Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
Volume: 
27
Issue: 
5–6
Year: 
2007
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
4–6
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial, a special two-hour documentary about the Kitzmiller v Dover case, in which teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools was ruled to be unconstitutional, aired nationwide on PBS at 8:00 PM on November 13, 2007. "Judgment Day captures on film a landmark court case with a powerful scientific message at its core," explained Paula Apsell, NOVA's Senior Executive Producer, in a publicity statement. "Evolution is one of the most essential yet, for many people, least understood of all scientific theories, the foundation of biological science. We felt it was important for NOVA to do this program to heighten the public understanding of what constitutes science and what does not, and therefore, what is acceptable for inclusion in the science curriculum in our public schools."

Reviewing Judgment Day for the November 8, 2007, issue of Nature (450: 170), Adam Rutherford was impressed, not least with the way in which the filmmakers met the challenge of retelling the story. "The makers of Judgment Day inject tension with eyewitness accounts from the people of Dover," he wrote, "and homevideo footage of raucous school board meetings shows how passionate and divided this small community became. It works: it is inspiring to hear parents and educators, such as Sunday school and physics teacher Bryan Rehm, recount how they refused to be steam-rollered into bringing religion into the science classroom."

"Judgment Day gracefully avoids ridiculing intelligent design for the pseudo-intellectual fundamentalist fig-leaf that it is, by simply showing how the protagonists shot themselves in the foot," Rutherford added. Acknowledging that the "intelligent design" movement is still alive in the wake of the trial, he nevertheless concluded, "the Kitzmiller vs Dover verdict, matched this September with the outlawing of intelligent design in the UK national curriculum, marked the official neutering of this unpleasant, sneaky movement in much of the western world. Judgment Day is just the sort of thoughtful programming that celebrates how sensible people — faithful and otherwise — can use science and reason to combat fundamentalism."

Judge John E Jones III, the federal judge who presided over Kitzmiller v Dover, appeared on The NewsHour on November 13, 2007, to discuss the show. Following a clip from the program, Jones discussed his background knowledge of "intelligent design" and evolution, the Establishment Clause and its applicability in the Kitzmiller case, the role of the independent judiciary, and the influence of his seminal decision. Jones commented, "It's not precedential outside of the middle district of Pennsylvania, but I thought that if other school boards and other boards of education could read it, they would possibly be more enlightened about what the dispute was all about."

On the same day, NCSE issued a press release congratulating the producers of Judgment Day for the show's accuracy. "NCSE has been studying the influence of creationism and its assault on science education for the past twenty years," said Eugenie C Scott, NCSE's executive director. "Judgment Day accurately portrays the events that led to the legal decision that it is unconstitutional to teach 'intelligent design' in public school science classrooms." The press release also highlighted NCSE's role in the trial, observing that three members of its board of directors testified as expert witnesses for the plaintiffs, and that NCSE's archives provided critical evidence for the linkages between "intelligent design" and previous forms of creationism. (For more on NCSE's role in the trial, see RNCSE 2006 Jan–Apr; 26 [1–2].)

For its part, the Discovery Institute attempted to poison the well by offering a series of shrill press releases, not all of which seem to have been carefully considered. One, dated November 9, 2007, took exception to Judgment Day's use of actors to re-enact the testimony during the trial by saying, "First they dramatized the OJ Simpson trial. Then they acted out Michael Jackson's courtroom drama. This time around we have NOVA re-enacting parts of the 2005 Dover intelligent design trial presided over by Judge John E Jones" — thus comparing the proponents of "intelligent design" to alleged murderers and pedophiles, which was presumably not the intention. In any case, the effort was largely wasted: the press releases were virtually ignored not only by the mainstream media, as with the Discovery Institute's similar press release campaign against Evolution in 2001 (see RNCSE 2001 Sep–Dec; 21 [5–6]: 5–14), but also by the publications and organizations on the political and religious right that are usually receptive to the "intelligent design" movement's message.

Meanwhile, Judgment Day continued to receive high praise from reviewers, both in Pennsylvania, where the historic trial took place, and across the country. The York Dispatch, one of the two daily papers serving the Dover area, editorially offered (2007 Nov 11), "Thumbs Up to PBS for bringing tribulations of the Dover Area School District to national attention in the two-hour Nova special 'Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial' ... The blatant attempt to introduce religion- based 'creationism' into the public school classroom is detailed along with a recreation of the ensuing battle in a federal courtroom in Harrisburg that resulted in a humiliating defeat for the intelligent design proponents. A reminder that fiddling with public education to impose an individual religious viewpoint is a non-starter, 'Judgment Day' should be required watching."

Reviewing Judgment Day for the Philadelphia Inquirer (2007 Nov 13), Jonathan Storm praised not only its scientific content but also its objective approach: "Nova, the science show, stoutly defends science against the attack of the surprisingly hard-to-pin-down intelligent-design brain trust. It does use such loaded words as 'claim' and 'so-called' to describe tenets of the supposed theory, but it is surprisingly clear of a 'nyah-nyah, we won' tone. That makes this significant program more accessible to all." He also quoted Judge Jones as saying, "If you glibly embrace intelligent design, or if you're in that 48 or 50 percent who believe creationism ought to be taught in school, I hope [you] will watch this."

It was as a legal drama that Judgment Day struck Rob Owen, writing in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (2007 Nov 12). Describing the program as "a fascinating and gripping look at the trial and both sides of the issue," Owen wrote, "I didn't know much about so-called 'intelligent design' theory beyond its name and a sense that it's synonymous with creationism. So I went into the film willing to be persuaded that maybe there's some validity to 'intelligent design'. If there is, those in favor of ID failed to prove it. And failed miserably. That's what makes 'Intelligent Design on Trial' such a thriller. As a legal exercise, the proevolution team presents a slamdunk case; in the end, even a defense attorney says his losing side received a fair trial."

In The New York Times (2007 Nov 11), Cornelia Dean admired the scientific content of Judgment Day, commenting, "the program as a whole recognizes that there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution as an explanation for the complexity and diversity of life on earth. And it shows how witnesses attacked two of the central premises of intelligent design — that there are no 'intermediate' fossils to show one creature morphing into another (there are) and that some body parts are too complex to have formed from the modification of other body parts (not true)." She added, "But viewers also learn a more important lesson: that all science is provisional, standing only until it is overturned by better information. Intelligent design, relying as it does on an untestable supernatural entity, does not fall into that category."

Elsewhere, the Cincinnati Post's reviewer (2007 Nov 13) wrote, "Leave it to the respected PBS science show 'NOVA' to put some common sense back into the often hysterical debate over whether intelligent design is science or religion — and remind us that Darwin's theory of evolution is a solid one that should be taught in science classes." The Deseret News's reviewer (2007 Nov 13) described the program as "captivating," and quoted Judge Jones as saying, "I think there's a lesson here for communities and how they elect their school board members." And the Oregonian's reviewer (2007 Nov 13) wrote, "'Judgment Day' offers an admirably compact and methodical presentation of the sides in the debate. It should be highly useful in years to come."

Finally, writing on Salon (2007 Nov 13), Gordy Slack, the author of The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007; reviewed in RNCSE 2007 May–Aug; 27 [3–4]: 43), looked forward from the trial, explaining that although "intelligent design" aspired to be a big tent under which creationists of all stripes were welcome to shelter, "Judge Jones'[s] decision was like a lightning strike on the big top, sending many of the constituents running home through the rain." He ended by quoting NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott's warning: "Evolution remains under attack ... If creationists have their way, teachers will eventually just stop teaching evolution. It'll just be too much trouble. And generations of students will continue to grow up ignorant of basic scientific realities."

Despite the general acclaim for Judgment Day, residents of Memphis, Tennessee, were not able to watch it on the regular, analog, channel of WKNO, the local PBS affiliate. A locally produced documentary about World War II was aired instead. The Memphis Commercial Appeal (2007 Nov 15) quoted a spokesperson for the station as explaining, "We had plans to do our local programs to honor veterans this week during Veterans Day. We thought Tuesday night was a good spot for local programs of this nature, and we were concerned about the controversial nature of the ... program as were 15 percent of the top 50 public television stations in the country."

Although Judgment Day was aired on WKNO's digital broadcasts, the station's failure to air it on the regular channel elicited complaints; the spokesperson for the station would not disclose how many. The Commercial Appeal quoted one disgruntled viewer, NCSE member David O Hill, as saying, "I really appreciate what service they do, but when they step out of line like this it violates the whole premise of what NPR and PBS stand for nationally ... This was an historical review of an important judicial decision in America, and they chose not to do it." Trained as a biologist, Hill added, "Evolution is as important a building block to biology as atomic theory is to chemistry and gravitation to physics." The station promised to air Judgment Day in January 2008, "with a local followup to discuss the various views on the show."

Judgment Day is over, but its generous website (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/id/) remains, featuring interviews with Kenneth R Miller on evolution, Phillip Johnson on "intelligent design," and Paula Apsell on NOVA's decision to produce the documentary; audio clips of Judge John E Jones III reading passages from his decision in the case and of various experts (including NCSE's Eugenie C Scott) discussing the nature of science; resources about the evidence for evolution and about the background to the Kitzmiller case; and even a preview of the documentary. Teachers will be especially enthusiastic about the briefing packet for educators, the teacher's guide, a two-session on-line course, and a number of lesson plans. And the complete show is available for viewing on-line there as well; it was also released as a DVD in February 2008.

About the Author(s): 

Glenn Branch
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
branch@ncseweb.org