Local Events Show Intelligent Design in Public Education Is Still Contentious

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

On November 10 the Journal of Law and Public Policy conducted a symposium on “Intelligent Design and the Constitution” at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  This free and open-to-the public event was not advertised at all in the local freethought community.  It seemed to me that the great majority of the audience was from St. Thomas.  A large number were law students, identifiable by their youth and uniform dark grey suit, white shirt and tie.  From the questions asked, there was no indication that there was another atheist in the audience.

I am certain that the organizers never thought for a moment to send a notice to Minnesota Atheists, and they were very likely unaware that such a group exists. I’m also fairly sure that the balance in the composition of the panel pleased them. They had two representatives from the Intelligent Design-promoting Discovery Institute, balancing two from the National Center for Science Education, plus the lead defense lawyer in the Kitzmiller v. Dover case and a professor of philosophy and theology.  

In fact, the panel was heavily weighted in favor of teaching ID.  The symposium was supposed to focus on the legal issues rather than questions of science. How you decide the law, however, depends on whether you consider Intelligent Design to be a scientific conclusion, even if flawed, or merely religion utilizing pseudoscience to perpetrate a fraud.  That is a question that only working scientists, the experts on the subject matter, can decide.  Lawyers and philosophers, by contrast, are formalists, who can only judge the issue by external attributes such as compliance with the process of science.  

The first presenter was Casey Luskin, an attorney who is a program officer in public policy and legal affairs for the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank best known for its advocacy of intelligent design.  

Luskin claimed that the Discovery Institute wants to permit public school teachers to teach Intelligent Design, but not require them to do so.  I had the opportunity to ask him one question:  Since he argued for academic freedom, what would he do if parents were to come to him to complain of a public high school biology teacher who tells classes that the evidence of evolutionary history precludes the possibility of intent?  Would he support that teacher?  He responded that teachers are limited to the curriculum in what they teach, and since “Intelligent Design” is not in the biology curriculum in any public school, the teacher should not criticize it!  When I pressed further, he stated that if ID were on the curriculum, then he would support teaching it critically.  

The next speaker was Dr. Peter Hess, Faith Project director at the National Center for Science Education, which staunchly defends the teaching of scientific evolution in public schools.  He was also a theist, however, and argued that there is no incompatibility between evolution and Christianity.  He further denounced Intelligent Design as both bad science and bad theology.  Dr. Hess had nothing to contribute when the discussion got rolling.  

The final speaker of the morning session was Patrick Gillen, a defense attorney in Kitzmiller v. Dover School District, who claimed, disingenuously, that he “did not have a dog in this fight.” He did not mention that his services were provided to the Dover School District by the arch-conservative Thomas More Law Center, dedicated to promoting the legal standing of Christians.  His presentation was a completely one-sided criticism of Judge John Jones’ decision in Kitzmiller.  

Gillen was certain that there will be more cases brought to court over the teaching of ID.  If I had the opportunity, I would have asked him why the lesson of Kitzmiller for ID proponents should not be that they should first win the battle among professional biologists, and only shift their efforts to public education after they have won the biologists to their side.  I would hope to get him to admit that they wanted to contest the social debate to an audience that was incompetent to judge the scientific debate.  

The afternoon session was opened by Dr. Thomas Sullivan, who holds the Aquinas Chair in Philosophy and Theology at St. Thomas.  He argued that teaching ID must be constitutional because it would be a practical impossibility to keep it from ever being mentioned in a classroom!  His other principal thesis, that the existence of consciousness proves the existence of God, was equally specious and equally irrelevant.  

Next came David DeWolf, a professor at the Gonzaga School of Law, speaking on “teaching the controversy.”  He is listed in the program as the author of Teaching the Controversy:  Darwinism, Design and the Public School Curriculum, a “briefing book for public school administrators,” and Teaching the Controversy:  Is it Science? Religion? Speech?  Oddly, nowhere in the materials for this symposium is it noted that he is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute!  Since I did not at the time know DeWolf’s connection to the Discovery Institute, I was futilely hopeful that he would explain that there is no real controversy over the correctness of evolution among biologists.  Instead he simply rehashed the usual Discovery Institute talking points, such as that 700 Ph.Ds had signed a statement of disbelief in evolution.  He gave examples to show that there is a social and cultural controversy over evolution, and concluded that there must therefore be a scientific controversy.  DeWolf claimed that the Cambrian explosion cannot be explained by common origin, so it must have been a time of separate creation of the different kinds of animals. 

It was a similar claim to one that Luskin had made in the morning, that the geographical dispersal of species disproves evolution.  At those times I wished that it was a debate rather than a symposium, so that a biologist would have the opportunity to explain why professionals in the field do not consider these to be problems.  

I asked him how he explains that the professional scientific associations deny that there is a biological controversy over the veracity of evolution.  “Teaching the controversy” presumes that there is valid scientific controversy, but I pointed out that in fact creationists never present papers at conferences on evolution, and that professional biologists consider their work to be not merely flawed or erroneous science, but pseudoscience.  He replied that the ‘controversy’ is proved by a disagreement between Dawkins and Gould, but this common tactic is pure fraud.  Both Dawkins and Gould were firmly convinced of the correctness of the theory of evolution, however.  Neither of them believed that any disagreement between them brings the theory of evolution at all into question.  

The last presenter of the day, Joshua Rosenau, was the only panelist to state a case for keeping Intelligent Design out of the public school science curriculum.  The Public Information Project Director at the National Center for Science Education, Rosenau was the only working scientist on the panel.   Rosenau spoke to the inability of ID promoters to make their case, because “science is hard.”  He pointed to the publications and conferences promised by the Discovery Institute that they never produced, choosing instead to devote their resources to convince the general public rather than scientists.  This, he noted, is because ID is a project to deceive rather than to persuade.  Their plan is to rebrand creationism to justify teaching non-science in the name of “fairness.”  

Rosenau then derided the Academic Freedom Act, asking if it permits a public school teacher to teach holocaust denial.  He explained that the Academic Association of University Professors adopted the position that scientists should define academic freedom in the science classroom, not legislatures.  Rosenau called state Academic Freedom Acts “a solution in search of a problem” that has so far been rejected by the courts, and noted that when legislatures single out evolution in their AFAs, they demonstrate a religious purpose.  

During a question and answer session to conclude the symposium there was at last an opportunity for a direct interchange among the panelists.  This sharply highlighted the different perspective of Rosenau, the only biologist.  In contrast, attorney Patrick Gillen looked quite foolish when he asserted that Dembski’s “information theory” shows promise of becoming a “new, overarching theory that will supplant Darwinism”.  

Discovery Institute spokesman Luskin quoted a court decision that referred to a “tyranny of scientific orthodoxy.”  He hoped thereby to debunk current scientific orthodoxy by showing that past orthodoxies, such as phrenology, were false.  But of course evolution is supported by such an enormous body of evidence that, while it may be often refined, it is extremely unlikely ever to be refuted.  If it ever is, scientists will revise the theory as the evidence requires, but not before.   In response to Rosenau’s assertion that “ID teaches what we don’t know,” one person in the audience claimed “to have studied a lot of Intelligent Design,” and learned from it “to look for intelligent causes.”  I thought that this was an interesting glimpse into the views of the audience.  Scientific inquiry inoculates one against precisely this type of superstition.  

While I have been for a long time aware of the creationist argument of “irreducible complexity,” I confess that I was unaware of the companion argument for “specified complexity:”  According to specified complexity, an organism or feature needs to be finely tuned in order to be functional.  Rosenau said that this argument begs the question, while Luskin derided the presumption that unexplained phenomena have a natural explanation as “materialism of the gaps.”  Rosenau pointed out that this is not parallel to “god of the gaps,” because we know that other results have natural causes, but we don’t know if there is a god.   Perhaps the greatest entertainment of the day occurred near the very end.  Rosenau pointed out that evolution is more certain than the theory of gravity because gravity equations fail to work with subatomic masses.  Evolution, he pointed out, is the “grand unified theory of biology.”  Patrick Gillen was apoplectic at this claim, and Luskin derided it as ridiculous and representative of the “nonsense” that the science community keeps throwing out.  

Less than a week later, P. Z. Myers debated young-earth creationist Jerry Bergman at the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus on the question of whether Intelligent Design should be taught in public schools.  The debate was a blowout, as Bergman’s presentation was incoherent.  He made a shamble of even standard creationist arguments like “Irreducible Complexity.”  

The event was worthwhile only because of Myers’ exposition that Intelligent Design is not science and provides nothing to teach.  A theory of ID would have to tell us how a designer implemented his designs, but instead it just says “he did it.”  It must also show the evidence that justifies the conclusion of Intelligent Design, but no such evidence has ever been presented.  Since ID provides no mechanism or evidence, it presents neither a theory of biological design nor data to support its claims.  

A demonstration of the vacuity of ID is that proponents do not even agree on the age of the earth.  In order to sustain a “big tent,” the Discovery Institute supports people who claim that the earth is as young as 5,000 years and as old as 5,000,000,000 years – a margin of error of a million times.  By contrast, scientists in every field are all in agreement that the earth is about 4.54 billion years old.  Jerry Bergman replied incredibly that ID proponents just do not consider the age of the earth to be an important question!  

Later in the week, Bergman was a guest on the “KKMS Live! With Jeff and Lee” radio program.  A caller asked Bergman what evidence would prove to him that Intelligent Design is false.  When Bergman tried to sidestep the question by claiming that the theory of evolution gets modified to accommodate any new evidence, the caller pointed out that evolution could be falsified by anomalies such as rabbits in the Precambrian period.  The host, Jeff Shell, asked the caller if he were an atheist.  When he responded affirmatively, Shell asked the caller if he could prove that there is no God, and that if not, was atheism not just as “purposeless.”  This is a red herring, since there is no claim that atheism is a conclusion of science.  But that is the very claim about ID that proponents must prove to justify teaching it in public school science classes.  

We are probably past the days when scientists avoided debates with Creationists, fearful that they would legitimize pseudoscience by giving them a stage, and that the Creationists would throw up enough smoke to buffalo the audience.  Rather, a working biologist who is prepared for the arguments of the Intelligent Design proponents is the best opponent for them.  They are the ones who best see through the ID nonsense, and can best refute them.

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