THE BLOG
06/24/2010 04:11 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Book Blasts Intelligent Design Dishonesty

In my first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, I attempt to provide an overview of the great amounts of fraud, chicanery, and general nonsense that has come to us from the direction of The Discovery Institute (formerly known as the Discovery Institute for the Renewal of Science and Culture before such time as the entirety of the name was deemed too revealing) in general and from such kingpins of the movement as William Dembski and Michael Behe in particular.

Although the scope of the book was such that there wasn't much time to dwell on particular instances as much as I would have liked, I do believe I did an adequate job of demonstrating the intellectual dishonesty of those folks -- and Dembski would seem to agree insomuch as that his response was relegated to pointing out that I made a couple of sexually-charged jokes at the expense of the Logos and bonobo chimps (the latter were apparently designed by the former to engage in lesbian tribbing; I understand that at least one theologian has responded to such observations by claiming that the higher mammals were subject to The Fall and thus imbued with sin in a manner similar to mankind, which I think is neat).

Unfortunately, the book is currently impossible to buy in physical form unless you're willing to shell out $75 for a used copy (though Kindle versions are always available), and meanwhile I've moved on to targets better capable of defending themselves, as I am a sporting fellow in my own way.

Still, intelligent design, though relatively dormant these days, remains a fascinating subject, one that touches on theology, philosophy of science, biology, chemistry, physics, and, of course, politics. Those interested in a good overview of this subject and others of similar relevance ought to consider picking up a copy of Massimo Pigliucci's Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk, which would also make a great gift for any friends one might have in the media, science "journalism" being what it is today.

My colleague Robert Luhn of the National Center for Science Education just sent along an excerpt from this new release, and I in turn provide an excerpt of that excerpt below.

The Simple Statement That Led to a Storm

On 18 October 2004, the Dover School Board passed the following resolution: "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. Note: Origins of Life is not taught." That decision came after almost three years of intense political maneuvering on the part of several members of the board, and it eventually led to a historical trial in which proponents of intelligent design were handed a devastating defeat by a conservative judge appointed by President George W. Bush. The 139-page decision by Judge John E. Jones III is worth reading in its entirety, and I will discuss it in some detail because it will guide us through a fascinating tour of human deception worthy of a mystery novel, all the while teaching us something about the nature of science and the difference between science and pseudoscience. It truly is a case study destined to become a classic in the cultural wars.

The story, as Judge Jones tells it, began in January 2002, when Alan Bonsell, president of the Dover School Board, publicly declared that his two main goals for board action were to push the teaching of creationism in the district's schools and to reinstate public prayer. Both goals, of course, violate the constitutional separation of church and state and should have therefore never been on the agenda at Dover, but it is the ignorance and bigotry of local officials that often causes trouble where there should have been none.

The legal side of things is rather simple. The so-called establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (passed in 1791) reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Fourteenth Amendment, passed in 1868 (i.e., after the Civil War), applies federal law to the states. There is very little room for interpretation of the establishment clause: it is made of two subclauses, the first of which prohibits the government from favoring or forcing religion--any religion--on the citizenry; the second prohibits the state from impeding in any way on the free (but private) exercise of religion. It is hard to imagine how anyone could therefore seriously argue that teaching creationism (which the Supreme Court had determined in 1987 is not science, but religion) or officially sponsoring prayer in schools (as opposed to students privately praying while on recess at school, which is of course perfectly legal) would not violate the First Amendment. And yet, failing to understand this represented the beginning of trouble for the Dover School District.

Bonsell eventually confronted teachers in the district in person about the teaching of evolution in the fall of 2003, an unprecedented administrative step that sent a chilling message to the teachers: stay away from the controversy if you don't want to trigger the ire of the board. This had an immediate effect on one of the teachers who testified at the Dover trial, Robert Linker. Before the meeting with Bonsell, Linker used to tell his students that creationism is based on "religion and Biblical writings," which made it illegal as a subject matter in public schools. After the meeting with Bonsell, Linker dropped any mention of the controversy to his students and even stopped using helpful teaching material to aid students in making the distinction between science and religion. It was the first round of an escalating confrontation that would eventually completely vindicate the teachers and cast a serious cloud of misconduct on the administrators.

Enter another shadowy character: William Buckingham, whom Bonsell had appointed chair of the board's Curriculum Committee. In early 2004, Buckingham contacted the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based "think tank" devoted to the promotion of intelligent design in public schools. The institute sent Buckingham a video entitled Icons of Evolution (from the title of a popular ID book by author Jonathan Wells), which he arranged to be shown to the teachers to "educate" them about the real nature of ID. Interestingly, two lawyers from the Discovery Institute also made a presentation to the board, obviously a prelude to the sure legal challenge that would ensue if the board kept pursuing this clear breach of church state separation.

Between the summer of 2003 and that of 2004, the board shifted to a delay tactic to force the teachers' hand, refusing to approve the purchase of a standard textbook, Biology by Kenneth Miller and Joseph Levine (Miller later testified as an expert for the plaintiffs at the trial). Despite the fact that the book had been approved by teachers (i.e., those people who actually know something about biology) and by the administration, Buckingham felt that it covered evolution too thoroughly and did not give creationism a fair shake. This is like complaining that a textbook in astronomy is too focused on the Copernican theory of the structure of the solar system and unfairly neglects the possibility that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is really pulling each planet's strings, unseen by the deluded scientists.

In June 2004, some members of the board went even more clearly on the offensive, with Buckingham stating that Biology was "laced with Darwinism," a comment that followed another one made previously by the same character (as reported in the trial's decision) to the effect that the separation of church and state is "a myth" and, at any rate, something that he, Buckingham, personally doesn't support. One has to wonder at the size of the egos of these people who would readily put their own ideological opinions above the constitutional guarantees of an entire nation. But such is the nature of the evolution-creation debate. And speaking of church state separation, it turns out that at the same board meeting, Buckingham's wife gave a long speech (beyond the standard allotted time) during which she said that "evolution teaches nothing but lies" and asked the audience how one could teach anything but the Bible to their kids, ending up with exhorting people to become born-again Christians. Her husband came to her aid by challenging the onlookers to trace their ancestry to monkeys (nothing could be easier, as a matter of scientific fact), accusing judges in previous trials against creationism of "taking away the rights of Christians," and ending with a call to stand up for Jesus.

The point here, of course, is not that Mr. or Mrs. Buckingham or anyone else doesn't have the right to their religious opinions, or that they cannot express them in public (though a school board meeting hardly seems like the most appropriate venue). But all of this made it into the official documents of the trial because it established a crucial point for the judge: the clear religious motivations of the board in passing its resolution, and therefore the untenability of the board's legal position that its actions were meant in a secular spirit to further education and critical thinking among local students.

Of course, Buckingham himself was never concerned with respecting either other people's opinions or upholding minimum educational standards.The court proceedings relate an earlier episode, in 2002, when a mural about evolution (put up by students as a class project) was taken down and burned. When Buckingham was asked, two years later, if he knew anything about the episode, he replied, "I gleefully watched it burn." This has nothing to do with Christianity or religion; it is simply the ugly face of ideological bigotry.

To amplify on all of this, I should additionally note that, when I again took Dembski & Co. to task for some of their more recent shenanigans, one of Dembski's colleagues responded by calling me "Barrett Clown." Clown rhymes with Brown, you see.

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.