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Evolution Debate in Washington DC (10/31/05)

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Recent Action

On October 21, 2005, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a full-day series of discussions about the merits of teaching intelligent design (ID) in science classrooms. The event was marked by two keynote addresses and three panels featuring one-on-one debates among well-known scientists, lawyers, ID advocates and other scholars. Two of the speakers, Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor from Southeastern Louisiana University, and Kenneth Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University, served as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller v. Dover. Another panelist, John Calvert from the Intelligent Design Network, had presented key testimony at the Kansas State Board of Education hearings earlier this year.

The debates explored several core philosophical questions inherent in the disputes over intelligent design, including the definition of science, and whether teaching science without theology is moral, or even possible. Talks from both sides seemed to gravitate either to the assertion that the study of evolution is sharply distinct from theological pursuits, or to the idea that science and spiritual questions can never be mutually exclusive. Those who opposed teaching ID were, however, consistent in defining science as an intellectual method involving testable evidence, peer review, and wide acceptance by the scientific community. Proponents of ID, meanwhile, argued that the scientific method, or "methodological naturalism," is not objective but is simply another dogma that refuses to recognize certain evidence. George Coyne, an astronomer from the Vatican Observatory, delivered a compelling keynote address about the complexity of evolution, and the false attempts to simplify the issue into a dispute between the pre-eminence of random "chance" and the apparent "necessity," or meaning, of life.

On the practical topic of whether and how to teach the controversy, it was often unclear what ID advocates wished to see. Some speakers argued that the fight was over censorship, or the freedom of teachers to show evidence that challenges evolution, while others argued that ID, or the possibility of a guiding hand, should be taught as a critical component of scientific inquiry. Others still, including the Discovery Institute's Paul Nelson, stated the opposite, that ID should not be sanctioned in science classrooms until the scientific community comes to recognize the evidence in favor it.

In the second keynote speech, Larry Krauss, an astrophysicist and cosmologist from Case Western Reserve University, tried to shift the focus from the philosophical questions to the overriding importance of improving the quality of science teaching in the United States. Krauss conceded that it is important to ask such questions as whether science is incomplete or immoral without God; but these questions don't warrant changing high school science standards. "Why not teach both?" he asked, "Because it is not the job of education to validate different points of view but to overcome ignorance. We must talk about real scientific controversies."

For an overview and webcast of the event and speaker biographies, visit the American Enterprise Insitute's Events Page (10/31/05)

Previous Action

In a September 8, 2005 blog entitled "Intelligent Design: It's Not Even Wrong", Representative Rush Holt (D-NJ) responded to President Bush's statement of support for the teaching of intelligent design alongside evolution. Holt, who is a physicist, pointed out that intelligent design, because it cannot be tested empirically, is not science and therefore should not be taught as such. "We must not allow this American intellectual habit to be replaced with wishful thinking or lazy thinking," wrote Holt. "Intelligent design is lazy thinking." Holt also argued that instead of debating the teaching of this nonscientific concept, Americans should be finding ways to improve our faltering education system. President Bush's comments were made on August 1st, and many scientific societies responded with statements declaring intelligent design to be unscientific (see a non-comprehensive list and links of societies that responded at the bottom of the previous summary). (10/4/05)

During a question and answer session with a group of Texas reporters at the White House on August 1, 2005, President Bush said that he favored teaching intelligent design (ID) alongside evolution in public school science classes. When asked by a reporter about his personal views on the subject, Bush said, "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought." Although he said curriculum changes should be decided by local school districts, Bush said he supported teaching "both sides" so people can "understand what the debate is about."

Bush's statement spurred what has been the latest flurry of media coverage and statements from other political leaders regarding the evolution debate. The New York Times has a page devoted solely to covering these developments.

In Washington, key Republican lawmakers responded differently to the president's comments. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN), who is also a medical doctor, endorsed the President's point of view later in the month, according to a report by the Associated Press. About teaching intelligent design alongside evolution, he said, "I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go about education and training people for the future."

On the other hand, Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), who has allied himself with the religious right and endorsed teaching alternatives to evolution in schools, diverged from Bush's views in a response aired on National Public Radio a few days after the president made his comments. "I'm not comfortable with intelligent design being taught in science classes," Santorum said, according to Reuters. "What we should be teaching are the problems and the the theory of evolution. What we need to do is to present those fairly, from a scientific point of view." In Pennsylvania, where Santorum is facing a challenging 2006 re-election fight, the Dover Area School District is under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union and local educators for including references to intelligent design in the school curriculum.

Bush's aides took a similar tack as they sought to provide context for Bush's statements. John Marburger, Bush's science advisor, was quoted in the New York Times as saying that it would be "over-interpreting" to think that Bush's comments meant that he endorsed giving the two views equal treatment in science classes. "Intelligent Design is not a scientific concept," said Marburger, adding that Bush's statement only reflects his belief that theories such as intelligent design should be taught as "social context" in science class, not as a part of the curriculum. According to the Washington Post, the White House also said that, while this may be the first time Bush has addressed the issue as president, his views are not new. "It's long been his belief that students ought to be exposed to different ideas," said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.

Still, some news reports focused on the "moral support" or "inspiration" that Bush's comments offer the creationist movement. "What the president's remarks do is heighten public interest in the issue," said John H. Calvert, the managing director of the Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network, according to the Los Angeles Times. A new poll, released August 30, 2005 from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press, showed that 64% of Americans surveyed "support teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools" while 26% oppose it. A striking 38% of Americans favor replacing evolution with creationism in schools.

Several scientific societies responded immediately to President Bush's statement. Below is a list of responses from some organizations:

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History has agreed to allow the Discovery Institute to rent the Baird Auditorium for $16,000 to show their movie, "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe." The Discovery Institute is an association that supports "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution. The film is a documentary based on a 2004 book with the same title by Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer from Iowa State University and Jay W. Richards, a theologian and vice president of the Discovery Institute. The book argues that Earth was designed for multicellular life and only Earth has the right combination of minerals and elements for life. The book supports the intelligent design movement and many in the scientific community were surprised to see such support for this movement at the museum.

Randall Kremer, a museum spokesman told the New York Times that staff members viewed the film before approving the event to make sure that it complied with the museum's policy, which states that "events of a religious or partisan political nature" are not permitted, along with personal events such as weddings, or fund-raisers, raffles and cash bars. It also states that "all events at the National Museum of Natural History are co-sponsored by the museum." Some proponents of intelligent design have used this last statement to suggest that the Smithsonian Institution is becoming more open to the idea of intelligent design; a claim that Kremer denies. (6/3/05)

Sources: The New York Times, National Center for Science Education, The Pew Research Center for People and The Press, The Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine, The Washington Post, Reuters, Science Magazine, the American Enterprise Institute.

Contributed by Katie Ackerly, Government Affairs Staff, and Amanda Schneck, 2005 AGI/AIPG Intern

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on October 31, 2005