Review: The Devil in Dover

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
29
Year: 
2009
Issue: 
4
Date: 
July-August
Page(s): 
35-36
Reviewer: 
Burt Humburg
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
The Devil in Dover: An Insider's Story of Dogma v Darwin in Small-Town America
Author(s): 
Lauri Lebo
New York: The New Press, 2008. 256 pages.

The pages of RNCSE are replete with stories of municipalities flirting with anti-evolution policies. The stories that make their way into press or blogs are often limited to the essentials; detailed and researched accounts are rare. Even the court record from the recent Kitzmiller v Dover Area School Board trial provides only a limited version of what the reader instinctively knows is a bigger story.

At the very least, Lauri Lebo provides the missing details in The Devil in Dover. But she provides so much more, plying her journalistic trade to pick up on emotional cues to investigate where others had not, uniquely enriching her narrative. History comes alive in her account — from Judge Jones's withering questioning of creationist defendant Alan Bonsell on the stand, to the inner uncertainty and eventual triumph of the individual plaintiffs and their attorneys, to the description of small-town life in Dover and how it was affected by the trial — written with a perspective only a native of the area could provide.

Lebo demonstrably takes her journalism seriously. When her editors pressured her to make her coverage of "intelligent design" more balanced, she refused to present it as stronger than it was or mindlessly to parrot its talking points suggesting that evolution is unreliable. Rather, she found balance by humanizing her subjects, including the defendants and their supporters. Here is creationist defendant Bonsell and the helplessness he felt when his wife was fighting breast cancer. Here is the joy that a creationist pastor had when working with his congregation. Moreover, she researched the journalistic authorities who came up with the idea of journalistic balance in the first place, demonstrated that the current practice represents a perversion of their original intent, and effectively rebutted her addled editors.

Lebo herself changes over the course of her narrative, amply evidenced by the endearing and poignant personal detail she included. As a beat reporter for a local paper who covered educational issues, she was initially intrigued about the creationist claims to demonstrate scientifically the existence of God, but her interest soured when the absurdities of the creationist case became plain. She writes of the ever more questions she asked of her scientist sources, and the reader sees her learning. The Linnaean genus/species names for organisms and the examples she finds of biological principles in action, far from being distractions, serve to evince her growing enthusiasm for science. She even becomes a kind of practitioner, at one point applying what she learned to the identification of a flaw in the talking points of creationist Jonathan Wells during a conversation with him, only later discussing the matter with scientists and finding out she reached the correct conclusion.

Alas, Lebo's father, whom she credited for inspiring her early childhood interest in science but who had later turned to fundamentalism in financial desperation, could not endorse the skeptical methods of science and its conclusion of evolution. The frustration Lebo felt in trying to reach him is beautifully transmitted: where she found joy in understanding, he found solace in the certainty of a simple faith. As the creationist case collapses, Lebo tries to find common ground with her father, but their values are too different and he retreats ever more into his faith, a creationist to the end. Another encounter with a committed and ailing creationist similarly reveals Lebo's compassion and honesty. Unable to find anything else to write in a get-well card for creationist defendant William Buckingham, Lebo writes that she would pray for him — and then follows through, praying, she says, for the first time in years.

Ultimately, Lebo's poignant and personal narrative mirrors the national struggle of science advocacy. The denial of reality in the service of faith by her father is all too common in our nation, playing out in politics and in other towns. The idea that journalistic balance should entail portraying two opposite perspectives as equals, even when only one is coherent, strong, and widely supported, is also all too common and plays out in newspapers and television stations across our nation. The portability provided by Lebo's examples and the parallels between her personal and our nationwide struggles are what makes her book such a unique contribution to the literature. Readers who take from her 224 well-written and quickly-read pages a better understanding of the struggle to find common ground with the faithful or are inspired to press for journalistic reform away from the abiding perversion of balance will not have missed the point.

About the Author(s): 

Burt Humburg
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
ncseoffice@ncseweb.org

Burt Humburg is a graduate of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, now starting a pulmonary and critical care fellowship at the University of Michigan. A former member of the board of Kansas Citizens for Science, he was a resident in internal medicine in Hershey, Pennsylvania — about forty miles from Dover — during the Kitzmiller trial.