Randi asks the Smithsonian: You want $16K or $20K?

On one hand, it seems like the role of something like the Smithsonian, in this or any other issues, should be to present all sides and let the viewer decide. But imagine what kind of hooey that would lead to:
-“So, DID the US fake the moon landing… you’ve heard both sides, now what do YOU think?”
-“Can you cure cancer by watering down folk remedies until there’s less than one molecule left in a cup of water? We don’t take a stand, we’ll let the believers and skeptics speak…”
-“Was Bill Clinton a crack dealer who ordered his political opponents murdered? Here’s a 2 hour video that says he was. Watch it! Then stick around to watch another 2 hour video that says he wasn’t. Then you’ll have the WHOLE picture”.
-“Are black people our genetic inferiors? Some say yes, some say no. Make up your OWN mind!”

I hope you see what I’m getting at. Giving an accurate and complete picture of evolution does not mean having a scientist talk for 30 minutes and then having a creationist talk for 30 minutes. It means having a scientist talk for 50 minutes, then having a sociologist talk for 5 minutes about the creationist movement and the fascinating insights it offers into American culture, then having the scientist talk for 5 more minutes about some common fallacies in creationist arguments.
And, if you (well, not YOU, but someone) says “what, are you AFRAID to let our ideas be heard? huh? why are you trying to silence us?”, to a certain extent, I AM afraid. Would you let a white supremacist group design a one-week curriculum that was taught to 1st graders, which was followed by a one-week curriculum on tolerance and non-racism? I sure as hell wouldn’t want that. And that’s not because I’m afraid that white supremacist views are better than mine. It’s because there are certain seals of imprimateur that should NEVER be officially given to views as hateful, ignorant, or anti-scientific as those, and because a lot of people are dumb. If the dumb people want to seek out and follow creationist beliefs, hey, that’s fine. I’m NEVER going to try to shut down their websites or publishing houses or whatever. Neither will I ever sit idly by while my tax dollars, and while the reputation of the country I love, a country that has been a shining beacon of knowledge and scientific progress, is dragged through their glurgy mud.
(Note: if all that’s happening is that the Smithsonian is renting these people space, then what the heck, who cares? But I got swept up in the discussion…)

I agree wholeheartedly with Ravenman’s comments if that is the case. I have no trouble not associating late night infommercials with the opinions of the stations that show them.

But from the NY Times article:

The Smithsonian is not just renting out space, but “co-sponsoring” the event.

Sure, it is mentioned that all events that happen there are co-sponsored by the museum, but it also is their policy that:


So I’m a bit confused about what to make of this. But based on this it would seem that by allowing the Discovery Institute to rent the space in order to show the film they would have to be endorsing it at some level.

“We can’t even talk about it” isn’t the same as “the Smithsonian shouldn’t be whoring itself out.” We can talk about it all day long. Of course, we have in GD and it accomplishes nothing, but nobody should be against public debate on the subject.
However, the museum shouldn’t be conferring legitimacy on I.D. by showing the movie, which they can protest about all they like but it is clearly an implicit endorsement, and simultaneously embarrassing themselves by supporting junk science for cash. Randi may very well be going about this the wrong way and some other path should be chosen. But I think the Smithsonian has compromised its integrity here and ought to do something to save face.

Hear, hear!

No, frankly the average person isn’t qualified enough to evaluate scientific claims. Just like their not qualified to make medical, legal or a whole host of other professions who exist to make those decisions for us. In medicine or law, claiming to be qualified when your actually not is illegal. In science, it is not which is why real, professional scientists need to take great care not to lend legitimacy to quacks.

I’ve worked for the Smithsonian for 17 years. Like a lot of government and academic organizations, it’s not exactly a model of efficiency. Knowing the place, my strong suspicion is that someone involved in scheduling the Baird Auditorium just screwed up. They didn’t review the movie closely enough, or somehow it escaped them that the movie might be about ID. (Alternatively, I suppose it’s possible that someone in scheduling who actually believes in ID let it through deliberately.) I doubt very much that this was a deliberate act on the part of the higher admin at the Smithsonian.

Now the higher ups are going to be on the spot, and they will be in trouble no matter what they do. With both the Discovery Institute and Randi stirring up publicity for their own ends, they can’t just quietly cancel the filming. Given the political climate in DC, they will be under a lot of pressure to let it be screened.

One thing they can’t do is accept Randi’s offer, which I am sure he is very aware of. It would look like they were just selling out. They have to either cancel the film, on the grounds that it is basically religious, or else go ahead with it

Well, then the whole idea of supporting scientific education that JREF purports to be pushing is a waste of time. People are too stupid to understand real science, and should simply be informed as to what to think, patted on the head, and dismissed.

Yes, I would support public discussion and debate on all these issues.

What I am objecting to is twofold:
[ul][li]That the average person is too stupid to know what to think, and that it is the responsibility of philosopher kings like Randi or you or me to tell them, and [/li][li]That there is a received wisdom in science that is exempt from questioning.[/ul]If genuine scientific education is a worthwhile goal, the first point must be wrong. If evolution or whatever JREF is proposing as an alternative to intelligent design cannot be questioned, then it is not a theory but an article of faith. [/li]
And I thought presenting articles of faith was what Randi was objecting to.


In my opinion, it’s not a matter of not trusting the public to make up their own minds, but rather that the public must be given an accurate picture of science.

Inaccurate: There is reasonable scientific doubt in the theory of evolution. Intelligent Design is a viable alternative theory that is supported by scientific evidence.

Accurate: Almost every single working biologist finds that the theory of evolution is overwhelmingly supported by the evidence, and this is the most useful model to explain the way that life on Earth changes over time. There is no theory in competition with the theory of evolution. Of course, the details of the theory of evolution are vigourously debated, but the basic picture of descent with modification and natural selection are accepted by almost all workers. Intelligent Design is not a falsifiable scientific theory; moreover it is supported by an extremely small number of professional biologists and it is almost never mentioned in the peer-reviewed literature.

This isn’t a slanted, biased view that is unfair to ID. This is simply how it is. And this is the only light in which ID should be presented to the public by scientists and public institutions that purport to represent science.

Science is not a matter to be settled by public opinion or determined by individual citizens. Even within science, decisions are not made by majority rule. Science is to a great extent what scientists do. And what scientists do is use what they find, individually, to be the most useful theories: that is, the theories that are best supported by the evidence which make useful predictions about future observations. If there are two competing theories, then scientists roll up their sleeves and go to work to determine exactly how the predictions of the two theories differ, and devise experiments and observations that will show conclusively which theory—if either!—is correct. Nobody ever takes a vote on whether to accept or discard a theory. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, science is not a democracy, it is a tyrrany of the evidence. And if you do not have the training to understand the evidence, you simply cannot judge for yourself which theory is correct. You have no choice but to leave it to the people who work with this stuff on a day-to-day basis and have a vested self-interest in rejecting theories that don’t work and developing theories that do.

To show the public two “theories,” one which is a scientific theory supported by the preponderance of the evidence, and one which is not a falsifiable hypothesis, and which is not supported by the evidence, and to give them equal time and equal support gives people a distorted picture of what science really is, and does not serve any legitimate educational purpose.

It’s not condescending to say that the general public is not trained to understand the arguments behind scientific theories. It’s just true! Am I being horribly condescending and elitist when I say that most people do not know how to take derivatives of basic mathematical functions? No, it’s just a fact. And it follows from that fact that most people do cannot debate the fine points of Newtonian mechanics. That’s really clearcut in physics, but if you know any biology, it should be equallly clear that most people don’t have the scientific knowledge to debate ID vs. evolution.

This is particularly dangerous, because the “Now, I’m just a simple country laywer . . .” tone and “common sense” arguments adopted by Creationists can be very appealing to people, so Creationists can trick people into believing that just plain folks can debate about evolution with ivory tower eggheads, but it’s not really so.

It’d be great if anyone with the desire to could spend a few weekends brushing up on organic chemistry and cellular biology, and be qualified to evaluate the claims of evolutionary biologists and ID proponents, but that’s just not how the world works. It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just how it is.

And, of course, I come up with the perfect closing thought after hitting submit, but here it is:

Teaching science means teaching what scientists do, not teaching everyone enough science to do science themselves—which would be as silly as training everyone to be a surgeon or a stone mason or a patent lawyer. Science is going to march on, with or without the public’s acceptance. ID is not part of biology as it is truly done by biologists. Allowing ID proponents to confuse the public into believing that ID is a serious threat to evolutionary theory isn’t empowering the public to make their own decisions, it’s just dumbing down public discourse, and evenutally that will take its toll on science.

What I am objecting to is twofold:
[ul][li]That the average person is too stupid to know what to think, and that it is the responsibility of philosopher kings like Randi or you or me to tell them, and[/ul][/li][/quote]

No one is saying that the average person is too stupid to know what to think. It’s not an issue of intelligence, it’s an issue of knowledge. It’s not reasonable to expect someone who hasn’t seriously studied biology and is aware of fundamentalist religious challenges to it to be able to critique the claims of the intelligent design crowd and defend evolution, because to do so requires more knowledge then the average person posseses.

[ul][li]That there is a received wisdom in science that is exempt from questioning.[/ul][/li][/quote]

It’s not that some things are exempt from questioning, it’s that a museum isn’t an appropriate place for that kind of questioning to take place.

A science museum should be a place for presenting facts and theories that the broader scientific community accepts as being true. It’s safe to say that evolution is such an accepted theory and that intelligent design is not such a theory. Showing intelligent design movies in a nationally reknowned science museum gives intelligent design an air of legitimacy that it simply doesn’t have.

Evolution, like any other belief, scientific or otherwise, should be questioned. Just not in a museum.

Faith is an ambiguous word; usually it’s used to refer to religious belief but it can also mean simply trusting an authority. Randi probably wouldn’t have a problem with someone trusting the leading science museum to present the current beliefs of the scientific community.

But I think you knew all that.

Then isn’t the purpose of scientific education to equip the average person to understand things as basic as the theory of evolution?

If you are unwilling or unable to teach about fundamental theories of biology, what the hell can you teach about?

There I disagree with you almost entirely. A museum strikes me as a highly appropriate place for education of the general public.

Fair enough, but what Randi seems to be doing is presenting a picture of science which works by trying to bribe the educational establishment not to talk about issues he wants to avoid. Is that the picture the JREF wants to convey?


You know…actually including a link from a news site without a vested interest in the matter at hand is often useful :wink:

It seems that the Smithsonian views this as offering the use of its auditorium for use by groups that have made donations.

It seems they feel that the film is not of a “religious or partisan” nature (I have no idea if the actual film is of a religious nature or not)…AND it seems that the DI is implying (deliberately or not) more of an endorsement from the SI than the SI thinks really exists.

Maybe the SI might wish to revise their donations policy…but for right now (assuming that the film is not religious or partisan), it seems like something they explicitly allow.

Scientific education has failed miserably, and is continuing to fail miserably, in US education, as witnessed by the continued prevalence of beleif in creationist mythology among the population.

There is not an unwillingness on the part of scientists and educators in the US to teach about fundamental theories of biology, but there is very strong political pressure in the US to not teach about them (or too teach mythology alongside them as being equally valid). This pressure is so strong, particularly in the South, that it has essentially stifled teaching evolution at the elementary level.

Understanding the basics of something and understanding something well enough to mount a vigorous defense of it often require two entirely different levels of knowledge.

Kinda like how a museum can explain how a car engine works, but they can’t teach someone how to design and build a car engine. In other words, it’s realistic for a museum to teach people the basics of evolution. It’s not realistic for a museum to give people degrees in evolutionary biology.

Please, I didn’t say that a museum wasn’t an appropriate place for educating the general public. I said it wasn’t an appropriate place for mounting challenges against accepted theories. A museum is a place for presenting theories and information, not challenging them.

If you think intelligent design is right and evolution is wrong, then convince the scientific community that you’re right, then put it in a museum.

James Randi is not a scientist, he doesn’t do science, and JREF isn’t a scientific foundation, so this is not a case of science at work. The purpose of JREF is to attack pseudoscience, such as Intelligent Design. Randi he obviously doesn’t seek to “avoid,” the issue; he attacks ID at every opportunity and has made no objections to the claims of ID being aired (and debunked) in appropriate settings. He’s trying to prevent the Smithsonian from supporting (or merely appearing to support) pseudoscience in exchange for money.

As I’ve said before, I don’t necessarily agree with this tactic, but in any case, I don’t think he wants the Smithsonian to take the money, I think this is a publicity stunt to shame them into cancelling the film and returning the Discovery Institute’s money, or at the very least to think long and hard about their policies for the use of that space.

I agree with this 100%. He knows that the Smithsonian can’t take his money.

I agree with this. Remember that ridiculous cable access show years ago from the “face on Mars” people that replayed Hoagland’s “presentation at the United Nations?” The reality of the event was simply that his group rented a conference room in a United Nations-owned building for a couple of hours and taped a presentation there. Then they were able to trumpet the notion that their ideas were important enough to present to the “United Nations!”

I suspect the DI will try to use this movie showing as some sort of claim that the “Smithsonian Institution” finds their ideas (not theories) credible.

How does Randis’ offer equate to censorship? And if it is censorship, what exactly do you call the offer of a donation to play the movie in the first place, a bribe?

I don’t see promotion of critical thinking based on information here.

[ul][li]The Smithsonian and the Discovery Institute both have stated publicly that airing their film does not constitute endorsement of its content.[]The Smithsonian has already screened the film, and agreed that it does not violate their policies. []Randi’s tactics here are reminiscent of the creationists - create public pressure rather than debate the idea on its merits.[/ul][/li]
I don’t think this is a good idea.


It is rather a distortion to say that “the Smithsonian” as an institution has stated anything about this film. It appears from the NY Times article that it is only staff from the National Museum of Natural History (one bureau of the Smithsonian), which is where the Baird Auditorium is located, that have made any statements concerning it. The only Smithsonian official quoted in the article, Randall Kremer, is in the Museum’s Office of Public Affairs, and evidently only heard about the whole thing last Thursday.

It seems to me that both the Discovery Institute and Randi are greatly exaggerating the level of approval that this has obtained from the Smithsonian, each for their own agenda.