Dover: Science Prevails over Intelligent Design: Judge Doesn't Monkey Around

In Dover, Pennsylvania today, observers found that in matters of religion's place in school science classrooms, despite much evidence to the contrary, intelligence sometimes prevails. District judge John E. Jones III ruled for the plaintiffs in Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District. The judge found that the school board's changes to the science curriculum were unconstitutional when the board concocted a statement that students were read prior to the commencement of 9th grade science class. The statement dismissed scientific explanations for evolution and proposed Intelligent Design (ID) as a reasonable substitute.

The plaintiffs filed their case in 2004, claiming that the statement, read by the administrators because the science teachers refused, was a construct of the Intelligent Design (ID) movement and in fact a religious stance prohibited by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and by Pennsylvania Commonwealth's Constitution. Based on established precedent, the judge applied both the endorsement test and the "Lemon test" to the case. The endorsement test prohibits the government from endorsing religion and provides that the opinion of an observer who is knowledgeable about history and social context of the community be considered in deciding whether certain an actions can be interpreted as "religious". The "Lemon test" asks whether "a government sponsored message violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment based on whether 'its purpose is secular', 'it advances or inhibits religion', or it 'it entangles government with religion'".

The court found that the action that required a reading citing gaps in evolutionary theory and endorsing Intelligent Design violated the Establishment cause of the Constitution under both tests and also violated Article I of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The court's decision was unequivocal on all points - in conclusion the opinion stated:

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."

The court detailed its findings in the one hundred and thirty-nine page opinion here. The opinion is quickly read and interesting, but we write about some of the highlights below.

It starts by tracing the long history of fundamentalism in the country, and the persistent creationist efforts to inculcate the masses via the schools. ID follows a well-defined strategy to accomplish its end:

"[Creationism] cloak[s] religious beliefs in scientific sounding language and mandate[s] that schools teach the resulting 'creation science'..."

The judge points out that as creationism did, ID proponents create a false duality between scientific evolution then attempt to prove ID's credibility simply by invoking negative arguments against the defined "opposition". The opinion states that:

"[This is a] contrived dualism...; one must either accept the literal interpretation of Genesis or else believe in the godless system of evolution...We do not find this false dichotomy any more availing to justify ID today that it was to justify creation science two decades ago."

As ID is really just Creationism, ID is also based on Christian values and Christianity's definitive notions of what an "intelligent agent" is. Judge Jones dismisses the ID movement's assertion that they don't endorse God. He writes that ID proponents deny that the "purposeful arrangement of parts" is accomplished by "God". Although they:

"...occasionally suggest that the designer could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist; no serious alternative to God [] has been proposed."

Furthermore ID proponents offer that science needs to accomodate ID by "expand[ing]", to include supernatural deities - "transcendent, immaterial, non-natural being[s]".

The ID book recommended to students by the board - "Of Pandas and People" - is a religious book, written by known creationists and published by a company registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as a "Christian" and "Religious" organization. The book was revised at the time Creationism was prohibited by the courts in public schools. The editors of the new edition methodically replaced 150 words containing the root "creation" with the word "ID". Citing a mountain of evidence from the trial the judge concludes that "ID is nothing less than the progeny of creationism".

The court looked exhaustively at whether students and adults would assume that the board's statement concerning the gaps in evolution science and suggestions for an alternate text was a foil to bring religion into the classroom. They question whether students and parents would then assume the government endorsed religion. The court found this to be true. Furthermore it suggested that the ID movement played both students and their parents (as well as the government) for fools along the way:

  • ID misrepresented the word "theory" in the statement scripted by the board. They defined the word colloquially rather than scientifically, and twisted the meaning in an attempt to confuse and misconstrue the facts of evolution. As one expert witness for the plaintiffs, Dr. Padian stated "bluntly" - "the disclaimer makes students 'stupid'".
  • The court contrasted the ID's false juxtaposition of evolution as a "theory" or "view" ("Darwin's view)", against ID's presentation of its own shaky philosophy as an "explanation". ID reserves cautionary warnings ID only for evolution but not to its own ideas about "Intelligent Design".
  • Furthermore, the court pointed out that the student disclaimer explicitly said that ID was not up for discussion in the classroom - "...Teachers will not answer questions on the issue." The court noted that since students couldn't question the statement or its scientific grounding, they might easily interpret ID as some peculiar "secret science...[off limits to]...discuss[ion] with their science teacher".
  • Finally, the court noted that the board's policy allowed students not to be exposed to the religious message only by taking action to "opt out" or leave the school system. This would ostracize those students who didn't want religious teaching in the schools within the community.

For these reasons and more the court ruled that the public school board was endorsing religion. The opinion asserts that the policy manufactures a religious conflict in the classroom that is "'very dangerous' because it forces students to 'choose between God and science', not a choice schools should be forcing on them." In summary:

"The disclaimer singles out the theory of evolution for special treatment, misrepresents its status in the scientific community, causes students to doubt its validity without scientific justification, presents students with a religious alternative masquerading as a scientific theory, directs them to consult a creationist text as though it were a science resource, and instructs students to forego scientific inquiry in the public school classroom and instead to seek out religious instruction elsewhere."

They also found that objective adults in the community understood the intent of the Intelligent Design disclaimer, which was undeniably religiously motivated. The court looked at the hundreds of editorials and letters to the editor in local papers, dissemination of ID information by the school board, and the public controversy within district -- including board members' disdainful and vigorous dismissal of dissenting views. Jones concludes that "to assert a secular purpose against this backdrop is ludicrous...'a sham'".

In contrast to the students and parents, the opinion states that the board members repeatedly claimed in the trial that they basically had no idea what "ID theory" was. Nor did they seek any relief from their confusion from the scientific community or national teachers' organizations. Board members ignored the teachers statements refuting ID and and were walled off to opinions about the validity or content of ID, or its appropriateness in the public school curriculum. The only help they sought was from religious organizations.

Jones systematically refuted the claims that ID is a "scientific" theory.

  • ID is not science because it depends on supernatural forces as explanation for natural phenomena.
  • It refutes scientific method and natural causation, but devises rhetorical tricks that it relies on to win adherents to its philosophy rather then scientific method.
  • It does not employ scientific research to prove its claims, nor is there a single scientific organization that endorses the claims; in fact scientists collectively and loudly dispel ID's claims.
  • "Irreducible complexity" is a flawed attempt to explain biological phenomena by comparing these natural processes to human designed inanimate objects like watches. The comparison is irrelevant and incongruous.

The latter claim of "irreducible complexity", is the central "scientific" tenet of ID theory. The court cites plaintiff testimony that disproves ID's proposal that if an organism or biochemical process "missing a part is by definition nonfunctional". In fact intermediate structures evolved to current complexity, a fact that ID dismisses. The three systems that Professor Behe, a Lehigh professor and witness for the defense defined as "irreducible"; flagellum, blood clotting, and the immune system, all have intermediate structures that evolved to the current more complex ones, or functionality that evolved to the more complex mechanisms.

Professor Behe illustrated his intellectual insincerity when he was presented in court with a scientific evidence that contradicted his "irreducible complexity" theory of the immune system:

"[In all]...fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters;...[but]...he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not 'good enough'".

This intransigent reasoning is consistent with the Intelligent Design's strategy, as Acronym Required commented in a previous article about the case earlier. The court opinion points to the scientific flaws in the ID textbook "Of Pandas and People" and also points out the complete lack of peer reviewed articles, research or testing to support the theory. Finally, Jones states, despite claims to the contrary; "ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science." The opinion states that:

"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 IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID".

Jones is not an activist judge, he notes, though he predicts that inevitably his opponents will label him so. He does not deny the validity of Intelligent Design as a religion or philosophy:

"...We do not question many of the leading advocates of ID have bona fide and deeply held beliefs...[and] that ID should continue to be studied...
But he doesn't shirk from portraying his opinion of the board. Apparently led by a couple of zealous members the board "poorly served" the "citizens of the Dover area". He points out that the whole premise of ID's claims is ill-founded:

"[the] presupposition...that evolutionary theory is antithetical to a belief in the existence of a supreme being and to religion in general", is "a bedrock assumption which is utterly false."

Furthermore, he observes:

"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...

There is a place for religion that is not in the classroom: "it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution in a public school science classroom." The plaintiffs are due liability and court costs.

This is a really interesting recounting of the trial and the history of the debate and is written to be easily read; in fact its quite entertaining. The full opinion deserves to be read in its entirety. It's posted in PDF form here.

Acronym Required previously wrote about the trial and historical background in Evolution v. Not Evolution.

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