In 2005, the borough of Dover, located near York, had its moment in the national spotlight when its school district was taken to federal court after it required that intelligent design be taught in its biology classes. Intelligent design argues the diversity of life must have been the handiwork of a creator, and it’s been held up as an alternative to evolution, which takes a deity out of the equation and holds that life has developed over millions of years and is the result of natural selection and random mutations.
The judge in the case, a conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, sensibly ruled there’s very little that’s authentically scientific in intelligent design, and ordered the district to cease and desist. Sure, the proponents of intelligent design tend to infuse it with scientific language or suggest that it should be taught alongside evolution so students can be aware of the “controversy” or “make up their own minds.” But there is no controversy regarding evolution – it’s the bedrock of modern science and is the premise from which all scientists conduct their work. You’d be hard pressed to find a single reputable scientist who does not believe in its validity.
Intelligent design, on the other hand, is creationism masquerading under another, more palatable-sounding name. While religious faith can provide answers to vexing existential questions about who we are and why we are here, it is not built on empirical evidence and should not be used in a classroom where hypotheses are generated and tested.
Despite the judge’s firm ruling in the Dover case, intelligent design and the determination of its supporters to nudge it into the lesson plans of science teachers persists. The New York Times reported last week the state board of education in Texas is mulling over what biology textbooks to use over the next 10 years, and there’s reason to worry about the demands they might make on textbook writers. Several members of the panel looking over the textbooks are devout believers in “creation science” or harbor doubts about evolution. Unsurprisingly, they also deny the findings that human activity is playing a role in climate change.
Kathy Miller, the president of an organization dedicated to the separation of church and state, told the newspaper, “Utterly unqualified partisan politicians will look at what utterly unqualified citizens have said about a textbook and decide whether it meets the requirements of a textbook.”
Before you shrug and say, well, let the Texans do what they want, the Lone Star State tends to wield outsize influence in the textbook-writing process because its market is one of the country’s largest. So a decision by Texas to water down science education, or introduce pseudoscience into it, can affect the education of students who have never set foot there. Students in this country will be competing with other, well-educated peers in all corners of the world in a globalized marketplace, and we can hardly afford to put our children at a disadvantage when it comes to science.
One science teacher quoted by the Times said it well: “I tell (students) that the Book of Job says that their faith will be tested. You don’t need faith to believe what the evidence suggests. You need faith to believe what the evidence doesn’t suggest.”