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An Enclave of Intolerance: Anti-Intelligent Design Pressure from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Casey Luskin

A major reason that the California Science Center (CSC) ultimately cancelled its contract with the American Freedom Alliance (AFA) to show a pro-intelligent design film was pressure from museums — both nearby and far away — to distance itself from anything associated with intelligent design (ID). My previous post recounted the Smithsonian’s opposition to the CSC’s allowing a pro-ID event. But there was also pressure from much closer to home — from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC), right across the street in Exposition Park.

NHMLAC’s involvement began after the NCSE sent an e-mail warning Southern California-area evolutionists about the imminent pro-ID event at CSC. USC marine paleoecologist David Bottjer forwarded the e-mail on to various colleagues, including Luis Chiappe, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Director of the Dinosaur Institute at NHMLAC. Chiappe then dutifully forwarded Bottjer’s e-mail to NHMLAC Division Chiefs, as well as to John Long, NHMLAC’s new Vice President of Research and Collections:

This is to give you the heads up of this forthcoming creationist event in our neighbor institution (John, welcome to the US!). Perhaps we can discuss if we can do something about this tomorrow in our meeting.

The day after receiving Chiappe’s e-mail, Jody Martin, an evolutionary biologist who studies crustaceans at NHMLAC, suggested that the NHMLAC ought to forge a response to the event. Martin unwittingly provides the very sort of argument that probably convinced CSC to ultimately cancel AFA’s event:

I do think that a spokesperson from the Museum should say something to the responsible party at the California Science Center. It’s possible, I suppose, that they do not realize who the Discovery Institute is (?) or what the film is really about (what it’s goals are), but it is certainly not in the best interests of the Science Center to damage their reputation in this way. I can easily foresee funding problems for them in the future if this is brought to light, and perhaps they should be made aware of this as well. (emphasis added)

Obviously Martin himself is intolerant of ID. But it’s important to understand what’s going on here at a deeper level. What we see in this enclave in Los Angeles encompassing CSC and NHMLAC is a culture of intolerance. Not only are individual science museum staff opposed to ID, but they are committed to enforcing a rule preventing others in the community from doing anything that would lend support to ID.

With his concern for the CSC’s “reputation,” Martin might sound compassionate. But the concern really arises from the same culture of intolerance that says sympathy for ID ought to harm one’s reputation. This is no conspiracy. Instead what you are witnessing is institutionalized discrimination at work.

More importantly, Martin is not alone in his mindset; it reflects the culture in this enclave. He undoubtedly expresses the sentiments that many local evolutionists, including those at CSC, would have if AFA’s event had gone forward. They would view it as causing “damage” to the “reputation” of the CSC. These are the same fears the CSC cited in ultimately canceling AFA’s event. As Chris Sion wrote to AFA in the cancellation e-mail, publicity about the event “damaged our relationship with the Smithsonian and the reputation of the California Science Center.” Of course, such concerns are not a legitimate reason to cancel an event — they are evidence of viewpoint discrimination. But Martin’s way of thinking makes the CSC’s actions all the more comprehensible, even though they were illegal.

Martin even hints there could be “funding problems for them in the future if this is brought to light,” and he wants to make CSC “aware” of this. He also writes to his colleagues at NHMLAC:

Clearly, even if the IMAX unit is run separately from CSC, this will still be very damaging to the Science Center, as the event is being promoted as something under the CSC umbrella with their implied endorsement. In my attached draft, I have taken a quote from the Discovery Institute’s web page to show that they are clearly and proudly touting their association with CSC. Thus, I would not dismiss it if it turns out that the IMAX theater is run as a separate entity, this will still reflect on CSC directly.

In another e-mail to an NCSE staff member, Martin similarly writes that AFA’s event “is counter to [CSC’s] stated mission and can only harm their credibility and reputation.” Martin’s point is that any association between CSC and a pro-ID event will be bad for CSC and thus pro-ID speech must be banned.

We also learn from Martin’s e-mails that NHMLAC staff planned to draft a letter pressuring CSC to do something about the situation. E-mails obtained from the NHMLAC under California’s Public Records act show some contents of the draft letter:

  • Darwin’s Dilemma is a “creationist film” that is “deeply dishonest” because it is “a creationist film masquerading as a science documentary.”
  • “ID is a thinly veiled version of creationism, as has been noted in several high profile court cases (notably the Dover, Pennsylvania, Federal Court trial in 2005).” (This is inaccurate, since only one court-case has addressed the teaching of ID.)
  • The letter then lays out the rationale why showing the film will supposedly “undermine the credibility and reputation” of CSC:

    “Clearly, the promotion of religious materials under the rubric of science would be in conflict with these strongly stated and commendable vision statements. Both the University of Southern California and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County feel strongly that the implied endorsement of this film by the CSC will seriously undermine the credibility and reputation of CSC as a leader in science education in the Los Angeles Basin. Media attention to this event could prove devastating in terms of CSC’s reputation as a science education institution. We are also concerned that some of your current supporters and donors, including the State of California, might not continue to support CSC if it became known that you had, knowingly or otherwise, eschewed the presentation of solid science and instead offered a venue for spreading the religious propaganda that masquerades under the name Intelligent Design.”

  • The draft letter concludes: “We urge you to cancel this event.

The letter never got sent, because soon thereafter CSC canceled AFA’s event. With this kind of thinking prevalent among the local friends and colleagues of CSC staff — not-so-veiled threats of harm to CSC’s reputation and loss of funding — no wonder CSC buckled. John Long sounds pleased to report the following to his colleagues about his boss’s conversation with Jeff Rudolph, CSC’s CEO:

Jane Pisano, (our CEO) rang Jeff Rudolph the CEO of California Science Center last night and had a chat to him about the screening of the ID film at CSC’s IMAX. They had in fact cancelled the event as being not in line with their mission to educate the public about science, so it is not going ahead (emphasis added)

So we see that behind closed doors, CSC was openly acknowledging that it would not resist the pressure from neighbors like NHMLAC to cancel the pro-ID event.

No doubt CSC was under immense pressure to cancel. In this case, the pressure stemmed from a culture of intolerance that cared nothing for First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and prohibitions of government discrimination against certain viewpoints.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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