The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., has long been acknowledged as a defender of good science education in America.
The Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, a popular tourist attraction, presents the story of life on earth in a compelling yet accessible fashion.
Thus it was a shock to read that Smithsonian officials have joined forces with a neo-creationist group, the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, to sponsor the airing of a film critical of Darwinian evolution.
According to a May 28 New York Times report, the Discovery Institute has announced on its website that it and the Museum of Natural History are sponsoring the premier of the film "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe" on June 23.
Styled as a documentary, "The Privileged Planet" is based on a 2004 book by Guillermo Gonzalez, an assistant professor of astronomy at Iowa State University, and Jay W. Richards, a vice president of the Discovery Institute. According to the Times, the book "makes the case for the hand of a creator in the design of Earth and the universe."
The Discovery Institute is the leading organization promoting "intelligent design" (ID), a form of creationism that holds that humans are so complex they must have been designed by a higher power. Although they usually don't name this higher force, ID proponents have offered no suspects other than God.
One of the godfathers of the ID movement, law professor Phillip Johnson, has stated bluntly that his goal is to instill doubts about the validity of Darwinism so that people will embrace evangelical Christianity.
A spokesman at the Museum of Natural History, Randall Kremer, told the Times that the Smithsonian's involvement should not be construed as an endorsement of the film. "It is incorrect for anyone to infer that we are somehow endorsing the video or the content of the video," Kremer said.
Kremer insisted that the Museum of Natural History offers the use of its Baird Auditorium to organizations and corporations willing to make donations. In this case, the Discovery Institute offered $16,000.
But the president of the Discovery Institute, Bruce Chapman, told the Times a different story. According to Chapman, the Institute's public relations firm approached the museum staff and offered the film. Staff members liked it, Chapman said.
Said Chapman, "They said that they liked it very much - and not only would they have the event at the museum, but they said they would co-sponsor it. That was their suggestion. Of course we're delighted."
It's difficult to accept the argument that the Smithsonian is willing to cosponsor a film it doesn't agree with. It's hard to believe that the Museum of Natural History would, for example, agree to air and cosponsor a film espousing racist ideas of eugenics just became a group donated $16,000.
The Smithsonian will walk away with a black eye if this movie is aired at the museum. So far, the scientific community has rebuffed ID proponents, leaving them to wage a public relations battle to convince Americans that their ideas are scientific and worthy of serious study. If the film airs at the museum, it's a sure bet ID proponents will start saying, "Look! Even the Smithsonian says our ideas are worthwhile!"
This may all be an honest mistake. Some Smithsonian staffers may simply be eager to make a few extra dollars and thus have entered into a financial arrangement with the Discovery Institute. Or it could be more nefarious and an effort by museum staffers sympathetic to the Institute's promotion of intelligent design.
Whatever the case, it looks like the Smithsonian has walked into a trap. If the museum cancels the film now, the Discovery Institute will cry censorship and bask in free publicity. If the museum airs the movie, the Discovery Institute will claim a major P.R. coup.
In the end, the Museum of Natural History must learn that it has no business promoting films that posit theological answers to scientific questions. It's time for the real scientists at the museum to step up and put a stop to this nonsense before the Smithsonian's good name and reputation is further damaged.