Legislating Uncertainty: An Evolving Strategy

Rebuffed in the courtroom, critics of evolution head to the statehouse to see their views represented in the classroom.
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The never-ending fight over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has entered a new phase. Rebuffed in the courts over efforts to bring creationism and intelligent design into the classroom, critics of Darwinism — whether whole or in part — are now pushing so-called “academic freedom” bills in state legislatures. These bills, claim their sponsors, are designed to protect teachers who teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolutionary theory. As critics of the legislation allege, however, it is simply a stealth way to introduce legally and scientifically discredited doctrine into the curriculum.

Since 2004, bills have been introduced in eight states — Michigan, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Maryland, Missouri, Oklahoma and, most recently, South Carolina — although no state has enacted such legislation so far. The Louisiana Senate has passed an academic freedom bill, and similar bills passed in the Florida Senate and House but failed earlier this month when the two houses couldn’t reconcile their versions.

“It’s clear this is the latest attempt to get intelligent design into the schools,” said Robert Pennock, a professor of evolutionary biology at Michigan State. He was also an expert witness at the 2005 Dover, Pa., trial that banned the teaching of intelligent design (the concept that certain features of the universe are so complex they must have an intelligent cause) in that school district after the school board had mandated it.

“This is the latest in a sequence of bills,” he added. “Initially, [proponents] said students should learn the alternative view, intelligent design. Now they’ve backed away from using that term, and the latest strategy is couching it in terms of critical analysis and academic freedom; but the intent is to get in the intelligent design and creationism [the belief that all the universe was created by a being, and the Earth is only several thousand years old] arguments. It’s very clear what these are all about.”

Not so, says John West of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, which supports research that challenges aspects of Darwinian theory.

“These proposed bills would clarify the situation by making clear that any genuinely scientific evidence for or against Darwin’s theory can be discussed in an objective manner in relevant courses,” West said. “There is a great deal of confusion among both teachers and school administrators about what is legal and what is allowed. This is especially the case because evolution proponents have been misusing the Dover ruling to scare school administrators into thinking that the presentation of scientific criticisms of Darwin’s theory is somehow unconstitutional, which is patently false.”

This is not how a number of prominent scientific and teaching organizations view these bills. For them, it’s a case of déjà vu all over again.

“This law is allowing metaphysical explanation into the world of scientific method,” said Brian Shmaefsky of the National Association of Biology Teachers. “When we teach evolution, we’re presenting a certain series of facts based on observation. Once you get into intelligent design, that’s the world of the metaphysical. You can’t debate it. This bill gives equal credence to the metaphysical and physical worlds we use in the scientific method. The strength of the scientific method is it’s the world we can deal with.”

Others argue that these bills not only leave the door open for religious doctrine to be taught in science classes but that they are a surreptitious way to undermine school board control over curriculum.

“It’s part of a plot to sell a way to teach a package of religious beliefs and pretend it’s something else,” said Richard Katskee, assistant legal director with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “What you’re really saying here is school boards no longer have the authority to decide what will be taught, and an independent teacher or student can substitute their own ideas as to what can be taught. The proper teaching of science is an issue of professional competence and professional ethics. To use the language of academic freedom to push professional incompetence is just a category mistake. To present nonscience as criticism of evolution and pass that off as science is designed to mislead.”

According to West, none of the bills permit the teaching of creationism. Also, he said, nearly all the bills contain a section that “only protects the teaching of scientific information,” and “as for the question of intelligent design, most of the bills don’t apply to intelligent design at all because they protect only the right to teach about the strengths and weaknesses of existing theories already in the curriculum, not the right to cover new theories not in the curriculum.

“As for overriding school district policies,” he added, “it’s been evolution proponents who have most pushed for statewide science standards on evolution that would override local school district standards in this area. So it’s the height of hypocrisy for evolution proponents to raise issues of local control when they are the ones who have crusaded against any local control on this issue for years.”

Of course, the response to this is that if evolution proponents have indeed been so heavy-handed in their methods, it’s because they are determined to keep creationism and intelligent design — both deemed religious doctrines by the courts — out of science class.

Yet the battle continues to rage. Helping keep the controversy alive is Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, a pro-intelligent design documentary currently playing around the country, which has earned a documentary-respectable $7.5 million at the box office despite being trashed by mainstream critics (earning a measly 9 percent positive on Rottentomatoes.com’s ranking of critical reaction). But as far as intelligent design’s opponents are concerned, the war will not be won on movie screens but in the courts.

“Every battle we actually fight, we win,” Katskee said. “The problem is the Discovery Institute knows there are lots and lots of venues to fight in. Rechanging the language after every setback in court is definitely a rear guard action. And it’s a war of attrition.”

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