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Doubt and About

Chris Mooney

January 9, 2006

Legally speaking, Judge John E. Jones III’s ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District—Pennsylvania’s much-discussed lawsuit over the teaching of “intelligent design"—can only be called conservative. The decision draws upon and reinforces a series of prior court precedents, all of which barred creationist encroachment upon the teaching of science in public schools.

In another sense, though, Jones’ ruling is revolutionary. We live in a time when the findings of science themselves increasingly seem to be politically determined—when Democrat “science” is pitted against Republican “science” on issues ranging from evolution to global warming. By contrast, Jones’ opinion strikes a blow for the proposition that when it comes to matters of science, there aren’t necessarily two sides to every story.

Over the course of a lengthy trial, Jones looked closely at the scientific merits of “intelligent design"—the contention that Darwinian evolution cannot explain the biological complexity of living organisms, and that instead some form of intelligence must have created them. And in the end, the judge found ID utterly vacuous. “[ID] cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory,” Jones wrote, “as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community.”

ID critics have been making these same observations for years; so have leading American scientific societies. Meanwhile, investigative reporters and scholars studying the ID movement have demonstrated that it is, indeed, simply creationism reincarnated—all religion and no science. On the intellectual merits, ID was dead a long time ago. But before Judge Jones came along, it’s astonishing how hard it was to get that acknowledged, unequivocally, in public discussion of the issue.

Up until the Dover trial, well-funded ID proponents based at Seattle’s Discovery Institute had waged a successful media campaign to sow public doubts about evolution, and to convince Americans that a true scientific “controversy” existed over Darwin’s theory. And thanks in part to the conventions of television news, editorial pages, and political reporting—all of which require that “equal time” be allotted to different views in an ongoing political controversy—they were succeeding.

For example, a national survey conducted this spring by Ohio State University professor Matthew Nisbet in collaboration with the Survey Research Institute at Cornell University found serious public confusion about the scientific basis for “intelligent design.” A slight majority of adult Americans (56.3 percent) agreed that evolution is supported by an overwhelming body of scientific evidence, but a very sizeable proportion (44.2 percent) incorrectly thought the same of ID.

Ritualistically “balanced” news media coverage may not be the sole cause of such confusion, but it’s can hardly have helped. Consider just one of many examples of how journalists, in their quest for “objectivity,” have lent undue credibility to ID. The York Dispatch, one of two papers covering the evolution battle in Dover, Pennyslvania, repeatedly summarized the two sides of the “debate” thusly: “Intelligent design theory attributes the origin of life to an intelligent being. It counters the theory of evolution, which says that people evolved from less complex beings.” Here we witness the reductio ad absurdum of journalistic “balance.” Despite staggering scientific consensus in favor of evolution—and ample documentation of the religious inspiration behind the “intelligent design” movement—evolution and ID were paired together by the Dispatch as two competing “theories.”

Judge Jones took a thoroughly different approach, actually bothering to weigh the merits of competing arguments. He inquired whether an explanation that inherently appeals to the supernatural—as “intelligent design” does—can be scientific, and found that it cannot. He searched for published evidence in scientific journals supporting the contentions of the ID movement—and couldn’t find it. And in his final opinion, he was anything but “balanced.”

We have seen this pattern before. During the early 1980s, the evolution trial McLean v. Arkansas pitted defenders of evolutionary science against so-called “scientific creationists”—the precursors of today’s ID proponents. Today, few take the claims of “scientific creationism,” such as the notion that the earth is only a few thousand years old, very seriously. At the time, however, proponents of “creation science” were treated very seriously by members of the national media covering the trial. According to a later analysis of the coverage by media scholars, reporters generally tried to create a “balance” between the scientific-sounding claims of the “scientific” creationists and the arguments of evolutionary scientists.

But in the McLean decision, judge William Overton did no such thing. Rather, the judge carefully investigated whether “creation science” fit the norms of science at all—and found that it did not. Overton therefore concluded that the attempt by the state of Arkansas to include “creation science” in science classes was a transparent attempt to advance a sectarian religious perspective, as barred by the First Amendment. Now, Judge Jones is following in Overton’s footsteps very closely. In his decision, Jones cites the McLean case repeatedly.

If there’s an underlying moral to be derived from Judge Jones’ decision, then, it may be this. It’s very easy to attack well-established science through a propaganda campaign aimed at the media and the public. That’s precisely what “intelligent design” proponents have done—and they're hardly alone in this. However, it’s much more difficult for a PR attack on established science to survive the scrutiny of a serious, independent judge.

That hardly means that courts are more qualified than scientists to determine the validity of evolutionary theory, or other scientific findings. But in their investigative rigor, their commitment to evidence, and their unhesitating willingness to decide arguments on their merits, courts certainly have much more in common with the scientific process than many of today’s major media journalists do. The fact that today Judge Jones has become America’s leading arbiter of what counts as science certainly underscores his own intellectual seriousness. But it also exposes the failure of other gatekeepers.

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.