August 5, 2005 NEW YORK TIMES
Design for Confusion
By PAUL KRUGMAN
I'd like to nominate Irving Kristol, the neoconservative former editor of
The Public Interest, as the father of "intelligent design." No, he didn't
play any role in developing the doctrine. But he is the father of the
political strategy that lies behind the intelligent design movement - a
strategy that has been used with great success by the economic right and has
now been adopted by the religious right.
Back in 1978 Mr. Kristol urged corporations to make "philanthropic
contributions to scholars and institutions who are likely to advocate
preservation of a strong private sector." That was delicately worded, but
the clear implication was that corporations that didn't like the results of
academic research, however valid, should support people willing to say
something more to their liking.
Mr. Kristol led by example, using The Public Interest to promote
supply-side economics, a doctrine whose central claim - that tax cuts have
such miraculous positive effects on the economy that they pay for themselves
- has never been backed by evidence. He would later concede, or perhaps
boast, that he had a "cavalier attitude toward the budget deficit."
"Political effectiveness was the priority," he wrote in 1995, "not the
accounting deficiencies of government."
Corporations followed his lead, pouring a steady stream of money into
think tanks that created a sort of parallel intellectual universe, a world
of "scholars" whose careers are based on toeing an ideological line, rather
than on doing research that stands up to scrutiny by their peers.
You might have thought that a strategy of creating doubt about
inconvenient research results could work only in soft fields like economics.
But it turns out that the strategy works equally well when deployed against
the hard sciences.
The most spectacular example is the campaign to discredit research on
global warming. Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus, many people
have the impression that the issue is still unresolved. This impression
reflects the assiduous work of conservative think tanks, which produce and
promote skeptical reports that look like peer-reviewed research, but aren't.
And behind it all lies lavish financing from the energy industry, especially
There are several reasons why fake research is so effective. One is that
nonscientists sometimes find it hard to tell the difference between research
and advocacy - if it's got numbers and charts in it, doesn't that make it
Even when reporters do know the difference, the conventions of
he-said-she-said journalism get in the way of conveying that knowledge to
readers. I once joked that if President Bush said that the Earth was flat,
the headlines of news articles would read, "Opinions Differ on Shape of the
Earth." The headlines on many articles about the intelligent design
controversy come pretty close.
Finally, the self-policing nature of science - scientific truth is
determined by peer review, not public opinion - can be exploited by skilled
purveyors of cultural resentment. Do virtually all biologists agree that
Darwin was right? Well, that just shows that they're elitists who think
they're smarter than the rest of us.
Which brings us, finally, to intelligent design. Some of America's most
powerful politicians have a deep hatred for Darwinism. Tom DeLay, the House
majority leader, blamed the theory of evolution for the Columbine school
shootings. But sheer political power hasn't been enough to get creationism
into the school curriculum. The theory of evolution has overwhelming
scientific support, and the country isn't ready - yet - to teach religious
doctrine in public schools.
But what if creationists do to evolutionary theory what corporate
interests did to global warming: create a widespread impression that the
scientific consensus has shaky foundations?
Creationists failed when they pretended to be engaged in science, not
religious indoctrination: "creation science" was too crude to fool anyone.
But intelligent design, which spreads doubt about evolution without being
too overtly religious, may succeed where creation science failed.
The important thing to remember is that like supply-side economics or
global-warming skepticism, intelligent design doesn't have to attract
significant support from actual researchers to be effective. All it has to
do is create confusion, to make it seem as if there really is a controversy
about the validity of evolutionary theory. That, together with the political
muscle of the religious right, may be enough to start a process that ends
with banishing Darwin from the classroom.