(August 2005) Does a film about alternative explanations for the creation of life undermine biologists’ accepted theory of evolution? And if so, is a science museum justified in refusing to screen such a film? These are questions that the leadership of Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History contemplated in June 2005 when they considered withdrawing an arrangement made to host a private showing of The Privileged Planet, a documentary about the “intelligent design” theory.
The Privileged Planet at first glance appears to boast solid scientific credentials. The documentary draws on material from a book of the same title, co-authored by Guillermo Gonzalez, an Iowa State University assistant professor of astronomy and physics. It also features other scientists from well-established institutions, such as Kevin Grazier, a NASA science planning engineer, and Bijan Nemati, a physicist at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Perhaps this explains why it passed the two preliminary screenings required by the Associate Director of Research and Collections at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. According to customary practice, the museum director was also listed as co-sponsor of the invitation-only event, in exchange for a donation to the Smithsonian’s research efforts (in this case, $16,000).
When the film’s producer, the Discovery Institute (DI), issued invitations indicating the co-sponsorship, a controversy ensued, much of which played out on Internet blogs and media websites. Museum policy explicitly prohibits “events of a religious or partisan political nature.” Supporters of the Discovery Institute—the film’s producer and a self-described “non-partisan think tank”—deemed the museum’s co-sponsorship (in the words of Denyse O’Leary) “a stunning development” and suggested this might mean scientists were softening their resistance to intelligent design theory. Critics noted the Smithsonian’s naïveté, given that DI-sponsored work had recently been mobilized by religious organizations in state-based efforts to label school biology textbooks with warnings that evolution was an idea, rather than an accepted scientific theory. “The major problem with the film is the wrap-up,” said Smithsonian spokesman Randall Kremer. “It takes a philosophical bent rather than a clear statement of science and that’s where we part ways.” The James Randi Educational Foundation, a non-profit which finances scientific research dispelling supernatural claims, then counter-offered the museum $20,000 not to show the film. If it was a “matter of money, which I doubt,” Randi himself told the Washington Post, “Then I am ready to surpass that [$16,000].”
In a statement issued by the Office of Public Affairs on June 1st, the museum renounced any implied endorsement of The Privileged Planet and declared that “upon further review, the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific research.” Ultimately, however, the museum screened the film on June 23—even though it withdrew its official co-sponsorship and accepted no fee from the Discovery Institute.
Karen Rader teaches Science, Technology, and Culture at Sarah Lawrence College in New York.