From Scopes to Dover-28: Aftershocks of Dover

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

Judge Jones’ ruling in the Dover intelligent design creationism (IDC) case, delivered on December 20, 2005, swiftly reverberated across the nation, the sweep of it knocking down one pro-IDC policy after another like a row of dominos.

On January 17, 2006, a new elective philosophy course in a school in El Tejon, CA that included intelligent design ideas was abruptly cancelled for fears that it would be ruled unconstitutional. The Discovery Institute, battered by Dover, pressured the school district to take this action, concerned, like in Dover, that this was another misguided policy by a local school board that would hurt IDC even more.

In February 2006, Ohio’s State Board of Education reversed its previous policy and ruled 11-4 to throw out the IDC-inspired science standards benchmarks that had called for ‘critical analysis’ of evolution, the majority saying that the Dover verdict meant that such a policy, if challenged, would also be ruled unconstitutional. State school board elections later that year resulted in the most vocal IDC supporter resoundingly losing her seat on the board as well, getting less than 30% of the vote.

What happened in Kansas is also telling. During 2005, riding the crest of a pro-IDC wave, the Kansas State Board of Education, in the teeth of opposition from scientists locally and nationwide, decided to adopt science standards that were laced with pro-IDC language, such as deliberately undermining the credibility of the theory of evolution and going so far to broaden the definition of science to allow for non-material causes for phenomena, so that IDC ideas could be included as science. (I was involved in a minor way in that controversy.) These new standards were passed on November 8, 2005, after the Dover trial had ended but before the verdict was handed down.

But in primary elections held in August 2006 following the verdict, the pro-IDC faction on that state’s school board lost their majority and in the November 2006 election, those who favored science over IDC obtained a narrow 6-4 majority. As a result, on February 13, 2007, the new State Board of Education reversed itself and replaced the old standards with new ones that eliminated the earlier IDC-inspired criticisms of evolutionary theory and required methodological naturalism to be the underlying basis of scientific investigations, thus eliminating non-material causes as explanations for physical phenomena. (Kansas has see-sawed on this issue based on school board election results since 1999 so the story there may not be ended. The standards are not required to be revised again until 2014.)

The El Tejon case mentioned above, although it never went to court, is a good example of the problem that advocates of religion in schools face. After all, in El Tejon they claimed they were merely seeking to teach IDC ideas as part of a purely elective philosophy course, not as science. What harm could there be? The initiators of the course felt that this should be allowable. But the course description immediately raised some problems that should have put on the alert anyone familiar with the legislative history of the establishment clause. The description said:

Philosophy of Intelligent Design: This class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin’s philosophy is not rock solid. This class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution. Topics that will be covered are the age of the earth, a world wide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. The class will include lecture discussions, guest speakers, and videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which students will support or refute the theory of evolution.

The problem with this course is that, as Judge Jones pointed out in Kitzmiller v. Dover, all applicable 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.” (p. 46)

Judge Jones said in his ruling (p. 137), “Our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school classroom.” But that leaves open the question of whether ID can be taught at all in public schools, as long as it is not contrasted with evolution. Though I am not a lawyer, as I read the law and the precedents there would be no problem under these guidelines about a philosophy course that examined, in a neutral way, the religious beliefs of people. There would be no problem in discussing in a history or social studies or philosophy course the role that Christianity played in the American political process or the role that Islam played in the development of the Middle East or the role of women under various religious belief systems or the way that religious beliefs have influenced philosophical thought. In fact, it would be hard to keep religion out and still teach those topics in a meaningful way.

A problem only arises if you use a course to promote religion in general or a specific religious point of view. Now we see can more clearly why the El Tejon course was problematic. It is not how a course is labeled (whether science or philosophy or history or whatever) that is at issue; it is the purpose of the course and whether it is would seem, to an informed, reasonable observer who is familiar with the history and context of the issue at hand, to endorse a particular religious viewpoint. The El Tejon course was clearly advocating young Earth creationism. And the people at the Discovery Institute (rightly, I think) saw that this would be easily ruled unconstitutional. Since the course, like Dover, again explicitly dragged in IDC ideas, another negative ruling in this case would be interpreted as meaning that IDC ideas should not be allowed even in philosophy classes, which would be a huge public relations setback for them. In addition, they would likely have also been disturbed by the El Tejon school board implying that intelligent design belonged in a philosophy course, since their entire strategy has been to try and argue that it was science.

Where does this leave the question of teaching evolution in schools? The Dover verdict seems to have closed the last small window that remained for inserting IDC ideas into the science curriculum. This setback has led to a feeling of discouragement in the IDC camp. Leading ‘Wedge‘ strategist and founder of the IDC movement Phillip Johnson seemed like he was throwing in the towel in an interview in interview he gave in the Spring 2006 issue of the Berkeley Science Review. In the interview, he essentially conceded that the IDC people had failed to deliver the goods when it came to providing the kinds of evidence and arguments that are necessary to even be considered as science let along succeed in science. It is precisely that combination of evidence and persuasive arguments that has made Darwinian evolutionary theory such a powerhouse in science, comparable in its impact to Newton’s and Einstein’s theories.

Johnson said:

I considered [Dover] a loser from the start. . . Where you have a board writing a statement and telling the teachers to repeat it to the class, I thought that was a very bad idea.
. . .
I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove. . .No product is ready for competition in the educational world.
. . .
I think the fat lady has sung for any efforts to change the approach in the public schools. . .the courts are just not going to allow it. They never have. The efforts to change things in the public schools generate more powerful opposition than accomplish anything. . .I don’t think that means the end of the issue at all.
. . .
In some respects, I’m almost relieved, and glad. I think the issue is properly settled. It’s clear to me now that the public schools are not going to change their line in my lifetime. (my italics)

So are there any options left for religious people who oppose the teaching of evolution and also want to bring back religion into the public school curriculum?

I’ll examine some possibilities in the next post.

POST SCRIPT: The shadow trick

Teller (of Penn and Teller) does his famous shadow trick. Truly amazing to see.