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May 04, 2006

Dover's dominoes-7: The Ohio domino falls

(This is the final installment of the series, which got pre-empted by more topical items. Sorry! See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6.)

The domino effect of the Dover verdict was seen soon after in Ohio where on February 14, 2006 the Ohio State Board of Education reversed itself and threw out the benchmarks in the state's science standards that called for the critical analysis of evolution and the lessons plans that had been based on them. This happened even though the Ohio policy did not explicitly mention intelligent design. However, the move was clearly influenced by the ripples from the Dover trial and it is instructive to see why.

What Ohio had done in 2002 was to include a benchmark in its 9th grade biology standards in the section that dealt with biological evolution that said "Describe how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory." They added additional language that said (in parentheses) "The intent of this benchmark does not mandate the teaching or testing of intelligent design."

The pro-IDC OBE members also inserted people into the lesson plan writing team who drafted a lesson plan called Critical Analysis of Evolution that essentially recycled IDC ideas, again without explicitly mentioning intelligent design.

But on February 14, 2006, the Ohio Board of Education voted 11-4 to reverse itself and eliminate both the benchmark and its associated lesson plan. Why did they do so since, as some pro-IDC people on the Board said, they should have nothing to fear from the Dover decision since they had carefully avoided requiring the teaching of IDC?

Again, Judge Jones' ruling indicates why. In his ruling, he said that what determines whether a law passes constitutional muster is how an informed observer would interpret the law. He said (Kitzmiller, p. 15):

The test consists of the reviewing court determining what message a challenged governmental policy or enactment conveys to a reasonable, objective observer who knows the policy's language, origins, and legislative history, as well as the history of the community and the broader social and historical context in which the policy arose.

In the case of challenges to evolutionary theory, he looked at precedent and especially (p. 48) at:

a factor that weighed heavily in the Supreme Court's decision to strike down the balanced-treatment law in Edwards, specifically that "[o]ut of many possible science subjects taught in the public schools, the legislature chose to affect the teaching of the one scientific theory that historically has been opposed by certain religious sects."

He went on (p. 57):

In singling out the one scientific theory that has historically been opposed by certain religious sects, 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."

Notice that the standard used for judging is what an 'informed, reasonable observer' would infer from the action. IDC advocates tend to implement their strategy by carefully choosing words and sentences so that it meets the letter of the law and thus hope it will pass constitutional scrutiny. But what Judge Jones says is that it is not merely how the law is worded but also how a particular kind of observer, who is assumed to be much more knowledgeable about the issues than your average person in the street, would interpret the intent of the law:

The test consists of the reviewing court determining what message a challenged governmental policy or enactment conveys to a reasonable, objective observer who knows the policy's language, origins, and legislative history, as well as the history of the community and the broader social and historical context in which the policy arose. (emphasis added)

And this is the most damaging part of the verdict to the ID case. Their strategy has always been to single out evolutionary theory in science for special scrutiny in order to undermine its credibility. They have never called for 'teaching the controversy' in all the other areas of science. Judge Jones said that since an 'informed, reasonable observer' would know that Christians have had long-standing objections to evolutionary theory on religious grounds, singling it out for special treatment is tantamount to endorsing a religious viewpoint.

In a further telling statement that has direct implications for the Discovery Institute's 'teach the controversy' strategy, he said (p. 89):

ID's backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM [Intelligent Design Movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.

There is no way to see the Dover ruling as anything but a devastating blow to the whole stealth strategy promoted by the Discovery Institute. After all, their strategy had precisely been to single out evolutionary theory for special treatment. They have resolutely opposed any attempt to call for 'critical analysis' and 'teaching the controversy' in all areas of science.

What will they do in response? It is hard to say. My guess is that they will put all their efforts into supporting the policy adopted by the Kansas school board, which was done according to their preferences, unlike the ham-handed efforts of the people of Dover, El Tejon, and Kirk Cameron's friend and the banana. (I had not known who Kirk Cameron was before this. I have been informed that he used to be a TV sitcom actor before he saw the light.)

The next domino is the science standards adopted by Kansas's Board of Education. I have not looked too closely at what the school board decided there, so will defer commenting on it until I do so. But it is likely to end up in the courts too.

POST SCRIPT: More on The Israel Lobby article

A few days ago, I wrote about the stir created by the Mearsheimer and Walt article on The Israel Lobby and the petition started by Juan Cole to defend them against charges of anti-Semitism.

In the May 15, 2006 issue of The Nation, Philip Weiss has a good analysis titled Ferment Over 'The Israel Lobby' on the personalities of the authors and the other people involved, what went on behind the scenes of the article prior to and after its publication, and why it had the effect it did.

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