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Conference on Intelligent Design Flees Portugal, Escapes Over the Border to Spain

Paul Nelson

The fishing boats go out across the evening water,
Smuggling guns and arms across the Spanish border.

— Al Stewart, “On the Border” (1976)

Three different posters for one intelligent design conference? Why?

You can guess why. Some ideas are just too risky to discuss in a university setting, and intelligent design is near the top of the list. Actually, in light of what happened over the past few weeks with this conference, I’d locate ID as the leading candidate for the “But We Simply Cannot Talk About That Here” award.

Cancellation Number One

Here’s the backstory. A group of students at the University of the Algarve, in Faro, Portugal, wanted to have a one-day conference on ID at the university. They invited Professor Marcos Eberlin of Campinas State University in Brazil (the 2016 Thomson Medal winner) and me, to speak. The conference was scheduled for Monday, October 23, with university endorsement.

Then, as soon as the conference was advertised, outside pressure began to stop it. On September 22, we received word that the event had been cancelled by the university. Score this as Cancellation Number One.

This has happened to me before, at the University of Helsinki. In the fall of 2004, along with two biologists from the university faculty, Rick Sternberg and I were scheduled to speak. The university had been promoting the event and was already selling 60 euro tickets online. Then, three weeks before the conference, faced with external opposition, the rector (i.e., president) of the university pulled the plug. We scrambled and held the conference anyway at Helsinki University of Technology.

Discouraging — but these students were determined.

Cancellation Number Two

So they looked around, and found another school willing to host the event, in the north of Portugal: the University of Porto.  A university science dean, Professor Fernanda Ribeiro, agreed to participate, and was listed on the program. Good to go, right?

Except that conferences need publicity, and (again) as soon as the new location was advertised, external pressure came down hard on the University of Porto, and on Professor Ribeiro in particular. On October 15 — eight days before the conference was to occur — she cancelled the event.  You know how to keep score.

Crossing the Border into Spain

Tough kids don’t give up.  If they couldn’t find a Portuguese university to hold the event, they would cross the border to northern Spain, and locate the conference in a commercial setting (i.e., hotel conference room), where breaking an agreement still means something.

So, off to León, Spain, to the Paradores León Hostal de San Marcos:

The conference program had to be abbreviated, and the youngest son of physicist David Saravia, one of the speakers, fell onto the hotel lobby’s marble floor while playing and BROKE HIS ARM — you can see the cast on his left arm, below — which necessitated a hospital visit during the conference.

But we managed to get the ID ideas into circulation. Ad astra per aspera.

I am so proud of the students who climbed into a bus in Faro on Saturday morning, drove to Porto to pick up some friends, then on to León — and then went back again on the same night of the conference. That is an almost 2000-kilometer round trip.

Academic freedom needs courageous young people to keep it alive.  “But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.” (Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791)

Yup.

Late last night the rain was knocking on my window,
I moved across the darkened room, and in the lamp-glow,
I thought I saw down in the street,
The spirit of the century
Telling us that we’re all standing
On the border.

Image credit: Brick background, by Pawel Wozniak (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.