IRA FLATOW, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.
A bit later in the hour, it's our annual bird show.
First, Charles Darwin scored a victory this week. In Pennsylvania, a judge banned the teachings of intelligent design in Dover, PA, science classes. Judge John Jones III, who was appointed to the bench by President Bush, did not mince words in the opinion, stating, quote, "The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID policy. 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," unquote. The real purpose behind the ID policy, the plaintiffs argued successfully, was the promotion of religion.
Will this trial influence school boards around the country? Barbara Forrest, an expert witness in the trial who testified--whose testimony helped persuade the judge that ID is creationism relabeled--Judge Jones specifically remarked that Dr. Forrest's testimony and exhibits, quote, "provides a wealth of information, a wealth of statements by ID leaders that reveal ID's religious, philosophical and culture content." Dr. Forrest is a professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University and co-author of "Creationism's Trojan Horse," published in 2004. She joins us today from her office in Hammond, Louisiana.
Welcome to the program.
Dr. BARBARA FORREST (Southeastern Louisiana University): Thank you, Ira.
FLATOW: The judge seemed to be persuaded by your arguments.
Dr. FORREST: Fortunately so. It looks like the three and a half years of research I did writing "Creationism's Trojan Horse" paid off in a big way.
FLATOW: And in fact, he cited you in his ruling.
Dr. FORREST: Yes, in fact he cited all of the expert witnesses, but I think the core of his ruling really depended on showing that intelligent design really is religion and that it really is creationism. And my work was devoted to doing that.
FLATOW: Were you surprised that this was a judge who considered himself to be a conservative Republican and appointed by President Bush, yet he did not agree with the president on this?
Dr. FORREST: Well, I'm very happy about the judge's ruling. I'm not totally surprised because I noticed that all along the way, whenever he would issue rulings in response to motions, they were very thoughtful, very carefully done. And so I along the way, very early, developed a lot of respect for the way this judge was proceeding. I certainly did not try to second-guess him as to what the ultimate decision would be, but I think it really sets a benchmark for judicial excellence and integrity, especially with respect to this issue.
FLATOW: Do you think this will help other school boards, other plaintiffs in school boards like the plaintiffs in this case who do not want intelligent design taught in science classes?
Dr. FORREST: Oh, boy, you know, you'd have to hope that it does. You have to hope that it sends a very strong message, and I think undoubtedly it will to some school boards and maybe even most of them. But one of the things that we know from the history of creationism and the religious right in general is that they tend not to pay attention to court rulings. We thought that in 1987 with the Edwards vs. Aguilar ruling that came right out of my own state of Louisiana that that would put an end to the problem of creationism in this country, and obviously it did not. The good thing about Judge Jones' ruling, though, is that it didn't leave the intelligent design/creationists much room to morph. What creationists usually do is--in response to their losses in court is that they change themselves into something a little bit different, but I don't think they have much room to do that after Judge Jones' ruling.
FLATOW: Unless you get to a community perhaps that is very conservative and very much in favor of teaching intelligent design?
Dr. FORREST: Oh, yes. As I mentioned just a minute ago, people who support creationism and other issues on the religious right tend not to be influenced by the court rulings. I'm sitting in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, right now, and the school board here has been in trouble with, you know, the courts for a good 10 or 12 years. And it's because every time they lose a case in court, they come right back and do something else that is unconstitutional. So you get cases like that, and you also have to recognize that the creationism issue is not based on evidence. It isn't based on reason. It's based on an uncritical acceptance of certain religious doctrines that are not very thoughtfully held. And so when you get a position that is not based on evidence and rational appeals, you get people who are going to ignore court rulings because they are motivated by religious zeal.
FLATOW: You spoke about Louisiana. Kansas, also, seems like the next place where this debate is coming up. Can you tell us what we might expect to happen there?
Dr. FORREST: Well, I think the Kansas state science standards, which were recently given a grade of F by a new study, are really the most egregious example of what happens when creationists get control of boards of education. And if you look at those standards, you can see the fingerprints of the intelligent design/creationists all through them, and so if that is not reversed by the next board-of-education election, I think you might well see another lawsuit coming out of that. There's still a chance that that can get reversed in the next election. But that could be the very likely scene of the next legal case.
FLATOW: 1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. Let's see if we can take a phone call or two. There's some folks who'd like to talk about it. And somebody from Kansas City, Missouri. Hi, Nathan.
NATHAN (Caller): Hi. I'm a grad--I'm a longtime listener. I'm a grad student at the University of Kansas, and one of the things that we talk about in philosophy classes there is the principle of non-falsifiability, and just to go to a point that your guest is making. If you talk past, if you explain away or if you don't generally take seriously counterexamples, then what happens is your position generally becomes trivial if it's true. So I was wondering if the guest could talk about how much she's noticed, like, this non-falsifiability idea running through intelligent design and creationism from the research she's done, and I'll take my answer off the air.
FLATOW: Thank you.
Dr. FORREST: Well, there are certain things that creationists say that are falsifiable--for example, when they make claims about the age of the Earth. Young Earth creationists say that the Earth is six to 10,000 years old. That's a demonstrably falsifiable claim. But any claim that depends on the supernatural, of course, is not falsifiable, and in science whatever claim you make has to be grounded in emperical evidence, and you have to at least in principle know what kind of just confirmation would show your theory to be wrong. And that's what you don't get from creationists. And so any position that's grounded in a faith in the supernatural is one that's by definition not falsifiable, but the creationists, of course, don't like to admit this.
FLATOW: But you're not talking about something objective here. You're talking--from the way I view how this whole debate has been shaping for the last 30 years as I've been covering it, you're talking about people who have preconceived notions about the way they want their children to be taught. And it doesn't matter--any--objectively, any of the evidence that you present to them because they're not looking at the evidence.
Dr. FORREST: Well, that's true, and one of the amazing things that Judge Jones points out in his ruling--he talked about this in detail--is that when the Dover school board adopted this policy endorsing intelligent design, they themselves had no understanding of it. That was amazing. Not only do they not know the science--the supporters on the Dover board--not only did they not understand the science of evolution, they didn't even understand intelligent design. And so here you have people that are supposedly responsible for the education of other people's children, and they have no inkling of what it is that they are enacting. That's truly remarkable.
FLATOW: So what did they think they were--what was the motivation, then, for them, do you think?
Dr. FORREST: Oh, one word: religion. It was very, very clear from comments that especially two board members--Mr. Buckingham and Mr. Bonsell--that they were interested in getting their own particular religious views enacted as policy in the Dover area school district. There was no question about that. And to the judge's everlasting credit, he recognized it.
FLATOW: Of course, the eight board members who voted in favor of intelligent design were kicked off the board in the last election. Does--is the point going to be moot now in Dover at least...
Dr. FORREST: Um...
FLATOW: ...because the people who have taken over are certainly not in favor of teaching intelligent design in the school district.
Dr. FORREST: Oh, no, and the judge, you know, has--in his decision has forbad the policy--you know, it can't be enacted, and there's no inclination by this new board to pursue this any further. I think what they want to do is to get this behind them and to get on with the business of properly educating the city's children.
FLATOW: Did you spend time in Dover at all?
Dr. FORREST: No, I was not fortunate enough to go to Dover, and I was delayed even from testifying for a week because of the hurricanes down here, and I didn't even get to meet all of the plaintiffs. But I did meet some of them and I'm just--I'm humbled by having had an opportunity to help those people. They're wonderful people.
FLATOW: Did the defense try to keep you from testifying at all?
Dr. FORREST: Oh, boy, did they. The week before my testimony, they had filed a motion to try to keep me off the stand, and the judge denied that motion, and we spent the whole first part of the first day trying to get me qualified as a witness because they contested--they contested it at every turn.
FLATOW: What was the mood like inside the courtroom?
Dr. FORREST: It was one of great decorum. Everybody was very courteous. Everybody was very attentive, and it was the way a courtroom should be. We were paying attention strictly to the evidence and to providing the testimony that we were there to provide.
FLATOW: This was not like we saw in "Inherit the Wind" with this trial.
Dr. FORREST: Oh, my goodness. No, no. This was a very serious undertaking. That doesn't mean that there weren't moments of humor. The judge has a very dry wit and, of course, the attorneys periodically would say funny things, and so, you know, it turned out sometimes to actually be enjoyable.
FLATOW: Do you think you will be testifying in future court battles?
Dr. FORREST: Who, me?
Dr. FORREST: Oh, I would expect so. I guess right now, you know, I'm looking to the next occasion when I might have to put, you know, what I have learned to use. And I expect that this will not be the last time.
FLATOW: How many places are there? I'm thinking off the top of my head Kansas, and there's Ohio and...
Dr. FORREST: There could be Ohio. There's--in Gull Lake, Michigan, where a couple of teachers have been teaching intelligent design for a couple of years, an also Michigan is the headquarters of the Thomas More Law Center, and I think they're already looking to that case as their next possible lawsuit.
FLATOW: It's interesting. I saw Senator Rick Santorum--took his name off that center, or he took himself off--there's an advisory committee I think--or a board or something right after this Pennsylvania ruling although he had backed intelligent design.
Dr. FORREST: Oh, I think he's just worried about getting beaten in the next election. In March of 2002, he made a very strong statement in The Washington Times saying that intelligent design is a scientific theory and that it should be taught. So now I think that's just an indication of the fact that he's worried about the next election.
FLATOW: Dr. Forrest, I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us.
Dr. FORREST: Thank you so much, Ira.
FLATOW: Have a good holiday season.
Dr. FORREST: And as we now say, `Merry Kissmas.'
FLATOW: I'll buy that. Barbara Forrest is professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University, and she spoke to us from Hammond, Louisiana.
We're going to take a short break and change gears. When we come back, we're going to talk about the bird count, our annual Christmas bird show, and talk about that woodpecker. You know, we have some interesting sounds for you to hear, so stay with us. Get ready to tweak up the radio. We'll be right back after this short break.
I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.