February 15, 2006

Ohio Sets Back Intelligent Design

Yesterday the Ohio Board of Education (OBE) struck a huge blow against intelligent design by voting 11-4 to remove benchmarks in its science standards that called for "critical analysis" of evolution and to eliminate a lesson plan based on that benchmark.

Here is some background to the issue. In 2001 I was selected to be part of Ohio's Science Standards Advisory Board to set new science standards for Ohio. After many months of work, we approved a set of standards to be fleshed out by other people in writing committees. There was some discussion of what to do about intelligent design creationism (IDC) but the consensus was to keep it out.

Then in 2002 an emergency meeting of the advisory board was called in Columbus (which I did not attend) and I am told that the members who did attend were told that certain members of the OBE were unhappy at the omission of IDC. They were then given an ultimatum. In the section that dealt with biological evolution, they had to include a benchmark that said "Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of intelligent design." If they did not agree, the entire set of standards would be jettisoned and a new set created by the state legislature. Since this would probably be worse, the members of the advisory board reluctantly agreed.

At the OBE meeting where the standards were to be adopted, some OBE members were concerned that this benchmark would open the door to teaching IDC so they added additional language that said (in parentheses) "The intent of this benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design."

But it soon became clear that this benchmark was a Trojan horse. The pro-IDC OBE members inserted people into the lesson plan writing team who drafted a lesson plan called Critical Analysis of Evolution that essentially recycled IDC ideas without explicitly mentioning intelligent design.

This lesson plan was roundly criticized on both science and pedagogical grounds but the OBE stood firm on retaining it.

The Dover trial revived the criticism of both the benchmarks and the lesson plan and at its January meeting, a vote for their removal was narrowly defeated 9-8, with two members absent. Governor Bob Taft then stepped in and asked for a legal review of the lesson plan to see if it could be challenged. Meanwhile I and twenty other members of the original science advisory board wrote to the Governor on February 7, 2006 urging elimination of the benchmark and the lesson plan.

All this lay behind yesterday's 11-4 vote to reject both the benchmark and the lesson plan.

In order to clarify the somewhat subtle issues behind this, I had written an op-ed on February 10, 2006 which I submitted to the Plain Dealer and which was rejected. But I reproduce it below so that you can see what was wrong with both the benchmark and the lesson plan.

Here's the op-ed:

How Critical Analysis Can be Abused

The course on The World's Religions was proceeding smoothly. Using a textbook that had one chapter dedicated to each religion, the students learned about Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, and Taoism. The class soon settled into a predictable routine in which they learned the basic beliefs, rituals, origins, and history of each religion.

The students were surprised, however, when a completely different teaching strategy was adopted for the chapter on Christianity. The new lesson plan adopted a much more critical stance.

The students were first asked to identify five important elements of Christianity's religious beliefs and history, such as the Genesis stories, the exodus, the life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the virgin birth. For each item, the students were instructed to critically analyze it by finding one major piece of evidence in support of it and one to challenge it, and to compare and contrast that evidence. The class watched the documentary The God Who Wasn't There (which challenges the idea that Jesus was a historical figure and argues that his life story was constructed out of myths that were prevalent at that time) and students were also directed to archaeological, anthropological, historical, and scientific sources that said that the Genesis stories could not be taken literally and that the Biblical story of the exodus did not occur.

Students were asked to evaluate the usefulness and credibility of both the Bible and the sources that challenged it, debates were held among the students on the relative merits of the sources, and students were asked to write reflective essays on why it was important to critically analyze Christian beliefs. Students were asked to provide written arguments both in favor of and against each of the basic five Christian beliefs, and teachers were given sample answers to better help them guide students towards providing suitable answers on both sides.

At the end of the course, many students felt that Christianity was much less credible than all the other religions.

Where did this biased form of teaching occur? Well, actually, I made it up. But it is fictitious only in terms of its subject matter. I created this example to clarify what is at issue behind the February 7, 2006 letter that I and twenty other former members of Ohio's Science Standards Advisory Board sent to Governor Taft, urging that a lesson plan approved by the Ohio Board of Education (OBE) be removed.

This grade 10 "Critical Analysis of Evolution" lesson plan treats evolution almost exactly the way Christianity is treated in the above example. While all the other topics in physical, earth, space, and life sciences are taught so as to give students a basic understanding of the elements of those disciplines to prepare them for more advanced work in the field, there is a sudden change as soon as evolution is introduced and students are taught as if the arguments for and against it are on an equal footing.

This singling out of evolution for special critical analysis was one of the reasons that US District Judge John E. Jones III used to argue that the Dover, PA school board's action was unconstitutional. His ruling (Kitzmiller, et. al. v. Dover, 2005) quoted a US Supreme Court judgment that objected to legislation that "[o]ut of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools...chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects."

Judge Jones further said with this kind of singling out "the Board sent the message that it "believes there is some problem peculiar to evolution," and "[i]n light of the historical opposition to evolution by Christian fundamentalists and creationists. . . the informed, reasonable observer would infer the School Board's problem with evolution to be that evolution does not acknowledge a creator.""

He said that this extraordinary scrutiny of evolution violated the "prohibition against government endorsement of religion" because that prohibition "preclude[s] government from conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred."

Those members of the OBE who have been promoters of the lesson plan argue that the Dover decision does not apply to Ohio because their plan does not mention intelligent design, which was an issue in the Dover case. They should not be so sanguine. Although it is hard to predict how a different judge in a different jurisdiction in a different case might rule, the Dover case has relevance because the problem Judge Jones identified was that the singling out of evolution for special critical analysis was tantamount, because of the history of the issue, to an attempt to undermine its credibility in order to advance a specific religious belief.

It seems clear that that argument applies to the Ohio lesson plan as well, and thus the Dover ruling will weigh heavily. The OBE would be well advised to remove the lesson plan.

POST SCRIPT: Talk on Science Standards

UPDATE: Lawrence Krauss will be talking on "Science Under Attack, from the White House to the Classroom: Public Policy, Science Education, and the Emperor's New Clothes" in Rockefeller 301 at 4:15pm on Thursday, February 16.

See here for more details.


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