I always like to know who's been bought

A correspondent asked me an interesting and difficult question about the sponsorship of science. I've been talking a bit lately about the allosaur affair at the Creation "Museum", which can be summarized this way:

Michael Peroutka, an odious neo-Confederate nut, donates a valuable allosaur fossil to the Creation "Museum".

Now the tricky part. What's the difference in principle between that statement and this next one?

David Koch, an odious destroyer of the environment and climate change denialist, donates $35 million for a Smithsonian dinosaur hall redesign.

That's a good question, and it brought me up short. The problem with these sorts of questions is that it's really easy to slip into post hoc rationalizations -- I like the Smithsonian, I don't like the Creation "Museum", so it's a trap to start justifying why I like one and not the other, rather than thinking about the actual principle of the question. Would I just be arguing that the good institution is justified in doing whatever it can to get funding for its worthy goals, while the bad institution must be condemned for doing whatever it can to get funding for its unworthy goals?

I'm off the hook in one regard: I'm on record complaining about Koch's contribution to an earlier exhibit, the Hall of Human Origins. His donation was used to describe the role of climate change in human evolution, making the case that it is a good thing, because we wouldn't be here without the pressures of shifting climate. It was a subtle emphasis, but it's still an example of the pressure of millions of dollars being used to gently bend the science in a particular direction.

But it's only a gentle distortion. Otherwise, Koch seems to have had virtually no influence on the scientific opinions of the Smithsonian. Check them out; the Smithsonian explains the history of climate change, it sponsors Bill Nye explaining climate change, Smithsonian scientists are studying climate change, they have articles explaining how climate change is already affecting people's lives, and they provide lesson plans for educating about climate change. It's safe to say that we know on what side of this issue the Smithsonian stands, and it's on the opposite side of Koch.

It's a tricky thing, this business of funding science. Ideally, it would be done on merit only, by an independent source, like the NSF or NIH (or, as independent as they possibly can be), with no restrictions on how the money is used -- a pot of money is made available, disbursed by knowledgable committees of scientists, and there are no hidden catches to restrict how it's spent. We know that's an ideal -- government funding agencies are subject to fads, too, and politicians are constantly trying to tinker, with earmarks and prohibitions -- but it's as good as we've got. If private donors are involved, the same rules apply: they should give because they value the science, which is a search for the truth, and not because they intend to meddle to get the answers they want. In that sense, the Smithsonian did OK…although there are troubling signs that maybe they accepted some recommendations for Koch.

By the same argument, though, there's nothing wrong with Peroutka handing over a precious fossil to the Creation "Museum". It's stupid and a waste of a good specimen, `but otherwise, philanthropists do get to decide what to do with their own money, and Answers in Genesis can accept it in good conscience.

However, there is another issue. The Smithsonian is committed to doing good science, so they continue to loudly and strongly argue for the scientific consensus, that global climate change is a serious problem, and they do so despite the fact that an extremely wealthy donor disagrees completely with them. I imagine that if a donor tried to insist that his money comes with strings attached and must be used to propagandize for counterfactual claims, the institution would have enough integrity to flatly refuse.

I'd expect the same from the Creation "Museum". They've got a neo-Confederate racist sugar daddy: do they have enough integrity to repudiate his views, even at the expense of antagonizing him? The evidence so far says no. There is a difference between accepting a free donation, and being bought. I'd like to see Ken Ham come clean on his views on the Confederacy, the continued legacy of discrimination and racism, and how much of Peroutka's paid shill he is. If they are in agreement, that's fine -- just own it, and let us know what kind of people run Answers in Genesis.

Not that we don't already know they are a gang of loons, but there are quite a few other issues where we could possibly agree…or more likely, disagree.

More like this

You might have wondered, like I did, how Ken Ham was going to deal with the revelation that his prize Allosaurus specimen was the gift of a freaky neo-Confederate crank. We now know: he's going to ignore it indignantly. Rachel Maddow had a segment on the allosaur, the creationists, and the neo-…
And they know it. Ken Ham has started a new billboard campaign for the creation "museum", with a variety of different designs, all featuring prehistoric* creatures as draws to get kids and family to attend. Here are some examples: Notice what's smart about them? They're focused, featuring an…
There is a letter signed by top scientists demanding that science museums cut all their ties to Big Fossil, and where appropriate, kick the Koch Brothers off their boards. The letter says, in part, As members of the scientific community we devote our lives to understanding the world, and sharing…
The Smithsonian has a traveling exhibit based on the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. It's going to be put up at libraries all across the country (but nowhere in Minnesota!), so lots of people will get a look at some of the evidence for human evolution. Can you guess who is not happy about this…

Or you could go a little further, and come out against all philanthropy in the first place. I like to replace the word "philanthropist" with "kleptocrat" in any news story that contains the word. Then you start to realize that all these big ticket donations are little more than a nasty mix of influence peddling and guilt offerings, aimed at normalizing our massive structural wealth inequality. Don't go thanking them for the donation. Instead, be angry at the value system that ensures public access to science requires such donations.

By Steve Easterbrook (not verified) on 29 May 2014 #permalink

It's difficult to bite the hand that feeds you. I'm not even sure how much Ken Ham rejects racist views...they do have Genesis support as much as Ham's assertions of "brotherhood".

How one chooses to interpret the stories makes them equally good for supporting either position, although historically, pro-racist and slavery has been the general consensus interpretation of YHWY's plan.

By Buck Field (not verified) on 30 May 2014 #permalink

Atheism is a failure so you should discard it. It doesn’t work. It’s such a failure the Russian govt is now building churches by the thousand.

It has rebuilt a few famous cathedrals that had been destroyed by the communists. That makes (some) sense as making amends and giving the voters what they probably want.

But don't overestimate it: religion is not a rip-roaring success in formerly communist places. The Czechs and the East Germans are the most godless people on Earth; 60 % of the latter are atheists, and that number has kept growing since Germany was reunified in 1990.

Religion works

In what ways?

but atheism:
1. Is illogical, unreasonable, unintellectual, unintelligent

Do explain.

2. Has no answers to anything

That's what science is for. Religion claims to have answers, but it's unable to even test them!

3. Fails as a basis for government anywhere it’s been tried

It's never been tried. Communism – an ideology that, like a religion, asserts lots of things without testing them; one of the things it asserts happens to be that there aren't any deities – has been tried, and has been failing everywhere; atheism alone is not an ideology, it's not a political position, so I don't see how it even could be used "as a basis for government".

4. Atheists have murdered more people in the last 100 years than all the tyrants of history combined

See above under communism.

5. Is a non contributor to society, there are no soup kitchens, houses of charity, hospitals, schools etc.

Atheism isn't an organization. Only an organization could run such things.

Spend more time on the Internet, and you'll find charity organizations that are explicitly atheist; there's also evidence that individual atheists donate a lot to charity organizations.

And finally, the organization whose job it is to run hospitals and schools, and whose job it is to make sure that nobody needs charity, is the state. Wherever a religious organization does such things, that's a sign You The People have failed.

6. Is merely a position in which to criticize and complain about religion while offering nothing in return

What do you want it to offer?

7. Atheism has nothing to offer mankind and offers no hope for mankind


Would you seriously rather have false hope than know reality?

8. Has no practical intelligent system of morals

That's not its job; ethics is a branch of philosophy, not of religion or atheism. However, it's actually pretty easy to make a system of ethics that doesn't need to assume the existence of a deity.

9. Cannot defend its belief system since there is no empirical evidence validating it

You're confused. Atheism is the lack of a belief system. It's the lack of beliefs that aren't supported by evidence. There's no evidence for a deity, so there's no reason to believe any exists.

10. The atheism lacks any connection with observational data on God


Care to show me some of those data?

11. Atheism has a goal of destroying Christian morals and values

Those Christian morals and values that are based on nothing more than "this old book claims God says so" aren't based on any evidence, any rational considerations, so it's a good thing to do away with them.

Others actually make sense, like "love your neighbor like yourself". They make sense in a thought-through system of ethics – which means they aren't exclusively Christian or exclusively religious in the first place! (...It's funny how you seem to assume atheists only exist in countries that have or used to have a Christian majority.)

12. Atheists spend their time evangelizing their criticism of Christianity

You don't happen to have any evidence for this assertion, do you? :-)

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 30 May 2014 #permalink

Why are you so ignorant that I have to tell you your own dogmas?

I'm a scientist. I don't have a dogma. :-)

You seem curiously incapable of thinking outside of religious concepts.

1. There is no God
2. There is no evidence for God

1 is a conclusion from 2.

4. Morals are subjective and determined by society

It's not so simple. Not all imaginable morals would result in a functioning society.

That's why empathy and reciprocal altruism are so widespread (they're by no means limited to humans).

6. Atheists believe Christians murder rape and plunder because Christian doctrine requires them to do so

Well, no. Christian dogma has often been used as a justification for murder, rape and plunder (is your comma key broken?), which couldn't happen if nobody believed it; but it's hard to say that Christian doctrine requires people to do such things when Christians themselves can't agree on what their religion requires. Indeed, there have been wars over this question.

"There are no sects in geometry", said Voltaire – where ideas about reality can be tested by comparing them to evidence, objectivity is possible; where such ideas can't be tested, personal preference is the only recourse, and schisms happen.

7. Atheists don’t murder people because they are atheists. They do it because of some personal weakness.

Communism isn't a personal weakness. But most atheists today aren't communists.

8. Atheists believe Christianity should be destroyed
9. Atheist believe ALL religion should be destroyed

Not true. Many forms of Christianity, and many forms of religion in general, are quite harmless. There is no reason to try to bring about their ends; after all, nobody has commanded us to go forth and deconvert all peoples. You're projecting in a particularly silly way.

10. Atheists believe that Communists are not atheists

Lolwut? Most communists are of course atheists: they don't believe there are any gods.

Now, many forms of communism are quite religion-like, and those toward the Stalinist/Maoist end of the spectrum worship certain people like gods or messiahs. There are communists who are, basically, wrong about everything except the nonexistence of deities; but they're still atheists. The definition of the word is quite unambiguous.

(Not that it matters, but there are a few communists who are not atheists. Some are Christians. But I mention this just for the sake of completeness.)

11. Atheists believe that everything evolved from nothing or that the universe (or some sort of physical reality existing afore the universe) was already there

Well, given that nothing doesn't have baby nothings that are similar but not identical to the original nothing, nothing can't evolve... don't use words when you don't know what they mean.

And now read this. I know it's a bit long; but you'll learn something.

12. Atheists believe that science is superior to religion and that religion conflicts with science

As long as you can answer the question "if I were wrong, how would I know?" all the way down, you're doing science. As soon as you can't, you've stopped doing science.

...Yeah, I do think this justifies considering science superior to religion.

You believe religion and science don't conflict? Tell me something they agree on. :-)

13. Christians commit more crimes than atheists

I don't know if that's the case (though if you look at how many percent of prisoners in the US are Christians and how few are atheists, the conclusion does rather offer itself). But I don't quite see why it would be relevant.


Do explain.


I've seen evolution happen with my own eyes, overnight, in a petri dish. So has everyone else who has studied molecular biology at my alma mater and been through lab course 1B.

Want details? :-)


Do you even listen to yourself?

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 30 May 2014 #permalink

David STOPITSTOPITSTOPIT leave the troll to go back under the bridge. The question of the ethics of philanthropy is interesting; another dumbass 'atheist dunt werk' troll is not.

By Pan Outeast (not verified) on 30 May 2014 #permalink

As Dan Hart in #2 pointed out, there is the Koch brothers funding for Nova as well.
Nova and the Smithsonian have still a great number of funding sources, with a certain amount coming from government. As long as that is true, they can afford their independent stance. But once there is another financial crisis, donations drop, budget cuts loom..., there is the danger of self-censorship; it just so happens that any documentary annoying to a major donor will be put on the back burner; why deal with fracking now, or environmental devastation,.... when you can put on another Stephen Hawkings feature?
Self-censorship is as insidious as explicit censorship, but so much 'better,' by being hidden. (And once 'net neutrality' is defeated, blogs like this one may not be censored, they just load more slowly.)

And if our Senator from Oklahoma wakes up to the fact that the Smithsonian said something about climate change (euphemism for 'global warming'), he may try to cut its funding, too.

leave the troll to go back under the bridge

Why would I?

You're new here. I've been on Pharyngula for eight years now; we feed the trolls till they explode.

First I had to correct you on what atheism was (since you didn’t even know it)

What are you talking about?

WTF are you yammering on about? I was merely describing your own (bullshit) beliefs

No. You claimed that I claim that "everything evolved from nothing". But nothing cannot evolve, so of course I don't believe anything evolved from nothing. I explained why nothing cannot evolve.

Since nothing can’t evolve, that means you need a God to explain the existence of the universe

*sigh* And once again you believe you know all ideas anyone has ever had.

There are plenty of ways to explain the existence of the universe without having to assume that any deity exists. First, follow the link I posted. Afterwards you might find this and this interesting.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 30 May 2014 #permalink

Yipes! We have a troll who is selling his religion stuff. Proselytizing is what they do, just like the overdressed ladies and zoot suited men that come to the door with the well thumbed bible book they have read but failed to understand.

This clown is trying to tear down the only view of religion that depends on it's making sense. What we know is that physics and chemistry work. We understand evolution because we see it every day in the way that bacteria respond to antibacterial medications. We see it in the way that the Periodic Table works. What we don't see is exactly where all this came from but we're working on it. Kinda looks like some kind of physics that is just revealing itself. But, what it is not is the way a bunch of folks looking at the stars and eclipses and drought and ascribing those observations to a malevolent or benevolent being think it works. It didn't happen in 6 days because there were no days (that had to be created). That much we understand. The rest is just smoke and mirrors.

By BobFromLI (not verified) on 01 Jun 2014 #permalink

Vince, do you worship your god with that mouth?

Somewhat off topic but I think it is a good illustration of Vine's thought pattern. And a fun read.

Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K., & Gignac, G. E. (2013, May).
NASA faked the moon landing–therefore, (climate) science is a
hoax: An anatomy of the motivated rejection of science.
Psychological Science, 24(5), 622–633.
doi: 10.1177/0956797612457686

By jrkrideau (not verified) on 02 Jun 2014 #permalink

vince im a christian . im also a biologist ...you're wrong about evolution ..youre also wrong about atheism ....yes, I type like ee Cummings..... get over it.

By brightmoon (not verified) on 02 Jun 2014 #permalink