Intelligent Design Case Goes to Trial The case of Kitzmiller et al v. Dover Area School Board pits "intelligent design" proponents against those who want to keep the idea out of science classs. The proceedings begin this month.
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Intelligent Design Case Goes to Trial

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Intelligent Design Case Goes to Trial

Intelligent Design Case Goes to Trial

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

In October of last year, the Dover, Pennsylvania, Area School Board voted in favor of adding the following to their official curriculum, quote: "Students will be made aware of the gaps/problems in Darwin's theory and of other theories of evolution, including, but not limited to, intelligent design. Note: Origin of life will not be taught."

Well, the school district then decided to require biology teachers to read a four-paragraph verbal disclaimer at the beginning of the evolution unit, and that disclaimer begins, quote: "Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact," unquote. The disclaimer then goes on to say that, quote: "Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book "Of Pandas and People" is available to students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain understanding of what intelligent design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind," unquote. That's what the school board wanted biology teachers to say at the beginning of the classroom.

So in December of 2004, 11 Dover parents filed suit against the Dover Area School Board, saying that the school board is violating the constitutional separation of church and state. That trial is expected to start this month in a federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Joining me now to talk more about it is my guest, Nicholas Matzke, public information project director for the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California. He joins us by phone from Pennsylvania.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Nick.

Mr. NICHOLAS MATZKE (Public Information Project Director, National Center for Science Education): Thank you very much for having me on, Ira.

FLATOW: Eighty-five years ago it was Dayton, Ohio. Couple of weeks it'll be Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Mr. MATZKE: It was actually Dayton, Tennessee.

FLATOW: Dayton, Tennessee--I'm sorry.

Mr. MATZKE: Yeah.

FLATOW: Dayton, Tennessee.

Mr. MATZKE: And now it's Dover, Pennsylvania. That's right. The trial is going to start on September 26th and it will be running for most of the next month, and it looks like it's going to be the precedent-setting case on intelligent design.

FLATOW: When you say precedent-setting, do you mean, you know, for the whole country?

Mr. MATZKE: Well...

FLATOW: Will it work its way up to the Supreme Court?

Mr. MATZKE: I'm not a lawyer. I'm just working for NCSE, and NCSE, the National Center for Science Education, is consulting for the plaintiffs' legal team, which is made up of private attorneys working pro bono from Pepper Hamilton, and also the ACLU and Americans United. And what the lawyers tell me is that a case like this has persuasive precedent for other cases outside of the district. It's only going to be binding on the individual school district, but cases like this are often cited. For example...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. MATZKE: ...in the McLean case back in 1982, which was the first case on creation science, that was just a local case, but it was cited by the Supreme Court in 1987 as being a well-argued decision.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. MATZKE: And so a case like this can be very important.

FLATOW: Yeah. I mentioned that the grounds the parents are suing the school district are--violation of the First Amendment?

Mr. MATZKE: That's correct.

FLATOW: They--not being forced to read this in classroom or teach it or what?

Mr. MATZKE: The teachers--let's see. The parents are filing a suit on behalf of their children, who are being required to listen to this. There was an option to opt out, but essentially, the argument is that the government, via the public school, is endorsing intelligent design, and intelligent design is a specific religious viewpoint. It basically amounts to a special creationism. And, in fact, in the case, one of the primary arguments is going to be: Where did intelligent design come from, and what does it really mean? And so the history of the intelligent design movement is going to be a big part of the case, and that'll be one of the most interesting things that's explored.

The policy mentions "Of Pandas and People," which is a supplemental high school biology textbook intended for, you know, ninth- and 10th-graders. It has a big, cute photo of a panda on the cover, and it was first published way back in 1989 and it's the first intelligent design book. And the policy references that book for what intelligent design actually involves. So the history of that book is going to be very important in this case.

And I'll just give you sort of the short, short version, based on what's public at the moment, which is that there was the--in 1987, the US Supreme Court declared that creation science was unconstitutional in the public school, and in 1989 "Pandas and People" was published, and that was the first intelligent design book. And basically, they took all the old arguments from creation science and, you know, gave them a new name called intelligent design, and the rest is history. So people who started hearing about intelligent design in the 1990s don't really realize that it started way back in 1989.

FLATOW: So is the Discovery Institute, the proponent of intelligent design, involved in this trial?

Mr. MATZKE: They are not directly involved, and we sense that it is because they sort of realize the legal jeopardy that intelligent design is in, in this case. The Dover Area School District did not do things the way that the Discovery Institute would have preferred that they do them, and as a result--for example, by using "Pandas," which is this book with this long history, and by requiring intelligent design instead of simply using vague language about, you know, "evidence against evolution," quote, unquote, something like that. By requiring intelligent design, they've made it kind of a clear legal issue. And so the Discovery Institute is not directly involved; however, several of their experts are testifying for the school board in the case, including Michael Behe and Scott Minnich.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So the intelligent design plan of attack is usually to promote--is what they call `teach the controversy,' to...

Mr. MATZKE: That's correct.

FLATOW: ...teach that there is a legitimate controversy among biologists about teaching evolution, when there really is no legitimate controversy among biologists about...

Mr. MATZKE: That is correct. That will be one of the major arguments...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. MATZKE: ...for the judge to decide in this case. And the plaintiffs' side--the legal team for the plaintiffs has assembled a number of experts, including: Kenneth Miller, who's been on SCIENCE FRIDAY before, the author of a book called "Finding Darwin's God," and he's also the author of the textbook "Biology," which is widely used and is also used in the Dover Area School District; Kevin Padian, who's a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley; Brian Alters, who works on evolution education at Harvard and McGill; and Barbara Forrest, who's an expert on the history of intelligent design; and a few others. So it really is kind of the dream team of people who really know their stuff about the science of evolution and public education, and the history and origin of the intelligent design movement.

So all of these issues are going to be brought to bear in really giving intelligent design the first real, thorough scrutiny it's had in a public setting, because it's always been difficult to get the intelligent design people to submit to rigorous peer review in science journals. So now that's it's in--before a court of law, there's a pretty rigorous procedure that will be followed.

FLATOW: Will they be forced to present evidence for God in court?

Mr. MATZKE: It depends how they want to argue it, and I'm not sure how the defense will argue its case. Based on the history of intelligent design, intelligent design grew out of the creation science movement in the '80s, and the creation science movement was concerned that evolution undermined God and thereby undermined morality and societal values. And while they've changed the name from creation science to intelligent design, they've kept that fundamental concern. There's this worry that evolution disproves God and that this leads to societal chaos. And it's a very common view among many religious people in the country; however, you know, historical experience and the experience of many scientists show that that's not really the case, that it's possible to accept evolution, based on the scientific evidence, and also to hold the religious views, with no necessary conflict.

So the idea that there is a conflict and the idea that you have to have--you have to believe in special creationism--you know, the idea that God `poofs' organisms into existence--that's something that--it's a very specific religious view, and that's the view that intelligent design is defending. And to have the government promoting that particular religious view is unconstitutional.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. MATZKE: That's going to be the argument.

FLATOW: Yeah. Have the teachers been giving--standing up and reading those paragraphs to the classes?

Mr. MATZKE: What happened with the teachers in Dover, Pennsylvania, is pretty interesting. The teachers--when this policy was passed, the lawsuit was filed, but there was no--there was not time to put in an injunction to block the initial implementation of the policy, which was in January. And so the teachers talked to the teachers union, and they decided that it was against their professional obligations, as laid out in Pennsylvania Educators Code, to talk about intelligent design to their students--you know, to inform their students about intelligent design.

And so they wrote a strongly worded letter to the Dover Area School District, and it says, in capital letters: `INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS NOT SCIENCE. INTELLIGENT DESIGN IS NOT BIOLOGY. AND WE REFUSE TO IMPLEMENT THIS POLICY FOR YOU.' And so the result has been that the school administration--the principals and superintendents--have had to take the place of the biology teacher at the beginning of the evolution lesson and read this sort of warning statement about evolution, mentioning intelligent design.

So the teachers really stuck to their guns, and they got some good press coverage in Science magazine and some other places because of doing that. And, of course, if the administration is coming in to read the statement, it makes it seem all the more, you know, kind of harsh and from the top down. And so that's yet another reason why this policy is not a good idea.

FLATOW: Well, we're going to be following this trial, and it's--as--I agree with you. I think it's going to be precedent-setting and will probably, from my lay view, work its way up to the Supreme Court, I imagine, or try--or something like this. And...

Mr. MATZKE: I would not be--yeah. I would not be surprised if it gets there sooner or later.

FLATOW: Yeah. And, you know, we're going to have two new justices on the Supreme Court. It'll be interesting to see how--their views on how this shakes out.

Mr. MATZKE: Yeah. So far, the courts, you know, over the last several decades, have been very clear. You never know what new justices will do, but if it's this case or some other case, I would imagine that it's fairly likely that...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. MATZKE: ...it'll move up the courts. And either way, this case will be important because this one, you know, is going to have detailed examination of the science and of the history of the creationist-intelligent design movement. In both of those things, the courts have been very clear lately that the history of policies and the history of concepts is very important, so that you can't just change a few words and make something constitutional.

FLATOW: Right. OK, Nick. Thanks for taking time to talk with us and filling us in.

Mr. MATZKE: Thanks so much, Ira.

FLATOW: Nick Matzke is public information project director for the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California.

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