only one of two engines that derives evolution. Natural selection is the other. Natural selection is far from random. Together, incremental random mutation and natural selection (which includes more than "survival of the fittest) is not random even if one of them is. Second, various computer models have shown that a random process that is then filtered will provided results that have structure. This fact alone, in my considered opinion, indicates that such a process is not "doomed to failure." While I do not believe these models prove any part of the modern synthesis, it certainly shows that evolution by way of random mutation and natural selection is possible.

I'm sure this has not changed your mind, but I hope it clarifies in part of the reason that I think that the modern synthesis in biology is a very good approximation of what happens in nature. Might there be better approximations? Of course, but no theory that I know of has been formulated that provides the scientific insight and research potential of evolution through natural selection.

Posted by: Duane at July 5, 2005 08:46 AM

I am sorry Duane but I do not believe evolution ever took place in steps gradually one individual at a time. I am a saltationist through and through just as were Goldschmidt, Schindewolf and Berg long before me. As for natural selection I see no reason to regard it as a creative element. It is purely conservative as again others before me have claimed, notably Leo Berg and Reginald C. Punnett. The most intensive selection has not exceeded the species boundary and in my opinion never will as centuries of human experience testifies, not to mention the testimony of the experimental laboratory.

Sorry, but we are poles apart I am afraid. That of course is precisely the core of the problem. However,that should not prevent meaningful dialogue about what remains a great mystery.

Posted by: John A. Davison at July 5, 2005 09:22 PM

As a matter of curiosity John, how does a saltationist explain a phenomenon like the one seen here in California with the various salamanders (Ensatina escholtzii)?

Posted by: Duane at July 5, 2005 09:54 PM


I am afraid I will need a link or an abstract before responding.

Posted by: John A. Davison at July 6, 2005 04:35 AM

Believe it or not, a good place to start to get an understanding of the Ensatina eschscholtzi complex is the Santa Rosa Junior College website. They have a great introduction with pictures and an extensive bibliography. A lot of the bibliography is on line. Happy researching.

Posted by: Duane at July 6, 2005 09:46 AM

Thanks. Dobzhansky, a confirmed Darwinian, defined species as organsims whose hybrid was partially or completely sterile. Salamnders are perfectly suited to experimental manipulation to see if those criteria are involved. Until such laboratory experiments are performed the matter remains conjecture.

Finches are among the most easily domesticated of all birds. Why haven't the Darwinians, who keep claiming speciation among Darwin's finches, Actuall tested t osee if they are. The Grants have reported that hybrids between presumed Galapagos finch species are fertile and vigorous.
The last serious attempt at speciation through selection was performed by Dobzhansky with Drosophila. It is very much to his credit that he admitted failure.

I am afraid I am unimpressed by the reference you offer. Even if it should prove to satisfy a physiological species criterion, such devices involving drift in all probablility can hardly be expected to give rise to the higher taxonomic categories of genus, family, order etc. I agree with Broom, Julian Huxley and Grasse than creative evolution is a thing of the past with not a new genus appearlin in the last 2 million years. I know of not a single documented case of a new species appearimng in historical times.
I have also repeatedly asked for someone to name any two extant diploid species in which it can be proven that one is ancestral to the other. So far I have had no responses. We do not observe evolution in action as the Darwinians continue to maintain. We observe the products of a past evolution, a phenomenon in my opinion no longer in progress beyond the formation of subspecies and varieties of which your example seems to be a case.

Posted by: John A. Davison at July 6, 2005 04:34 PM

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