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One Large Defeat for Science in Canada

Follow-up

Gary Bauslaugh

Volume 32.1, January / February 2008

While the News and Comment item by Bruce Pendergast in the September/October 2007 Skeptical Inquirer titled “One Small Victory in Canada in Support of Evolution” was well-intentioned, I am afraid that it is somewhat misleading. Pendergast appears to have only a small part of the story regarding an evolution and intelligent design controversy in Canada, and he misread some recent information he received.

A year ago last spring, Canada’s second-largest research-granting agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), which dispenses around $300 million a year for research projects, clumsily initiated a major controversy about evolution and intelligent design in Canada. The problem centered on the rejection of an application by Brian Alters of McGill University. Alters is one of the world’s foremost authorities on evolution, particularly as it relates to education-he appeared as an expert witness in the recent landmark Dover, Pennsylvania, trial. He proposed to study “the detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution’s intelligent design theory on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers."

The rejection in itself was not the problem. Only relatively few projects submitted to SSHRC are approved, and even one from the likes of Alters could be rejected for any number of reasons. The rejection alone would not have created even a ripple. For some reason, however, the adjudication committee that reviewed Alters’s application could not resist, in its statement of rejection, adding the following gratuitous comment:

Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design Theory, was correct. . . .

This is the statement that caused concern among scientists around the world. Was SSHRC buying the creationist ploy of intelligent design, a shallow and obvious strategy to bring religion into the science classroom? Do people at SSHRC really think that the religious idea of intelligent design is just as valid as evolution?

Sometime last year, in a response to the controversy, the SSHRC Web site posted an announcement saying that it did recognize that evolution was a “cornerstone of science.” That was the statement Pendergast recently heard about and construed as a concession, but it was not, and it in fact (deliberately, many of us suspect) obscured the real issue. Of course evolution is a cornerstone of science-even many creationists would agree with that. But is it an idea that is more scientifically sound than intelligent design? Apparently the SSHRC adjudication committee didn't think so.

This SSHRC-induced fiasco has endured for well over a year now with the agency steadfastly refusing to retract or explain the position of its committee in regard to intelligent design. Representatives of the SSHRC have tried various gambits to take the heat off. They have repeatedly said that Alters could always reapply, but that is not the issue. They have frequently made reference to their statement about evolution, but that too avoids the point of concern.

Early in the controversy, instead of simply saying that the committee had erred in its equation, various SSHRC spokespersons only made matters worse. Janet Halliwell, who at that time was SSHRC’s Executive Director, said:

There is a growing belief among scientists that certain phenomena in the natural world may not be easily explained by current theories of evolution. The Research Council supports 'critical inquiry' that challenges scientific doctrine . . . we don't make any blanket assumptions.

A similarly troubling statement was made by Larry Felt, a sociologist from Memorial University in Newfoundland, who was the only member of the adjudication committee to comment publicly:

No one is disputing the theory of evolution . . . a powerful tool not without some difficulties, but nothing that renders it obsolete . . . there are features of the natural world including the rapid development of complex organs that evolution has some trouble accounting for.

In responding to my correspondence to him, Felt referred to that “one damn sentence” that caused all the trouble (the sentence equating evolution and intelligent design), as being “just one of those unintended bit too general statements that opened up multiple interpretations. . . .” On the contrary, as I wrote back to him, “the problem is the exact opposite of that. The 'damn sentence' can mean only one thing-that ID has as much validity as evolution. That is why it is so disturbing to so many people, and that is why so many of us want an answer."

We are still waiting for one. Various groups, such as the American Sociological Association, the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, and the American Institute of Biological Sciences, as well as many individual scientists in Canada and elsewhere, have expressed their concerns to SSHRC, but to no avail. Prompted by the SSHRC affair, one of Canada’s most prestigious scientific associations, The Royal Society of Canada, issued a statement clearly differentiating the religious idea of intelligent design from the scientific idea of evolution.

SSHRC, however, refuses to address the issue of intelligent design and exacerbates its reluctance to do so by arguing that its role is “not to enter into debates on the issues,” which suggests that there is indeed a legitimate debate on the matter. This is fully in accord with the strategy of the creationists, who argue that there is a legitimate scientific controversy and that because intelligent design and evolution are equally valid theories, both should appear-side by side-in school science curricula.

Are the people at SSHRC fundamentalists? This is unlikely, although some have suggested that SSHRC, a federal government agency, may be acting under the influence of Canada’s current right-wing government. More likely, I think, is that this large public agency is in thrall to certain trendy ideas in the social sciences and humanities. There clearly is a large postmodernist contingent in those circles in Canada, as in the United States, which holds that science is an ideology no better and probably worse than other ways of knowing.

One insightful columnist in Canada, in reporting on the SSHRC affair, referred to an “unholy alliance” between the academic left and the religious right. My guess is that something like this is happening at SSHRC, which unfortunately remains firmly in control of research funds for science education in Canada.

So, sadly, there is no victory here at all. This entire affair has been chronicled in detail in several issues of the magazine Humanist Perspectives, and the complete text is available under “Collections” on our Web site, humanistperspectives.org.

Gary Bauslaugh

Gary Bauslaugh is the editor of Humanist Perspectives in Duncan, BC, Canada.