Book Review

Book Review: Sally Rosen, Science Department

By Denebola
Published: December 2007

Conservative’€even fundamentalist’€forces today are like Counter-Reformation waves smashing against one contemporary institution after another. A notable targets is science, and for those in Dover, Pennsylvania, USA, recently, the effect was like living the Scopes Trial, on HBO.

Kitzmiller vs. Dover in December 2005 was astonishing, Science was on trial. The backbone of our public educational system was being bent to the breaking point by ideologues, once again, trying to make their religious “point.”
Gordie Slack’s The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything tells the story and while witty in a sarcastic way it’s also dead serious. Concerned about the stakes for American teachers and students in terms of what can be taught and learned, the role of reason and the use of evidence, between belief and verification, and the age-old tension between Church and State in a democracy.
Not for nothing is Slack’s vivid and engaging account of religion vs. evolution sub-titled, Evolution, Intelligent Design and a school board in Dover, PA. In less than 200 pages Slack chronicles the heated debate between those in a small town, just east of Philadelphia and north of Baltimore.
A school board introduced a “new” version of Creationism, known as Intelligent Design, to replace evolution in their school curriculum, and 11 concerned parents, who felt that parents should be the one to make essentially religious decisions in their children’s lives.
What was really on trial for the Defendants, was fear of an increasingly secularized society’s deviation from the path of “enduring truth and fundamental moral values”‘€ ethical theism versus un- or non-ethical materialism.
Science, especially evolution, is considered by many evangelical groups to be the anti-Christ and the reason for all that’s wrong in our world. The Defendants believed in their hearts that religion would cure all ills.
The Plaintiffs’€and much of the Dover community as it turned out when they had a chance to be involved’€fought to show a dangerous reframing by the Dover School Board, that the so-called curriculum “alternative” to evolution, only substituted Intelligent Design for Creationism.
Worse, one’s faith, while important, could not be imposed upon another in a public classroom. The Board’s policy, in short, violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
What is Intelligent Design anyway?
Most Americans might well be unable to answer that question. ID in brief is a movement, powered by right-wing conservatives, specifically certain Evangelical Christians, dedicated to discrediting natural selection as the mechanism by which evolution occurs. OK, how does’€or did’€change in biological forms and human development occur?
No problem. If you found a fabulously complex Watch just lying on the beach, you would have to assume there was a fabulously creative and skillful Watchmaker. Their creed’€as it were’€is that human life is far too complex to be created and manipulated by anything other than an Intelligent Designer. Got it?
For a real-world example: the ID poster-child is the bacterial flagellum. ID proponents argue that nothing but an intelligent designer could create such an extraordinarily complex structure for such a specific function. They argue there is no scientific evidence to show how flagella first appeared on the evolutionary scene. Wrong, there is.
Real-world example #2: the eye is another heavy hitter in the ID argument. Alas, another blow to the ID cause occurred this year due to the discovery of an evolutionary forerunner to the modern eye some 400 million years old, thereby undercutting that ID assertion.
It was deTocqueville who observed that in a democracy, a nation without an aristocracy or established hierarchy, every important question sooner or later becomes a legal question to be argued’€and settled’€in the courts.
Accordingly, here come the lawyers and off to the judge.A local law firm, Pepper Hamilton LLP, along with representatives from the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the American Civil Liberties Union, represented the Plaintiff’s team.
The Thomas More Law Center, a group who describe themselves as “the sword and shield for people of faith,” and the Discovery Institute, who are proponents for Intelligent Design, represented the Defendants.
The case was brought before the U.S. District Court of the Middle District of Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs got Brown University’s Kenneth Miller, author of a popular high school science textbook. Defendants’ star witness was Michael Behe, a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University advocating for Intelligent Design and, not surprisingly, a board member at the Discovery Institute.
Miller’s testimony against Intelligent Design was telling,
Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory, because it doesn’t make sense of any broad range of natural facts. Furthermore, to be useful, a bona fide scientific theory has to make testable predictions that lead to testable hypotheses so that people can go into the laboratory, can make those tests, and can confirm or refute the theory.
Science makes certain assumptions to which participants agree in order for the results of its process to be understood and trusted by others, no matter their race, class, gender, ethnic or religious predispositions. Although arguing that religious belief trumps this scientific “particularity” with its allegedly universal exclusivity, the Intelligent Design adherents miss the limitation and insularity they accuse science of in their desire to change the rules of the game.
This “having it both ways” is nicely captured by an exchange, where Slack interviews the lawyer for the Plaintiff.
Gordie Slack:
“You want to change the definition of science to include the supernatural”?
Richard Thompson: “Yes, we need a total paradigm shift in science.”
Events leading up to the trial are mind-boggling.
The principal of the Dover High School sanctioned the burning of a student’s mural on hominid evolution, Evangelical Christian school board members pushed “non-believers” off the board. Another board member was quoted as saying, “This country wasn’t founded on Muslim beliefs or evolution. This country was founded on Christianity, and our students should be taught as such.”
(Irrationality trying to pass for rationality is enough to make any rational person’s hair stand on end. Talking about hair standing on end, that’s a throwback to our mammalian ancestors where our hair standing on end during times of fear made us look bigger and scarier. Check out your cat next time it gets worked up over another feline in its territory.)
Religion and science collide, we see, when well-meaning individuals attempt to square circles and end up doing damage to each player. The collision has its humorous but also its disturbing aspects.
Only last week a former researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts filed a suit against WHOI for firing him because of his creationist beliefs. The only snag in this suit is that this individual was hired to work in an EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY LAB. HelloÀ“Why on earth would someone who believes so firmly in creationism, accept a position in a lab that contradicts his core beliefs? Who can miss the serious conflict of interest? Isn’t his job performance, ah, impacted, if he refuses to research evolution?
Back to Dover, PA.
On December 20, 2005, Judge John E. Jones III, facing aroused elements of both scientific and religious communities, demonstrated personal courage and gave American judiciary a boost by handing down a 139-page decision notable for its clarity, attention to detail and grace. It also, in Slack’s words, was “unequivocal, ruthless, and trenchant in its condemnation of the Defendants and their case.”
Intelligent Design isn’t science; attempting to introduce ID into a public school science classroom is unconstitutional. “The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory,” wrote the George W. Bush-appointed Judge Jones. “Accordingly,” says Jones’ decision, “we find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”
Hallelujah, as it were.
The eight Dover school committee members who voted for Intelligent Design were all defeated in a November 8, 2005 election by challengers who opposed the teaching of ID in a public school classroom; the new School Board president didn’t intent to appeal Judge Jones’ ruling. Just a year later, November 7, 2006, U.S. Senator Rick Santorum failed to retain a seat he had held for two terms. Santorum had sat on the More board, was a friend to the Discovery Institute and considered ID the greatest contribution to modern science since quantum physics. Not really.

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