Science

Outside Courtroom, Intelligent-Design Beliefs At Odds with Scientists

By Sean Cavanagh — September 30, 2005 6 min read
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Kenneth R. Miller is one of the country’s best-known biologists. He has written textbooks, authored many scientific articles and essays, and teaches at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities. And in his testimony during a closely scrutinized federal trial here this week, he was unequivocal: “Intelligent design” is not science, and should not be presented as such in science classes.

“I am not aware of any scientific organization that has taken the position that intelligent design is science,” the Brown University scholar told the court. “Not one.”

Aaron Wolf, 23, works in downtown Harrisburg, a block from where that courtroom trial is being held. One day last week, the Pennsylvania native recalled how a science teacher at his public high school allowed his class to debate evolution and alternatives to it, such as creationism. He believes he benefited from that discussion and that others would, too.

“Our school districts should be giving equal opportunity to intelligent design,” said Mr. Wolf, a resident of Enola, Pa., in an interview outside his office. Evolution is “not a proven fact, it’s a theory,” he said. “It’s proven, until someone disproves it.”

That perspective would no doubt disappoint many scientists, who have emphasized that in their discipline, a “theory” is not simply a hunch, but a well-tested explanation for some facet of the natural world, based on extensive observation and experimentation. Evolution, which posits that humans and other living things have evolved through natural selection and random mutation and share common ancestors, is one of the most thoroughly tested theories of them all, they say. “A theory is a higher level of scientific fact,” Mr. Miller testified this week.” Theories explain facts.”

The landmark federal case here centers on a lawsuit filed by 11 parents seeking to halt the south-central Pennsylvania district of Dover from exposing students to intelligent design through a curricular change and a four-paragraph statement read in biology classes. The plaintiffs say intelligent design is religion and argue that the policy is unconstitutional.

Yet as the opening days of the trial played out, interviews with residents of Harrisburg and surrounding communities, most of whom were following the trial sporadically, offered a clear reminder of the views of the American public at large when it comes to educational issues in play. Most of those interviewed, like Mr. Wolf, favored allowing concepts such as intelligent design and biblically based creationism to be taught alongside evolution in science class—despite what most scientists say.

‘Opinions and Beliefs’

The plaintiffs in the trial, expected to last through November, say intelligent design is religious belief in disguise. But office workers and other visitors to downtown Harrisburg during the first week of the trial said their openness to allowing intelligent design in science had nothing to do with religious views or their opinions on whether the design concept is faith-based. Several said they had no opinion on that issue. Instead, they simply saw no harm in allowing it to receive a hearing in science class, because, in their opinion, that’s what education is all about.

“You have your opinions and beliefs,” Mr. Wolf said. “If you stifle that, you’re teaching in a cookie-cutter way.”

Stacey Zapatka, 34, a resident of Dillsburg, Pa., who also works near the courthouse, agreed. “You’ve got to have opposing viewpoints,” she said. “Anything to get kids [considering ideas] outside the box, and have a debate.”

In the trial, Mr. Miller offered detailed testimony in areas such as genetics and bio-chemistry that he said undermined many of the core claims of intelligent design, the general belief that the development of living things, including humans, shows signs of having been designed by an unnamed master architect. He spoke of the careful rules of science and the processes that separate it from supernatural explanations.

Earlier this year, scientists chose to boycott a series of hearings staged by members of the Kansas state board of education, who are seeking to revise their science standards to include more criticism of evolution. Those hearings included testimony from intelligent-design advocates, but many scientists stayed away, arguing that the forum would mislead the public into thinking that the points made by supporters of the design concept had any validity.

In the Dover school district trial, the plaintiffs called a scientist, Mr. Miller, as their very first witness. Told of his detailed testimony about evolution’s scientific strengths and intelligent design’s shortcomings, Mr. Wolf questioned whether the Brown University professor might have a vested interest in defending evolution. “Don’t you think he’s a bit biased?” Mr. Wolf, the Enola resident, asked.

A nationwide poll released in August showed that 48 percent of Americans believe humans evolved over time, as opposed to 42 percent who believe humans have always existed in their present form, a type of creationism. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed, however, believe that the process of evolution was guided by a “supreme being,” a view generally consistent with intelligent design. And a clear majority, 64 percent, favor allowing creationism to be taught alongside evolution, according to the survey, released by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The desire to allow both sides to be heard—even when scientists say there is no testable evidence supporting one side—resonates deeply with the American public, acknowledged Burt C. Humburg, a spectator at the Harrisburg trial. Mr. Humburg is a physician and a member of Kansas Citizens for Science, an organization that opposes incorporating intelligent design into science classes. He is now living in Pennsylvania, studying at a medical center, and took a break from his classes to listen to trial testimony.

“Americans love fairness,” Mr. Humburg said. “If you said, ‘Let’s teach the evidence for and against gravity,’ they’d say, ‘Of course.’ The same is true for evolution.

“We have to teach people that science isn’t fair,” he continued. “Science is not anything goes. We have rules.” When scientific explanations are overturned, Mr. Humburg added, it occurs because scientists realize, “this is what the data say.”

‘The Minority Viewpoint’

In court documents and testimony, participants in the trial have occasionally alluded to the public’s apparent interest in allowing alternatives to evolution to be taught in school. During testimony Sept. 29, one of the Dover plaintiffs, Frederick B. Callahan, acknowledged that in seeking to prevent what he sees as a religious concept from being introduced into public school teaching, his side might be going against popular opinion. Defending the principle at stake, he said, was more important.

Mr. Callahan was one of a number of plaintiffs’ witnesses on the fourth day of the trial who testified about having heard Dover board members make comments promoting Christian views at public meetings during the months before the intelligent-design policy was approved. The plaintiffs seek to show that those comments, and other remarks critical of evolution, reflect the board members’ religious motivations.

The defendants counter that any such public comments are irrelevant, because intelligent design is not religion. Their policy only introduces students to the concept and does not teach them about it.

“I’ve come to accept we’re in the minority viewpoint,” said Mr. Callahan, a parent of a Dover High School student. “I’ve read the polls. … A lot of people don’t care. But I do care.”

But Michael Liebner, who was leaving his office in downtown Harrisburg as the trial was letting out one day, believes fears about religious intrusion into public schools are overblown. Allowing intelligent design, or other views, in science classes doesn’t mean teachers would push those views on students, he said.

“I don’t know why there is a controversy, to be honest,” said the 58-year-old resident of West Hanover Township, Pa. “There are some things we can’t explain through science. …The public is by and large church-going. Why leave that out of the discussion?”

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