Apr 19 2006

Dover’s dominos-2: The Dover school board undermines the Wedge strategy

(See part 1 here.)

The reason that Judge Jones’ verdict in the Dover trial is likely to be so influential is because of the exhaustive nature of the testimony that he heard and the depth and comprehensiveness and scope of his ruling. In essence, the trial provided a place for IDC ideas to get a close examination under controlled conditions.

Prior to the trial, the case for and against IDC had been waged in the media, in legislative hearings, and in debates. As someone who has participated in many such things, I know that such forums can be a place where key ideas get examined and focused. But this happens only if the participants want them to. Otherwise skilled practitioners in those forums can evade tricky questions by diverting attention elsewhere and turn them into public relations exercises and question-begging.

But in a trial, with its fairly strict rules of evidence, it becomes much harder to make unchallenged statements. If you assert something, you have to be able to back it up and you cannot evade the issues easily since you will be cross-examined.

To be frank, the Dover trial was from the beginning a bad situation for the IDC people, especially the strategists at the Discovery Institute. Their whole approach up to that point had been to run a stealth campaign, based on a clever public relations strategy. They carefully avoided talk of god as much as possible (at least in public). They did not even insist on teaching intelligent design in schools. Instead they adopted the strategy of asserting that evolution was ‘just a theory,’ that it had problems, that there was a controversy over some of its basic tenets, and that good science and teaching practices required that students be exposed to the nature of the controversy.

Their slogan “teach the controversy” had a certain appeal, since people have an intuitive sense of fairness, and the assertion that students should hear all sides of an issue is sure to strike a responsive chord. Thus opinion polls tend to consistently show majorities in favor of “teaching all sides” or “teaching the controversy.”

Presumably, the long-term strategy of the Discovery Institute was to first have the ideas of evolution undermined in this way, then later introduce IDC as an alternative to the undermined theory of evolution and lead to its discrediting, then bring god back into science education, and finally put god (and prayer) back into public schools everywhere. They saw this as a slow, incremental advance, taking many years to reach its goal.

The nature of this long-term plan is not entirely speculation on my part. The basic elements are outlined in the Discovery Institute’s “Wedge Strategy” document which placed the blame for society’s decline on the advancement of materialistic thought, of which they claim Darwinism was a major component. The document says:

“The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built. Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West’s greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences.

Yet a little over a century ago, this cardinal idea came under wholesale attack by intellectuals drawing on the discoveries of modern science. Debunking the traditional conceptions of both God and man, thinkers such as Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces and whose behavior and very thoughts were dictated by the unbending forces of biology, chemistry, and environment. This materialistic conception of reality eventually infected virtually every area of our culture, from politics and economics to literature and art.

The Wedge Strategy document says, among other things, that they seek “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.”

But the former members of the Dover school board had no patience for this kind of subtlety and the slow, long-range plan envisaged by the Discovery Institute. They wanted god back in their schools and they wanted it now. So they created their own policy, which required students in biology classes to have a statement read to them that said, 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. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.

In one stroke, the religious members of the Dover school board, thinking they were advancing god’s work, destroyed the entire stealth strategy of the Discovery Institute. By explicitly naming and introducing IDC into the science class, they were inviting a court challenge and thus exposing it to direct judicial review, something the Discovery Institute had been carefully avoiding.

What is worse, they even advocated a book Of Pandas and People which had a blatantly creationist pedigree. The book has been around a long time and in its earlier incarnations it freely used the word ‘creationism.’ The reason that this book was a problem was that creationism (which roughly stood for the idea that god directly intervened in the creation of the world and its living things) had already been ruled by the US Supreme Court in 1987 to be a religious belief that had no place in public schools. After this setback, a ‘new’ edition of the book came out which seemed to differ from the earlier versions mainly in the fact that someone had used the ‘search and replace’ function of their word processor to remove all references to the word ‘creationism’ and replace it with ‘intelligent design.’

It was because of that same court decision that the Discovery Institute had carefully avoided any mention of creationism in its work. In fact, the entire wedge strategy was based on tailoring a policy that avoided all the features of religion mentioned in the landmark 1987 decision, and thus would hopefully pass future constitutional scrutiny.

But the Dover board’s action made a hash of that strategy, because it mixed creationism, IDC, and opposition to Darwin into one entangled mess. To make it worse, the advocates of this Dover policy made no secret of the motives for their actions, and in school board meetings and other public forums spoke about how they were doing this so as to bring god back into the schools. (See Matthew Chapman’s article God or Gorilla in the February 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine for interesting insights into what was going on in that small town before and during the trial.)

These actions were going to come back and haunt them during the trial.

Next in this series: Dover leads to intramural fights within the creationist camp.

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