Dover School District Wades Into Troubled Waters

The long-awaited decision of the Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania regarding evolution and intelligent design has finally been released to the public (press release found here). It's a policy that virtually guarantees legal action that the school district will lose. Let's take a look at the statement. After noting that their biology classes will be using the Prentice-Hall textbook Biology as their primary textbook, they said:

The district also received as a donation 60 copies of Of Pandas and People and the book is now listed as a reference book in the curriculum. It is not a required text, but in an effort to present a balanced curriculum the book is made available to all students who wish to review the book.

The Biology curriculum was also updated to include the following statement:

"Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to Intelligent Design. The Origins of Life is not taught."

The statement from the Biology curriculum is simply incoherent. First, it clearly refers to ID as among the "other theories of evolution". Is ID a "theory of evolution"? I'd say it's wrong on both counts, it is neither a theory nor evolutionary in nature. Now of course it is true that some ID creationists accept more evolution than others. Behe, for instance, accepts common descent, or says he does, while others are young earthers who have to accept more or less simultaneous creation a few thousand years ago. But the key fact here is that ID has no coherent model of the natural history of life on earth whatsover. No ID advocate has ever proposed a model, either evolution or non-evolutionary, for how we got to the biodiversity we see today. Indeed, the entire ID position is based exclusively upon pointing out the alleged insufficency of evolution to account for that biodiversity. The argument is simply that if "naturalistic evolution" cannot explain every single detail, then one must assume a supernatural explanation (God did it) wherever evolution is found wanting as an explanation. This is a classic God of the Gaps argument, and it is really all that ID has. There is no theory, there is no model, there is no explanation whatsoever for when, how, or why this presumed supernatural intervention took place, or what precisely the Intelligent Designer (wink, wink) might have done. There is simply nothing here that could be regarded as a coherent theory to explain the data, there is only an attempt to poke holes in evolutionary theory on the presumption that to do so automatically gives credence to the "God did it" hypothesis.

The statement added to the curriculum is both redundant and contradictory. The redundancy is in saying both that students would be made aware of "gaps/problems in Darwin's theory" and also of "intelligent design"; it's redundant because showing the problems with evolutionary theory is all that Intelligent Design is. It's contradictory because, while it says that the alternatives are "not limited to Intelligent Design", the only alternative book they have made available to students is an Intelligent Design book. Where are the Raelian books that posit that life was bioengineered on Earth by an alien race? That's one obvious alternative to evolutionary theory, and one that is frankly far better developed as a real model than ID; at least the Raelians will specify the nature of the intervention, how specifically life got here, who did it and why. And ID is hardly the only religiously-motivated attempt to poke holes in evolution that has been published. Why not make the Cremo and Thompson books, which poke holes in evolution and posit a Hindu version of creationism in its place, available to students as well?

The fact that the only alternative being presented here is ID shows two things. First, that they're being dishonest when they say that they won't limit the alternatives to ID. Second, that what is going on here really isn't about creating a "balanced curriculum", but only in appealing to the religious alternative that is most common among their constituents by bowing to the pressure of a very well funded and well organized movement that advocates ID.

Like Cobb County, the Dover Schools have also decided that a disclaimer will be read to all students in biology classes. This disclaimer, however, is much more specific than the one used in Cobb County and is thus much more likely to be overturned in court. It says:

"The state standards require students to learn about Darwin's Theory of Evolution and to eventually take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.

Because Darwin's Theory is a theory, it is still being 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 for students to see if they would like to explore this view in an effort to gain an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves. As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.

The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life up to individual students and their families. As a standards-driven district, class instruction focuses on the standards and preparing students to be successful on standards-based assessments."

Wow. Where does one even begin to point out all the fallacies and contradictions in that disclaimer. Let me make several points.

1. Notice first that it uses the standard "it's a theory, not a fact" argument, which is technically true on its face, but will only tend to reinforce false conceptions unless accompanied by an explanation of the difference between theories and facts. The public, and surely the students in Dover, will almost certainly read this to mean "it's just a theory, not yet a fact", because the colloquial usage of the word theory means "something not yet proven". Non-scientists tend to believe that an idea goes from theory, meaning "a good guess that we can't prove" to being a fact, meaning "something that has been proven." But in a scientific context, those words don't mean that. Theories do not become facts, theories explain facts, and a well validated theory does not turn into something else; it remains a theory forever. As Gould put it so eloquently, the term "theory" is not a rung on a ladder of certainty just below "fact", it is in fact the highest level of certainty assigned to an explanation in science. That the disclaimer does not bother to explain this makes the wording here quite misleading.

2. Notice the subtle change in terminology. They rightly call evolution a theory, but then call Intelligent Design an "explanation" rather than a theory. Why? Perhaps because they recognize that it cannot meet the definition of "theory" that they lay out in the disclaimer, "a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations." ID cannot possibly meet this definition of theory, of course, because not only is it not "well-tested", there's simply nothing there at this point to test. There is not a single testable hypothesis that has been advanced by any ID advocate that flows from their model. Indeed, as noted above, there is no model from which one might derive such hypotheses. Because ID is a purely negative argument - "Not X, therefore Y" - there is nothing there to test. So by their own definition of theory, they have essentially admitted that ID is not a theory, hence they use the word "explanation" for it rather than "theory". Yet recall the wording of the statement they added to their curriculum:

"Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin's Theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to Intelligent Design. The Origins of Life is not taught."

Their disclaimer shows that ID is, in fact, not a theory according to their own criteria. So are students to be shown "other theories of evolution" by only familiarizing them with an idea that is not a theory at all, by their own definition, much less a theory of evolution? I find it rather frightening that those who are entrusted with teaching science to our children would offer up such an obviously incoherent misrepresentation of basic scientific concepts.

3. Notice that their own disclaimer calls Intelligent Design, "an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view". Yet the last paragraph of the disclaimer says, "The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life up to individual students and their families." Now, if ID is an explanation of the origin of life (something evolution is not), and the school district leaves all discussion of the origin of life up to students and their families, then why on earth are they putting in the curriculum that all students will be made aware of Intelligent Design?

The bottom line is that the Dover School statement is rife with contradictions and incoherencies, and that the disclaimer, because it specifically mentions Intelligent Design as the only alternative to evolution, is quite unlikely to survive a court challenge. Freiler v. Tangipahoa Parish Bd. of Education was a federal court case that struck down a similar disclaimer specifically because the only alternative mentioned to evolution was religious in nature. That ruling also noted that naming "intelligent design" specifically would be legally the same as the phrase "biblical concept of creation" that was used in the disclaimer that was deemed unconstitutional. The Dover School District is going to end up costing themselves (meaning the taxpayers of that district) an enormous amount of money in legal fees trying to defend what is clearly an incoherent and internally contradictory policy regarding the teaching of evolution and intelligent design. They will lose the legal battle, but more importantly, the children of that district will lose because the folks in charge of curriculum there are fumbling around in the dark trying frantically to justify their decisions and coming up only with the oxymoronic nonsense contained in the statement above.

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Excellent post, Ed. I'm glad you're on my side. Those Dover ID-pushing creationists and their profound disrespect for truth really bug me.

I get the impression that the Dover school board is in an intelligence competition, desperately trying to catch up with the cabbage and the doorknob. What they have said, reported in the newspapers, shows such incompetence and ignorance about the things they bray so loudly against, that one wonders just how they got involved in the education system! Their errors have been pointed out again and again, but to no avail.

Couldn't this be used as an opportunity for the biology teachers to showcase just how bad this statement is? The release said it had to be read to the students, but didn't say when.

So read it to them after the teachers have taught the actual science. And with this knowledge of how science works and what evolution is (and isn't), help the students fisk this mess of a statement point by point.

Unless the science teachers are happy with it, which would just be sad.

Plus, we're not to keep an open mind about scientific laws? How are we ever going to get personalized jetpacks, teleportation devices, or lightsabers if we have a strict interpretation of "laws?"

By TheTachyix (not verified) on 23 Nov 2004 #permalink

Ring some bells for the death of public education. It is things like this, and a post above, that makes clear that public education isn't going to be around in a few years. Liberals should be taking notice--you are fighting a rear-guard battle.

It seems the madness doesn't just end with the teaching of evolution. Now we need to "correct" mathmatical theory so that it matches a direct biblical interpretation.

Just wondering when I should start worrying about falling off the edge of a flat earth?

By A Student of E… (not verified) on 02 Dec 2004 #permalink

The York Dispatch of 2 December cites Richard Thompson, chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center (defender of fundy moral values, the Center has offered to defend the Dover school board). According to the paper, he "said a court case would really be about the legitimacy of intelligent design as a scientific theory." Who knows, maybe they'll bring in Phillip Johnson. Nothing like having a bunch of lawyers deciding what's a legitimate scientific theory. Of course, in that case, how about citing Daubert v. Dow Chemical (Isn't that the one dealing with keeping junk science out of the courtroom?).