Creationists Switch Tactics In Tennessee

This column also appeared on the cover of the Health and Science section of today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

Could intelligent design finally be dead? The term is conspicuously absent from the latest antievolution education bill, which passed the Tennessee legislature in March and awaits action by the governor. 

The bill’s language reveals a new tactic on the part of creationists. They seem to have retired intelligent design and replaced it with a concept as sneaky as stealth aircraft.

“These bills sound very innocent,” said Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education. That’s intentional, she said. The legislation has been crafted to be legally bulletproof.

 The Tennessee bill hijacks language from scientists and skeptics: Teachers are allowed to promote “critical thinking” in areas where there’s “debate and disputation.” That’s not unreasonable on the surface, since there are plenty of areas of dispute — the value of certain cancer screenings, the safest way to store nuclear waste, or what benefit feathers would have bestowed on dinosaurs.

And critical thinking skills can be taught by examining bad science, such as cold fusion, or pseudoscience, such as homeopathy. But those aren’t the controversies the bill drafters care about. The bill singles out climate change and evolution.  

The summary says that schools cannot prohibit “any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught, such as evolution and global warming.”

This is misleading. Some details of evolution are still not known, but there’s no scientific controversy over whether evolution or creationism better describes the world we live in.

NCSE’s Scott has been fighting antievolution legislation for 25 years, so she has seen creationism in many guises. The problem with academic freedom bills like this latest one is that if creationism is not prohibited, teachers will teach it as science. In national surveys, she said, about 25 or 30 percent of teachers say they’d like to teach both evolution and creationism or intelligent design.

Intelligent design, she said, lost credibility and power in the 2005 trial in Dover, Pa., when a Republican-appointed federal judge ruled against teaching it in public school on the grounds that it was a religious idea and not a scientific one.

But there’s no fighting the Tennessee bill in court. “Creationists have learned a lot from getting their shins kicked for so many years,” Scott said. “They’ve learned to launder out all possible references to religion.”

Instead they use the term “critical thinking,” which should, in any logical world, lead people away from creationism.

Creationists are right that science isn’t a complete picture of the world. It isn’t gospel. To succeed, a new theory has to explain the world better than any existing theory does.

Charles Darwin made copious observations of plants and animals and meticulously described how natural selection explained what he saw better than did creationism, which was scientifically viable in the early 19th century. Questions as yet unanswered by evolution won’t lead biologists back to creationism any more than an unanswered question in atomic physics will demolish the periodic table and replace it with the Aristotelian elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

While there’s no evidence for an “intelligent designer” of the human body, there are clues that an intelligence is designing these bills — a public relations mastermind. That’s part of the premise that filmmaker Randy Olson explores in his documentary A Flock of Dodos.

Olson, who was a biologist before turning to science popularization, will be speaking at a screening of the film on April 12 at Villanova University. Intelligent design proponent Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, has promised to participate. (I’ll also be on a panel to discuss the film.)

As public relations, Olson said, intelligent design was an ingenious concept that got some real traction in the 1990s, making the cover of Time magazine and getting a very public endorsement by a Catholic cardinal. Olson found that when he traveled to his home state of Kansas to shoot the film, promoters of intelligent design were using the same phrases — “no intermediate fossils” and “teach the controversy.”

The antievolution slogans that propel these bills are not the product of church-group meetings in the Bible belt, but of highly paid public relations experts, Olson asserts in his film. He believes the mastermind of it all is at the Seattle-based think tank known as the Discovery Institute.

Olson will also talk about his latest book, Don’t Be such a Scientist, which was inspired by his experience making Dodos and a film about climate change called Sizzle. In the book, he implores scientists to do a better job of communicating with the public, and offers a series of suggestions and tips for how to fight back against the antiscientific PR machine.

If You Go: The screening on April 12 starts at 7:40 p.m at Villanova University. For more details, click here.