Apr 21 2006

Dover’s dominos-4: How IDC lost in the Dover case

(See part 1, part 2, part 3.)

The stage was thus set in Dover, PA for what turned out to be an unequal contest in the courtroom of US District Judge John E. Jones III. Matthew Chapman, a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin, attended the trial and provides an amusing description of its proceedings, the personalities involved, and of the events in the town of Dover leading up to the trial. In his account God or Gorilla: A Darwin descendant at the Dover monkey trial in the February 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine, he describes how the plaintiffs team of lawyers, headed by the ACLU seemed to have the resources and materials at their fingertips while the Thomas More lawyers looked inadequately prepared and with few resources, even having to borrow the expert audio-visual services available to the plaintiffs.

Describing the plaintiffs’ (i.e., the people challenging the school board’s IDC policy) legal team, Chapman writes: “Here then was a team of highly skilled professionals operating in an atmosphere of frictionless amiability. Here was a collegiate machine,” while looking at the defense team “one was reminded more of a dysfunctional family with a frequently absent father.” (The ‘father’ in this case was Thomas More head Richard Thompson, who would be there for a few days and then disappear for a week.)

But more serious than the imbalance in legal resources was the fact that by introducing IDC ideas explicitly into their policy, the Dover school board exposed them to close scrutiny and, under cross-examination, those ideas did not fare well. As I have written earlier one of the expert witnesses who did appear on behalf of the defense was biochemist Michael Behe, probably the main scientist of the IDC movement, author of Darwin’s Black Box and creator of the five cases of ‘irreducible complexity’ on which the credibility of IDC hinges. Behe was cross-examined in a way that he never encounters when he speaks with IDC-friendly audiences and journalists and TV talk show hosts. As a result, he was forced into several damaging admissions, to the extent of even admitting that changing the definition of science to include IDC would also result in astrology being considered science. The judge repeatedly quoted his testimony as reasons evidence why he ruled against the defendants, which is somewhat ominous for IDC ideas if they should venture into the courtroom again

As almost everyone knows by now, the judge ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the plaintiffs, arguing that the Dover action was unconstitutional. He was unsparing in his criticism of the school board, saying “The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.” (p. 138)

He was also clearly angered by the outright lying by some of the Board members in their testimony, saying “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.” (p. 137)

But what was most damaging to the IDC case was the fact that the judge had taken the time to analyze closely the important question of whether IDC was science or religion, a question that he could have avoided if he wished, since the unconstitutionality of the Board’s actions did not depend on it. And his ruling that IDC was not science may end up being the most significant part of the verdict for the Discovery Institute’s long-term goal of slowly bringing it into the schools. He said (p. 64):

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980′s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.

Equally damaging (in a practical sense) was the judge’s decision that the Dover school board should pay for the court costs of the plaintiffs, a pretty large bill for a small school board and one that will have a chilling effect on the aspirations of other school boards to try similar actions.

Although a single verdict by a US District Court judge (unlike rulings by appeals courts or the US Supreme Court) carries with it no formal legal weight outside his district, a comprehensive and broad verdict like this tends to be very influential if a similar case should occur elsewhere. To see how this happens, one can go back to the 1982 ruling in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, where the judge in that case ruled that legislating equal time for creationism in biology class was unconstitutional. This was again a US District Court ruling but one which was very detailed and comprehensive.

That ruling by Judge William Overton was influential in creating a similar result in neighboring Louisiana, and it was the latter case (Edwards v. Aguilard) that resulted in the US Supreme Court ruling against creationism in 1987, adopting much of the reasoning used by Judge Overton in McLean. In fact, the McLean ruling was influential even in the Dover case.

There is no doubt that the Dover verdict was slam-dunk victory for the plaintiffs and a devastating defeat for the IDC side, much worse than they had feared. On September 30, 2005, before the trial, key IDC theorist William Dembski had made the following prediction on his blog:

As I see it, there are three possible outcomes:

  1. The Dover policy, in which students are informed that the ID textbook Of Pandas and People is in their library, is upheld.
  2. The Dover policy is overturned but the scientific status of ID is left unchallenged.
  3. The Dover policy is not only overturned but ID is ruled as nonscientific.

For what it’s worth, my subjective probabilities are that outcome 1. has about a 20% probability, outcome 2. has about an 70% probability, and outcome 3. has less than a 10% probability.

While Dembski was pessimistic about the outcome of the trial being favorable for their side (outcome 1), he still expected to salvage the notion that IDC could be science. The result being overwhelmingly outcome 3 may have unnerved Dembski so much that just six days after the Dover verdict, he announced that he was suspending his blog indefinitely. Since then, “his” blog has since reopened under new management, seemingly run by his more frequent commenters

Judge Jones’ verdict, which reads like a 139-page monograph on the history of attempts to overthrow evolutionary ideas in science classes and replace them with religious ones, will and should be read by everyone interested in church-state separation issues. I can imagine other judges are likely to read it for guidance if they should have to rule on similar cases.

The verdict immediately set off a series of actions in other parts of the country, as its implications were evaluated.

Next in this series: A domino falls in California.

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