The Personal Blog of Stephen Sekula

Intelligent Design on Trial

This past week aired the NOVA episode “Intelligent Design on Trial”, a recounting of the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board case from last year. If you recall, the school board had voted to require science teachers to read a one-minute statement claiming that since Evolution was “just a theory” and therefore “not fact”, students should look at alternative ideas, such as “intelligent design”, and read textbooks such as “Of Pandas and People”.

The judge found that this action was unconstitutional for several reasons. He found the “establishment clause” [2] of the Constitution was violated because evidence showed that school board members were motivated by religious reasons and found intelligent design suited those reasons without appearing religious. He also found that intelligent design was clearly a repackaged Creationism, with words carefully changed to make it look like it was a scientific idea.

The NOVA episode re-enacted parts of the trial, since no cameras were allowed in the court room. I was concerned that the actors and actresses would embellish parts of the dialogue, since there are no recordings of witness testimony and mannerism. However, based on hearing many of the witnesses on radio interviews (like Michael Behe [3]) the actors seem to have done a decent job. NOVA is, fundamentally, a program about science, its practice, its practitioners, and its findings. One could argue it’s biased, but then so would be a similar re-enactment on, say, “The 700 Club”.

However, nobody ever said science was fair. It’s harsh – damned harsh. Ideas bubble to the surface, escaping the mind of the scientists, and once breathing the free air of public discourse get slapped about by question after question, experiment after experiment. An idea that survives this onslaught, which may last days, months, years, and event decades, eventually works its way into the pantheon of tried and true ideas. This pantheon has great power, and is only prized because it continues to serve, not because it’s convenient. These are the “theories” – quantum theory, classical mechanical theory, evolution, plate tectonics, etc. They are not the “theory” of public political or social discourse – untested ideas thrown about by anybody with a ticking brain. These are the battle-hardened foundations of modern existence, which have given us lasers and microwaves, antibiotics and genetic treatments, bridges and skyscrapers, and the ability to respond to natural geological disasters ahead of time.

So, of course, NOVA is biased. It’s a program biased toward understanding how to explain the natural world, and the scientific pioneers who blaze a trail through the unknown. However, to those of us who don’t see a conflict between religion and science, with their separate spheres of human existence brought only into conflict by people themselves, what happened in Dover made perfect sense. Intelligent design advocates, who try to change the definition of science rather than actually pursuing its means and ends, have relied on the phrase “logical inference” as part of their definition of science. Ironically, it was logical inference that led the judge to rule the way he did; the evidence pointed toward a sham idea being wedged into the classroom, and based on that evidence he inferred a logical violation of the establishment clause and came down like a hammer.

The judge received death threats, presumably from people who consider themselves as devoted to the teachings of Christ. Irony. In drafts “Of Pandas and People”, scholars working for the plaintiff found evidence of “search-and-replace” transitional forms, from “Creationist” to “Cdesign proponentsists”, to “design proponents”. Irony, that the intelligent design movements own evolution leaves fossils behind in their work which charts the descent, with modification, of their terminology.

Much of the NOVA program was painful to me, not because people resist science like evolution, but because they are clearly confused by the words that scientists use. A “theory” is not just an “idea”, and “ideas” aren’t in the realm of science unless they can offer explanations, make predictions, and stand up to tests of those predictions. For me, the pain I felt was another deep realization that we, as scientists and citizens, have so far failed to realize the educated electorate so desired by our founding fathers.