From Scopes to Dover-27: The Dover verdict

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The judge who presided in the trial Kitzmiller v. Dover seemed to have a more sophisticated idea of the nature of science than Judge Overton in the 1982 case of McLean v. Arkansas. Judge Jones’s full analysis of how he came to his conclusion that intelligent design was religion and not science (p. 64-89) is well worth reading because it gives an excellent summary of some basic ideas in the history, philosophy, and methodology of science.

Judge Jones based his ruling on arguments similar to those used by Judge Overton in McLean v. Arkansas, in which the latter ruled that creation science was also a religious belief and not science. This aspect of the opinion may end up being the most significant part of the verdict, with devastating consequences for the Discovery Institute’s long-term goal of slowly bringing religion and god back into the schools. The reason that IDC strategists wanted to have their theory considered a science was that then that it would have a better chance of passing the Lemon test for satisfying the establishment clause.

Judge Jones said in his ruling:

After a searching review of the record and applicable case law, 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. (p. 64)

Judge Jones further added: “It is notable that not one defense expert was able to explain how the supernatural action suggested by ID could be anything other than an inherently religious proposition.” (p. 31) He also pointed to the expert evidence given by the pro-IDC witnesses themselves (Michael Behe, Scott Minnich, Steven Fuller, and statements made elsewhere by other leading IDC figures Philip Johnson and William Dembski) and to the Edwards v. Aguillard and the McLean v. Arkansas precedents to conclude that “ID’s religious nature is evident because it involves a supernatural designer.” (p. 29)

Judge Jones said in his ruling (p. 46) that all the Supreme Court precedents imply that “[T]he Establishment Clause forbids not just the explicit teaching of religion, but any governmental action that endorses or has the primary purpose or effect of advancing religion.”

We saw that the history of the actions of the Dover school board had made it fairly easy to determine that the board had violated the purpose prong of the Lemon test. To determine whether it had also violated the effect prong and the endorsement test, Judge Jones’ said in his ruling that what determines whether a law passes constitutional muster on these grounds is not only how one parses the actual wording of the legislation but also whether a reasonable and informed observer would interpret the effect of the law as an ‘endorsement’ of a particular religious viewpoint.

(This ‘endorsement test’ standard was articulated by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her concurring ruling in the1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly where she said that the key issue was whether a government policy would be seen as an ‘endorsement or disapproval of religion’. The use of an ‘informed, reasonable observer’ as the standard for making such a determination was articulated by her in the 2004 case of Elk Grove Unified School District. v. Newdow 542 U.S. 1.)

Jones said that in general:

The test consists of the reviewing court determining what message a challenged governmental policy or enactment conveys to a reasonable, objective observer who knows the policy’s language, origins, and legislative history, as well as the history of the community and the broader social and historical context in which the policy arose. (p. 15, my italics)

In the specific cases of challenges to evolutionary theory, he looked at history and legal precedent and especially at:

a factor that weighed heavily in the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the balanced-treatment law in Edwards, specifically that “[o]ut of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools, the legislature chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects.” (p. 48)

He went on:

In singling out the one scientific theory that has historically been opposed by certain religious sects, the Board sent the message that it “believes there is some problem peculiar to evolution,” and “[i]n light of the historical opposition to evolution by Christian fundamentalists and creationists[,] . . . the informed, reasonable observer would infer the School Board’s problem with evolution to be that evolution does not acknowledge a creator.” (p. 57, my italics)

Notice that the standard used for judging the purpose of the law is what an ‘informed, reasonable observer’ would infer from the action. IDC advocates and supporters tried to implement their strategy by carefully choosing words and sentences free of any obviously religious connotations so that they would meet the letter of the law and thus hope that the policy will pass constitutional scrutiny. But what Judge Jones said is that it is not merely how the law is worded but also how a particular kind of observer, who is assumed to be much more knowledgeable about the issues than your average person in the street, would interpret the intent of the law.

This is a very damaging part of the verdict to the IDC case. IDC strategy has always been to undermine the credibility of evolutionary theory in science by singling it out for special scrutiny. They have never called for ‘teaching the controversy’ in all the other areas of science. Judge Jones said that since an ‘informed, reasonable observer’ would know that Christians have had long-standing objections to evolutionary theory on religious grounds, singling it out for special treatment would be seen by such an observer as tantamount to endorsing a religious viewpoint. (I have noticed this personally. I sometimes come across people who say they are skeptical about the theory of evolution and then quickly add that their opposition is not due to religious reasons, because they know that religion is why evolution is commonly opposed.)

And this is where the ghost of the Scopes trial appears again. Ever since that trial, the presumption has been that anyone who opposes the theory of evolution has primarily religious reasons for doing so. Justice Scalia in his dissent in Edwards v. Aguillard referred to this as “an intellectual predisposition created by the facts and the legend of Scopes. . .an instinctive reaction that any governmentally imposed requirements bearing upon the teaching of evolution must be a manifestation of Christian fundamentalist repression.” The burden of proof is now on those who oppose evolution to prove that they do not have religious reasons for doing so, and that is a high standard to meet.

In a further telling statement that has direct implications for the Discovery Institute’s ‘teach the controversy’ strategy, Judge Jones said:

ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM [Intelligent Design Movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID. (p. 89)

In other words, he had seen right through the entire ‘Wedge’ strategy. After all, their strategy had precisely been to single out evolutionary theory for special treatment. They have resolutely opposed any attempt to call for ‘critical analysis’ and ‘teaching the controversy’ in all areas of science.

There is no way to see the Dover ruling as anything but a devastating blow to the entire stealth strategy promoted by the Discovery Institute. It took apart every element of their carefully constructed edifice, leaving only rubble.

Judge Jones delivered his verdict on December 20, 2005. Just after the trial ended on November 4, the Dover school board elections were held and a slate of anti-IDC candidates, including one of plaintiffs, were elected to the school board, replacing all eight of the former pro-IDC people who were up for re-election. As a result, the Dover verdict will not be appealed to a higher court and thus, like the Scopes trial, will not formally set a legal precedent for the nation.

But the impact of Dover, like that of Scopes, will be far ranging. Its consequences started to be felt almost immediately, as we will see in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: Lesson in magic from the masters

Those two wonderful magicians Penn and Teller show how sleight of hand works.

From Scopes to Dover-26: The Discovery Institute’s dilemma

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The Dover school board policy was challenged in December 2004 as a violation of the establishment clause and so the two sides prepared to go to trial. The lawsuit for the plaintiffs led by Tammy Kitzmiller was filed by the ACLU of Pennsylvania and included experienced constitutional attorneys from the firm of Pepper Hamilton and from the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The lawyers who appeared for the Dover school board were from the Thomas More Law Center based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which saw itself as a kind of Christian counterweight to the ACLU. The center was created in 1999 by Thomas Monaghan, founder of the Dominos pizza chain and financial backer of conservative Catholic causes. Their website is very direct about its mission: “Our purpose is to be the sword and shield for people of faith, providing legal representation without charge to defend and protect Christians and their religious beliefs in the public square.” They were the ones who urged the Dover school board to adopt their policy, offering to represent them in court if challenged. The fact that the Dover school board had this offer of free legal representation undoubtedly influenced board members in the decision to adopt a policy they knew would be controversial.

But as the Dover case prepared to go to the trial that began on September 26, 2005, it became clear that the More Center lawyers were going to face difficulties. While they were surely earnest in their beliefs in the rightness of their cause, dedicated to fighting for it, religiously gung-ho, and eager to do battle against evolution, they simply did not have the legal resources or expertise or even people to mount the kind of research and sophisticated arguments necessary for such an important case. In addition, they faced a highly sophisticated and well-organized team of constitutional lawyers for the plaintiffs. They seemed to be out of their league.

As we have seen, the Dover school board’s actions went contrary to the long-term strategy of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement advanced by the Discovery Institute. But once the die was cast and the Dover policy was adopted and challenged in the courts, the Discovery Institute was placed in a quandary. They could see that the More Center was not fully up to the task facing them but it was not clear how they could help. Should they completely disassociate themselves from the Dover school board actions and distance themselves from the case as it went down to likely defeat? Or should they throw themselves fully into the fray, provide their own expert witnesses, pour their considerable financial and legal resources into the case, and hope to secure victory? While the latter was a better tactical option since it increased the chances of winning this case, it had the considerable strategic downside in that if they still lost the case despite their full participation, then the entire IDC movement, not just the Dover school board, would be perceived as having been defeated, and this would have serious repercussions, even possibly dooming their long-term plans.

It was a difficult choice and they waffled. At first they agreed to be part of the case and to provide lawyers and expert witnesses, but that collaboration turned out to be short-lived and they later withdrew, giving as their reason that the Thomas More Law Center objected to their request to have the Discovery Institute’s own lawyers representing their clients. One serious and negative consequence of the Discovery Institute’s decision to withdraw their expert witnesses at the last minute was that it was now too late for the More Center to get alternative expert witnesses for their side. As a result, the plaintiffs were able put forward their own expert witnesses in science and philosophy and theology to provide testimony on important questions that was not rebutted in court and thus was accepted as fact, seriously weakening the defense’s case.

The whole episode caused bad feelings between the Discovery Institute and the More Center which spilled out into the open, as The Toledo Blade reported on March 20, 2006:

In fact, when Mr. Thompson [the head of the Thomas More Law Center] decided to defend the Dover intelligent design policy, he angered the group most associated with intelligent design: the Discovery Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Seattle.

“We were incredibly frustrated by arrogance and bad legal judgment of goading the [Dover] school district to keep a policy that the main organization supporting intelligent design was opposed to,” says John West, the associate director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.

The Thomas More Center acted “in the face of opposition from the group that actually represents most of the scientists who work on intelligent design.”

. . .

The Discovery Institute has never advocated the teaching of intelligent design, and told the Dover board to drop its policy, Mr. West says. It participated in the trial only reluctantly.

“We were in a bind,” Mr. West says. “Our ideals were on trial even though it was a policy we didn’t support.”

The More Center’s head Richard Thompson countercharged that all these were just excuses to hide the real reason, which was that the Discovery Institute people were essentially cowards, people who talk a tough game but don’t put their beliefs on the line when it counts:

Mr. Thompson says the Discovery Institute’s strategy is to dodge a fight as soon as one appears imminent.

“The moment there’s a conflict they will back away . . .they come up with some sort of compromise.” But in Dover “they got some school board members that didn’t want compromise.”

This intramural battle between two groups supposedly on the same pro-IDC side did not augur well for the trial.

While the Dover trial did not involve larger-than-life, nationally known and flamboyant personalities like the Scopes trial, or dramatic moments like the questioning of Bryan by Darrow, it did have its comedic moments, such as when IDC theorist Michael Behe, who had advocated broadening the definition of science so that IDC would be included under it, conceded under cross-examination that such a broadened definition would result in astrology too being considered a science. Observers considered that moment a pivotal one in dooming the IDC case.

As almost everyone interested in this subject knows by now, on December 20, 2005 federal US District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled resoundingly in favor of the plaintiffs and against the Dover school board. Not only did he rule that the Dover school board action was unconstitutional, he was also harsh and unsparing in his criticism of the school board’s actions, 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)

The judge said that both the Lemon test, and the reconceptualization of its purpose and effect prongs as an endorsement test by Justice O’Connor, would be applied to determine the constitutionality of the Dover policy.

The history and actions of the Dover school board clearly showed that it had religious motivations in implementing their policy and thus made it easy for the judge to rule against the school board on the grounds that they had failed to meet the purpose prong of the Lemon test and was thus unconstitutional by virtue of that fact alone. In addition, he found that the policy also violated that effect prong and failed the endorsement test.

The judge went further and also ruled on whether IDC was science. The IDC strategists had desperately wanted to avoid having a judicial determination on whether intelligent design was a science and in fact the Discovery Institute had filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief explicitly asking him not to rule on the question of the scientific validity of IDC.

But the judge felt that such a determination was proper, justifying this action by saying that the lengthy discussion on this very question in the trial meant that the issue had received a thorough airing and making such a determination was both useful and even essential. He said: “[W]e will offer our conclusion on whether ID is science not just because it is essential to our holding that an Establishment Clause violation has occurred in this case, but also in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial involving the precise question which is before us.” (p. 63)

The judge ruled that IDC was not a science but a religion.

It is this aspect of the judge’s ruling that is likely to be most damaging to IDC’s future prospects. Because the topic had received such an exhaustive examination during the trial, and because Judge Jones in his opinion had analyzed this question in such detail extending to 25 pages (p. 64-89), it seems likely that any future case involving intelligent design will depend heavily on his opinion and thus have a strong presumption that IDC is a religion. This is what happened with the Supreme Court in the 1987 case of Edwards v. Aguillard, where they depended heavily on the analysis of the nature of creation science that was written by US District Judge Overton in the 1982 case of McLean v. Arkansas.
It is worthwhile examining Judge Jones’s reasoning in his opinion in some detail because although, like the Scopes trial, this case will not reach the Supreme Court, it seems likely to cast a similarly long shadow. This will be done in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: Roy Zimmerman explains Creation Science 101

From Scopes to Dover-25: The Dover policy on teaching evolution

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

I previously showed how that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) strategists had laid out a careful long-term stealth strategy aimed at discrediting the teaching of evolution and breaking through the restrictions placed on religion in the schools because of the establishment clause in the First Amendment. They should have paid heed to Scottish poet Robert Burns who in his poem To a Mouse cautioned those who place too much faith in detailed plans for the future:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, 

Gang aft agley.

When historians of the future write about the demise of the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) movement, they will likely point to the Dover, PA court decision as when the carefully thought-out plans and strategy of the IDC movement ganged agley in a big way.

In some ways, the Dover trial was fitting bookend to the Scopes trial. I mentioned earlier that the Scopes trial had more features of a comedy than of a drama, and so did Dover case. As in the Scopes trial, a colorful cast of local characters impulsively waded into the midst of a national debate and completely muddied the waters. (See Matthew Chapman’s article God or Gorilla in the February 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine for entertaining insights into what was going on in that small town before and during the trial. Chapman, incidentally, is a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin.)

The Dover trial was from the beginning a bad situation for the IDC people, especially the strategists at the Discovery Institute, because it took events out of their control and put them in the hands of people who did not really understand what IDC was all about. The IDC theorists were trying to implement a carefully crafted stealth strategy, avoiding any taint of religion. The Discovery Institute’s ‘Wedge Strategy” required everyone to very discreet, carefully avoiding any mention of god or religion or anything remotely connected to them.

The problem was that the Dover school board was much too clumsy in its attempts to introduce IDC ideas into its curriculum. They had little patience for the subtlety of the slow, long-range plan envisaged by the Discovery Institute. They wanted god and the Bible and prayer back in their schools and they wanted it now. As a result, they left their religious fingerprints all over the policy in a way that the sophisticated strategists suspected would be fatal to its case. While the main IDC strategists were walking on egg shells, the Dover school board members were clumping around in thick boots.

The Dover school board by a 6-3 vote in October 2004 passed a resolution that “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of Life is not taught.” The actual policy to be implemented in January 2005 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 enacting this policy, the religious members of the Dover school board, thinking they were doing god’s work, effectively sabotaged the entire stealth strategy of the Discovery Institute. By explicitly naming and introducing IDC into the science class, they were inviting a court challenge that would expose the idea of intelligent design itself to direct judicial review, something the Discovery Institute had been carefully avoiding.

What is worse, the Dover school board even advocated a particular book Of Pandas and People, which had a blatantly creationist pedigree. The book had been around a long time and in its earlier incarnations was clearly advocating creationism. But creationism was ruled in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) to be a religious belief that had no place in public schools. After that setback, a ‘new’ edition of the book came out that 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’ or its derivatives. The replacement was so blatant and sloppy that in one place in the drafts of this new edition, while seeking to replace the word ‘creationists’ with ‘design proponents’, they ended up with ‘cdesign proponentsists‘. This discovery, when revealed during the Dover trial, added weight to the argument that ‘intelligent design’ was simply creationism thinly repackaged, nothing more.

Recall that it was because of that same Edwards v. Aguillard 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 that landmark decision, and thus could hope to pass future constitutional scrutiny. IDC strategists feared that such a flimsy disguise as replacing the word ‘creationism’ with ‘intelligent design’ and their cognates, as the Of Pandas and People book did, was unlikely to fool the courts. Even worse, it would make it look as if the two terms were synonymous.

(The IDC strategists were right to be concerned about this weakness because Judge Jones said in his ruling that: “By comparing the pre and post Edwards drafts of Pandas, three astonishing points emerge: (1) the definition for creation science in early drafts is identical to the definition of ID; (2) cognates of the word creation (creationism and creationist), which appeared approximately 150 times were deliberately and systematically replaced with the phrase ID; and (3) the changes occurred shortly after the Supreme Court held that creation science is religious and cannot be taught in public school science classes in Edwards. This word substitution is telling, significant, and reveals that a purposeful change of words was effected without any corresponding change in content.”) (p. 32, italics in original)

The Dover board’s actions thus made a hash of the IDC strategy, because it mixed creationism, intelligent design, and opposition to Darwin into one big 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 adopting their policy so as to bring god back into the schools. Even leading IDC advocate William Dembski ruefully noted the problem raised by his supposed allies:

Unfortunately, members of the Dover school board have, through their actions, conflated ID with an apparent religious agenda. For instance, it doesn’t help the ID side that William Buckingham, then a member of the Dover school board, in trying to get the Dover policy adopted, remarked: “Two thousand years ago somebody died on the cross, can’t somebody stand up for him?”

(Incidentally it was Dembski who in 2002 had explicitly laid out the goal of the IDC movement when he said: “So long as methodological naturalism sets the ground rules for how the game of science is to be played, IDT [intelligent design theory] has no chance [in] Hades. . . In the words of Vladimir Lenin, What is to be done? Design theorists aren’t at all bashful about answering this question: The ground rules of science have to be changed. We need to realize that methodological naturalism is the functional equivalent of a full blown metaphysical naturalism. Metaphysical naturalism asserts that the material world is all there is (in the words of Carl Sagan, “the cosmos is all there ever was, is, or will be”).”)

As another example of the religious motivation behind the school board’s actions that would cause problems during the trial, Buckingham had raised money in churches to buy sixty copies of the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People, gave the money to his fellow board member Alan Bonsell’s father, who then donated them ‘anonymously’ to the school’s library to be available as ‘reference’ books for biology students. Both Buckingham and Bonsell then denied, under oath in their depositions, any knowledge of where the books had come from. During the trial, this and other blatant acts of perjury were revealed in open court and clearly angered the judge and did not help their case, with the judge saying in his ruling “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 challenge to the Dover policy was not long in coming, when in December 2004 some Dover parents led by Tammy Kitzmiller, challenged the constitutionality of the school board’s decision. The stage was now set for the latest courtroom confrontation involving the teaching of evolution.

POST SCRIPT: More stuff on Dover and intelligent design creationism

For all the documents pertaining to the Dover case including trial transcripts, depositions, and briefs, see the comprehensive Wikipedia page.

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, the two-hour documentary on the Dover trial on PBS by the Nova producers can now be viewed online.

The documentary about IDC called A Flock of Dodos is available on DVD and a pro-IDC documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is to be released on Darwin’s birthday in February 2008. (See Bad Idea Blog for a seven-minute promo for the latter film and a critique of it.)

From Scopes to Dover-24: Three trials leading up to Dover

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While all the strategizing in the wake of the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard case was being done by the intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates under the auspices of the Discovery Institute, three other cases all set legal precedents for what would happen in Dover.

In 2000, a case involving religion in schools but not directly involving evolution reached the US Supreme Court. This was Santa Fe Independent School District v. DOE 530 U.S. 290. This was a case where a challenge was made to a policy where the school district had a practice of one student, who had been elected as Santa Fe High School’s student council chaplain, delivering a prayer over the public address system before each home varsity football game.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court ruled that such prayers were unconstitutional. For its ruling, the court relied on an alternative reading of the purpose and effect prongs of the Lemon test that was written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the 1984 case of Lynch v. Donnelly involving the display of a nativity scene by a municipality. O’Connor articulated what is now called the ‘endorsement test’. She said:

The second and more direct infringement [of the establishment clause] is government endorsement or disapproval of religion. Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community. Disapproval sends the opposite message.

Writing for the majority in the 2000 Santa Fe case, Justice John Paul Stevens used that same language to overrule the policy of student-led prayer at football games:

School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents “that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

This precedent was also used in the Dover case.

The second important case was also one that did not deal explicitly with evolution but had implications for Dover. It was the much publicized 2004 Elk Grove Unified School District. v. Newdow 542 U.S. 1 in which a parent Michael Newdow had challenged his daughter’s school for including the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. The US District Court ruled against him but this was overruled by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals who found in his favor. The case was then appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed the Appeals Court verdict 8-0 but on mixed grounds (Justice Scalia did not take part in the case). Five justices said that due to a family dispute about whether the father or mother had custody of the child and the standing to sue, the courts had no jurisdiction to review the case. Thus they did not go into the merits of the case and decide whether saying the phrase “Under God” in schools was constitutional or not. Justices Rehnquist, O’Connor and Thomas agreed with the verdict overturning the Appeals Court decision but said that the Supreme Court should have reviewed the case on the merits. They then proceeded to do so and said that the practice was constitutional.

In her concurring opinion on the ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said the decision on whether the government is involved in an impermissible endorsement of religion had to be made from the viewpoint of a ‘reasonable observer’ who “must embody a community ideal of social judgment, as well as rational judgment. . .must be deemed aware of the history of the conduct in question, and must understand its place in our Nation’s cultural landscape.”

The third case actually dealt with evolution and arose in 2002 when a school board in Cobb County, GA inserted stickers into their biology textbooks that informed students that “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

The sticker policy was challenged and in January 2005, in Selman v. Cobb County School District, US District Court judge Clarence Cooper ruled the policy unconstitutional, applying again the Lemon test.

He said that the sticker policy passed the ‘purpose’ prong of the Lemon test:

[A]fter considering the additional arguments and evidence presented by the parties and evaluating the evidence in light of the applicable law, the Court remains convinced that the Sticker at issue serves at last two secular purposes. First, the Sticker fosters critical thinking by encouraging students to learn about evolution and to make their own assessment regarding its merit. Second, by presenting evolution in a manner that is not unnecessarily hostile, the sticker reduces offense to students and parents whose beliefs may conflict with the teaching of evolution. For the foregoing reasons, the Court concludes that the Sticker satisfies the first prong of the Lemon analysis.

However, he said that the sticker failed the ‘effect’ prong and this made it unconstitutional and thus the stickers had to be removed. He used Justice Stevens’ language about endorsement in the 2000 Santa Fe case, and Justice O’Connor’s appeal to how a ‘reasonable observer’ might perceive the action, as part of his justification.

In this case, the Court believes that an informed, reasonable observer would interpret the Sticker to convey a message of endorsement of religion. That is, the Sticker sends a message to those who oppose evolution for religious reasons that they are favored members of the political community, while the Sticker sends a message to those who believe in evolution that they are political outsiders.

All these legal precedents set the stage for the most recent court battle over the teaching of evolution, in which IDC came under direct scrutiny. This occurred in Dover, PA in 2005 in the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover, which I will begin to examine in the next post in this series.

POST SCRIPT: What topics are conservatives most interested in?

Some time ago, I wrote about how some people are trying to create an alternate reality on the internet so that people will not find their beliefs routinely challenged. Remarkably, such people consider Wikipedia and YouTube as part of this threatening reality, and created alternatives called Conservapedia and GodTube.

So now that time has passed, what topics are conservatives most interested in finding out about? Conservapedia has published the statistics. The results are interesting.

From Scopes to Dover-23: Why some religious people hate the theory of evolution

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

To understand why there is such a deep-seated opposition to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and how intelligent design creationism (IDC) came into being, one needs to understand its essential idea and the motivations of the people behind it.

On the surface, IDC seems to accept almost all of evolutionary ideas since it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the key elements of the Darwinian structure, such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no sudden discontinuities), the multiplication of species, an old Earth, and natural selection as the driving mechanism for the process.

So how was IDC to advance the cause of religion if it seemed to accept so many evolutionary ideas? The strategy is explicitly outlined in an internal strategy document that has been labeled the ‘Wedge Strategy’ or the ‘Wedge Document’ put out in 1999 by the Center for Science & Culture of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which is the well-funded ‘think-tank’ that funds and supports the work of intelligent design creationists. This document came to light fairly recently, before the Dover trial, and it helped to undermine the case for the school board since it showed the religious motivations of those behind IDC.

Here is an extended passage from the introduction of the document that outlines the issues as seen by them:

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. (my italics)

The cultural consequences of this triumph of materialism were devastating. Materialists denied the existence of objective moral standards, claiming that environment dictates our behavior and beliefs. Such moral relativism was uncritically adopted by much of the social sciences, and it still undergirds much of modern economics, political science, psychology and sociology.

Materialists also undermined personal responsibility by asserting that human thoughts and behaviors are dictated by our biology and environment. The results can be seen in modern approaches to criminal justice, product liability, and welfare. In the materialist scheme of things, everyone is a victim and no one can be held accountable for his or her actions.

Finally, materialism spawned a virulent strain of utopianism. Thinking they could engineer the perfect society through the application of scientific knowledge, materialist reformers advocated coercive government programs that falsely promised to create heaven on earth.

Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. (my italics)

This is why these religious people violently oppose Darwin’s theory. They see him, along with Freud and Marx as the source of the decline of modern society. Of course, Darwin is the most prominent target since the works of the other two do not carry quite the same paradigmatic status and are not taught in public schools.

A little later in the Wedge document one comes across the “Governing Goals” of the movement, which are:

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

So the goals of the IDC movement are clear. It takes aim at what it sees as the source of all evil, the idea that materialism is the basis of all knowledge. They feel that if they can displace materialism as an operating principle, then they can hope to eventually bring back a non-material god into the schools as an acceptable explanation of phenomena. The way they tried to do that was by arguing that there were a few biological systems of so-called ‘irreducible complexity’ whose existence was inexplicable using Darwinian materialistic methods and thus had to have non-material causes.

The long-term strategy of the Discovery Institute seems to be to first have the ideas of evolution undermined by allowing for the possibility of non-material causation for at least some evolutionary changes, then later introduce IDC as an alternative to the undermined theory of evolution, then bring god back into science education, and finally put god and the Bible and prayer back into public schools everywhere, thus saving the world from sin. They saw this as a slow, incremental advance, taking many years to reach its goal.

The strategy was quite carefully crafted and seemed to be making some progress. They got supporters elected to state school boards in Kansas and Ohio who inserted IDC-inspired language critical of evolution into their state science standards.

The IDC movement knew that eventually someone would challenge the use of IDC ideas in schools in the courts, and tried to avoid giving any reason for ruling IDC out on the basis of establishment clause violations. Their whole approach was to run a stealth campaign, based on what was essentially a 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 this alleged controversy. They got Cobb County in Georgia in 2002 to insert stickers in their biology textbooks that asserted that evolution was only a theory and not a fact.

This stealth approach caused some tension within the religious community since many religious people did not quite get it. Many fundamentalist Christians are militantly proud of their faith and do not feel at all apologetic about their attempts to kick evolution out and put god back in the classroom, since they felt he rightfully belonged there. They were proud of being Christians and they felt that the US was a Christian country. They viewed the delicate maneuvering of the IDC strategists not as a constitutionally astute strategy but as being somewhat cowardly, and needlessly accommodating of anti-Christian beliefs.

When I attended various IDC meetings in 2002 and 2003 I found a huge gulf between the IDC theorists who were the main speakers, and the rank and file attendees. The latter were largely fundamentalist, young Earth, Biblical literal Christians and they did not speak the sophisticated language of the IDC theorists. These people had a much simpler view of the world. In their view, the US was rapidly going to hell in a hand basket. Everywhere they looked, they saw signs of increasing decadence: more nudity, sex, pornography, abortions, crime, violence, profanity, blasphemy, and so on. They saw this as a direct consequence of removing god from the schools and teaching godless evolution, which said that we were no better than monkeys,

So while everyone agreed on the ultimate goal of removing the teaching of evolution from schools, the religiously naïve wanted to mount a direct assault to bring religion back into the classroom, while the more sophisticated IDC strategists felt that one needed to first subtly undermine the idea that materialist explanations were the only ones allowed by science, before introducing more overtly religious ideas.

These internal differences and tensions within the religious community about how to deal with the Darwinian menace stayed below the radar screen. It took the Dover trial to bring them completely out into the open.

POST SCRIPT: Chomsky on Iran

An interesting interview with Noam Chomsky on US-Iran relations.

The evil of the consumer economy

Each year, the Thanksgiving holiday is ruined by the revolting attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.”

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to Christmas, because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

There is a curious schizophrenic attitude one finds in the media to this consumption. On the one hand people bemoan the fact that the savings rate in the US is so low that the country has to borrow from overseas to meet its investment needs, that individual Americans are not saving enough for retirement, that they are living beyond their means because of easy access to credit, and that personal bankruptcies are on the rise. The current sub-prime mortgage debacle has been caused by people being urged to pay more for houses than they could afford, and now many face foreclosure and homelessness.

On the other hand, the media gleefully cheerleads when it is reported that people are going shopping, since this is supposed to be a ‘consumer economy’, and the stock market goes up when retail sales are high.

I don’t get it. Apart from the fact that buying stuff other than to meet a direct need is simply wasteful, surely people must realize that we live in a world of finite resources, not just of fossilized energy but of minerals and other raw materials and even fresh water. Surely we should be cutting back on consumption so that we can leave something for future generations?

We are using up resources like there is no tomorrow and I am amazed that people don’t see the disastrous consequences of this. It is not even a long-term issue since the resources crunch will start to manifest itself in around thirty years or so. I know that the ‘end-timers’, the rapturists and the like who think that the world is on the verge of coming to an end see this problem (and that of global warming) as nothing to worry about since Jesus will return very soon. But what about the others? Is it that religious people think that since we are special in the eyes of god, he will somehow pull a miracle out of his hat and save us from our profligate selves?

To me the long-term problem faced by the Earth having finite resources is so obvious that I am amazed that we are not doing anything drastic about it. Here is a suggestion to start. We begin by boycotting Black Friday, staying at home and enjoying a quiet day. We should also decide that we will only buy Christmas gifts for children under twelve years of age, and then too just a few simple things, rather than the expensive “must have” items that advertisers thrust on us. We must force a shift from a consumer economy to a sustainable economy

And we use the holidays mainly to spend time with people, enjoying the old-fashioned art of socializing.

POST SCRIPT: High finance explained

I have to admit that the world of high finance baffles me by its seeming irrationality. Two British comedians give the best explanation I have heard so far about the volatile stock market and the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

Thanksgiving musings

(This is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, considerably added to and modified.)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to that class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the traditions and history and culture of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have all the fond memories associated with the childhood experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion for a big family reunion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

The first thanksgiving was supposedly held in 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, as a secular feast by the newly arrived pilgrims and was based on British harvest festivals. But this feast wasn’t repeated and so cannot be considered the basis of the tradition. The modern thanksgiving tradition began with Abraham Lincoln in 1863, in an effort to unite a nation divided by the Civil War, declaring the last Thursday of November as Thanksgiving Day.

Commercial considerations have also been a part of the holidays with merchants being influential in setting the date. They want it close enough to Christmas so that people associate the holiday as a kick off for the shopping orgy, but not too close or people won’t have a lot of time to shop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to change Thanksgiving Day to the third Thursday in November so as to lengthen the Christmas shopping season, but that was rejected by Congress and the compromise date of the fourth Thursday in November was approved in 1941 and that has been the date since.

I personally would like to see Thanksgiving shifted a month earlier to the last Thursday or so in October, not to lengthen the shopping season, but because there is a long drought of holidays between Labor Day and Christmas, and this would fall nicely in the middle. The weather would also be better for traveling, and it would coincide nicely with a mid-term break for college students.

I mainly like the fact that the holiday has (still) managed to avoid being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up. Although the holiday’s roots lie in giving thanks to god at the end of the harvest season for bounties received, that thin veneer of religiosity can be easily discarded and it is now essentially a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded. The thanks that are offered are just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. Our family has traditionally celebrated it with friends, all of whom have different religious heritages but are now secular. No prayers are said. We are just thankful for the opportunity to be together.

Thanksgiving is just a time to get together with family and friends around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the traditional menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness.

Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time. It remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the “Christmas shopping season” which involves a disgusting orgy of consumption and waste, with merchandisers and the government urging people to buy things they do not need for people who may not want them.

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present spend-spend-spend, buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

POST SCRIPT: The power of prayer

American Dad goes to church and his prayers are answered.

From Scopes to Dover-22: Creation science is reborn as intelligent design

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It was with this history of US Supreme Court decisions in mind that we can understand the emergence of the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement. IDC has to be understood as a carefully crafted theory that was designed to overcome the legal restrictions placed by the establishment clause on inserting religion back into the public schools.

The fundamental goal was still the same: to undermine the theory of evolution and to bring back into schools a god-centered view of creation. But mindful of all the legal setbacks that previous efforts had met, IDC advocates like Berkeley law professor Philip Johnson, tried to find a way to make it acceptable to the courts. Johnson is considered the father of the intelligent design creationism movement, and his book Darwin on Trial (1991) marked its beginning.

The Berkeley Science Review describes the founding of the movement:

Two years later [i.e. 1993], Johnson organized a meeting at Pajaro Dunes near Monterey to bring like-minded thinkers together. Its participants would become the major public figures in intelligent design: Scott Minnich and Michael Behe, who would testify on behalf of ID in Dover, Steven Meyer, who would direct the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and Jonathan Wells, who pursued a PhD in molecular and cell biology at Berkeley after becoming convinced that he “should devote [his] life to destroying Darwinism.”

As we have seen, a succession of judicial rulings had drastically narrowed the range of options open to evolution’s opponents. To recapitulate, in the early days of the republic, public schools taught a generic Protestant-based ideology and the King James’s Bible. But even before the theory of evolution had been announced by Charles Darwin in 1859, the idea of separation of church and state had gained ground and largely resulted by the end of the 19th century in the elimination of religious instruction and the Bible from schools. As the theory of evolution gained ground and became widely taught in schools in the early days of the 20th century, those who were sensitive to its negative implications for religion sought to ban its teaching in schools in order to restore neutrality between what they saw as religious and anti-religious viewpoints.

But attempts to forbid the teaching of evolution had been ruled unconstitutional in Epperson v. Arkansas (1968), the case that was the rightful successor to the Scopes case. The subsequent attempt in 1974 by Tennessee to restore the balance by explicitly teaching the Genesis theories of creationism along with evolution had been ruled unconstitutional by an appeals court and did not even reach the US Supreme Court. (The ever-resilient people of Tennessee tried again in 1996 to pass legislation restricting teaching evolution in schools. The effort failed, presumably because enough legislators realized that they were facing an uphill constitutional battle. (Larson, p. 262))

Realizing that trying to keep evolution out of the schools was futile and introducing explicitly religious ideas into the curriculum to balance evolution was also going nowhere, religious people adopted the ‘equal time’ or ‘balanced treatment’ strategies that Arkansas and Louisiana attempted in 1981. This removed explicit references to religion and the Bible, and instead requested equal time for something called “creation science” to counter the effects of evolution. That strategy had not swayed the courts either, with the Arkansas statute overturned in 1982 in a federal district court and the Louisiana statute overturned by the US Supreme Court in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard.

This did not leave religious advocates with much room to maneuver. People who wanted to bring back god into the classroom realized that it required a much more subtle and sophisticated strategy than what had been tried before. The first thing they had to do was to disown any formal links with earlier creationism movements such as “creation science” since those movements had already been tainted by being identified with one particular religious view and teaching that view been rejected by the courts as violating the establishment clause. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the court had made this point quite clear: “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term “creation science,” as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching.” The decision said that the creation science legislation failed all three Lemon tests: the legislation must have a secular purpose, its primary purpose must be neutral towards religion, and avoid excessive entanglement of the government with religion.

This is why the IDC people tried to avoid at all costs being associated with “creationist” label. It was seen as the kiss of death, as far as constitutional acceptability went. The IDC strategy would be to never even mention the Bible or god or Christianity or creationism or creation science, or even to require the teaching of any alternative theories to evolution, since that too had been seen as constitutionally suspect.

The only option that remained was to seek to discredit the theory of evolution altogether by undermining its credibility. In order to do this, two of the original IDC strategists, Michael Behe and Jonathan Wells wrote their own books, Darwin’s Black Box (1996) and Icons of Evolution (2000) respectively, both targeting evolution and alleging that the theory had fatal weaknesses. These books would become the sacred texts of the IDC movement. Wells’ book follows up a 1978 book that also sought to highlight the alleged weaknesses of evolution, Evolution – The fossils say no! by Duane Gish. (It is interesting that the IDC movement umbrella covers a wide spectrum of religious believers, with Behe being a Roman Catholic and Wells a member of the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon.)

Of course, such a minimalist strategy of merely discrediting the theory of evolution by natural selection fell far short of the goals that fundamentalist religious people wanted, which was to bring back into the schools prayer and Bible readings as well as the Genesis story. Since the IDC movement needed the political and economic support of these religious people, what we saw was a delicate maneuvering, trying to balance the legal requirement to avoid seeming to have anything to do with religion, while at the same time reassuring religious believers that intelligent design was a way of getting religion back in the schools.

So there developed an elaborate and carefully choreographed dance, consisting of nods and winks and nudges to the faithful that the IDC movement was merely the vanguard designed to get the religious nose into the tent of the schools. Once that had been established, once the wall of separation in the establishment clause prohibition had been breached in that way, it was felt that the other religious practices could be slowly re-established. This strategy was fully laid out in an IDC internal document known, appropriately enough, as the ‘Wedge Strategy’, which will be described in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: Creation Science 101

From Scopes to Dover-21: The death of ‘creation science’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post we saw how the goal of trying to get creationist ideas back into the science classroom took the form of the birth of ‘creation science’ and calling for it to be taught along with evolution. While ‘creation science’ had no explicitly religious language, it was clearly a Genesis-based, young Earth, Biblical creationism. The 1981 Arkansas law calling for the balanced treatment of creation science and evolution was promptly overturned in 1982 by a US District Court judge.

The Louisiana ‘balanced treatment’ act of 1981 was less restrictive than the Arkansas one, since its call for teaching creation science merely meant talking about the “scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences”. So while that gave its backers initial hopes that it would survive constitutional challenge, by now the historical record of religious-based efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution, starting with the Scopes trial, was too heavy a baggage for these efforts to overcome. It had become increasingly difficult to argue that the fight against the teaching of evolution was not religion-based, and this ended up dooming the Louisiana statute. The Louisiana Act, like its Arkansas counterpart, was overturned by a US District Court. The case was then appealed to a federal Appeals Court, where the District Court ruling was upheld by a narrow 8-7 margin.

The trail linking opposition to the teaching of evolution to advocacy of religion was just too long, and the ghost of the Scopes trial emerged from the shadows again. As the federal Appeals Court panel said when it made its ruling: “The case comes to us against a historical background that cannot be denied or ignored. . .The Act continues the battle William Jennings Bryan carried to his grave. The Act’s intended effect is to discredit evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism, a religious belief. The statute therefore is a law respecting a particular religious belief. . . and thus is unconstitutional.” (Summer of the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997 p. 259)

The narrowness of the margin must have given the law’s supporters hope that the US Supreme Court might overturn the verdict, and the Appeals Court ruling was appealed. But their hopes were dashed. The Supreme Court in a 7-2 ruling (with Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice Scalia dissenting) issued its verdict on this case in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard 482 US 578, in which it said that the Louisiana statute violated the establishment clause.

The summary of the majority opinion stated:

(a) The Act does not further its stated secular purpose of “protecting academic freedom.” It does not enhance the freedom of teachers to teach what they choose, and fails to further the goal of “teaching all of the evidence.” Forbidding the teaching of evolution when creation science is not also taught undermines the provision of a comprehensive scientific education. Moreover, requiring the teaching of creation science with evolution does not give schoolteachers a flexibility that they did not already possess to supplant the present science curriculum with the presentation of theories, besides evolution, about the origin of life. Furthermore, the contention that the Act furthers a “basic concept of fairness” by requiring the teaching of all of the evidence on the subject is without merit. Indeed, the Act evinces a discriminatory preference for the teaching of creation science and against the teaching of evolution by requiring that curriculum guides be developed and resource services supplied for teaching creationism, but not for teaching evolution, by limiting membership on the resource services panel to “creation scientists,” and by forbidding school boards to discriminate against anyone who “chooses to be a creation scientist” or to teach creation science, while failing to protect those who choose to teach other theories or who refuse to teach creation science. A law intended to maximize the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of science instruction would encourage the teaching of all scientific theories about human origins. Instead, this Act has the distinctly different purpose of discrediting evolution by counterbalancing its teaching at every turn with the teaching of creationism.

(b) The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term “creation science,” as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching. The Act’s primary purpose was to change the public school science curriculum to provide persuasive advantage to a particular religious doctrine that rejects the factual basis of evolution in its entirety. Thus, the Act is designed either to promote the theory of creation science that embodies a particular religious tenet or to prohibit the teaching of a scientific theory disfavored by certain religious sects. In either case, the Act violates the First Amendment. (my italics)

By now it was clear that the Supreme Court had determined that attempts to teach anything along the lines of ‘creation science’ or to discredit evolution sprang from basically a religious motivation and thus any legislative attempts to do so ran into the immediate presumption that it violated both the purpose and effect prongs of the 1971 Lemon test, thus violating the neutrality requirement set forth in the 1947 Everson ruling.

The next establishment clause case was not directly related to religion in schools but had implications for it that showed up in later cases. It was the 1989 case of County of Allegheny v. ACLU 492 US 573 where some citizens had challenged the practice of having a crèche and a menorah on display in the county courthouse. The court in a 5-4 ruling said that the crèche was unconstitutional. In the majority opinion, Justice Harry Blackmun reiterated the belief that the government must be secular and also addressed the issue of whether denying Christians the right to display their religious symbols was, in effect, favoring nonbelievers.

The Constitution mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliating itself with religious beliefs or institutions, precisely in order to avoid discriminating against citizens on the basis of their religious faiths. Thus, the claim that prohibiting government from celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday discriminates against Christians in favor of nonadherents must fail, since it contradicts the fundamental premise of the Establishment Clause itself. In contrast, confining the government’s own Christmas celebration to the holiday’s secular aspects does not favor the religious beliefs of non-Christians over those of Christians, but simply permits the government to acknowledge the holiday without expressing an impermissible allegiance to Christian beliefs.

Although the close 5-4 vote in this case may have initially given some hope to religious groups, even the minority opinion, while disagreeing with this specific verdict and arguing that the crèche was merely a passive symbol reflecting the heritage of the nation and unlikely to lead to the establishment of a state religion, reiterated the basic consensus that the government should not be in the position of seeming to favor one religion.

[T]he Establishment Clause permits government some latitude in recognizing the central role of religion in society. Any approach less sensitive to our heritage would border on latent hostility to religion, as it would require government in all its multifaceted roles to acknowledge only the secular, to the exclusion, and so to the detriment, of the religious. Thus, this Court’s decisions disclose two principles limiting the government’s ability to recognize and accommodate religion: it may not coerce anyone to support or participate in any religion or its exercise; and it may not, in the guise of avoiding hostility or callous indifference, give direct benefits to a religion in such a degree that it, in fact, establishes a state religion or tends to do so. In other words, the government may not place its weight behind an obvious effort to proselytize on behalf of a particular religion. (my italics)

So although this case did not involve evolution, it reinforced the legal principle that the government should practice strict neutrality when it came to matters of religion.

It is in the light of all these US Supreme Court precedents that the intelligent design creationism movement came about. It was designed specifically to overcome these restrictions, especially those that had been enunciated in the 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard ruling.

POST SCRIPT: Mickey and the Pope

I recently viewed the film The Da Vinci Code which was largely a waste of time because of its preposterous plot (perhaps the book is better) and was barely made watchable by the engaging presence of its two stars Tom Hanks and Audrey Tatou.

The story makes much of the hidden symbolism in Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. What some people may not know is that the Pope also commissioned Michelangelo to do a similar portrait that, alas, did not turn out well, as this clip shows.

From Scopes to Dover-20: The birth of ‘creation science’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Following the overturning of the 1974 Tennessee “equal emphasis” law, neighboring Axis of Weevils member state Arkansas took the lead in trying to find ways to undermine evolution and introduce religious ideas of creation into the biology curriculum in ways that would not violate the establishment clause. The lesson they drew from the Tennessee case was that any legislation aimed at achieving these goals had to be worded in neutral ways that avoided any and all religious language or references to the Bible. What emerged from this effort is what is now known as ‘creation science’, a superficially non-religious alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection.

On March 19, 1981, the Governor of Arkansas signed into law Act 590, titled Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act. Its essential mandate is stated in its first sentence: “Public schools within this State shall give balanced treatment to creation-science and to evolution-science.” The Act stated, among other things, that “Creation-science is an alternative scientific model of origins and can be presented from a strictly scientific standpoint without any religious doctrine just as evolution-science can, because there are scientists who conclude that scientific data best support creation-science and because scientific evidences and inferences have been presented for creation-science.” (my italics)

The statute defined both ‘creation science’ and ‘evolution science’ as follows:

“Creation-science” includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate:

(1) Sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing;

(2) The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism;

(3) Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals;

(4) Separate ancestry for man and apes;

(5) Explanation of the earth’s geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood; and

(6) A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.

“Evolution-science” includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate:

(1) Emergence by naturalistic processes of the universe from disordered matter and emergence of life from nonlife;

(2) The sufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds;

(3) Emergence by mutation and natural selection of present living kinds from simple earlier kinds;

(4) Emergence of man from a common ancestor with apes;

(5) Explanation of the earth’s geology and the evolutionary sequence by uniformitarianism; and

(6) An inception several billion years ago of the earth and somewhat later of life.

Notice that there are no explicit references to the Bible or religion or god in the definition of creation science, although the original source of the ideas behind them is quite obvious. Creation science is essentially Biblical, young Earth creationism, just using different words.

This law was, of course, challenged and in 1982 in McLean v. Arkansas, US District Court Judge William R. Overton, declared the law to be unconstitutional. He said that it failed to meet all three prongs of the Lemon test for constitutionality.

Discerning the intent or purpose of a law is not straightforward, as Justice Hugo Black pointed out in his opinion in Epperson, and courts take into account more than just the wording of the statute or what legislators say is the intent of a law. As Judge Overton said:

Courts are not bound, however, by legislative statements of purpose or legislative disclaimers. In determining the legislative purpose of a statute, courts may consider evidence of the historical context of the Act, the specific sequence of events leading up to passage of the Act, departures from normal procedural sequences, substantive departures from the normal, and contemporaneous statements of the legislative sponsor.

In his ruling Judge Overton, using the testimony of philosopher of science Michel Ruse as a guide, tried to define what science is, saying:

A descriptive definition was said to be that science is what is “accepted by the scientific community” and is “what scientists do.”…More precisely, the essential characteristics of science are:
It is guided by natural law;
It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law;
It is testable against the empirical world;
Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word; and
It is falsifiable.

The judge said that creation science failed to meet these criteria and was thus not science. He added “The creationists’ methods do not take data, weigh it against the opposing scientific data, and thereafter reach the conclusions stated in Section 4(a). Instead, they take the literal wording of the Book of Genesis and attempt to find scientific support for it. . . While anybody is free to approach a scientific inquiry in any fashion they choose, they cannot properly describe the methodology as scientific, if they start with the conclusion and refuse to change it regardless of the evidence developed during the course of the investigation.”

Many philosophers of science have criticized the judge’s use of this definition of science (and the testimony of Ruse that it was based on), saying that it is not supported by the historical record of science. (For a thorough airing of the philosophy of science issues raised in this trial, see the book But Is It Science? (1996, edited by Michael Ruse) which is a collection of articles by those who criticized and supported the position put forward by Ruse in the trial.) They argued that while such a definition of science may have served the short-term purpose of keeping creationism out of science classrooms, making the definition of science into this kind of prescriptive list was not only unjustifiable but allowed people to try and find ways to insert religion into the curriculum by devising ways to conform to this definition while yet subverting science. Some philosophers argued that what was wrong with creation science and why it should not be taught was that it was really bad science. But of course, the establishment clause of the US constitution does not explicitly prohibit the teaching of any theories just because they are bad or discredited or even downright silly. Which brings us once again to the unresolved question of who should decide what should be taught in schools and what constraints, if any, apply to them.

Meanwhile, also in 1981, the third member state of the Axis of Weevils (Louisiana) passed an act similar in spirit to the Arkansas one, called the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act that said that “Commencing with the 1982-1983 school year, public schools within this state shall give balanced treatment to creation-science and to evolution-science.” It further said that ‘balanced treatment’ means “providing whatever information and instruction in both creation and evolution models the classroom teacher determines is necessary and appropriate to provide insight into both theories.”

Unlike in Arkansas, where creation science was explicitly described in the statute itself, in the Louisiana statute this was left vague, merely saying that teaching creation science meant just teaching “the scientific evidences for creation and inferences from those scientific evidences.” The backers presumably hoped that this vagueness would not constitute a requirement for religious instruction, and thus pass constitutional muster.

Not surprisingly, the Louisiana statue was also challenged and, as we shall see next, the resulting 1987 verdict in the case of Edwards v. Aguilar became, after Epperson in 1968, the next landmark US Supreme Court ruling dealing directly with the teaching of evolution in public schools.

POST SCRIPT: Ask an atheist

The Case Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA) is having a panel discussion titled Ask an atheist, where popular misconceptions about atheism can be discussed and dispelled. The session will be held on Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 7:00 pm in Strosacker Auditorium.

The panel consists of Gary Parker (double alumnus of electrical engineering of Case and member of the North East Ohio chapter of the Center for Inquiry), Christopher Ryan (physics graduate researcher), Batool Zaidi, (chemistry and biology undergraduate), and myself.

Some topics that might arise are:

How do atheists perceive morality?
Is life empty without religion?
Is atheism the same as nihilism?
Are atheists arrogant?
How do atheists deal with death?

The CFA is “dedicated to promoting and defending reason, science and freedom of inquiry in education, and to the enhancement of freethought, skepticism, secularism, humanism, philosophical naturalism, rationalism, and atheism on college and high school campuses throughout North America and around the world.”

Drop by if you are in the neighborhood.