Intelligent Design Flunks in Pennsylvania

Federal Judge John E. Jones III's ruling yesterday against a Pennsylvania school district's "intelligent design" policy could be a turning point in the current flareup of the evolution-vs-creationism debate.

Jones did not attempt to hide his disgust with the Dover, Pennsylvania school board and its so-called "ID policy." The policy required that reading material on intelligent design, including a book entitled Of Pandas and People, be recommended to high school biology students at the start of the section on evolution.

In his opinion he wrote,

"The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy."
The ruling was a rare bolt of logic in a year when much of the nation seemed to be coming under the thrall of intelligent design -- the idea that the diversity of biological species we see today could not have come about without supernatural intervention.

Last month, the Kansas State Board of Education handed down new science standards that attempt to poke holes in evolutionary theory -- holes into which discussion of intelligent design can be inserted. Ohio teachers continue to labor under similar standards. This month, a judge in Cobb County, Georgia upheld public schools' use of textbook stickers that repeat the old "evolution is only a theory" canard. Earlier in the year, President Bush himself recommended that intelligent design be taught in public schools.

Jack Krebs is president of Kansas Citizens for Science, a group that fought in vain to head off the state school board's creationist science standards. He told me that the Dover decision gives evolution's defenders in Kansas and across the nation a boost because Judge Jones declared that, "Intelligent design has no positive content, that it's just warmed-over creationist arguments against evolution and not accepted by mainstream science."

The ID policy's religious intent was made very clear, says Krebs: "The judge said the Dover school board's policy invoked supernatural causes outside the realm of science."

Because it so obviously violated the separation of church and state required by the U.S. Constitution, the Dover policy was an easy mark for Judge Jones. In contrast, intelligent design's most effective advocates so far have been academics who avoid any overt mention of religion.

But Jones made it clear that he regarded the entire field of intelligent design as faith-based -- that he wasn't fooled by the long days of scientific-sounding testimony he'd heard from university-based ID gurus.

At the Discovery Institute in Seattle, a high-profile research organization dedicated to giving intelligent design some intelligent substance, there was fury at Jones's identification of their mission with that of Dover's religious fundamentalists. John West, associate director of the institute's Center for Science and Culture said the ruling "makes it clear that [Jones] wants his place in history as the judge who issued a definitive decision about intelligent design. This is an activist judge who has delusions of grandeur."

Jack Krebs maintains that many earlier writings of Discovery Institute scholars do reveal a religious agenda. He says that as time has passed, "they've learned to hide that fairly well. They can manage that because they're a very, very close-knit group."

But, says Krebs, that group loses control of the message when it spreads beyond Seattle: "When the grassroots people get involved, they just can't hide their religious motives."

Dover's ID policy illustrates one method by which the creationist movement attempts to push religion through the back door of biology. The policy states in part, "Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact ... Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view."

Tying evolution to speculation about the origin of life is a favorite tactic of creationists, whether they wear Sunday robes or white lab coats. The object is to create a conflict in people's minds between the science of evolution and the existence of God.

But Darwin's book was entitled On the Origin of Species, not "On the Origin of Life." Even today, research on how life first arose on the planet billions of years ago is in a state of flux and therefore rarely covered in high school biology. In contrast, evolution of new species through natural selection is a unifying concept in biology, backed by a century and a half of research and meriting a prominent place in textbooks.

When it comes to evolution, the science is solid, but the politics are very tricky. With poll after poll showing widespread support among parents for the teaching of intelligent design, its proponents claim to be fighting for nothing more than the right to open inquiry in public schools. Meanwhile, scientists are depicted as a self-appointed priesthood banning all but their own view of life. The Discovery Institute's West went so far as to call the Dover decision "government-imposed censorship."

In a highly technical age when we all can't be experts on everything, people are right to worry about who decides what their kids are taught and what they aren't taught. If religion is to be discussed in religion, philosophy and history classes where it belongs, and not in science classes, scientists and teachers will need to do a better job of informing everyone -- not just high schoolers -- what evolution is and is not.

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