From late in September until early November, journalists reported on a battle being waged in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania federal courtroom between “intelligent design” (I.D.) and the sciences of biology and geology, especially evolutionary biology. Their stories have unleashed another comber in a media-coverage tidal wave. There have been some big waves on this topic before, in Kansas, Texas, Georgia and Ohio, for example, each the result of the I.D. movement’s self-identified “wedge” initiative that has been in operation for a decade. But with the Harrisburg trial the stakes escalated, and the result has been a tsunami of attention in print and also in broadcast chatter.
Though the case concerns a small school district in Dover, Pennsylvania, this is not a mere local political challenge of the kind taking place in other states. At its core, the issue here is constitutional. The defendant in this case (the Dover school district) has mandated an official announcement be read to all ninth grade biology students that asserts—in effect—that what the state’s science standards for K-12 require on the history of life on earth (organic evolution) is incomplete and, well, just one theory and quite possibly wrong. More to the point, these words inform students that there is an alternative and, by implication, an equally sound scientific theory, even though evolution has for more than 100 years been employed in biology worldwide, including its applied sciences such as medicine, as the central organizing principle and has been recognized as such and for that long by the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists—not just biologists.
Backing up its announcement, the school district in effect recommends and makes available a revised edition of a creationist textbook, which has just recently had all such words as “creation” and “creationism” deleted and replaced with words like “intelligent design.” That text presents the alternative “theory”—intelligent design. Life on earth, it argues, is too complex to have arisen by chance. It must have been designed (that is, created) by an intelligent agent or agents (like, say, God) working supernaturally. No serious scientist, by the way, understands the mechanism of evolution as “chance.”
Some press accounts, and I’ve read many of them, are conscientiously evenhanded. When editors give enough column inches, some reporters have provided pretty good summaries of the broad issues and make clear that I.D. is a game being played centrally by a very small group of activists based in and supported by a conservative Christian think tank, the Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington. Some describe in some depth this small band of activists, some of whom have science backgrounds (but not one is a recognized, contributing evolutionary biologist) and how they’ve relied on the reflex support of a vast slice of the American populace—perhaps more than half of it. (Among this half must be many people who know nothing about evolution except that it can’t be right.) Most journalists point out the magnitude of the rejection by the world scientific community of the I.D. claims, but at the same time allow I.D. proponents their say.
The problem in the reporting on this case is a universal problem of journalism. In this case, this (manufactured) conflict is dealt with as if it was just one more story of rival claimants to the public esteem using a traditional “he said, she said” approach. The problem is that the usual “he said, she said” quotes I read in press accounts have little or nothing to do with the actual issues raised by the Pennsylvania case. At its core, this case is about a public school initiative to pass judgment on the content of science in its curriculum—in effect, about an action to correct what its supporters regard as an error, weakness, or imbalance in the state’s and the scientific community’s consensus.
Ignoring the Testimony
Most disappointing about news coverage of this court case is that a remarkable opportunity has been lost in the role journalists could have played in educating Americans about some of the core issues, testimony and findings that surfaced during the weeks of trial. Here are a few of the conspicuous ones:
- The primary defendant claim is that I.D. is a fully qualified scientific theory, sufficiently well developed and with sufficient positive evidence to back it up, such that it constitutes a serious challenge to the prevailing science of life’s history on earth. That being so, the claimants continue, this challenge must be brought to the attention of all students.
- Another major claim is that there are serious gaps and flaws in what is being taught as the current standard account of life’s history on earth. (It is misnamed “Darwinism” even though Darwin, were he to come alive, would not recognize or understand it.) This being so, the school district argues, the flaws must be pointed out. Good science and fairness demand it. “Teach the controversy” is their battle cry.
- Opponents of these claims (the plaintiffs) pointed out that the I.D. advocates want to introduce ideas not from anything in the scientific literature or recognized by any productive evolutionary scientists, but from a program dedicated, by its own announcements, to overturning modern science and replacing it with a “theistic science.” The hoped-for theistic science is one in which conservative Christianity is an ineluctable element of every undertaking and teaching. The movement, the plaintiffs argued, is inspired and supported by a radical, sectarian religious viewpoint that is hostile to evolution and to science generally. They argue that this nonscientific and antiscientific view has been promoted by a branch of government (the defendants) into the science curriculum, and the courts have held, repeatedly, that this is unconstitutional.
Those are real issues examined in this trial, which is therefore a very important event. The decision in this case will be no less important for science education generally and for the general culture, whatever its outcome, than was that 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee. Given this trial’s prominence, and the issue’s significance, it is vital that journalists make certain that readers, listeners and viewers understand exactly what did and did not happen in the course of the trial, as opposed to relying on “he said, she said” commentators who know precisely the words to use to skirt some of these key points.
- Readers, listeners and viewers need to know that in the course of the trial no evidence in favor of the claim of intelligent agency was offered and that those who testified for the plaintiffs, speaking for all of the life sciences, argued (and documented their argument) that no such evidence has as yet been brought forward, by anyone.
- It is also important to point out that the principal scientific witness for the defense, biochemist Michael Behe, agreed, albeit reluctantly, that there has been no evidence for I.D.. As he was forced to admit in cross-examination, his argument consists of incredulity—he just doesn’t believe that the standard Darwinian mechanisms can explain the complexity of living things. On the stand, he agreed that these mechanisms do work in many cases, including in some of his own, original examples of this supposed impossibility.
- It also emerged in the trial that nobody has found even one of the supposedly disabling flaws named by the I.D. proponents to be such. Quite the contrary: The strident I.D. claims of error and fraud have themselves been shown, in an avalanche of publications in scientific journals (unlike outlets used for I.D. claims) to be grossly in error. This has been reported in the primary scientific literature and in the popular literature for nearly a decade.
It is certainly true that some news coverage of this trial did illuminate the fact that scientists in evolutionary biology (tens of thousands of them) reject the I.D. claim that there are deep and obvious flaws in Darwinism. Perhaps the most damaging testimony for the plaintiffs came, however, from expert witness Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, who has tracked closely the operations of the I.D. movement. In well-documented statements (written and on the stand), she demonstrated that the I.D. movement had fundamentally religious origins and purposes that were announced at the start in an elaborate plan to destroy Darwinism and materialism and that they continue to be pursued according to the “wedge” plan. In detailed testimony (and writings), Forrest used the proponents’ words that they addressed to one another and to their supporters to explode the claim of their secularist approach.
Yet despite an abundance of such evidence, reporters too often take at face value the claim of I.D. proponents that their case is purely scientific and secular.
Finally, there emerged in the course of the trial information that is as gallows-funny as it is tragic. Not one school committee member among those most insistent on the importance of I.D. in the curriculum seemed to know much or anything about it or about evolution. Nor would any of them admit to having had any religious interest in this affair, despite damning evidence from the available records that there was nothing but religion in the arguments that preceded the school board’s decision to insert I.D.. According to their testimony, they simply took the word of the Discovery Institute’s operators that I.D. is good science and that Darwinism is false. The school district and its legal team have evinced no little pique at having been hung out to dry by the Discovery Institute.
Any journalist reading this essay will, of course, respond (correctly) by assuming that it is, or includes, spin. But the opportunity exists to go to the trial transcripts, which are available online, to see if what I’ve written is accurate. (Start here: http://www2.ncseweb.org/wp/.) Or go to the literature on this issue, which includes the 2004 book that Barbara Forrest and I wrote entitled, “Creationism’s Trojan horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design.” Do this and I can all but ensure that reporters will come to this understanding of the way things were and are. On the other hand, read most of the press coverage of this trial and about these issues and come away with no clear sense of what this supposed conflict of scientific “alternatives” is really about. Paul R. Gross, University Professor of Life Sciences, Emeritus, at the University of Virginia, is the author of a comprehensive review, sponsored by the Fordham Foundation, of K-12 science standards issued by 49 states and the District of Columbia. The review was published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in early December.