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Doubt and About

Chris Mooney

October 25, 2004

Last week, the Dover Area School Board, with responsibility for a school district in southern Pennsylvania, did something extraordinary. By a six to three vote, the board added the following to the district’s biology curriculum:

Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origins of life will not be taught.

Both sides in the interminable dispute over the teaching of evolution in our nation’s public schools agree that this language appears to represent the first time that any state or locality has specifically mandated the teaching of “intelligent design,” or ID, alongside evolution. In fact, the Dover Area has gone farther than even ID proponents at Seattle’s Discovery Institute recommend, and could well face a First Amendment lawsuit as a consequence.

The focus of the evolution battle now shifts to Dover, for obvious reasons. But developments in Pennsylvania merely represent the leading front in the ever-expanding fight over the teaching of evolution today. Thanks largely to the growing influence of the Intelligent Design movement, we seem on the verge of a flare-up not seen since the “creation science” conflagration of the 1970s and 1980s.

According to the National Center for Science Education, which tracks interferences with the teaching of evolution in public schools, from 2001 to 2003 a staggering forty U.S. states saw some type of anti-evolutionist activity at either the state or local level. The challenges have taken an array of forms: calls for textbook disclaimers; school board curriculum mandates and lesson plans; and proposed laws and legislative resolutions. They have come from ID proponents and more traditional creationists alike.

Some anti-evolutionist forays have fit the rubric of the ID movement’s ”teach the controversy” strategy, a clever gambit that seeks to have students learn about the evidence “for and against” evolutionary theory and/or to “critically analyze” it. A few sallies have gone even farther, as the Dover Area did, actually seeking to require equal time for “intelligent design” alongside evolution in classes. In 2003, for instance, the Michigan state legislature entertained legislation that would have required the state’s Board of Education to alter its science curriculum to include the concept of “intelligent design of a Creator” whenever evolution is mentioned. Similarly, in 2004 Missouri’s legislature considered two bills mandating “equal time” for ID in science classes. None of these bills passed, but they represent the most radical initiatives undertaken by the modern wave of anti-evolutionists.

Here’s why mandates to teach ID alongside evolution count as such a gutsy move for Darwin deniers. In the famed 1987 case Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law requiring the teaching of “creation science” alongside evolution, ruling that it represented an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment. Given that the Supremes have already invalidated the “equal time” approach with respect to “creation science,” it’s easy to imagine courts automatically applying this precedent to ID. Pro-evolution lawyers would merely have to demonstrate that ID, just like “creation science” before it, has religious motivations and no scientific credibility—in short, that it’s just a new form of creationism. Not hard to do.

But attempted interferences with evolution in other states have taken a more subtle, less in-your-face form, following the Discovery Institute’s “teach the controversy” agenda (explicitly tailored to get around Edwards v. Aguillard). And without a doubt, “teach the controversy” has been most successful in the state of Ohio.

In 2002, after a long fight, Ohio’s state board of education adopted science standards stating that students should learn how scientists “continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory"—a clear example of “teach the controversy” lingo. Even though it singles out the theory of evolution for special scrutiny, this phrasing may at first seem innocuous, or at least tolerable. But when the board of education acted on the language in 2004, by adopting a “Critical Analysis of Evolution” lesson plan recommended to teachers, the true intent became apparent.

Clearly based on Discovery Institute fellow Jonathan Wells’ book Icons of Evolution, the controversial lesson plan presents an array of scientific-sounding critiques of various aspects of evolutionary theory. The trouble is, these critiques repeatedly misrepresent the state of scientific knowledge so as to cast unwarranted doubts on the theory of evolution. Scientists overwhelmingly opposed the lesson plan; even the National Academy of Sciences got involved. But the board wouldn’t budge, and it seems likely that at least some Ohio teachers are teaching from the lesson plan today or will in the future.

Other “teach the controversy” initiatives by anti-evolutionists have succeeded, or nearly succeeded, in Georgia’s Cobb County, in Darby, Montana, and a number of other states. We can certainly expect more. But the Ohio incident most helpfully illustrates why “teach the controversy” approaches may be more difficult for evolution defenders to counter in courts of law.

The controversial Ohio lesson plan, in its final form, does not in any way introduce students to intelligent design. But it does provide an array of critiques of evolution that have little scientific basis but derive from the ID movement’s literature, and especially Wells’ Icons of Evolution. An earlier draft of the lesson plan even directed students to visit anti-evolutionist websites. But the final version omits both references to Icons and the offending web links.

If evolution defenders want to win in a First Amendment lawsuit over this lesson plan, they could have an uphill battle ahead of them. That’s because in court, the pro-evolution side would have to demonstrate that even though the final lesson plan does not explicitly introduce students to ID, it nevertheless represents an attempt to advance religion.

In order to establish this connection, textual comparisons between the lesson plan and ID literature would be required, so as to show a firm link between the final document and ID proponents at the Discovery Institute. The religious motives of the Ohio Board of Education would also have to be demonstrated (the court might also examine those of the ID movement more generally). Documenting the scientific errors in the lesson plan would count as a necessary, but not sufficient, legal feat. If the lesson plan doesn't teach good science, courts can be reasonably expected to inquire what its true purpose is. But the First Amendment doesn't bar the teaching of bad science, only the government’s advancement of religion.

Recently, I participated in an off-the-record discussion with a group of pro-evolution strategists who were discussing precisely these issues. From that experience, I'm confident that evolution defenders can win both “equal time” cases over ID and “teach the controversy” cases. But I'm equally confident that the latter type of lawsuit presents far more complexities than the former. Let’s hope First Amendment lawyers on our side are watching what’s happening across the country right now. We're witnessing a gathering storm.

Chris Mooney

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Chris Mooney is a science and political journalist, blogger, podcaster, and experienced trainer of scientists in the art of communication. He is the author of four books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science and Reality. He blogs for Science Progress, a website of the Center for American Progress and Center for American Progress Action Fund.