April 25, 2006

Dover's dominoes-5: A Dover domino falls in California

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.)

The first domino to fall as a result of the Dover verdict was in California where a teacher had decided to create a new optional philosophy class that would promote IDC ideas. This decision was interesting because the people behind it had seemed to draw the lesson from the Dover ruling that while it was problematic to teach IDC ideas in science classes, that it was acceptable to teach it in philosophy courses. As the LA Times reports (link to original article no longer working):

At a special meeting of the El Tejon Unified School District on Jan. 1 [2006], at which the board approved the new course, "Philosophy of Design," school Supt. John W. Wight said that he had consulted the school district's attorneys and that they "had told him that as long as the course was called 'philosophy,' " it could pass legal muster, according to the lawsuit.

The course description is revealing:

Philosophy of Intelligent Design: "This class will take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid. This class will discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution. Topics that will be covered are the age of the earth, a world wide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence. Physical and chemical evidence will be presented suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions. The class will include lecture discussions, guest speakers, and videos. The class grade will be based on a position paper in which students will support or refute the theory of evolution."

The biography of the teacher who proposed and would teach the course says that she has a B. A. Degree in Physical Education, Social Science, with emphasis in Sociology and Special Education. There is no mention of science or philosophy expertise. The reading list and guest speakers seemed to be weighted heavily towards young-Earth creationist ideas.

Some parents objected to this course and immediately filed suit to stop it. Once again, the Discovery Institute had a mixed response, reflecting the confusion in the IDC camp after the Dover verdict. On the one hand they cried foul, saying that those opposed to IDC were hypocritically moving the goals posts after their Dover victory:

Clearly, American’s United for Separation of Students from Science is singing a different tune now than they did last year during the Dover trial.

Then they wanted to outlaw mentioning intelligent design in science classes. Now they want to ban it from all classes.

Then, they said intelligent design was an okay topic for philosophy classes. Now, they claim intelligent design is not suited for any classes.

Then, the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, was saying specifically about intelligent design that: "when it comes to matters of religion and philosophy, they can be discussed objectively in public schools, but not in biology class."

On the other hand, about the same time, the Discovery Institute itself made a presentation to the El Tejon school board urging that the course be dropped. They were obviously concerned that this school policy, like that of the Dover board, would be another clumsy attempt that would set back their careful strategy even further because this course mixed young earth creationism with IDC. As their attorney Casey Luskin said (echoing Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues):

There is a legal train coming at you and we can see it coming down the tracks. Unfortunately this course was not formulated properly in the beginning, and students were told it would promote young earth creationism as fact. Thus, the only remedy at this point to avoid creating a dangerous legal precedent is to simply cancel the course.
. . .
[I]f you do not cancel this course, and if you let this lawsuit go forward, you are going to lose and there will be a dangerous legal precedent set which could threaten the teaching of intelligent design on the national level. Such a decision would also threaten the scientific research of many scientists who support intelligent design.

Because of the young earth creationist history of this course, this course is not legally defensible and it should be cancelled.

The 'legal train' Luskin spoke of that bearing down on them was presumably powered by the locomotive of Judge Jones' Dover decision, showing how seriously the people at the Discovery Institute viewed that result. On January 17, 2006, less than three weeks after the course was authorized, it was cancelled.

Luskin was concerned that by co-mingling young Earth creationism (which the Supreme Court had already ruled in 1987 was a religious belief) with IDC, the courts would again rule against the school board and that IDC would be dragged down along with creationism. Since the whole Discovery Institute strategy had been to carefully formulate IDC so as cleanse themselves of any creationist taint, they must have been tearing their hair out at the people of Dover and El Tejon, who were clumsily mixing the two up again. With friends like these, they definitely don't need any enemies.

This is always the problem with such stealth strategies. They depend for success on the followers being given nods and winks that tell them not to take the words at face value, that they are merely codes. This works as long as you dealing with those already in the know, who understand how and why the game is being played this way, and who are willing to trust what you say. But there has always been some tension between the smooth-talking sophisticated IDC strategists and their more plain-spoken base, who were getting increasingly impatient with this careful avoidance of any mention of god. From the latter groups' point of view, the US is a Christian country, god belongs everywhere, and if IDC is meant to get god back in the schools, then why not come right out and say so? What is the point of all this tap-dancing around the mention of god?

The El Tejon school board clearly thought they had a winning strategy by explicitly labeling theirs as a philosophy course. Furthermore it was optional. So on the surface, it seemed as if there should be no problem with it. After all, even the most die-hard evolution supporter and anti-IDC militant would concede that religious ideas might be perfectly appropriate for a philosophy, history, or social studies course. It would be hard for any teacher of those subjects to avoid discussing the influence of religion in the social and political histories of nations, and many do so all the time without any legal challenge.

The only people who might express some concern about the El Tejon plan might be philosophy and social studies teachers who might be worried that their curricula are being converted into dumping grounds for the pet causes of religious activists. But while they might find that annoying, that would not be a basis for rejection on legal or constitutional grounds.

So despite the links with creationism, why was the Discovery Institute so nervous about this course going forward and sought to have it cancelled? To understand this, one has to look at a long series of precedents set by the US Supreme Court on the question of the separation of church and state, especially as it pertains to education. Judge Jones in his Dover ruling traced the history of these rulings, which I will review in the next posting.

POST SCRIPT: Proof of Intelligent Design revealed!

Forget the bacterial flagella. Who knows what those are anyway? The proof of intelligent design has been right in front of us all the time, in the produce section of the grocery store no less, but we just did not realize it. Want to see why two evangelists refer to it as 'the atheist's nightmare'? Go here, drag the cursor to the 3:30 mark, watch until the 4:36 mark, and the proof will be revealed. Oh, I've been so blind. (Thanks to Aetiology.)

The clip is from a TV show hosted by an evangelist named Kirk Cameron. His guest who revealed this evidence for god had an English accent. While I was watching the clip I was reminded of the Monty Python sketch where John Cleese is an Army sergeant training his recruits on how to defend themselves if an assailant should attack them armed with fresh fruit.

If I tried to create a parody of intelligent design, I could not come up with something more hilarious than what is shown in this clip. Which raises the questions: Do these people have no sense of how ridiculous such arguments make them seem? How do they expect to be taken seriously? I wonder how the Discovery Institute people view such laughable attempts at providing 'arguments' to support them.


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Wow, Dr. Singham. I don't usually say this, but I actually feel dumber after watching that video clip -- dumber for realizing that yes, people like that are serious in their argumentation...

Posted by karen field on April 25, 2006 09:05 AM

This link is related to your recent series on writing and plagiarism. It is about a young novelist who "unintentionally and unconsciously" copied from her favorite author:

Posted by Arvin on April 25, 2006 09:39 AM


Thanks for the link. The story also appeared in today's Plain Dealer. My initial quick take on this suggests that it does not look good for Ms. Visvanathan. We'll have to wait and see if more examples turn up.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 25, 2006 10:54 AM

That video clip is awesome. I love the beginning when Kirk Cameron asks the audience to imagine the horrible fate of their family members who have not been "saved" by Jesus. The last thing I need is for a washed up actor to tell me how to think.

Posted by Joe on April 25, 2006 11:10 AM

I agree with Karen. I thought that clip was a parody and laughed at it, but then read the rest of your statement. Chilling that people take that stuff seriously.

Posted by Liz V on April 25, 2006 11:41 AM

Praise the prophet Kirk! All is now clear; if Pepsi was created by man, then Coca Cola must be the sacred elixer of the gods, just as foretold in The Gods Must be Crazy. If I drink coke, I can go to heaven to be with Kirk and Jesus.

While my above conclusion may seem off-track (and obviously biased by my predisposition towards Coca Cola) the above seems to be just as reasonable a conclusion to make as that of saying if a Pepsi can was designed than so were we.

I also loved the bit regarding the ergonomics of the banana. Even if I could have accepted that logical fallacy, the existence of the smelly pointy durian must replant the seeds of doubt.

If they really wanted to save us intellectuals wouldn't they try to apply at least a teensy bit of logic to the process? I suspect such efforts make the the Discovery Institute people want to scream.

Posted by cool on April 25, 2006 01:19 PM

Mano, that video was thoroughly scary. You must have just loved all the arguments about how atheists don't really exist....

Posted by Erin on April 25, 2006 03:29 PM

Couldn't come up with something more ridiculous? What about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and His noodly appendage?

I can't believe how far the influence of FSM has spread in only a few short months.

Posted by Barry on April 25, 2006 04:09 PM

I was under the impression that because they've been cultivated and bred by people for so long, bananas don't actually resemble the way they appeared in the wild at all, and they even have to be cloned now because they can't reproduce by themselves.

So they're holding up a manmade thing as an example of intelligent design by a deity. BRILLIANT.

Posted by melinda on April 25, 2006 05:27 PM

not that it really matters, but pride compels me to point out that the guest is not one of my compatriots, but actually from New Zealand.

Posted by Eldan Goldenberg on April 25, 2006 06:09 PM


I only learned recently what you point out, that the bananas that you find in US supermarkets are cloned to be of a particular kind, chosen more for their marketing qualities than for taste.

Whenever I go back to Sri Lanka I am reminded of the huge variety in bananas, most of which are far tastier than the ones in the stores here and are grown naturally.

Eldan, thanks for the correction. I can never quite tell the difference between English, Australian, and NZ accents. I usually need other clues, like when they say something idiomatic.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 25, 2006 06:13 PM

I've actually heard -- you primatologists, help me out here -- that chimps open the OTHER end of the banana: Squeezing it causes the corners to pop apart. So, that must be it! Using the "handy tab" provided by the deity shows humans evolving to a higher form of life.

Posted by Ross on April 25, 2006 08:17 PM

I also heard that humans open the "wrong" end of the banana. But I am not sure how that shows we are higher than the chimps. Maybe they know something we don't.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 25, 2006 09:48 PM

A more prudent designer would have added an arrow with the words "open here," just as they do on milk cartons. (Not to mention safety warnings cautioning users to not leave the wrapper on the floor where it might cause others to slip and fall.)

Posted by cool on April 26, 2006 09:48 AM

Instead of "open here" it should say "peel slowly and see."

Posted by VanderVander on May 5, 2006 02:31 PM