West Palm Beach is not what you call a center of higher learning. There's Northwood University, in the western suburbs, where you can take a degree in car sales ("automotive marketing," they call it). And there's Palm Beach Atlantic College, downtown, a Christian school founded in the late 1960s with the explicit purpose of reversing that era's assault on traditional American values.
Now the Baptist college hosts an event that will be the closest thing the city has ever seen to a major academic gathering: the Intelligent Design Conference. But in a sad irony, the affair resembles nothing so much as the used-car sales of Northwood's seminars, offering a podium's-worth of capped and gowned hucksters selling an intellectual lemon.
The intelligent design argument is the latest effort of creation "scientists" to smuggle the deity back into the laboratory. The concept is basically a rehashing of an idea at least two centuries old, most famously put forth by English prelate William Paley, Archdeacon of Carlisle, and commonly known as the "argument from design."
Paley said that the complexity and interdependence of life and the universe are such that they could have arisen only at the direction of a conscious designer -- God.
The argument has been repeatedly debunked on the grounds of both evidence and logic. (For those who want to dig deeper, start with the on-line Skeptic's Dictionary subject entry, at skepdic.com/intelligentdesign.html.) But in a nation where, according to a recent Gallup poll, nearly half the public believes that "God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years," it's clear there's a sucker born every minute.
All three leading lights of ID and their ringmaster will be in attendance this weekend: Dr. Phillip Johnson, a University of California at Berkeley law professor whose 1991 Darwin on Trial first brought the movement to national attention; Dr. Michael Behe, a Lehigh University professor of biochemistry whose hobby horse is the concept of "irreducible complexity"; and Dr. William Dembski, a Baylor University mathematician who claims to have disproved evolution through a subset of information theory. The latter two are fellows of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the ID movement's Christian-funded think tank/publicity machine, which is chaired by Dr. Stephen Meyer, who will also be present.
The PBAC conference is the latest stop in the nutty professors' road show. A major goal of the movement is to dress creationism up with enough scientific-looking makeup to have it taught in the nation's schools on an equal footing with Darwin's theory. It will be interesting to see how many of PBAC's biology professors will attend the conference and how rigorously they question the panelists.