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Intelligent Design hits Australia

Denise Sutherland

January 28, 2006

Earlier this year I stumbled across the Intelligent Design debate, courtesy of the Flying Spaghetti Monster1. More American madness, I thought to myself. My astrophysicist husband and I enjoyed a good hour of lively discussion on the subject, in complete agreement, and we left it at that.

So you can imagine our horror when, only a matter of weeks later, we started to see references to Intelligent Design in the Australian media. Unfortunately, the debate is well and truly alive here, largely due to the efforts of the Sydney branch of the Campus Crusade for Christ, who are sending over 3,000 free copies of their DVD, Unlocking the Mystery of Life: Intelligent Design, which should cover every high school in Australia.

Representatives of the Campus Crusade for Christ also met with the Federal Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Brendan Nelson, who is a medical doctor and a Christian. He watched the DVD. On 10 August this year he gave an address at the National Press Club in Canberra, and was questioned on his views by David Wroe from The Age newspaper. Dr Nelson said that he didn’t believe ID should replace teaching the origins of mankind “in a scientific sense”, however, he did go on to say :

“Do I think the parents in schools should have the opportunity, if they wish to, for students also to be exposed to [intelligent design] and to be taught about it? Yes, I think that’s fine. I mean as far as I’m concerned students can be taught and should be taught the basic science in terms of the evolution of man, but if schools also want to present students with intelligent design, I don’t have any difficulty with that.”2

In September, the Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett said of Dr Nelson :

“He is an education and science minister who says it is okay to teach intelligent design, creation science, in science classes. I know Mr Nelson is a reasonably intelligent man, but that actually makes it worse, because clearly he is just dog whistling to fundamentalist Christians by saying it is okay to teach creation science in a science class.”3

To date, state governments are saying that Intelligent Design would only be allowed in Australian schools, as part of optional religious or philosophy classes, and not included in science lessons. It is being treated as a religious faith, not science. However, as Senator Bartlett says “... it is a matter of great shame that one of those government officials—the Minister for Education and Science, no less—is willing to give any sort of credence to this sort of irrational nonsense.”4

In October, Lynne Kosky, Victorian Minister for Education and Training, said that schools would have the option to include intelligent design only as part of religious studies, and that parents would have the choice to remove their child from the lessons.

The New South Wales Minister for Education and Training, Carmel Tebbutt, has recently stated that “Intelligent Design is not part of any NSW Board of Studies syllabus, nor is it in the science curriculum, because it is not scientific and is not evidence based. Intelligent Design is not to be set as part of the school-based assessment tasks for science that contribute to the School or Higher School Certificate assessments.”15

In 2004, there were 9,615 schools in Australia. Of these, 72.2% were secular government schools, and 27.8% were non-government (Catholic and Independent). So in 2,677 schools, which teach around 32% of Australian students, there is the possibility of ID being taught as part of the science curriculum, without needing to adhere to any government views on the subject.14

In fact, according to some media reports, over 100 Australian private schools are already including ID in their science lessons. Pacific Hills Christian School in Dural, New South Wales was the first.

On 20 October, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (our government broadcaster, similar to PBS or BBC) put to air an episode of their science program, Catalyst, covering the ID debate in Australia. The Principal of Pacific Hills Christian School, Dr Ted Boyce, was interviewed on the show. A full transcript is available on the ABC web site5.

After the show Catalyst ran an online poll asking whether viewers thought “Intelligent Design should be taught in science classrooms.” 9357 votes were counted, with 34% voting Yes, and 66% voting No.

The Catalyst show was timed to coincide with the release of an Open Letter from the Australian Academy of Science. The letter was published in major national newspapers, and represented over 70,000 Australians who work in science and science teaching. The end of this letter reads :

“We therefore urge all Australian governments and educators not to permit the teaching or promulgation of ID as science. To do so would make a mockery of Australian science teaching and throw open the door of science classes to similarly unscientific world views — be they astrology, spoon-bending, flat-earth cosmology or alien abductions — and crowd out the teaching of real science.”6

It’s also of concern that radio and television reporting of the debate has often been over-simplified. It is often presented as “Intelligent Design vs Science” — the fact that some schools may permit Intelligent Design to be taught in religious study classes is not discussed. The print media, however, seems to present the full story.

We haven’t heard the end of this by any means. The academic year has just ended in Australia, so I’m sure the debate will heat up again at the end of summer, when school starts in February 2006. Stay tuned.

References and Online Articles

  1. The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster http://www.venganza.org/
  2. National Press Club Address (10 August 2005) http://www.dest.gov.au/Ministers/Media/Nelson/2005/08/trans300805.asp
  3. ABC Radio — PM — Brendan Nelson suggests ‘intelligent design’ could be taught in schools (26 August 2005) http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2005/s1447202.htm
  4. Federal Parliament Hansard Adjournment : Leaking of Government Documents; Religious Tolerance (5 September 2005) http://parlinfoweb.aph.gov.au/piweb//view_document.aspx?TABLE=HANSARDS&ID;=2244413
  5. ABC TV - Catalyst : Intelligent Design (20 October 2005) http://www.abc.net.au/catalyst/stories/s1486827.htm
  6. The Australian Academy of Science — Statement on creationism/intelligent design (21 October 2005) http://www.science.org.au/reports/creation.htm
  7. ABC Radio — AM — Scientists, teachers protest intelligent design (21 October 2005) http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2005/s1487354.htm
  8. NEWS.com.au — “Intelligent Design” scorned (21 October 2005) http://www.news.com.au/story/0,10117,16988506-29277,00.html
  9. The Age — Kosky rules intelligent design a faith (29 October 2005) http://www.theage.com.au/news/national/kosky-rules-intelligent-design-a-faith/2005/10/28/1130400365346.html
  10. The Australian — Curriculum design as intelligent as flying spaghetti monsters (16 November 2005) http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,17258432%5E12274,00.html
  11. The Sydney Morning Herald — The God of small things (14 November 2005) http://www.smh.com.au/news/science/the-god-of-small-things/2005/11/13/1131816809636.html
  12. The Sydney Morning Herald — Science friction: God’s defenders target 3000 schools (14 November 2005) http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2005/11/13/1131816809073.html
  13. The Age — Back to the drawing board (24 November 2005) http://www.theage.com.au/news/danny-katz/back-to-the-drawing-board/2005/11/23/1132703254860.html
  14. Australian Bureau of Statistics - 4221.0 Schools, Australia http://www.abs.gov.au/Ausstats/abs@.nsf/lookupMF/1E44BCDEF87BCA2FCA2568A9001393E7
  15. Proof, NSW Legislative Council Hansard, 15 December 2005, Page 33 (article 8) http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au

Denise Sutherland

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Denise Sutherland studied biology at the Australian National University, and has a degree in graphic design. She is a passionate skeptic, puzzle book author and artist. She was an online exhibition developer for the Australian Science Archives Project’s Bright Sparcs, and has written articles for the science magazine Australasian Science. She lives with her husband Dr. Ralph Sutherland, their two teenagers and one slightly mad chihuahua in Canberra, Australia. http://sutherland-studios.com.au