Wonders of the Smithsonian

Robert L. Crowther, II

The Washington Post has a story related to the showing of the film “The Privileged Planet” June 23 at the National Museum of Natural History. It will be interesting to see how the story is covered given the hysterical tone in evidence on certain ultra-Darwinian blogs in recent days. Once invitations got out and the New York Times ran a story over Memorial Day weekend(with its unfortunately misleading headline tying the film to the evolution debate, which is not its subject), the Museum apparently was flooded with calls and emails from angry Darwinists demanding that the event be cancelled. None of these would-be film-burners has seen the film, or read the book, of course.

PDF of recommended invitations provided by SI to DI
PDF of invitation sent out by DI
PDF of e-mail from SI saying The Privileged Planet had been reviewed and approved
PDF of letter received from Smithsonian by Dsicovery June 1

The Museum did not buckle, but it surely bent.
The event has not been cancelled. However a “Director’s Message” referencing supposed “consultation with the Secretary” (!) was circulated on the web Wednesday, and it purported to come from the Museum Director, Cristian Samper. The trouble is, Lucy Dorrick (director of development and special events) of the Smithsonian, who called us back when we telephoned Director Samper, knew nothing about it and seemed surprised to hear our report of it. She asked in turn if we had received a different, shorter message from her, on the museum’s behalf. We had not. She obligingly sent a copy to us and we sent her a copy of the questionable “Director’s Message.”
Addressed to Mark Ryland, Vice President of Discovery Institute and director of the institute’s Washington, DC office, the letter sent today to Discovery says,

“Dear Mr. Ryland:
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.
Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
Lucy Dorrick, Associate Director for Development and Special Events”

Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman did, indeed, have some questions and did call back Ms Dorrick. Since he understood that several persons at the museum had reviewed the film–including the high-ranking Associate Director for Research and Collections (according to an email sent April 6) — and since approval for the event was granted thereafter, when did the “further review” mentioned in the letter take place and of what did the further review consist?
Ms. Dorrick said that the Museum is still “happy to have you have the event” at the Museum, but, “obviously, our two organizations are very different programmatically.”
But what were the criteria for the Museum’s very recent “further review”? Did anyone else screen the film, for example? Ms. Dorrick did not know? Did Director Cristian Samper see the film? (Ms. Dorrick thought perhaps not.) Had Ms Dorrick? “No.” So what exactly was the basis of the “further review”? “It was an internal review,” Ms Dorrick stated.
(NOTE: Discovery Institute followed exactly the requests of the Smithsonian Institution in preparing the invitations. The SI sent recommendations of past invitations for Discovery to copy in follow in designing an invite. You’ll note that we did so when you peruse the samples provided by the SI and then review the final invitations mailed out.)
So, while it is financially invigorating to think that Discovery Institute will not have to make a requisite “donation” to the Smithsonian in order to show The Privileged Planet to a distinguished group of Washingtonians, it seems strange to learn that suddenly the film is in some way “not consistent with the mission of the Smithsonian Institution’s scientific research.”
Would it be unfair to suggest that perhaps the Smithsonian caved in to organized pressure from Darwinists who cannot imagine any ideas coming from the Discovery Institute that warrant a fair hearing? — and this despite the fact that the film itself says absolutely nothing about biological evolution. Darwinists will hoot and stamp their feet at that question, but other people might ponder what is going on here.
Please note: Discovery Institute started out looking for a place to showcase a terrific new film based on a highly praised book by Discovery fellows Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez (an astronomer at Iowa State) and Dr. Jay Richards (philosopher and CSC senior fellow). Constitution Hall was too big, the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum lacked an appropriate theater. The National Museum of Natural History was a natural, if third, choice. That’s where we applied.
We sought nothing other than permission to show the film. The Museum staff said that permission would follow a vetting of the film. We had the impression that several people, and not just administrative staff, then reviewed and approved it. They indicated that they liked it. We also were told that Discovery would be expected to “donate” $16,000 to the Smithsonian in exchange for which we would be given the right to hold our event, which was agreeable. Further, if approved, we were advised that the event would have to be co-sponsored by the Smithsonian and the Director’s title would have to appear on the front of the invitation. To be sure these terms were met, the Smithsonian required that the invitations would follow its own template and that the specific design would be approved before the invitations could be printed and mailed. As Ms Dorrick acknowledged in our Wednesday phone call, Discovery followed all the rules completely.
So now we will have the event (and they are “happy” to have us , Ms Dorrick says). We even get the hall gratis. But the event comes burdened with this peculiar statement of disassociation that critics are sure to use against us. It would seem a wholly bizarre turnabout if we had not heard about the way the Darwinian lobby attacked the Museum in recent days and agitated the staff members there.
We suggested (and still suggest) that the public relations end of this could have been handled better by the Smithsonian if the top management had only talked with us.
That leaves two items of business, in any case. First, was the “Directors Message” that has been spread hither and yon authentic, or some protestor’s “first draft” recommendation to the Director, or, worse, sheer malicious invention? The possibly apocryphal message is close to the language of the letter sent to Discovery today, except it goes on to deny what had never been claimed; namely, that the Smithsonian “supports and endorses the Discovery Institute (and) the film ‘The Privileged Planet.’” And it even implies the involvement of Smithsonian Secretary Small in the whole matter.
Second, what about the famous film itself, if one is permitted to ask? Why are news stories about the process and not the product? Is science not a fit subject for a story about the screening of a science film? Here we have the spectacle of dozens, maybe hundreds, of fulminating “scientists” and Darinist groupies who have protested the showing of a film none of them has seen. Our Institute has asked all reporters on this topic, therefore, to have the wisdom as well as fairness to view The Privileged Planet before allowing ignorant critics to misrepresent it. We are all busy, but this only requires one hour.
Of course, the film is getting its national premiere in Washington precisely to let serious critics and other interested parties see for themselves. That is the lasting cure for mischievous distortions.
Note also that the book upon which the film is based has been out for over a year. It has a record. There is, for example, an excellent and balanced review of it in Astronomy (see “Do We Live on a Privileged Planet”, though the reviewer, Amy Coombs, will probably now be pilloried for saying good things about it). It concludes, “This ambitious, multi-disciplinary approach paints an inspiring portrait of the delicate balance needed to sustain life. At the very least, the book’s poetic praise of Earth’s pristine measurability will leave readers much to ponder.”
In California Wild: The Magazine of the California Academy of Sciences, reviewer Robert Irion (see “Just Lucky, I Guess,”) said the book is “entertaining” and yet commendable also to “serious readers.”
A June, 2004 review in Nature, “Bright Blue Dot,” by Douglas A. Vakoch of the SETI Institute, is a sober, sensible critique that cautions that the authors cannot know much about habitability in other planets until such planets, and universes, are explored, and yet takes very seriously the Gonzalez-Richards scholarship and insights.
All these reviewers can find points of criticism of the book, and so they might of the film. But they also find much to praise, as does a host of world-famous scientists whose blurbs grace the book’s jacket. Simon Conway-Morris of Cambridge finds it “a book of magnificent sweep and daring. Let the debate begin; it is a question that involves us all.” Owen Gingerich of Harvard and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory finds it a “thoughtful, delightfully contrarian book” with “carefully documented analysis.” Michael J. Crowe of Notre Dame lauds the authors for an abundance of evidence and…a cautiousness of statement.” Dr. Crowe says “The Privileged Planet deserves very careful attention.” (For more and more, see www.privilegedplanet.com.)
So what’s the matter with the Smithsonian?
Is this film really so out of bounds in the Smithsonian culture? Is it truly the oddest or most controversial topic the Smithsonian has ever presented to the public? (Someone, quick, do some research!)
We invite the thought: Certain apparently very incurious scientists and bureaucrats at the Smithsonian are over-reacting to a challenging idea that truly does deserve “further review”. Maybe they should extend the “further review” even to the concept of intellectual liberty and robust scientific inquiry. Doesn’t science thrive on that?

Robert Crowther, II

Robert Crowther holds a BA in Journalism with an emphasis in public affairs and 20 years experience as a journalist, publisher, and brand marketing and media relations specialist. From 1994-2000 he was the Director of Public and Media Relations for Discovery Institute overseeing most aspects of communications for each of the Institute's major programs. In addition to handling public and media relations he managed the Institute's first three books to press, Justice Matters by Roberta Katz, Speaking of George Gilder edited by Frank Gregorsky, and The End of Money by Richard Rahn.