Is Intelligent Design Leading Alberta Science Policy?

Dr. Marvin Fritzler, who holds the holds The Arthritis Research Chair in the Faculty of Medicine, has been appointed Chair of the Alberta Science and Research Authority (ASRA). The ASRA’s mission:

is to enhance the contribution of science and research to the sustainable prosperity and quality of life of Albertans. The ASRA functions as the senior science and research body of the Government of Alberta and works collaboratively with government departments and agencies and other stakeholders to maximize the effectiveness of science and research as an integral component to the success of the province in the global economy.http://www.fp.ucalgary.ca/bmb/news/news.html

Having an institution such as ASRA seems like a good idea. There ought to be an opportunity for somebody to represent science in the halls of government, and here in Alberta, Canada, that somebody is Dr. Marvin Fritzler. Dr. Fritzler is also a signatory to A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism, which is part of a public relations campaign to have Intelligent Design taught in science class.

Discovery Institute Propaganda

A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism is the handiwork of the Discovery Institute, a lobby group (although they describe themselves as a ‘think-tank’) attempting to have Intelligent Design (ID) taught in schools as an alternative to Evolution. ID is a load of pseudo-scientific nonsense — a thinly disguised effort to have religion taught in the classroom — as science. These efforts have included recent involvement with some school boards in Kansas to have science standards in education changed so that ID could be presented as part of the science curriculum.

This lobbying effort has also included the Discovery Institute sponsoring A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism. It is a petition or declaration of sorts, the intent of which was pure propaganda — obtain the signatures of a large number of scientists calling Evolution into question and use this as evidence that there is some large scientific controversy concerning modern Evolutionary theory. This would be used to support the Discovery Institute’s teach the controversycampaign designed to get ID into science classrooms. As the Discovery Institute states:

the long list may help to answer the contention that “virtually all reputable scientists in the world” support Darwin’s theory.

The petition was a spectacular — failure. It did get some press, especially from the more gullible members of the media. However, despite the best efforts of the Discovery Institute, only about 100 (so called) scientists signed on — a truly pathetic number that only reinforced the contention that virtually all the world’s reputable scientists in the world do indeed support Darwin’s theory. Actually, the petition did turn out to be a relatively handy, if crude way, to separate reputable scientists (those that didn’t sign the petition) from those best classified as granola scientists (defined as nuts and flakes).

To drive home this point, mainstream science responded to the Discovery Institute’s initiative with a somewhat tongue in cheek initiative of their own. Entitled Project Steve (in honor of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould) only signatures of scientists named Steve or Stephanie (which is estimated to be less than 1% of scientists) were sought in support of the following statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudo-science, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

So far those signing on number more than 600 — far outpacing the Discovery Institute’s numbers and providing ample evidence that virtually all reputable scientists do indeed support Darwin’s theory.

The bottom line here is that ID is pseudo-science. The Discovery Institute’s efforts, including gathering signatures to A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism, is little more than an exercise in anti-scientific propaganda.

The Inmates and the Asylum

Which brings us back to Dr. Marvin Fritzler. As Chair of the Alberta Science and Research Authority (ASRA) it is his job to help the organization fulfill its mandate as the senior science and research body of the Government of Alberta. It is difficult to see, however, how Dr. Fritzler can do this job effectively when he has signed on to a declaration sponsored by the Discovery Institute in pursuit of what is described by the scientists of Project Steve as “scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible” objectives.

Numerous phone calls were placed the Alberta Science and Research Authority over a period of three weeks to obtain their perspective on the matter. Two questions were put to ASRA (and the group identified as representing ASRA on the public relations front — Alberta Innovation and Science). These two questions were:

1. Can you confirm that the Dr. Marvin Fritzler that signed the Discovery Institute’s petition is the same Dr. Fritzler that is current Chair of ASRA?

2. If this is indeed the same Dr. Fritzler, do you think ASRA’s credibility is in anyway compromised by the fact that Alberta’s leading science and research body is led by someone that has signed on to A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism?

After a lengthy exchange of phone calls and e-mails, ASRA and Alberta Innovation and Science refused to answer indicating they didn’t know if this was the same Dr. Fritzler or not. Alberta Innovation and Science confirmed that the Chair of ASRA was a Dr. Fritzler, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) confirm if this was the same Dr. Fritzler that signed A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism. They suggested I contact Dr. Fritzler at ASRA to find out. I placed subsequent calls to ASRA and they in turn asked for copies of A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism to aid them in answering my questions. I complied twice and gave up when asked a third time.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at the response given the Alberta Government’s history of support for pseudo-scientific nonsense — think school boards in Kansas but on a much larger scale. In Alberta, the inmates are definitely in charge of the asylum.

Of course, so far as I am aware, none of this impacts Dr. Fritzler’s ability to actually practice science. Most of science does not require an acceptance of Evolution. However, it seems to me that having someone so clearly out of step with the scientific mainstream providing policy and related advice on matters of science to the Alberta Government, is a concern — and a big one. Makes you wonder who actually appoints the Board and Chair of the Alberta Science and Research Authority. I thought it might be some collection of Alberta scientists. Wrong. According to the Minister’s office, it turns out the Board and Chair are appointed by an Order in Council, which means they are, not surprisingly, political appointments.

It Gets Scarier

Of course the cynics might ask what difference it makes who runs ASRA when the Alberta Government’s science policy has proven so anemic anyway. One answer might be that an anemic science policy is a function of the leadership in Alberta and ASRA.

There is, however, another reason to be concerned. One of ASRA’s three priorities is the Life Sciences. In fact, ASRA has just completed a major initiative entitled Growing Our Future: A Life Sciences Strategy for Alberta. Presumably this will set the Government’s strategy on all elements of the life sciences from genetic research to biotechnology and from agricultural research to human health. In short, this is a strategy that has everything to do with biology.

Yet, Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution. This was the title of an essay written in 1973 by famed geneticist and evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky (1900-1975). It’s title accurately reflects the consensus of science today. As Dobzhansky stated in that essay:

Let me try to make crystal clear what is established beyond reasonable doubt, and what needs further study, about evolution. Evolution as a process that has always gone on in the history of the earth can be doubted only by those who are ignorant of the evidence or are resistant to evidence, owing to emotional blocks or to plain bigotry. By contrast, the mechanisms that bring evolution about certainly need study and clarification. There are no alternatives to evolution as history that can withstand critical examination. Yet we are constantly learning new and important facts about evolutionary mechanisms.

So, was the life science strategy of Alberta, to use Dobzhansky’s words, a product of, ignorance, emotional blockages or plain bigotry? And even if the strategy was untainted, where is the credibility of ASRA given that the Chair is so completely out of step with the biological sciences (and such organizations as the American Association for the Advancement of Science) on what is emerging as one of the most important issues of science and society?

ASRA is a public institution funded with public money. As a citizen and taxpayer, I think I have the right to be concerned with the quality of representation science is getting.

Rebuttal

In a final (and desperate) act to confirm whether the Dr. Fritzler that signed A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism was the same Dr. Fritzler that Chaired ASRA, I e-mailed copies of initial drafts of this article to the Dr. Fritzler at the University of Calgary.

Dr. Fritzler responded at length confirming that he signed A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism and was also the Chair of ASRA. He also made it clear (in a later e-mail) that ASRA’s credibility or capability is not in any way affected by his position on Intelligent Design.

The response initiated a series of e-mail exchanges between the two of us. These called into question some of the statements made in the original draft of this page and I have made corrections where I was in agreement with Dr. Fritzler’s criticisms.

I also offered to post Dr. Fritzler’s responses to ASkepticRTN — allowing people to read Dr. Fritzler’s concerns, criticisms and position on all this. He rejected the offer.

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