The Loom

When Judge John E. Jones III issued his decision in the Dover creationism trial on Tuesday, I downloaded the document with a vague sense of dread. It wasn’t just that the decision was 139 pages long. I knew that Judge Jones had ruled that teaching intelligent design was unconstitutional, but I was worried that he might have accepted that it was anything but a warmed-over form of creationism.

Months of media coverage of the trial had nurtured my dread. Again and again, reporters felt an obligation to give “equal time” to intelligent design advocates, without feeling an equal obligation to fact-check the claims that the advocates were throwing out. I assumed Judge Jones would follow suit.

Once I started reading the decision, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Judge Jones did not take the claims of intelligent design advocates at face value. They declared that intelligent design was not creationism. But he followed the long paper trail that linked creation scientists to the emergence of intelligent design in the 1980s. The Dover school board had its students to read the book “Of Pandas and People” to learn about intelligent design. Judge Jones observed that in the original draft of the book, the authors had used “creationism” and similar terms 150 times. In the final version, they had turned into “intelligent design.”

The intelligent design advocates claimed that it was a serious field of scientific inquiry. In fact, Judge Jones wrote, intelligent design “has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.” Intelligent design advocates have tried to bolster their case by trying to find weaknesses in evolutionary biology. Judge Jones found that scientists had solidly rebutted these attacks. What’s more, he recognized that simply attacking someone else’s theory as wrong does not make yours right.

Journalists would do well to print Judge Jones’s decision out and read it carefully. It’s not up to a journalist to decide which side is right in a genuine scientific controversy. But it’s wrong to let people use an article as a soapbox where they can make grand pronouncements about science, without looking into whether the science actually backs them up. Judge Jones fact-checked intelligent design and found it wanting. He did not shy away from this realization with worries that he was somehow being one-sided. Justice holds a balance in her hand, but balance is not what she seeks. Instead, she weighs the evidence to see which way it tips.

Comments

  1. #1 Jennifer
    December 21, 2005

    I just discovered your blog, and am enjoying it greatly.

    Thank you for commenting on the thing that most bothers me about American journalism today – In the effort to appear “balanced” or “fair”, lazy journalists interview people on both sides of an issue and quote their comments without enough context or fact-checking. An article becomes nothing more than “this side claims ____” vs. “the other side claims (the opposite).” Specious claims get repeated enough times in the press that they take on a life of their own, and since journalists treat them as viable alternatives to the truth they gain legitimacy.

  2. #2 Harlan
    December 21, 2005

    Jennifer (and Carl), have you read Deborah Tannen’s book The Argument Culture? One of the points she makes in there is that there *aren’t* two sides to every story. Sometimes there’s just one side. Sometimes there’s 3 or 4 sides. Journalism schools have this fairness mantra that’s just factually wrong about the state of truth in the world, and it does a dis-service to consumers of journalism.

    Regarding the Dover decision, I think the judge got it exactly right. In the context of science, there’s just no argument, and so it shouldn’t be taught. If you want to teach about creationism in the context of a class on religion, by all means. If you want to talk about intelligent design (or solipsism, or brain-in-a-vat theory) in a philosophy class, please do. But in order to be useful, science needs to do its own thing without interference from other ways of looking at our perception of reality.

  3. #3 D.B. Light
    December 21, 2005

    Is is possible to have classes on religion in public schools? Wouldn’t any such class run up against the same constitutional problems as did efforts to introduce comments supporting AI into the science curriculum?

    Science is demanding a protected status within our public institutions that is denied to other sources of authority. There is plenty to criticize within the scientific enterprise, especially when it advances claims to be a basis upon which to construct public policy.

    i addressed some of these concerns at http://lightseekinglight.blogspot.com/2005/12/crisis-of-scientific-authority.html

    Why not make grand pronouncements regarding science? Journalists, and for that matter scientists, make grand and often erroneous pronouncements regarding religion all the time. Such silliness is part of the journalistic culture we now live in.

    I would join with Cristoph Cardinal Schonborn in calling for some humility on the part of what he calls Neo-Darwinists [you know the crowd, Dawkins, Wilson, et. al.]. Darwinian selection is a powerful explanatory mechanism, but it is not the answer to all things, and it carries with it some troubling moral implications.

    Cardinal Schonborn’s ideas, including an elaboration of his New York Times article, are presented in First Things.
    http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0601/articles/schonborn.html

  4. #4 Ophelia Benson
    December 21, 2005

    Journalists are always going to do this, though, because they don’t care that it’s bad science and bad epistemology; the point is, it’s good journalism. It’s about a ‘conflict’ and that’s interesting to the audience, which a scientific controversy is not. Journalists cover the conflict rather than the controversy; they cover the politics rather than the substance; so naturally they talk to both sides, without regard to the fact that one hasn’t got a leg to hop on.

  5. #5 snaxalotl
    December 21, 2005

    you must be pretty pleased with your last two sentences. I know I would be. (/envy)

  6. #6 RPM
    December 21, 2005

    But he followed the long paper trail that linked creation scientists to the emergence of intelligent design in the 1980s.

    Calling it creation science is like calling evolution a religion. Let’s call the bullshit for what it is.

  7. #7 marco
    December 21, 2005

    Great thread! I am, however, less certain that the Judge’s decision is good for science or education. My skim through the document makes me uneasy. I am fearful of courts deciding upon what is a good therory and what is not. While this decision may be correct, it never the less introduces judges into science who have NO place to make these decisions. They do not have the qualifications.

  8. #8 Nick
    December 21, 2005

    RPM wrote:
    “Calling it creation science is like calling evolution a religion. Let’s call the bullshit for what it is.”

    Apparently the form of intelligent design they wanted kids to learn about in Dover was creation science:
    http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/05-12-20.html

  9. #9 Mauricio
    December 21, 2005

    Congratulations. I have criticized many scientific writters for the same reasons you’ve mentioned in your post. In fact, “it’s not up to a journalist to decide which side is right in a genuine scientific controversy”, but he can (and must) search the important questions and ask the two or more sides involved.

    I mentioned your questions in my new blog http://laudascriticas.blogspot.com. (reflexions on
    communications, journalism, science and environment). The post’s title is “Intelligent Design: no question to Rosinha?” Rosinha Garotinho is the governor of Rio de Janeiro State. She promoted the teaching of the ID in few public schools of Rio. Until this moment, nobody asked her about the decision of the federal judge’s decision in Pennsylvania.

    Best wishes,

    Mauri­cio Tuffani
    http://laudascriticas.blogspot.com
    Sao Paulo, SP, Brazil
    laudas.criticas@gmail.com

  10. #10 Jennifer
    December 22, 2005

    Marco,

    While it is chilling that judges might need to make more of these decisions in the future, clearly the Dover school board was NOT capable of making the correct decisions for its students and did not have the qualifications. Judge Jones had to become an expert overnight.

    I agree with you that it is unfortunate, I don’t know how else to solve this and the myriad other cases that are sure to rise over the next few years as this one specific brand of Christianity continues to flex its political muscle in enforcing its very specific ideas about truth on the rest of the population. This is only the beginning of school board/health care/censorship fights all over the country, and if local elected officials can’t respect the separation between church and state, it’s going to fall more and more to judges to enforce the Constitution.

    Harlan, thank you for the book recommendation – I’m familiar with Tannen but not her more recent work, and I will check it out.

    Best,
    Jennifer

  11. #11 Mike
    December 23, 2005

    “While it is chilling that judges might need to make more of these decisions in the future …”

    Unless one is prepared to turn over all matters relating to science to a ruling council of scientists who will make law and administer society in areas touched by science, you will inevitably have non-scientists and non-science methods used to decide matters where science and broader society meet. At least the courts have a formal system for accepting evidence, standards of proof, rules on who bears the burden of proof, methods for review of what is presented (rebuttal and cross-examination) and oversight in the form of the potential for appeals. Courts have their faults but the formalism and the attention to (and enforceability of, through appeals) methods of making decisions give them a leg up on getting the science right compared to the political process or business processes.

    In politics, telling people what they want to hear rules, in business whatever produces profit, and if publicly traded, very short term profit. Rather than being chilled, the courts should be looked at as a place where the value of evidence and reasoned argument are higher in comparison to that of rhetoric, personal prejudice and personal profit than in most other areas of society.

    The courts are an imperfect tool, but then again, neither science nor evolution itself are guaranteed to be optimal. They’re just practical ways to do the best you can at this moment.

    Of course, I’m biased. Before law school, my undergrad was math and science.

  12. #12 Daniel Newby
    December 23, 2005

    While it is chilling that judges might need to make more of these decisions in the future, …”

    And what will our imperial masters decide next? Will they find that American literature classes cannot study a particular play because it crosses the line between harmless fiction and active evangelism? Will they decide that string theory cannot be mentioned in a physics class because it is non-falsifiable and there are no supporting experiments?

    And what would happen if somebody decided to apply evolutionary theory to humans, and act on the results? They’d be burned at the stake, and it would be a federal judge who struck the match.

    “… clearly the Dover school board was NOT capable of making the correct decisions for its students and did not have the qualifications.

    Indeed, which is why the local electorate rode them out of town on a rail before the federal show trial could even be finished. States rights solved the problem.

    Intelligent design advocates have tried to bolster their case by trying to find weaknesses in evolutionary biology. Judge Jones found that scientists had solidly rebutted these attacks.

    They have? Then where did the first aminoacyl-tRNA synthase on Earth come from? The only evidence we have are tantalizing hints that point toward an RNA origin for life. I agree that that theory seems likely to be right, but I do so on the basis of wild guesses and faith.

  13. #13 bp32
    December 24, 2005

    Daniel,

    I think your last point, which I agree is unanswered, misses the point. Evolution cannot and has not claimed to account for the origin of everything, down to the last minute bits of matter in the universe but rather explains why and how we have variation in living species (and many more things I would argue). This is why the creationist argument is also misplaced when placed in competition with evolution–its not about “where did EVERTHING come from”, but rather “how it is that living things evolved into various forms” without explaining the origin of everything.

  14. #14 marco
    December 24, 2005

    Jennifer, my concern is that in the future the court may not act on the side of reason. This decision by judge jones oversteps the authority of the court. Judge Jones and most judges are simply not qualified to render scientific pronouncements. The scientific community has an established process for evaluating scientific theories that the judge jones trampled upon. I am frightened by the willingness ofthis judge to overstep his legitimate authority.

    The length and content of the judgment is equally frightening. I would have prefered a brief statement that also recognized the scientific communities responsibility in this area.

    In summary, science has much to fear of an uneducated public and activist judges. I do not want the truth set by either of these two parties. As scientists it is our repsonsibility to govern ourselves. I do not appreciate how the ID community dragged the uninformed and courts into a scientific debate in an political manner.

  15. #15 Daniel Newby
    December 26, 2005

    bp 32 said “Evolution cannot and has not claimed to account for the origin of everything, down to the last minute bits of matter in the universe but rather explains why and how we have variation in living species

    It explains how, but not why. Genetic and fossil evidence shows only that selection events occurred. They do not speak as to the causes. It is not obvious to me that by looking at nucleotide sequences you can distinguish random chance from a Divine Selector who occassionally prunes or nurtures a chosen gene. I choose the former, because (1) science based on abstract laws dispassionately applied seems to give reasonably good answers, and (2) we have not stumbled across any obvious evidence supporting the latter.

    However that is rather far from those crowing that evolution by natural selection is now proved beyond any doubt. They only look so correct because their opponents’ ignorance of biology is exceeded only by their ignorance of philosophy.

  16. #16 Hylton
    December 30, 2005

    test

  17. #17 WBurke
    January 3, 2006

    Carl,

    It doesn’t bother you that the judge went beyond any human capacity to attack the board members, not for their actions, not for their efforts to remove science fiction from the science classroom (that would be a realistic description of Darwinian evolution as it is fictional and not factual), but rather because he stated they were trying to introduce religion into the classroom. The fact is that he could not possibly challenge the facts of the case, the facts of Intelligent Design – yes the SCIENTIFIC FACTS are incontrovertible, but because he knew he could not do this and the scientific community must rely on an environment closed to any scrutiny of Darwinianism, he made the case about religious intent which is a damnable lie.

    God help him and you can be sure of this Carl, the reason you cannot see how wrong you are is that the god of this world, Satan, has blinded your eyes to the truth. May God have mercy on your soul.

    In Christ,
    Bill

  18. #18 guthrie
    January 4, 2006

    Bill- what facts of intelligent design?
    Do you mean biblical ones or scientific ones?

  19. #19 pj
    January 5, 2006

    Was this an intelligent decision or a random accident ;)

  20. #20 Erik H
    January 6, 2006

    William:

    You summed it up nicely. The “facts” of ID are, without a doubt, unassailable. Nobody can easily DISprove ID.

    The problem, of course, is that the “facts” of ID are, without a doubt, also unprovable…

    Which is why they’re not science.

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