Longform

Starry Fight

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Richards eventually began urging Gonzalez to write a book about his design theory. But Gonzalez had trouble, so he asked Richards to sign on as co-author. Richards agreed, and they began working on the project in 2001. By then, Gonzalez had secured a tenure-track position at Iowa State University.

They published The Privileged Planet in March 2004. That September, Illustra Media, which specializes in intelligent design films, produced a documentary based on their work and began airing it on PBS stations. These developments were hailed by intelligent design advocates. "The book and film have expanded the intelligent design debate into a new arena," explains Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman. "Most of the discussion has involved evolution — life on Earth. Gonzalez's work has shifted it into the field of ... how the universe has developed." Before long, the book was being translated into Spanish; the film into Mandarin, Cantonese, and Czech.

Gonzalez's work garnered little attention outside the intelligent design community, though. That is, until May 28, when the New York Times ran a brief story saying that the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was hosting and cosponsoring the official premiere of the film in exchange for a $16,000 donation from the Discovery Institute. Shortly thereafter, James Randi, a MacArthur Award-winning skeptic from Fort Lauderdale, caught wind of the showing.


Randi, a former magician, debunks supernatural and paranormal claims from his Davie Road headquarters, a hacienda-style building crowded with superstitious trinkets. Among them: statues of Bigfoot, a Scientology "e-meter," and a chunk of slate with a tiny winged skeleton etched into it — "proof," Randi explains, "that fairies existed in prehistoric times." The building also houses an ample library, where books are arranged alphabetically from alien abduction and alchemy to witches. Intelligent design literature is shelved under C for creationism.

Randi dashed off a letter to the Museum of Natural History's director. "That you would sell your integrity for $16,000 is not merely incomprehensible," he seethed, "but also shameful." He also offered to pay the museum $20,000 to drop the film. Then he ran a story on his online newsletter about the showing. It warned that "the creationists are flailing about trying to borrow or steal validation from science" and urged readers to bombard the Smithsonian with e-mails.

Days after Randi posted his missive, the museum began trying to distance itself from the film. Lucy Dorrick, associate director for special events, sent a message to the Discovery Institute, saying, "Upon further review, the Museum has determined that the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution's scientific research." The museum also withdrew cosponsorship and announced it would not accept the Discovery Institute's $16,000 fee. But the film would nevertheless be shown.

Gonzalez and Richards believe the Smithsonian was responding to the e-mail campaign Randi unleashed. "He got people all heated up," Gonzalez grumbles. "His pronouncements were so hysterical; you would think I was saying the Earth didn't revolve around the sun."

The Smithsonian's backpedaling made headlines in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Science Magazine, and Christianity Today, among other publications.

Randi, who was interviewed for several stories, applauded the move, but scientists were vexed that the museum was moving ahead with the showing.

Days before The Privileged Planet was to air, the top brass of the American Institute of Physics and six other major scientific organizations sent a letter urging the Smithsonian to drop the film. The American Geophysical Union, which represents researchers in the earth, space, and atmospheric sciences, went a step further, urging its 43,000 members to write Smithsonian board members directly. "The Smithsonian is a kind of gateway. It's the public's front door into science," explains Martha Heil, a spokesperson for the AIP. "So it's enormously troubling for it to show a film advocating intelligent design, a movement with the stated goal of overthrowing scientific materialism."

Nevertheless, The Privileged Planet aired June 23. Afterward, the 300 attendees — among them National Geographic Television COO Ken Ferguson and U.S. Congressman John Culberson (R-Texas) — crowded into the Smithsonian's Hall of Gems for a reception.

The Smithsonian dustup led some of Gonzalez's colleagues at Iowa State to worry that the university would be seen as a center of intelligent design research. And in late July, three professors drafted a petition urging the university to reject all attempts to represent intelligent design as science. It began circulating August 2, the day after George W. Bush made intelligent design the talk-show topic du jour by declaring it should be given a place alongside evolution in public schools. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," he explained, "so people can understand what the debate is about."

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Mariah Blake
Contact: Mariah Blake