A campaign to convince the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to renege on its agreement to premier “The Privileged Planet,” a film produced by the Discovery Institute, a major “intelligent design” think tank, may have backfired.

Last month, the Discovery Institute announced it would be premiering its new film, “The Privileged Planet,” with the Smithsonian’s co-sponsorship at the National Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium. The film, based on a book by intelligent design scientist Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez and Discovery Institute vice president Dr. Jay W. Richards, “focuses on cosmology and astronomy and on Earth’s place in the universe.”

Under pressure, the museum has now withdrawn its sponsorship, but the film will still be shown on June 23 – and the Discovery Institute is $16,000 richer for it.

Smithsonian rules for use of the auditorium require the museum to be listed as a co-sponsor for such showings and a “donation” for use of the facility. After submitting its film for review and receiving approval from the museum, Discovery Institute donated $16,000 and sent out invitations for the private showing per the Smithsonian’s instructions: “The Director of the National Museum of Natural History and Discovery Institute are happy to announce the national premiere and private evening reception for ‘The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe.'”

That’s when the Darwinists began complaining.

Pro-evolution websites and bloggers urged readers to make protest calls and send emails in an organized response to the film’s showing.

The Washington Post chastised the Smithsonian, writing that the museum should have been wary of the film simply because the Discovery Institute finds Darwinism an unsatisfactory explanation for much of the scientific evidence for origins.

“While ‘The Privileged Planet’ is an extremely sophisticated religious film, it is a religious film nevertheless. It uses scientific information – the apparently ‘perfect’ position of Earth in its orbit and in its galaxy, the uniqueness of its atmosphere – to answer, affirmatively, the philosophical question of whether life on Earth was part of a grand design, and not just the result of chance and chemistry. Neither God nor evolution is mentioned. Nevertheless, the film is consistent with the Discovery Institute’s general aim, which is to drive a wedge into the scientific consensus about the origins of life and the universe and to give a patina of scientific credibility to the idea of an intelligent creator. … The museum was naive or negligent not to recognize this, and more naive not to anticipate the backlash.”

In the blogosphere, one of the chief antagonists to the Smithsonian decision was James Randi – “the Amazing Randi” – magician and long-time debunker of psychic and paranormal claims.

In his May 27 weekly newsletter, Randi alerted his readers that the Discovery Institute had been granted access and encouraged them to lobby for the film to be dropped, even making his own financial counter-offer:

“Readers, do something about this. Please send an e-mail to [email protected] addressed to Mr. Randall Kremer, Public Affairs. Tell him of your concern over this situation. And, you might add that the James Randi Educational Foundation(JREF) is willing to donate $20,000 to the Smithsonian Institution if they agree to give back the ‘Discovery Institute’ $16,000 and decline to sponsor the showing of the film. And the JREF will not require the Smithsonian to run any films or propaganda that favor our point of view … We need to be alarmed and militant about this situation.”

Apparently the outpouring of complaints alarmed the Smithsonian as well.

Randi, in his June 3 newsletter told readers: “I must tell you that the dedicated Director of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Christian Semper, was quick to contact me and express his sincere concern on this matter, and he immediately set about looking into all the facts that were available.”

Semper issued a statement last Wednesday announcing the Smithsonian’s withdrawal from the premiere after what Lucy Dorrick, Associate Director for Development and Special Events, called “an internal review.” She wrote to the Discovery Institute:

“As you know, the National Museum of Natural History recently approved your request to hold a private, invitation-only screening and reception at the Museum on June 23 for the film, ‘The Privileged Planet.’ 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. Due to this fact, we will, of course, honor the commitment made to provide space for the event to the Discovery Institute, but the museum will not participate or accept a donation for the event.

“Obviously, our two organizations are very different programmatically,” Ms. Dorrick informed Discovery in a followup telephone call.

“The major problem with the film is the wrap-up,” Randall Kremer, a museum spokesman told the New York Times. “It takes a philosophical bent rather than a clear statement of the science, and that’s where we part ways with them.”

Discovery Institute’s Jonathan Witt countered the Smithsonian’s concern over the film’s “philosophical bent” by noting that the Smithsonian had sponsored “Cosmos Revisited: A Series Presented in the Memory of Carl Sagan” in 1997.

“Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series,” notes Witt, “is famous for its opening dictum, ‘The Cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.’ Why didn’t the Smithsonian have a problem promoting this little philosophical flourish? … The Smithsonian has been given over, lock, stock, and barrel, to Sagan’s metaphysical vision for decades. The one difference now is that they’re explicitly stating that not only do they privilege Sagan’s materialist metaphysic, they will block any scientific argument that suggests a contrary conclusion.”

And that’s where it stands for now – “The Privileged Plantet” will show and the Discovery Institute will use the auditorium donation free.

In his June 3 newsletter, Randi attempted to downplay his “counter-bribe” of $20,000 as an attempt to squelch free speech and admitted that his campaign “looked like an attempt to suppress free expression of an opinion, which would never be our intention,” but he remained undaunted in the face of the film not being cancelled.

“This situation reflects a very critical situation in the present status of the ongoing war between reason and superstition,” he wrote. “It has become increasingly obvious that the creationists are flailing about trying to borrow or steal validation from science for a distinctly unscientific notion, by any means they can invent. And they have been successful in that goal when their tricks have worked. They borrow scientific terms, superficially apply legitimate scientific findings to their ideas in inappropriate ways, and try to appear to be using reason while actually abusing it.”

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