Smithsonian Distances Itself From Controversial Film

By Tommy Nguyen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 2, 2005

The controversy over the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's decision to allow a documentary based on "intelligent design" -- the theory that life is so meticulously complex that a divine intelligence must have designed it -- to be played at one of its theaters ended in compromise yesterday: The film will be shown, but the screening fee required by the museum (in this case, $16,000) won't be accepted and the museum will withdraw its customary co-sponsorship.

"We have determined that the content of the film is not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution's scientific research," said a museum statement. The film, "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe," is based on a book by Iowa State University astronomy professor Guillermo Gonzalez. Opponents say it and other arguments for intelligent design are creationism in disguise.

"They are trying to borrow from the scientific community by using words like 'quantum' and looking at the age of the Earth," writes James Randi. He's founder of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which financially supports research or efforts that dispel paranormal or supernatural claims. "They are trying to get scientific validity by doing faux scientific research."

In April, the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to advocating intelligent design, asked the Smithsonian for permission to screen the hour-long documentary for a private viewing and reception. The museum often rents out its theaters -- as long as the content of the material screened is not religious or political.

Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute, says staffers at the Smithsonian's special events office told him they had screened the film for content on two occasions. An e-mail from Debbie Williams from the Office of Special Events at the Museum of Natural History, which he forwarded to The Post, states that the film was "reviewed by the Associate Director for Research and Collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and approval was granted for the film to be screened." (Williams did not return a message left on her office voice mail.)

Like any other event at the venue, it would be technically "co-sponsored" by the Smithsonian.

Last week, Denyse O'Leary, a Canadian author sympathetic to the intelligent design movement, posted on her blog that the Smithsonian, in a "stunning development," was going to screen the documentary. The New York Times picked up the story Saturday.

The news spread across science blogs -- especially those dedicated to the evolution debate.

When Randi heard the story, he says he called the Smithsonian offering the institution $20,000 not to show the film.

"They are renting the place for this creationist film, but apparently [the Smithsonian] didn't know it was creationist film," Randi said from his Fort Lauderdale headquarters. If it was a "matter of money, which I doubt," he said, "then I'm ready to surpass that."

In its statement yesterday, the Smithsonian said it will honor the agreement to screen the film June 23, but that it does not endorse the film and will not accept the agreed-upon fee offered for the auditorium.

"We're disappointed," Chapman said. "We met all their conditions -- screening the film for them, agreeing [to list the Smithsonian] director's name on the invitation and so forth -- and then some mention of this in the media, and now they want to backtrack to some degree, and we don't get it."

When asked if the Smithsonian had made a mistake in initially agreeing to host the event, spokesman Randall Kremer says: "We don't look at it in terms of whether we made a mistake or not. Our statement speaks for itself."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company