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President Bush Addresses "Intelligent Design"

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
President Bush Addresses "Intelligent Design"
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
Volume: 
25
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2005
Date: 
May–June
Page(s): 
13–14
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
During a press conference with a group of Texas reporters on August 1, 2005, President George W Bush responded to a question about teaching "intelligent design" in the public schools. The reporter referred to "what seems to be a growing debate over evolution versus 'intelligent design'" and asked, "What are your personal views on that, and do you think both should be taught in public schools?" In response, Bush referred to his days as governor of Texas, when "I said that, first of all, that decision should be made to local school districts, but I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about." (It is noteworthy that Bush tacitly equated "intelligent design" and creationism.) Pressing the issue, the reporter asked, "So the answer accepts the validity of 'intelligent design' as an alternative to evolution?" Bush avoided a direct answer, construing the question instead as a fairness issue: "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes."

Although there was nothing unexpected about Bush's response, which is consistent with his previous statements on the topic, the present heightened awareness of issues involving evolution education ensured a media frenzy. NCSE was widely consulted for comment. The New York Times (2005 Aug 3) quoted NCSE's Susan Spath on the specious appeal to fairness: "It sounds like you're being fair, but creationism is a sectarian religious viewpoint, and 'intelligent design' is a sectarian religious viewpoint," she said. "It's not fair to privilege one religious viewpoint by calling it the other side of evolution." NCSE's Glenn Branch concurred, telling the Los Angeles Times (2005 Aug 3) that because "[t]he question was presented to him as a fairness issue," it was not surprising that Bush expressed the view that "both sides ought to be taught." Branch also told the Financial Times (2005 Aug 3) that "Bush would have done better to heed his White House science adviser, John Marburger, who [has] said that evolution was the 'cornerstone of modern biology' and who has characteri[z]ed ID as not even being a scientific theory."

When interviewed by The New York Times, Marburger reiterated that "evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology" and that "intelligent design is not a scientific concept." According to the Times, Marburger — who is Science Adviser to the President and Director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy — suggested that it would be "over-interpreting" Bush's remarks to endorse equal treatment for "intelligent design" and evolution in the public schools. Instead, he said, Bush's remarks should be interpreted as recommending the discussion of "intelligent design" as part of the "social context" in science classes. Marburger's charitable interpretation was not shared, however, by Richard Land, the president of the ethics and religious liberties commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, whom the Times quoted as construing Bush's remarks as supportive of the view he favors: "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" — presumably alluding to "intelligent design."

The scientific community rushed to deplore Bush's remarks. The American Geophysical Union issued a press release (2005 Aug 2) in which its executive director Fred Spilhaus stated, "President Bush, in advocating that the concept of 'intelligent design' be taught alongside the theory of evolution, puts America's schoolchildren at risk." In its press release (2005 Aug 4), the American Physical Society accepted Marburger's interpretation of Bush's remarks, but emphasized that "only scientifically validated theories, such as evolution, should be taught in the nation's science classes." The American Institute of Biological Sciences issued a press release (2005 Aug 5) in which its president Marvalee Wake stated, "'Intelligent design' is not a scientific theory and must not be taught in science classes." And in a letter to President Bush dated August 5, 2005, Robert Kirschner, the president of the American Astronomical Society, commented that "intelligent design has neither scientific evidence to support it nor an educational basis for teaching it as science."

The education community expressed its concern, too. According to a statement dated August 3, 2005, the National Science Teachers Association, the world's largest group of science educators, was "stunned and disappointed that President Bush is endorsing the teaching of intelligent design — effectively opening the door for nonscientific ideas to be taught in the nation's K–12 science classrooms" (see p 38). In a statement dated August 4, 2005, the American Federation of Teachers, with over 1.3 million members, described Bush's remarks as "a huge step backward for science education in the United States," adding that "[b]y backing concepts that lack scientific merit, President Bush is undermining his own pledge to 'leave no child behind.'"

On editorial and op-ed pages, Bush's remarks took a hammering. The Washington Post's editorialist wrote (2005 Aug 4), "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." Referring to "intelligent design," the Baltimore Sun's editorialist wrote (2005 Aug 4), "It's creationism by another name, and if it makes its way into schools at all, it should definitely not be part of science classes." In its editorial (2005 Aug 4), the Sacramento Bee connected the dots between Bush's remarks and the Wedge strategy for promoting "intelligent design," commenting, "America's children deserve a first-rate education in science in public school and not a false, politically motivated 'Teach the Controversy' debate between science and religion." And in his August 5, 2005, column in The New York Times, the economist Paul Krugman perceptively remarked, "intelligent design doesn't have to attract significant support from actual researchers to be effective. All it has to do is create confusion, to make it seem as if there really is a controversy about the validity of evolutionary theory."

Nevertheless, two prominent Republican politicians subsequently echoed Bush. According to the Associated Press (2005 Aug 18), Senator Bill Frist (R–Tennessee), the Senate majority leader, told reporters in Nashville that students ought to be exposed to different ideas, including "intelligent design": teaching "intelligent design" alongside evolution, he said, "doesn't force any particular theory on anyone. I think in a pluralistic society that is the fairest way to go about education and training people for the future." According to the Arizona Daily Star (2005 Aug 24), Senator John McCain (R–Arizona) "told the Star that, like Bush, he believes 'all points of view' should be available to students studying the origins of mankind."

Senator Rick Santorum (R–Pennsylvania), who as the Senate Republican Conference Secretary is third in the Republican leadership, took a different tack, however. Speaking on National Public Radio (2005 Aug 4), he said, "as far as intelligent design is concerned, I really don't believe it has risen to the level of a scientific theory ... that we would want to teach it alongside of evolution." Santorum's reaction represents a departure for him: writing in the Washington Times (2002 Mar 14), for example, he stated, "intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes." Like Frist and McCain, Santorum is reportedly contemplating a run for the presidency in 2008.

A welcome congressional response appeared in the following month. Writing as a guest columnist on the popular TPMCafe blog (2005 Sep 8; available on-line at ), Representative Rush Holt (D–New Jersey) — one of the very few research scientists who serve in Congress — contributed a piece entitled "Intelligent design: It's not even wrong." "As a research scientist and a member of the House Education Committee," Holt wrote:
I was appalled when President Bush signaled his support for the teaching of 'intelligent design' alongside evolution in public K–12 science classes. Though I respect and consistently protect the rights of persons of faith and the curricula of religious schools, public school science classes are not the place to teach concepts that cannot be backed up by evidence and tested experimentally.
He added, "It is irresponsible for President Bush to cast 'intelligent design' — a repackaged version of creationism — as the 'other side' of the evolution 'debate.'" His incisive essay ends with the sobering thought, "When the tenets of critical thinking and scientific investigation are weakened in our classrooms, we are weakening our nation. That is why I think the President's off-hand comment about 'intelligent design' as the other side of the debate over evolution is such a great disservice to Americans."

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
branch@ncseweb.org