Still Trying to Get Creationism into Science Classes

I have to admit, when I saw over the weekend that I had been called out by the Discovery Institute, the conservative think tank committed to promoting intelligent design, my first thought was of what the late great Molly Ivins once said after she had been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on his radio show.

“It’s like being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.”

Which pretty much sums up my response to David Klinghoffer’s post, “Dear Lauri Lebo, Please Help Me Understand Your Conspiracy Theory,” in which he impugns both my intelligence and my understanding of the controversies I write about.

But then it occurred to me that next month marks the five-year anniversary of Kitzmiller v. Dover, the landmark case in which parents successfully sued a Pennsylvania school district for requiring that the theory of intelligent design be taught in local science classes. So, I figured since I’m being called out and all, this would be as good an opportunity as any for a nice retrospective piece on the Discovery Institute. (And, well, Mr. Klinghoffer did ask me to help him understand.)

So, what’s the “enormous difference” between ID and creationism? 

What Mr. Klinghoffer is responding to is a blog post I wrote about the latest Discovery Institute shenanigans—this time in Louisiana. I wrote that once again, after lobbying for a way to sneak the teaching of creationism into science class, the Discovery Institute has run away from a school board after members there actually used the word “creationism.”

Because of his recent response in American Spectator to the Livingston Parish School Board, I compared Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman to Monty Python’s Brave Sir Robin. As the song goes, “when danger reared its ugly head, he bravely turned his tail and fled.”

Some folks at DI must have taken umbrage. But Mr. Klinghoffer also took exception to the notion that anyone could conceivably connect language in the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA)—which the Discovery Institute helped write—to the concept of creationism.

“It’s hard to believe that Ms. Lebo, a journalist who wrote a whole book about the Kitzmiller v. Dover case, isn’t aware of the enormous difference in content between creationism on one hand, and the scientific critique of Darwinism, or the related theory of intelligent design, on the other.”

Well, Mr. Klinghoffer, I am aware of the differences. And you know who else is aware of them? Board members in the Livingston Parish school district who enthusiastically talked about using the new LSEA standards to teach kids creationism. Because when you break it down, the concepts are inextricably intertwined. 

So what are these “enormous differences”? Here is DI’s definition of intelligent design:

Intelligent design is the theory that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.

Here’s the thing, even their own definition gives away their sleight of hand. No matter how many times they deny it, intelligent design relies on the supernatural. They can hide it in the passive voice all they want, but when you talk about an “intelligent cause” you are talking about a creator. And that makes it (wait for it) creationism.

But don’t take my word for it. Especially when Discovery Institute and its fellows have so many words of their own that reveal their intention.

The “Wedge Strategy”

Let’s start with the so-called Wedge Document. In 1998, DI put out a fundraising document that plainly set forth its “governing goals,” which included these aims:

To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies; and to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

Sounds like a pretty clear mission statement to me. But there’s more.

The Wedge Document was based on the strategy laid out by the godfather of the Intelligent Design movement and Discovery Institute advisor Phillip Johnson. In his 1991 book Darwin on Trial, Johnson argued that Christians need to tone down their religious rhetoric in order to get God into science class. Rather than argue that Earth is only 6,000 years old, Johnson called for creationists to focus first on overthrowing “scientific materialism” to make way for supernatural explanations.

Since then, DI has used Johnson’s strategy to try unsuccessfully to get such creationist-friendly language into the science curricula and lesson plans in various states—most notably in Kansas and Ohio. Each time they were defeated after scientists and educators exposed what they were trying to do.

Sometime in the mid ’90s, the Discovery Institute refocused its efforts. Instead of pretending to put forth any positive scientific arguments for anything like intelligent design, it switched tactics (again based on Johnson’s wedge strategy) and merely tried to present negative arguments against the validity of evolution using code words like, “teach the controversy” and “sudden emergence.”

Intelligent Design is “the Logos theology of John… in the idiom of information theory.”

In 2004, when the Dover Area School District became the first district in the nation to include intelligent design in its science curriculum, its board members were under the impression that they were implementing DI’s strategy—just as Livingston Parish board members are under the impression that LSEA is about teaching creationism.

But DI fellows, fearing the constitutional test case that would inevitably result, vehemently denied ever trying to push for intelligent design into science class—a strange assertion considering that it had produced the booklet, Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curricula: A Legal Guidebook.

Rather, they said they merely wanted to see taught the “scientific criticisms of Darwin’s theory as well as the evidence favoring the theory.” They also said legislators should protect the academic freedom of teachers and students to study all of the scientific evidence relating to Darwin’s theory.

Mr. Klinghoffer referred to Barbara Forrest as someone who shares my, as he puts it, “conspiracy theory.” But his attempt to trivialize Forrest utterly misrepresents her work. Forrest co-authored with Paul Gross Creationism’s Trojan Horse, which in a blow-by-blow account thoroughly exposed DI’s Christian motivations.

And in the Dover trial, she was its most damning witness. In her testimony, she exposed how the intelligent design textbook Of Pandas and People was initially a creationist text. But following the US Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard, in which the teaching of creation science was ruled unconstitutional to teach in public schools, its editors simply replaced the phrase with “intelligent design.”

Forrest also unearthed the quote of DI fellow William Dembski in an interview he gave to the Christian apologetics magazine Touchstone: “Intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.”

In the end, Judge John E. Jones III, a George Bush appointee, ruled in 2005 that not only was intelligent design not science, but that “The writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity.”

(An interesting comparison can be made to the recent decision of Judge Vaughn R. Walker about Proposition 8. In the Prop. 8 case as in Dover, the supposed scientific arguments of religiously motivated organizations often don’t hold up well in a courtroom where they are required to present the evidence of their assertions. After noting that the defendants had failed to present a convincing scientific case, Vaughn wrote, “Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples.”)

After a relatively quiet two years following the Dover decision, the Discovery Institute unveiled its academic freedom campaign, in 2008, complete with a web site providing sample legislation for interested state lawmakers. The institute’s John West made sure to stress that the bills never mentioned intelligent design. But as DI’s past actions clearly indicate, the goal was still to pry open the door for sympathetic teachers to teach intelligent design and creationism.

Louisiana, Alabama, Michigan and Missouri all introduced similarly-worded bills based on the template. But in the end, only one state successfully took the bait.

Scientific Data Related to Creationism?

Which brings us back to Louisiana. LSEA specifically targets “evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning” as subjects in which educators are required to “promote critical thinking skills.” It also requires “supplemental materials” to be used alongside textbooks in public school science class.

It’s interesting that while Discovery Institute earnestly stressed that nothing about the legislation was religiously motivated, the lead sponsor of the LSEA, Senator Ben Nevers, saw it differently.

“The Louisiana Family Forum suggested the bill,” Nevers told the Hammond Daily Star at the time. “They believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin’s theory.”

The Louisiana Family Forum, which helped DI lobby for LSEA, is affiliated with Focus on the Family and is dedicated to “persuasively present(ing) biblical principles in the centers of influence on issues affecting the family through research, communication and networking.”

Also, Louisiana Family Forum has been trying to get straight-up creationism into public schools as recently as 2004.

Until recently, the fight following the bill’s approval has been over how the wording will be implemented and to develop a review process to make sure those “supplemental materials” aren’t just intelligent design books—like the latest version of Pandas and People.

LSEA says that

“a teacher shall teach the material presented in the standard textbook supplied by the school system and thereafter may use supplemental textbooks and other instructional materials to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner, as permitted by the city, parish, or other local public school board unless otherwise prohibited by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

Which appears to give school districts a lot of room to introduce creationist texts.

Yes, Disingenuous

Last month, the Livingston Parish decided to hold off on introducing creationism into biology class for the current school year. But it has appointed a staff committee to look at ways to introduce it for the 2011-12 school year.

So it’s a bit early at this point to speculate whether Louisiana and the Livingston Parish School District will be the site of the next constitutional test case of the Discovery Institute’s latest brand of creationism.

But the echoes of Dover are certainly interesting.

Meanwhile, Chapman and others are still denying that they’re trying to force religion into public school science class.

If Chapman had written a piece in which he owned up to DI’s old ways, repented for all the lies that its fellows have told over the years in Jesus’ name about their true purpose, if he said from now on, they would be focused on actually doing real scientific research, I might be a little more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But Chapman didn’t do that. Instead, he’s making the same disingenuous remarks that Discovery Institute folks have been making since its inception.

laurilebo@gmail.com'

Lauri Lebo is the author of The Devil in Dover: Dogma v. Darwin in Small-Town America, a book about the 2005 First Amendment trial of Kitzmiller v. Dover in which intelligent design was ruled creationism.