Fighting Words

By Sean Cavanagh — January 10, 2006 1 min read
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When you think about it, what topic offers as much prime debate material as “intelligent design”?

The concept has fueled angry squabbles among scholars, school leaders, and pretty much everybody—not to mention prompting an internationally watched federal court case.

And yet last month, the North Dakota High School Activities Association removed intelligent design as a potential topic for its state debate tournament, scheduled to begin next month in Fargo. The association heard concerns from school debate coaches and administrators, who had fielded objections from parents about the combustible subject, said Bob Hetler, an assistant executive secretary for the association.

He said a survey he sent to North Dakota school districts indicated that several would not take part in a tournament that included debate on intelligent design. While he did not know the exact nature of the objections, he believed they were rooted in concerns over how both intelligent design and the theory of evolution would be presented. “I know, growing up in the Midwest,” Mr. Hetler said, “it was volatile stuff.”

Intelligent design was recommended as a topic by the National Forensic League, in Ripon, Wis., which stages its own national debate tournament, independent of North Dakota’s event. It is using intelligent design as one of its topics, which vary by month, said J. Scott Wunn, the executive secretary of the league.

Proponents of intelligent design believe that the complexity of humans and other living things points to the role of an unnamed master architect in shaping life. The vast majority of scientists dismiss that idea. They say that the evidence overwhelmingly supports the theory of evolution, which holds that human and other life has developed over time through natural selection and random mutation.

Many scientists believe it is improper to debate design, which they say is a religious view, in the realm of science.

Last month, a federal judge issued a landmark ruling declaring intelligent design to be religiously based and thus not a valid topic for public school science classes. (“Possible Road Map Seen in Dover Case,” Jan. 4, 2006.)

Just how problem-plagued a subject is intelligent design? Consider what North Dakota chose as a substitute topic for its upcoming debate tournament: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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