By all accounts Phillip Johnson, a law professor
at the University of California at Berkeley, is
a congenial fellow with whom I'd like to have
a beer one of these days. At the same time, he
is keen to implement one of the most potentially
destructive assaults on science ever consciously
planned by a human being. He calls it the "Wedge"
strategy, the idea being that there is a natural
crack in the edifice of science and that evolution-deniers
and other anti-intellectuals only need to widen
the initial interstice to eventually bring down
the whole evil tree of knowledge.
Johnson published a short version of the wedge
idea in his book with the unintentionally ironic
title Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds, and
has followed up with another book called The Wedge
of Truth. He publishes a weekly update on the
Web site of the so-called Center for the Renewal
of Science & Culture (CRSC), a mostly conservative
Christian think tank consisting of a number of
major creationists and intelligent design "theorists."
The "crack" that Johnson thinks is
going to be so fatal to science is the very well-known
fact that science is based on some (reasonable)
philosophical assumptions (such as the existence
of a physical reality independent of the observer),
and it is therefore not an entirely self-consistent
enterprise. I will return to this point in another
column because it is too important to treat it
in a few words here. What I'd like to discuss
instead is what the Wedge strategy is and what
would happen if it succeeded. For the first task,
I will rely on Johnson's own words and on a document
published by the CRSC. Lacking a crystal ball
but firmly believing that we do learn from history,
I will attempt the second feat by briefly discussing
what happened in another occasion in which ideology
overcame good science in the recent past.
The Wedge strategy document starts out with predictable
rhetoric to the effect that belief in a personal
God has been the bedrock of Western civilization,
implying that if people should abandon such belief
the end of the world would surely follow shortly
thereafter. By the same token, of course, slavery
was the economic cornerstone of the economy in
the southern United States during the first century
of its history, but-amazingly-that economy has
survived and prospered even without slavery.
The core of the Wedge consists of a detailed
program, spanning 20 years, during which efforts
will be made to bring about three phases labeled
"Scientific research, writing and publication,"
"Publicity and opinion making," and
"Cultural confrontation and renewal."
The first phase is apparently already almost over.
It took only a few years, no peer-reviewed publication,
and a handful of books for intelligent design
supporters to claim to have established the truth
of their point of view and demolished hundreds
of years of painstaking scientific research conducted
by tens of thousands of scientists in laboratories
world-wide. Kudos to the hyper-efficient fellows
of the CRSC. We are now in the midst of the second
phase, which interestingly includes such serious
attempts at educating the public as engaging talk-show
hosts and lobbying dimwit politicians on the evils
of materialistic science. Hardly something one
would expect from a serious intellectual think
tank, but these are strange times indeed. Most
interestingly, the third phase of the Wedge is
entitled "cultural confrontation," something
that immediately conjures up images of religious
wars, and for a good reason: the underlying idea
is essentially to turn the United States from
a democratic republic into a theocracy dominated
by conservative Christian groupthink.
Suppose Johnson and co.-God forbid-will succeed.
What will likely happen? Let us turn to a fairly
recent example of ideology passed for science,
how it came about, and what consequences it brought.
In 1940 the leading Russian biologist Nikolai
Vavilov was arrested and sent to a concentration
camp at Saratov. The reason was that he was denounced
by a rising star of the Soviet establishment,
Trofim Denisovich Lysenko, an agronomist who had
come to believe half-baked ideas about the inheritance
of acquired characteristics that had been rejected
by mainstream science a century earlier.
Lysenko's wacky ideas fit perfectly well with
Stalin's ideology: if the twisted version of dialectical
materialism officially endorsed by the Soviet
Union was true, then plants and animals (and by
extension people) had to be infinitely pliable
by changes in their environment and Mendelian
genetics and Darwinian evolution must be simply
the result of sick capitalist propaganda. Accordingly,
Lysenko and his cronies took over Russian genetics
and agriculture, exiling or putting to death the
best scientists of that country and causing an
economic catastrophe that probably didn't help
the USSR withstand Western-imposed pressure during
the arms race.
Lysenko retained control of Soviet biology well
into the 1960s, essentially holding the progress
of Russian science in that area to pre-WWII levels.
Of course, the rest of the world progressed while
in Russia countless lives were ruined, economic
opportunities were lost, and huge setbacks in
science education afflicted a country in which
ideology reigned supreme over reality.
This, I submit, is what would happen in the United
States if Johnson and his buddies succeed in implementing
the Wedge strategy. It will not be the end of
the world, and not even the end of science. There
will be a brain drain of scientists and educators
(and probably artists) toward more fertile intellectual
grounds in other countries, and the good ol' US
of A will be left behind and will eventually have
to struggle to catch up over a period of decades
(unpleasant as it may be, reality does have a
way of reminding people of the practical limits
of their fantasies). Meanwhile, we will experience
the same kind of waste of human potential and
economic resources that cursed the USSR under
Stalin and Lysenko.
It is somewhat amusing to ponder the symmetry
between the two cases: communist and atheist ideology
for Lysenko, religious and conservative for Johnson.
The real danger does not seem to be either religion
or atheism, but blind commitment to an a priori
view of the world that ignores how things really
are. In fact, if I believed in conspiracy theories,
I would be tempted to suggest that the Wedge strategy
is a communist plot to have the West experience
the same kind of tragedy that the East went through
and level the playing field. But I am too busy
attempting to insure the failure of Johnson's
dangerous campaign to idly speculate on whose
orders he may be following. For all I know he
could be a lonely evil genius acting directly
on the Devil's orders.
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