Science

Students Get Lessons in Government, Science During Trial on ‘Intelligent Design’

By Sean Cavanagh — October 20, 2005 6 min read
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Much of the testimony offered in court during the first few weeks of the potentially historic trial over “intelligent design” has borne the characteristics of a classroom lecture. Make that a very difficult classroom lecture.

From gene duplication and protein sequences to lactose systems and vertebrate embryos, lawyers and witnesses on both sides of this legal battle over the Dover school district’s policy requiring students to be exposed to the controversial concept have ventured deep into the realm of biology and chemistry in their arguments over its definition.

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“It’s Tuesday,” quipped U.S. District Court Judge John E. Jones III before testimony began Oct. 18—and so the topic must be blood clotting, he said, to laughter from the courtroom.

Yet at least one group of regular attendees at the case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District seems to have embraced the scientific lingo and the entire legal spectacle that surrounds it. Arriving nearly every day alongside reporters, legal advocates, and parties to the case are students and teachers, drawn by the opportunity to hear daily debates over questions of science, theology, and the law, and later use them in classroom discussions. Craig Riggall, a 25-year-old teacher at Immanuel Christian School in Hazelton, Pa., brought his class to court on the second day of testimony this week, hoping it would broaden his students’ understanding of the constitutional issues at stake. Later this school year, they are expected to study the 1925 trial of John T. Scopes, a Tennessee teacher charged with violating state law by teaching evolution. Some legal scholars call the “monkey trial” a precursor to the case playing out here.

“We’re studying American history, and so one of the things we [want] to see is how the court works,” said Mr. Riggall, who listened to testimony alongside about 20 high schoolers. The teacher speculated that most of his students had never been in a courtroom before.

The students heard elaborately detailed biology from Lehigh University biochemistry professor Michael J. Behe, a leading advocate of intelligent design. Though he teaches history, not science, Mr. Riggall said he hoped his students were following closely enough so that they could discuss key concepts in class. He would not push them to accept one view or the other, he added.

See Also

Read the related story,

Defense Makes Its Case in Intelligent-Design Trial

“I would probably stress what he’s talking about with ‘irreducible complexity,’ ” Mr. Riggall said, referring to a core principle of intelligent design. “I want them to understand that.” Irreducible complexity is the idea that certain biological systems are made up of several interacting parts, all of which are needed for the system to function. Such complexity suggests that those systems, may have been designed, rather than created through evolution, intelligent design advocates say.

Federal court officials in Harrisburg were flooded with requests for seats at the trial, particularly during its opening days. As the case continues, the court has tried to provide equal access to both the public and the press, said Kevin Neary, a deputy court clerk for the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg. He did not have an official estimate of how many students sat in on the proceedings, although he said the requests have come from parents, as well as teachers, bringing children.

‘Make Your Own Decision’

The federal court case stems from the 3,600-student Dover, Pa., school system’s effort to introduce students to the concept of intelligent design through a change in the science curriculum and a four-paragraph statement read to 9th grade biology classes. Intelligent design is the view that some facets of living things show signs of having been designed by an unnamed guiding force—rather than having evolved through the process of natural selection and random mutation, as the vast majority of scientists believe.

When the Dover policy was approved last year, 11 parents in the district filed suit to halt it, arguing that the measure amounts to a form of religion, such as biblically based creationism, and calling it an unconstitutional insertion of religion in the classroom.

One student who did not buy that argument was Kristin Miller, 17, of nearby Dillsburg, Pa. Ms. Miller and several classmates listened to testimony this week, sharing space in the ninth-floor courtroom with reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, Reuters wire service, and the Canadian Broadcasting Service.

The senior, who came to gather information for her public high school’s government class, said she was convinced that intelligent design has a place in science courses.

“You can make your own decision as a student, rather than your school making it for you,” Ms. Miller said. “That’s how it should be in Dover.”

What’s a Theory?

Students who listened to testimony on Oct. 18 were presented with hours of detailed testimony from Mr. Behe, who was the first witness called by the defense.

After more than a day of hearing Mr. Behe describe intelligent design as legitimate science, Eric Rothschild, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, aggressively challenged the university professor’s assertions in his cross-examination.

Mr. Behe had suggested that intelligent design, despite having been rejected by the overwhelming majority of scientists, is every bit as credible as other, once-nascent scientific opinions—such as the Big Bang theory—that later gained acceptance.

But Mr. Rothschild scoffed at many of the professor’s claims, suggesting that Mr. Behe was overstating the supposed “gaps” in evolutionary theory, while glossing over inconsistencies in his arguments for intelligent design.

At one point, the lawyer read the definition of a scientific theory offered by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, which defines the term as a well-substantiated explanation of the natural world that can be tested. Mr. Behe had taken issue with the academy’s definition; in turn, the lawyer grilled the professor on how he defined the term.

“You used a looser definition of ‘theory,’ is that correct?” Mr. Rothschild asked.

The professor responded that his definition was “intentionally broader” and based on the common experiences of scientists.

Using that broader definition, Mr. Rothschild asked, was astrology a valid theory?

When Mr. Behe responded that at one time astrology would have been considered a legitimate theory, the lawyer displayed a dictionary’s definition of the term on a wide screen in the courtroom. Astrology is the attempt to gain an understanding of human life through the movements of celestial bodies—a belief system that was influential in past societies but is not recognized as science today.

“That’s the scientific theory of astrology,” Mr. Rothschild deadpanned.

The lawyer also displayed statements from the NAS and another pre-eminent organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, both in Washington, which flatly reject suggestions that intelligent design is science.

Mr. Behe called the academy document a “political statement” rather than a scientific one, and a “mis-characterization of intelligent design.”

“There are no citations here,” Mr. Behe said of one of the statements. There was no “marshalling of evidence,” he added.

Mr. Rothschild, however, said larger issues are at work.

“You haven’t convinced the contemporary scientific community,” the lawyer said later, “that your idea has any scientific merit, is that correct?”

The professor, however, suggested that some scientists used flimsy logic in defending certain rules and definitions with their discipline.

“What does it mean to swear allegiance to a theory?” Mr. Behe asked at one point. “That’s not scientific.”

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