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Baylor's Polanyi Center in Turmoil

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Baylor's Polanyi Center in Turmoil
Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
Volume: 
20
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2000
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
9–11
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Baylor University's Michael Polanyi Center has been stripped of its name and subjected to intensive reorganization, after a lengthy debate over the existence of the "intelligent design" think tank on the Baptist school's campus.

The controversy began during the spring of 2000 when faculty members expressed their displeasure at the establishment of the Michael Polanyi Center (MPC) without faculty input (see RNCSE 20 [1-2]: 15-16). Particularly displeased were members of the science faculty, who considered the "intelligent design" (ID) focus of the center to be a thinly-veiled form of creation science. Because of faculty criticism, Baylor's President Robert B Sloan Jr agreed to appoint an outside investigating committee.

Committee members visited the campus and interviewed representatives of all sides on September 9 and 10, 2000, and the chair of the committee issued a report on October 17. Written in conciliatory language, the report nonetheless was decidedly lukewarm about the MPC. Although ID claims scientific standing, the committee's report placed the MPC's appropriate mission squarely within the realm of the philosophy of science, as considering "the relationship between the sciences and religion". The committee clearly stated that the Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning (IFL), the institute in which the MPC was housed, should take the university's lead when it came to science and religion issues, and encouraged a broader range of scholarship in this area beyond just ID.
[Science and religion scholarship] ... can best be fostered by the University's Institute for Faith and Learning where it seems to be naturally at home. In pursuing this mission, room should be made for a variety of approaches and topics. It would clearly be too restrictive on the part of the Institute to focus attention in this area on a single theme only, such as the design inference.
In its recommendations, the committee continued its lukewarm assessment of the MPC and ID theory. It recognized
... research on the logical structure of mathematical arguments for intelligent design to have a legitimate claim to a place in current discussions of the relations of religion and the sciences. Although this work, involving as it does technical issues in the theory of probability, is relatively recent in origin and has thus only just begun to receive response in professional journals (see, for example, the essay by Elliot Sober in Philosophy of Science 1999; 66: 472-88), the Institute should be free, if it chooses, to include in its coverage this line of work, when carried out professionally.
Because the cited article by Sober (and coauthors) is strongly critical of ID, and because the IFL (rather than the MPC) is called upon to include, "if it chooses", only ID research that is carried out professionally, the implication is clear that the committee did not have much confidence in the current scholarly status of ID theory.

The committee recommended that an advisory committee of Baylor faculty be formed "to assist in planning and reviewing the science and religion component of the Institute". It also called for dropping the name "Michael Polanyi", as the center named for him did not reflect the fact that Polanyi rejected the idea of an agent as creator.

So the Michael Polanyi Center was stripped of its name, placed squarely under the jurisdiction of a philosophy and religion administrative unit, subjected to a faculty advisory committee, and not very subtly put on notice that ID lacked status as a scholarly enterprise.

Nonetheless, on October 17, Director Dembski issued a stirring press release declaring victory for ID and the MPC. Although the Center was placed firmly under the aegis of the IFL, and it was the IFL that was encouraged to go beyond ID in its consideration of science and religion issues, Dembski's press release announced that the MPC had been given a broader mission. The stripping of the name "Polanyi" from the Center was spun as "the Center will therefore receive a new name to reflect this expanded vision". The admonition of the Center to conduct ID research only "when carried out professionally" juxtaposed with the citation of an article harshly critical of Dembski was transformed into "the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry" and an "unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design."

Although many reading the committee's report and Dembski's press release might question whether Dembski "got it", apparently another sentence in the press release got him in trouble. Baylor critics of the MPC would have preferred a more strongly-worded committee report, but in general were satisfied with the results as a compromise between sides with strong disagreements. It appeared that perhaps peace could be restored after the committee's report had been issued. But in his press release, Dembski thumbed his nose at critics, shattering any possibility of effective interaction with a large percentage of the faculty. He gloated, "Dogmatic opponents of design who demanded the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo."

Through newspaper accounts and personal communications, NCSE learned that members of the science faculty and the Baylor Faculty Senate expressed outrage to President Sloan over Dembski's uncollegial behavior, and on October 19, the Director of the Institute for Faith and Learning, Michael Beaty, announced that "Dembski's actions after the release of the report compromised his ability to serve as director" and relieved him of his position. Dembski's associate, Bruce Gordon, described as holding "a PhD in the history and philosophy of physics from Northwestern University, as well as degrees in mathematics, philosophy, theology and piano performance", was appointed as interim director, although he has stated that he does not wish to be the permanent director.

On the same day, Dembski followed up with another press release responding to his dismissal. He claimed that the administration had called him on the carpet, asking that he withdraw his inflammatory press release. Dembski refused on the grounds that he meant what he had said "and that for me to retract it would be tantamount to giving in to the censorship and vilification against me that had been a constant feature since I arrived on campus. I could not and would not betray all that I have worked for in my professional career."

The inflammatory press release became for Dembski a matter of principle, and he accused the administration of "intellectual McCarthyism," a statement that is not likely to mend fences. Ironically, it was President Sloan who had established the MPC, defended it against a faculty outraged at the cavalier way in which it had been established, and supported Dembski all along. Now Dembski was accusing Sloan of "the utmost of bad faith", as if Sloan intended from the beginning to sack him: Dembski claimed that his refusal to withdraw an inflammatory press release "provided the fig leaf of justification for my removal". At the time of this writing, there was no reply from Sloan.

Dembski will continue at the rank at which he was hired, as an untenured "Associate Research Professor" in the Institute for Faith and Learning. The establishment of the MPC was seen as a major step toward achieving the 5-year objectives of the "Wedge" strategy outlined by the Discovery Institute and ID leader Phillip Johnson. This is a long-range plan to establish ID as both a scholarly and a public enterprise, including a hoped-for establishment of an ID institute on a university campus. Baylor's placement of the members of the former Michael Polanyi Center in a relative academic backwater as a subsidiary of a faith and learning institute, and its barely civil recognition of ID as an area that has not achieved much scholarly support, hardly provides the academic credibility for ID sought by Wedge strategists.

As this issue of RNCSE went to press, an article entitled "Intelligent Design Movement Struggles with Identity Crisis" by Bruce Gordon, the interim director of what is now called The Baylor Science and Religion Project, appeared in Research News & Opportunities in Science and Theology (2001 January; 2 [1]: 9). Gordon writes:
Design theory has had considerable difficulty gaining a hearing in academic contexts, as evidenced most recently by the whole Polanyi Center affair at Baylor University. One of the principal reasons for this resistance and controversy is not far to seek: design-theoretic research has been hijacked as part of a larger cultural and political movement. In particular, the theory has been prematurely drawn into discussions of public science education, where it has no business making an appearance without broad recognition from the scientific community that it is making a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the natural world.
Later, in what is perhaps a swipe at Dembski's affiliation with the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, Gordon comments, "If design theory is to make a contribution in science, it must be worth pursuing on the basis of its own merits, not as an exercise in Christian 'cultural renewal,' the weight of which it cannot bear." In his final paragraph, he carefully delineates the nature of design theory's possible contribution to science: "[I]t is crucial to note that design theory is at best a supplementary consideration introduced alongside (or perhaps into, by way of modification) neo-Darwinian biology and self-organizational complexity theory. It does not mandate the replacement of these highly fruitful research paradigms, and to suggest that it does is just so much overblown, unwarranted, and ideologically driven rhetoric." Should Gordon's cautious attitude become more widely adopted by ID proponents, it might alleviate much of the controversy about the status of intelligent design.

The Michael Polanyi Center Peer Review Committee report is available on line at http://pr.baylor.edu/pdf/001017polanyi.pdf. The Baylor administration responds at http://pr.baylor.edu/feat.fcgi?2000.10.17.polanyi.