Weird Science

President Bush’s Support For Teaching ‘Intelligent Design’ In Public Schools Adds To Growing Controversy Over Science Instruction In Public Schools

by Jeremy Leaming

President George W. Bush probably thought his recent remarks backing “intelligent design” in public schools were not controversial and would be forgotten the next day – but then a firestorm of sorts erupted.

In an Aug. 1 interview with a group of reporters at the White House, Bush was asked whether he believed intelligent design (ID) – the latest variant of creationism – should be taught in the nation’s public schools.

“I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought,” Bush said. “You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes.”

That interview, given before Bush retreated to his beloved Texas ranch for a five-week escape from Washington, sparked a national debate over religion’s place in the public schools and drew worldwide media attention.

Religious Right leaders and lobbyists greeted Bush’s comments with glee.

For decades, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America have sought ways to undermine the teaching of evolution in the public schools and to bring back school-sanctioned religious activity into the classrooms. ID, which challenges evolution and rests on the belief that an “intelligent designer” was behind the creation of life, is one such method used by Religious Right groups to advance their religious views through government action.

Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told The New York Times that what Bush said is “what I’ve been pushing, it’s what a lot of us have been pushing.” He added that “if you’re going to teach the Darwinian theory as evolution, teach it as theory. And then teach another theory that has the most support among scientists.”

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based ID promotional group, was also quick to celebrate the president’s comments. John G. West, an associate director at the Institute, said in a written statement that Bush should be “commended for defending free speech on evolution, and supporting the right of students to hear about different scientific views about evolution.”

Gary Bauer, head of American Values and a prominent Religious Right pundit, told The Washington Post that Bush’s “endorsing” of ID would help bring more respect to its supporters.

“It’s not some backwater view,” Bauer said of ID. “It’s a view held by the majority of Americans.”

Beyond scoring points with an important base, Bush’s comments are likely to fuel the Religious Right drive to undermine the teaching of evolution in public schools.

So it was no surprise that the president’s comments drew outrage from scientists and public interest groups, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and produced some discomfort within the White House.

Bush’s science adviser John H. Marburger III said the president’s comments had been misinterpreted. Marburger told the Times that “evolution is the cornerstone of biology” and “intelligent design is not a scientific concept.”

The editorial page of The Washington Post also criticized Bush for his comments, noting on Aug. 4 that ID lobbyists “want their theory to be accepted as science and to be taught in ninth-grade biology classes, alongside the theory of evolution. For that, there is no basis whatsoever: The na¬ture of the ‘evidence’ for the theory of evolution is so overwhelming, and so powerful, that it informs all of modern biology. To pretend that the existence of evolution is somehow still an open question, or that it is one of several equally valid theories, is to misunderstand the intellectual and scientific history of the past century.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told The Post that Bush’s comments on ID were “irresponsible.”

“The young people of America are ill served by a president who confuses religion with science,” Lynn said. “Bush has used his presidential pulpit to advance the ludicrous notion that evolution is in controversy and that ‘intelligent design’ is legitimate science.”

Bush, a Yale graduate who attended business school at Harvard, received a sharp broadside from Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who told the Post that, “People might cite George Bush as proof that you can be totally impervious to the effects of Harvard and Yale education.”

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a California-based group, which tracks efforts to undermine the teaching of evolution, said it was most troubling that the president suggested “both sides” should be taught in the public schools.

Susan Spath, of the NCSE, said that ID is essentially creationism, a religious belief, not science.

“It is not fair to privilege one religious viewpoint by calling it the other side of evolution” she said.

Discussion of ID has been floating in the White House for some time, according to evangelical prison ministry leader and former Watergate convict Chuck Colson. Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, told The New York Times that ID was the center of a weekly White House Bible study class several years ago. Colson, as the Times notes, features Michael Gerson, a speech writer and top policy adviser to Bush, in a chapter on ID in his 2005 book, The Good Life.

“It’s part of the buzz of the city among Christians,” Colson told the Times. “It wouldn’t surprise me that it got back to George Bush. He reads, he picks stuff up, he talks to people. And he’s pretty serious about his own Chris¬tian beliefs.”

Bush’s comments on ID come during an uptick in attempts nationally and internationally to promote ID as a scientific alternative to evolution.

In July, a high-ranking Roman Catholic cardinal, in an op-ed piece for The New York Times, wrote that “Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense – an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection – is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.”

Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, in that July 7 piece, brushed aside comments by the late Pope John Paul II that were supportive of evolution. In a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, John Paul II said, “New knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

But Schonborn, in his Times column, dismissed the pope’s address as “vague and unimportant.”

As reported by The Times in the days following publication of Schonborn’s column, a Discovery Institute vice president had “urged” Schonborn to submit the column. Mark Ryland told the newspaper that ID supporters were “very excited” that a church leader had publicly opposed evolution.

Proponents of ID, led by the Discovery Institute, have not subjected their argument, that life is so complex that it must have been designed by a higher power, to the rigors of scientific study. Instead, supporters conduct a vigorous public relations campaign through newspaper columns, appearances before school boards and other forums.

Shortly before Schonborn’s high-profile column surfaced, the Discovery Institute was on the cusp of what would have been another significant public relations coup.

In late May, Discovery Institute President Bruce Chapman told The Times that the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History was going to co-sponsor the broadcast of a documentary critical of evolution. The film, set for a June 23 airing, is based on a 2004 book by Guiller¬mo Gonzalez, an assistant professor of astronomy at Iowa State University and Jay W. Richards, a vice president at the Discovery Institute.

Chapman said it was his understanding that the Smithsonian liked the documentary and wanted to co-sponsor it.

“That was their suggestion,” Chapman told the newspaper. “Of course we’re delighted.”

The Smithsonian, founded in 1846 from a British scientist’s bequest for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge,” was deluged with complaints from the nation’s scientists and public interest groups for its alleged plans to lend its imprimatur to ID. The outcries staunched the Discovery Institute’s planned promotion. In a June 1 statement, the Smithsonian said it would not co-sponsor the Discovery Institute’s documentary. Officials, however, did permit the Institute to use a museum theatre for a private showing of the film.

The flap over the Smithsonian, however, appears to be a minor glitch in the Discovery Institute’s strategy to sell ID and muddy students’ understanding of evolution.

Indeed, the proponents of ID have had important political support from U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), one of that chamber’s most high-profile members.

Santorum, a long-time favorite among Religious Right leaders, has argued, according to The New Yorker, that “intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes.” Santorum provided a boost to ID proponents in 2001 when he tried to include pro-ID language in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Although Santorum’s wording was yanked before the act was signed into law, it was added to the conference report on the education bill.

A few days after Bush’s endorsement of ID, Santorum, in an interview promoting his new book, It Takes a Family, on National Public Radio, appeared to distance himself from the president and his own past words on ID, yet only slightly.

When asked about Bush’s comments, Santorum said he “would probably tailor that a little more than what the president has suggested, that I’m not comfortable with intelligent design being taught in the science classroom.

“What we should be teaching,” he continued, “are the problems and holes and I think there are legitimate problems and holes in the theory of evolution. And what we need to do is to present those fairly from a scientific point of view. And we should lay out areas in which the evidence supports evolution and the areas in the evidence that does not.”

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which was chartered by the federal government in 1863 to advise the nation on scientific matters, has worked to stop the advancement of ID. In 1998, the NAS issued a guidebook to public school officials nationwide called Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science.

At that time, NAS President Bruce Alberts was alarmed over the growing challenges to the teaching of evolution in the public school classrooms.

“The widespread misunderstandings about evolution are of great concern to the scientific community and the Academy,” NAS asserted.

The guidebook was issued more than 10 years after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a Louisiana law requiring creationism to be taught in science classes, if evolution were taught. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the majority concluded that lawmakers’ intent was to advance the religious view that a supernatural being created mankind.

In a press statement announcing the guidebook’s distribution, Alberts called evolution “the central organizing principle that biologists use to understand the world” and maintained that the “idea that the universe was created all at once about 10,000 years ago – an idea inherent in ‘creation science’ – is not supported by scientific data.”

This year, only a few months before the comments from Schonborn and Bush, Alberts again warned his colleagues throughout the nation of “a growing threat to the teaching of science through the inclusion of non-scientifically based ‘alternatives’ in science courses throughout the country.”

In his March 4 letter, Alberts cited a Washington Post article reporting “that there are challenges to the teaching of evolution in 40 states or local school districts around the country.”

Following are summaries of some of those challenges:

• In fall 2004, a public school board in Pennsylvania approved a policy that Dover Area School District students “will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania are challenging the policy in federal court. The school district has asked the federal judge to dismiss the lawsuit; if the judge declines, a trial is set for Sept. 26.

• A Georgia public school district has appealed a federal judge’s order to remove anti-evolution stickers from its science textbooks. Americans United has filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that the federal judge’s order should be upheld. The Cobb County School District sticker maintains that, “Evolu¬tion is a theory, not a fact, regarding living things.”

• A New York state lawmaker pushed a bill this session that would require public schools to teach intelligent design. The bill read, in part, “Teaching just one theory can inadvertently result in that theory being looked at as an absolute truth.” The National Center for Science Education reported on its Web site that the bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Daniel L. Hooker, languished in a committee at the close of the state’s legislative session in late June.

• A South Carolina state lawmaker says he will push a pro-ID bill in the next legislative session, which opens in January. The State, Columbia’s daily, reported that Sen. Mike Fair (R) believes that public school students should be taught a “full range of scientific views.” He added that teachers “should not be afraid to tell students about the weaknesses of the theory of molecules-to-man evolution.”

• The Kansas State Board of Education continues its renewed drive to re-write the state’s public school science standards de-emphasizing evolution. In early August, the Board voted 6-4 to approve a draft of the standards, despite complaints from the state committee that is charged with re-writing the standards. Voting 16-3, the committee sent a 13-page reply to the Board critical of its initial draft of the standards. The Wichita Eagle reported that the committee’s reply stated that the Board’s suggested change to the standards “parallels the language of” ID proponents. The committee’s reply, moreover, stated that “it is clear that intelligent design promotes a particular religious doctrine over mainstream religious views.” The Kansas City Star reported that final approval of the new science standards is set for fall.

Americans United and other public interest groups argue that Bush’s pro-ID remarks are unfortunate, because they come during a time when numerous public schools are under pressure to de-emphasize the teaching of evolution or teach ID, which promotes a religious belief, as science.

The president’s “comments will likely score big points with Religious Right leaders, but they undermine the teaching of sound science in the nation’s public schools,” AU’s Lynn said.