Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial

It is time to take stock of what is going on in the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) front in the wake of the events of the past week and to see what it might all mean. The federal trial about whether the Dover school board’s policy on IDC was constitutional ended on Friday, November 4. The judge has said that he will deliver his ruling before January. The lawsuit was triggered when the school board had ordered that at the beginning of ninth grade science classes, a statement would be made to students questioning Darwinian evolution and telling students to read a book called Of Pandas and People, many copies of which had been provided to the school. (I will discuss the legal issues involved in this case in a future posting.)

Then on November 8, the elections to the Dover school board resulted in all eight of the incumbent Republican members running for reelection, who all supported the IDC inclusion policy, being swept from office and replaced by a slate of eight Democratic candidates who had a platform that said that IDC would be shifted from the science class to an elective comparative religion class. (One of the winning candidates is also a plaintiff in the court case.) Needless to say, this complicates matters because even if the plaintiffs lose the case and the earlier school board’s decision is ruled constitutional, the new school board has the option of appealing the ruling to a higher court or, more likely, simply overturning the policy on their own to spare themselves further legal expense.

If the plaintiffs win and the IDC policy is declared unconstitutional (which is what I expect to happen), then it is not clear what the losing side can do. It is not clear if the losing school board members can even appeal the ruling since they are no longer have any official status, having lost the election.

Actually, there are few good legal options for the pro-IDC side in the Dover case. From the beginning, their case was weak. The policy they instituted was so problematical that even the people at IDC “headquarters” (the Seattle-based Center for Society and Culture operating out the Discovery Institute) thought it was problematic, called it a “misguided policy” and did not support this case and kept their distance, fearing that it would go down in flames, risking their carefully planned strategy. It was like planning a secret attack and the Dover school board was a crazy member of the assault team running out into the open yelling “Here we come!” and spoiling the element of surprise. Two of the IDC strategy stalwarts (William Dembski, and Stephen Meyer) withdrew as defense witnesses even before the trial began. The only major IDC figure to testify at the trial was Michael Behe, a biochemist at Lehigh University and author of the IDC bible Darwin’s Black Box. But even his testimony did not go over well, especially when he conceded under cross-examination that under the preferred IDC definition of science, even astrology could be classified as science and eligible to be taught in science classes. (See this summary of the trial fromThe Panda’s Thumb.)

To see why the IDC bigwigs were uneasy about the actions of their erstwhile Dover school board allies, you need to recall the history of IDC. In the early 1980’s the state legislatures of Louisiana and Arkansas passed laws mandating that whenever evolution was taught, so-called ‘creation science’ should be given equal time. This was challenged in the courts and in 1987, the US Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 decision that creationism was a religion and that these equal time laws violated the first amendment.

So it was back to the drawing board for the anti-Darwinists to figure out how to get religion and god back in the public schools and it was from this brainstorming that IDC was born. The first thing they did was to distance themselves (at least publicly) from the avowed creationists, although privately they are allies. The second thing was to strip all references to god from the IDC literature and instead refer to a vague and unspecified ‘intelligent designer’. By this strategy, they hoped to persuade the courts that IDC was not a religion, accompanied by copious winks and nudges to the faithful to reassure them that the intelligent designer was, in fact, god (though we now know that there is a competing theory that the intelligent designer is, in fact, Lord Voldemort).

This stealth strategy was trampled on clumsily by the Dover school board because they did not seem to get the memo about how to cover god’s fingerprints on their policy. The first problem was that the school board members had made many public statements about their religious intent in pushing their school policy, and these were matters of public record, reported in the local papers. The money to buy the books Of Pandas and People was raised in churches after appeals to the congregation by some school board members.

The book itself was also a problem. The book has been around a long time and in its earlier incarnation it freely used the word ‘creationism.’ After the 1987 Supreme Court setback, a ‘new’ edition of the book came out which seemed to differ from the earlier versions mainly in the fact that someone had used the ‘search and replace’ function of their word processor to remove all references to the word ‘creationism’ and replace it with ‘intelligent design.’

Such a thin disguise is unlikely to work. As I learned from a lawyer who legislated the earlier Louisiana case, judges do not simply look at the words of policies and laws to infer their intent. They also look at the historical record of the policies and the statements its advocates made in other forums. In other words, they look at the paper trail to work out intent. And in the Dover case, the paper trial is clear that the members of the school board who pushed this policy had religious reasons for doing so.

For these reasons, I expect that the judge will rule in favor of the plaintiffs and declare the Dover policy unconstitutional, especially since the lawyers for the plaintiffs seemed to have done a good job in the case.

But few things in life are certain and it will be interesting to see how the judge rules.

Defending the indefensible

The White House has begun a curious defense of its decision to attack Iraq. Cartoonist Tom Toles of the Washington Post captures the absurdity of the argument perfectly.



  1. Anonymous says

    I love it.

    On the Dover situation -- I heard an interesting blurb on NPR in which a comment was made that since most people don’t attend school board elections, the non-scientific of the community can sneak in people like those who originally made it onto the Dover board. But once their agenda was out in the open where the public could see it, more people turned out and voted in favor of science. The person making the report asserted that this is always true -- when given the option, the public chooses science.

    I personally really like the new school board members’ way of dealing with IDC -- putting it in a voluntary comparative religion class, where it belongs. Science doesn’t end with hand-waving, but a question mark that will be investigated. IDC ends with hand-waving and an accusation of lack of faith when one brings up that question mark. Even for (and perhaps especially for) those of us who are Christian, this is unacceptable. God gave us brains, intellect, logic, and reasoning for us to use them, not for us to let them waste away in favor of intellectual sloth.

  2. says

    I heard that NPR report and agree with what was said. The “success” of the IDC movement in becoming higher profile is likely to be the same thing tht leads to its downfall.

    I will be posting about the comprative religion option tomorrow.

  3. Santu de Silva says

    I’m very discomfited by the course that the popular outcry for and against the theory of intelligent design is taking.

    Intelligent design (ID) is essentially a theory that arises out of a methodology that uses mathematics very strongly: a combination of mathematics, philosophy, physics and chemistry. The basis of the argument is to present evidence that various steps in the evolutionary record are, contrary to being highly likely, highly unlikely. While I, for one, prefer to believe the Theory of Evolution, leaving the proof or the plausibility of it to others, I am dismayed that this very interesting methodology should be so discredited in the view of an entire generation, a generation that may have more resources to bring to bear on the issues than we do. Intelligent design, however, may live to fight another day, but I hope that the Creationist lobby lets it go; they are flogging a horse they should not, in good conscience, be riding.

    Here are some thoughts on the whole matter, not in any logical order.

    1. Even if ID were to be endorsed by a significant sector of the scientific community, it does NOT make Evolution irrelevant. Evolution is a local theory, and ID is a global theory. ID can point out that the “slope” of a line joining two points is far too high; all it means is that the graph may not be a straight line at all. The graph could consist of segments with reasonable slopes; there may be discontinuities. The discontinuities may be due to many things: our ignorance of the details of the way things happen; interference from outside; miscalculations; incredible luck. In between discontinuities, what do we have? Evolution, working as advertised.

    2. The Creationists, having adopted the ID orphan, have dealt it such a blow that ID may go into a deep coma. Perhaps, unable to find funding and other support in traditional ways, they (ID researchers) have gone looking for support in all the wrong places; or perhaps it was inevitable that Creationism and ID should gravitate towards each other. It is unfortunate, since the complex problem of school curricula gets embroiled in it.

    3. ID is an important tool, whether we believe it or not. Here, I go into speculative fiction, but I have nothing to lose (not being a scientific philosopher).
    Two major pieces of science fiction (that I know of) deal with the possibility of interference in terrestrial evolution: Arthur Clarke’s “The Sentinel”, which was the basis of the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and James P. Hogan’s “Inherit the Stars”, both of them highly speculative works, and satisfying reads --if you like that sort of thing, and I do! Still, even when one realizes that Science Fiction is often based on definite departures from known fact, one is still left with the niggling thought that maybe, just maybe, terrestrial evolution has been tampered with.
    I for one really couldn’t care less. But should earth science be able to detect such tampering? If so, one means should be ID. ID is thus a tool for quite a different investigation than that of proving that there is a CREATOR. It can also help decide: has there been a TAMPERER?

    4. Science in the schools. Let’s face it: what we teach in schools is only the most easily digestible facts, the facts most useful to most citizens, the ideas, concepts and theories that are most important to survive in modern society. An enormous amount of science is left out of the High School curriculum; students simply do not have the background to understand it. If teaching Evolution as an accepted fact is such an insurmountable obstacle to the goals of fundamentalist parents, I sincerely believe that for such students high school biology (or science, or whatever) should be an elective. The parents sign a paper that says: I wish my child to be excused from learning science based on evolution; I will teach my child biology at home. For fundamentalists, what causes things to happen within a cell, or anywhere else, is ultimately irrelevant, since I imagine they believe in God acting in the world even at the sub-cellular level. (This will likely make no one happy, since both parties--the parents and the school--want the tax dollars. Well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.)

  4. Erin says

    Santu, I’ve heard the argument about probabilities before, but isn’t it considered mathematically inappropriate to calculate the probability of a one-time event that has already occurred? (I suppose here I’m assuming that the beginning of life on Earth was a one-time event, which may well be false, but in any case there’s no hope of our observing it.)

    Also, I am horrified to think of making science classes elective. The world is getting more technologically advanced at a faster pace every decade — perhaps I am paranoid, but I think that the more scientifically illiterate people are, the more likely we are to see some kind of awful class conflict between the “knows” and the “know-nots.” Being ignorant is just another way of being powerless, like being poor… If we want to keep the middle class around I think we need to keep students educated enough where they’ve got a prayer of understanding their world and participating in it fully. And these days I do not think that can be done without basic science education.

  5. says

    Interesting discussion. My beef with the ID people is that they want to get rid of methodological naturalism in science. They are quite open about this, as I have written before.

    I have no problems at all with looking at the probabilities of outcomes or exploring the possibilities of extraterrestrials messing around on Earth (a la the Raelians). All these things are interesting and could be explored within the framework of methodological naturalism.

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