Adventures in Ethics and Science

Dover Ruling

It’s here. The AP story, via Yahoo News:

Dover Area School Board members violated the Constitution when they ordered that its biology curriculum must include the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III said. Several members repeatedly lied to cover their motives even while professing religious beliefs, he said.


“The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy,” Jones wrote.

The board’s attorneys had said members were seeking to improve science education by exposing students to alternatives to Charles Darwin’s theory that evolution develops through natural selection. Intelligent-design proponents argue that the theory cannot fully explain the existence of complex life forms.

The plaintiffs challenging the policy argued that intelligent design amounts to a secular repackaging of creationism, which the courts have already ruled cannot be taught in public schools. The judge agreed.

“We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom,” he wrote in his 139-page opinion.


Said the judge: “It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.”

One take home lesson: honest disagreement is one thing, but dishonesty will come back to bite you in the butt.

And, in case you were curious, here, from AP via the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is the text of the Dover intelligent design statement in question in this case:

“The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s theory of evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

“Because Darwin’s theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.

“Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, ‘Of Pandas and People,’ is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what intelligent design actually involves.

“With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the origins of life to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on standards-based assessments.”

(Bold emphasis added.)

So … what exactly can we glean about the purpose of the public schools from this last paragraph? What if we substituted “linear equations” or “irregular verb conjugation” or “the branches of the federal government” for “the origins of life” here? Is there anyone who thinks that would be a good idea? (OK, I suppose it depends on how good your school system is — still, there are some things you ought to be able to look to the schools to teach. Being, you know, schools.) And hey, I’m as disgruntled at the whole teaching-to-the-high-stakes-test movement as anyone (since I have to help survivors of that kind of secondary education understand how to learn stuff for real). But, it seems there are certain core competencies that are part of “learning biology”, and that a responsible biology class will help its students attain those competencies. You can’t call any old collection of ideas “biology” without doing violence to the meaning of the word.

For those who love to wallow in the legal language, here’s the link to the page from which you can download the judge’s opinion. (It takes a long time to download, but it’s worth it.)

UPDATE: A good set of links to commentary on the ruling can be found at Science and Politics.