F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
October 2006 
Vol. 35, No. 4



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Creating an Effective Message on Intelligent Design

T. Jeremy Gunn and David G. Cooper

Courtroom Victory

Scientists, teachers, and civil libertarians scored a major victory last December when Federal District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled that the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania, crossed the constitutional line by promoting “intelligent design” (ID) in public schools. (http://www.pamd.uscourts.gov/kitzmiller/kitzmiller_342.pdf) The American Civil Liberties Union, in close cooperation with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper Hamilton LLP, and the National Center for Science Education, laid out the facts in such telling detail that there could be no doubt about either the motivations or the methods of proponents of ID, an idea that has failed to gain the support of any legitimate scientific organization in the United States.

ID asserts that some aspects of biological life are so complex that they could not possibly have arisen through natural biological mechanisms (such as natural selection and random variation), and that these complex biological systems required the intervention of an “intelligent designer.” For most objective observers, including Judge Jones, “intelligent design” is little more than a dressed-up version of “creationism” and the “intelligent designer” is simply a euphemism for “God.”

The case, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (400 F. Supp. 2d 707 (M.D. Pa. 2005)), was the first full-scale test of intelligent design in court. The litigators shrewdly undertook a comprehensive investigation of the facts underlying the controversial idea and then laid them out before Judge Jones. The Judge’s 139-page opinion exhaustively analyzed and dismissed the wide range of arguments proponents of ID have conjured, and the decision is so comprehensive that we may expect that any conscientious school board or legislator will think more than twice before trying to promote ID in the same fashion as Dover.

If any local school board or state legislator might be thinking of promoting ID, the opinion lays out in detail everything that is wrong with such an action. In addition, the voters of Dover, having been given a chance to think over the issue, subsequently threw out the board that foolishly promoted ID and even elected a new board that included several Kitzmiller plaintiffs. (The newly elected Board reversed the ID policy, accepted Judge Jones’s ruling, and stated that it will not appeal.) These legal and electoral victories offer a powerful warning to those who might have considered adding it to the curriculum.

Court of Public Opinion

Our legal strategy showed significantly greater intelligence and design than did the latest incarnation of creationism. But perhaps the most important question is what will happen next.

Those who wish to insert their personal religious views into the public school science curriculum are not necessarily going to be dissuaded by the evidence, a well-reasoned judicial opinion, or even a sobering electoral defeat. The losing ID lawyers from the Thomas More Law Center are already looking for another unfortunate school board that will be willing to follow its lead over a cliff.

While the ACLU does not have a department of prophecy, we nevertheless can predict with some assurance that this will not be the final effort to promote creationism in the classroom. Our best guess is, however, that creationism’s proponents will cast yet another obscuring veil over their real agenda (promoting religion in public schools) and that the next wave will more shrewdly say nothing at all about God, creationism, or intelligent design. It will focus on “the problems of evolution” and the “gaps in Darwin’s theory” and that “evolution is only a theory.”

So how do we respond to this?

It is not sufficient for us to be complacent in our self-assurance that the facts are on our side and that we can rest on our litigators’ laurels. Public opinion polls fairly consistently show that the majority of our fellow citizens believe that some form of creationism should be taught in public schools, despite the Supreme Court’s rulings to the contrary. [1] With the majority of the public on the other side, we can continue to expect wave after wave of this until our position can be formulated in a more persuasive way. We need to be wise enough to understand that litigation by itself, no matter how effective, should not be the only tool in our box.

For biology teachers, it is crucial to teach evolution effectively and work to confront the misconceptions students often have about evolution which may undermine their willingness to accept it.[2] For all science teachers, and for scientists speaking to non-scientist audiences, it is essential to instill a basic understanding of what a scientific theory is and what differentiates science from religion.[3]

But in order to be more effective and persuasive to the public, we should all formulate our arguments while bearing in mind two different but interrelated aspects of American popular opinion about religion.

First, a high percentage of Americans consider themselves to be very religious, and public opinion polls repeatedly show that Americans identify themselves with religion more than the citizens of any other developed country in the world. This is a social fact that we ignore at our peril. Similarly, when Americans are given the stark choice between “religion” or science,” they are likely to choose religion. Thus scientists and civil libertarians actually help proponents of creationism when they, like the creationists, suggest that this is a battle between science and religion.

Second, although an impressive percentage of Americans will choose religion over science, they do not want the government to be in the business of choosing one religious doctrine over another. So if they see the choice as religion versus science, religion wins. But when the choice is government preferring one religion over another, then they have second thoughts.

The importance of these two aspects of American opinion cannot be overemphasized for creating a convincing message to a public that thinks it wants creationism to be taught in schools. The message is simple: “creationism (and its relatives) are disputed religious opinions that divide people of faith, and the government has no business choosing one religion over another.”

Thus we need to show the fact that creationism, ID, and “anti-evolutionism” are controversial religious beliefs that divide people of faith. The Catholic Church supports the teaching of evolution in schools and does not accept ID as a correct formulation. [4] Many of America ’s leading biological scientists are very religious and they see no conflict between their faith and their religion. Thousands of members of the clergy are opposed to teaching ID, as is shown by the Clergy Letter Project (http://www.uwosh.edu/colleges/cols/clergy_project.htm). The fact that so many people of faith do not accept ID shows just how controversial it is and the government has no business promoting the religious beliefs of some at the expense of others.

Indeed, the genius of the American founders was to recognize that both religion and government prosper best when religious issues are not made the subject of legislative controversy. Keeping the government away from taking sides in religious controversies is good for religion, good for civil discourse, and eminently more fair for all people – whatever their beliefs.

[1] See, e.g., CBS News, Poll: Creationism Trumps Evolution, Nov. 22, 2004, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/22/opinion/polls/main657083.shtml

[2] See Brian J. Alters & Craig E. Nelson, Teaching Evolution in Higher Education, Evolution 56(10), 1891 (2002)

[3] For a description of one physicist’s efforts to reach out to skeptical members of the public about issues relating to science and religion, see Murray Peshkin, Addressing the Public About Science and Religion, Physics Today, July 2006, at 46.

[4] See Eugenie C. Scott, Creationists and the Pope's Statement, http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/1480_creationists_and_the_pope39_12_22_2003.asp; Pope John Paul II, Message to Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 22, 1996, http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/8712_message_from_the_pope_1996_1_3_2001.asp

T. Jeremy Gunn
Director, ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief

David G. Cooper
 Law Student, University of Michigan
 Former Science Policy Fellow, APS Washington Office




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