Intelligent Design on Trial

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial will be airing on Nova on November 13 (and also be available on line on the 14th). The web site already has background material posted on this documentary on the Dover trial. Features include an interview with executive producer Paula Absell. The first three questions discuss the importance of this case:

Q: This program tackles a contentious issue for many people, particularly for many devout Christians. Why did NOVA and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions, your coproducer, take it on?

Apsell: Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial is in many ways a hornet’s nest. And we had to think long and hard before we decided to take it on. I think the real reason that we made that decision is because evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences. As Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the great biologists of the 20th century, once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

In 2004, the Dover, Pennsylvania school board established a policy that science teachers would have to read a statement to biology students suggesting that there is an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution called intelligent design. Intelligent design, or ID, claims that certain features of life are too complex to have evolved naturally, and therefore must have been designed by an intelligent agent. The Dover high school science teachers refused to comply with the policy, refused to read the statement. And parents opposed to the school board’s actions filed a lawsuit in federal court.

The trial that followed was fascinating. It was like a primer, like a biology textbook. Some of the nation’s best biologists testified. When I began delving into the case, it was clear that both the trial and the issue were perfect subjects for NOVA.

Q: But why would a science series cover a court case?

Apsell: This is not just any case; it’s an historic case as well as a critical science lesson. Through six weeks of expert testimony, the case provided a crash course in modern evolutionary science, and it really hit home just how firmly established evolutionary theory is. The case also explored the very nature of science—how science is defined. Perhaps most importantly, the trial had great potential for altering science education and the public understanding of science.

Dover’s lawyers tried to argue that ID is science and, therefore, that teaching it does not violate the principle of the separation of church and state in the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of the trial, Judge John Jones issued a 139-page verdict supporting the teaching of evolution and characterizing intelligent design as a religious idea with no place in the science classroom. It was a landmark decision, all the more so because Judge Jones was appointed by President Bush and nominated by Republican Senator Rick Santorum.

If the decision had gone the other way, it could have had dire consequences for science education in this country. We know that state boards of education in Kansas and Ohio were considering changing science standards and curriculums to accommodate intelligent design, and they since have decided against it in the wake of this verdict.

(Hear key excerpts from the verdict in The Judge Speaks, and learn more about what distinguishes science in Defining Science.)

Q: Why is this topic—and the teaching of evolution—so important?

Apsell: Recent polls tells us that 48 percent—almost half of all Americans—still question evolution and still believe that some kind of alternative should be taught in the public schools. What happens when half of the population doesn’t accept one of the most fundamental underpinnings of the sciences? Evolution is the absolute bedrock of the biological sciences. It’s essential to medical science, agriculture, biotechnology. And it’s critical to understanding the natural world around us.

We’re a country built on our command of the sciences and technology. But we now face a crisis in science literacy that could threaten our progress in these areas and ultimately threaten our quality of life. So, at NOVA and at Vulcan, we feel that understanding the importance of evolution, and enhancing science literacy in general, are more crucial than ever.

Other material worth reading includes an interview with Dr. Kenneth Miller In Defense of Evolution. Miller calls intelligent design a “science-stopper.”

Supernatural causes for natural phenomena are always possible. What’s different, however, in the scientific view is the acknowledgement that if supernatural causes are there, they are above our capacity to analyze and interpret.

Saying that something has a supernatural cause is always possible, but saying that the supernatural can be investigated by science, which always has to work with natural tools and mechanisms, is simply incorrect. So by placing the supernatural as a cause in science, you effectively have what you might call a science-stopper. If you attribute an event to the supernatural, you can by definition investigate it no further.

If you close off investigation, you don’t look for natural causes. If we had done that 100 years ago in biology, think of what we wouldn’t have discovered because we would have said, “Well, the designer did it. End of story. Let’s go do something else.” It would have been a terrible day for science.

Darwin’s Predictions shows how Darwin’s predictions have been verified by modern science. There’s additional material on Fossil Evidence for evolution. Pharyngula has additional comments on the show, including excerpts from a review in Nature.

Be Sociable, Share!

No Comments

1 Trackbacks

Leave a comment