IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.
A bit later in the hour, an update on medical research in New Orleans and the week in stem cell news.
But first, a Pennsylvania court has been hearing testimony in the case of the Dover, Pennsylvania, area school district that ordered its science teachers to read a statement introducing the idea of intelligent design in its biology classrooms. Opponents argued that the statement violates the separation of church and state, that mentioning intelligent design is essentially equivalent to endorsing a religious point of view. They brought this case to court. It has been going on now for several weeks, and this week, the defense, supporters of intelligent design, got the chance to begin to present its case.
And joining me now is Aries Keck. She's a health and science reporter for public station WHYY in Philadelphia. She's been on the case.
Welcome to the program.
Ms. ARIES KECK (WHYY): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: Aries, what has happened this week?
Ms. KECK: Well, this week, the defense started their case. These are the lawyers for the Dover School Board to defend intelligent design. And just like the plaintiffs, when they started their case, they brought out their star witness. That is Professor Michael Behe. He's a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University, and about 10 years ago, he wrote a book really putting forward intelligent design called "Darwin's Black Box."
FLATOW: And did he use the same evidence the the prosecution had used?
Ms. KECK: He did. When he took the stand, he actually went essentially head-to-head with the lawyer for the parents--excuse me, the expert witness for the parents, a guy by the name of Ken Miller. Miller and Behe have been battling over intelligent design for the last two years in different lectures and things, and now they've actually taken it to a courtroom. When Behe took the stand on Monday, he actually used some of the slides that Ken Miller had presented and read through them. The identical slides--but read through them from his interpretation of intelligent design.
FLATOW: And what about his testimony? Did the court--and this is not a jury trial, is it?
Ms. KECK: No, it's not. This is all going to be decided by one judge, a judge by the name of John E. Jones III. He's a fairly new federal judge. He was appointed by the current president, George W. Bush. Before this, he was on the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. And he's been paying close attention to all of it. The testimony's gotten rather heavy, at least when both those expert witnesses take the stand, going through exactly how blood clots and the interiors of the cell, and often when we break, the judge makes a joke about, `That might be enough lessons for today.'
FLATOW: So he's getting an education himself on this that he wouldn't see on the Liquor Control Board, I'm sure.
Ms. KECK: Definitely.
FLATOW: Was Behe's testimony convincing, do you think, to the judge?
Ms. KECK: I--it's ha...
FLATOW: It's hard to tell, I imagine.
Ms. KECK: It is hard to tell. The judge--I mean, in both cases with both expert witnesses, the judge just about--along with just about everyone else in the classroom--I almost said classroom--in the...
Ms. KECK: ...courtroom, you know, it's like sitting through a biology lecture. Everyone's eyes sort of glaze over. And often, the lawyers are being very careful to take breaks before they start essentially a new chapter, they've been saying. So he has been paying close attention.
Ms. KECK: It's interesting. They're really arguing out the merits of this theory, intelligent design, scientifically right here in a courtroom, and not so much about the contents of this four-paragraph statement and what the school board meant to do when they asked the science teachers to read the statement.
FLATOW: Interesting. And that's what the case is, is brought by people who don't want the statement read in the biology class.
Ms. KECK: Definitely. They believe that bringing this statement into biology class is really just an end run around laws against putting creationism in public schools. And in their testimony earlier, they have brought up how school board members discuss creationism and how school board members brought material about creation science to school board meetings when they were coming up with this policy. Now in the defense, the Dover School Board lawyers say that how they got to this four-paragraph statement has nothing to do with what the case should be decided on. The case should be decided on what this statement says, and what the statement says is that Darwin's theory is just a theory, that there is another theory out there called intelligent design, and that students could go to the library to look at some books about intelligent design.
FLATOW: But the problem is that they're saying this in a biology class instead of maybe a social studies class or something like that.
Ms. KECK: Exactly.
Ms. KECK: Exactly. They wanted to say it before biology lessons for the ninth grade biology classes, and actually, when they told the science teachers to read this, the science teachers refused, and after some consideration with the union for the teachers, a school administrator last spring walked in and read the statement before the lesson and then walked out, and that's presumably what they'll do again this school year. This decision is expected not to be handed down until the lesson has already gone again this year, so that'll be two years worth of biology classes in Dover learning about intelligent design in a classroom.
FLATOW: Who do--can you tell who in the courtroom may be watching this to see--you know, this is just one school district. Might there be other school districts watching to see how this plays out, how they might, you know, wind up thinking about this themselves?
Ms. KECK: It's interesting. On both sides, both lawyers have said that they both want to win, of course, but they don't want to win completely. Both sides want this to be appealed so it can...
Ms. KECK: ...continue up to the Supreme Court. And then on Monday, in the gallery, which was quite full as it's been through most of this trial, there was a school administrator from a nearby school district, Shickshinny, Pennsylvania, a man by the name of Thomas Tomasacci. He's on the school board of Shickshinny, and they have been discussing intelligent design, so he wanted to come and learn about it, he says, and so he came on a day when Professor Michael Behe, a leading proponent of intelligent design, was talking. Afterwards, he said he was completely convinced that intelligent design was a great science, and he wanted to try to get it in his classrooms.
FLATOW: Interesting he didn't show up for the science side.
Ms. KECK: Well, he was asked why he didn't show up, and he said he really has been following it along in the papers, and this was the first time he could get away.
FLATOW: And now some of these school board members are up for re-election, this being a November election year.
Ms. KECK: Yeah. Some of them--almost all of them--out of a nine-member board, eight of them are up for re-election. And that election is taking place the first week of November. Essentially, it's been coming down to a real forum in this really small town of Dover. Fourteen people are going up for these seats, and they're really split between people who are pro intelligent design and against intelligent design in their classrooms. And it should be very interesting to see--I mean, most people barely vote in school board elections...
Ms. KECK: ...and this one's getting national attention.
Ms. KECK: So it'll be interesting to see what happens.
FLATOW: Well, Aries, thank you for taking time to talk with us and we'll be checking back with you, I hope.
Ms. KECK: Oh, thank you.
FLATOW: Take care. Aries Keck of WHYY, who's been following the trial for us, that trial going on in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for the--about the school district in Dover, Pennsylvania.