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Problems with the Intersession Course

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Problems with the Intersession Course
Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
Executive Director, NCSE
Volume: 
26
Issue: 
4
Year: 
2006
Date: 
July–August
Page(s): 
6–9
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott was asked to write a declaration in support of the plaintiffs' motion for a temporary restraining order, and if necessary a preliminary injunction, in Hurst et al v Newman et al. The following discussion of specific problems with the "Philosophy of Intelligent Design" course that was at issue in the case is taken from her declaration.

Introduction

In my expert opinion, the purpose and effect of the course at issue in this lawsuit are not to present a comparative treatment of the various philosophical issues surrounding evolution and creationism.

Rather, the purpose and effect of the class are to disparage the scientific status of evolution and to present as superior to evolution the religious ideas of creation science and "intelligent design". In other words, the course advocates on behalf of a particular religious view, and a sectarian one at that; special creationism is a minority view in American Christianity.

The evidence on which I base that conclusion pervades the course description, the original syllabus, and the revised syllabus — and turns on four general observations.

Lack of diversity

First, although the revised syllabus for the class asserts that the course will present the "world views on origins," the course does not even begin to provide students with the diversity of viewpoints on this matter. (It is worth noting that among the other intersession classes are a class specifically on "Comparative Religion" and another on "Mythology." The first is truly comparative, covering five major religions, and the second is on ancient myths and their influence on books [and] movies, such as Star Wars. This shows that there is at least an awareness at the school of how to treat religious views in a comparative fashion.) Instead, the course presents a single religious viewpoint, namely creationism (whether as creation science or "intelligent design").

Despite the original course title "Philosophy of Intelligent Design," the original version of the syllabus was dominated by creation science — the same view that the Supreme Court in Edwards held could not be taught in public schools.

The course description, which I understand has remained unchanged, emphasizes creation science by, for example, advocating the belief that there is scientific evidence that "the earth is thousands of years old, not billions." It also states that the course will "take a close look at evolution as a theory and will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid" (my emphasis).

The revised version of the syllabus emphasizes "intelligent design", but traces of creation science still appear, especially in such course materials as the video Chemicals to Living Cells: Fantasy or Science, which is sold by the creation-science ministry Answers in Genesis.

The syllabi, course description, and course materials make no mention of any non-Western religious viewpoints on the origins of life and its history. In any class purporting to provide a comparative treatment of cultural phenomena, that omission is remarkable. Anthropologists regard origin myths — stories about the ways in which the world and its inhabitants were formed (usually as the work of supernatural beings or forces) — as a cultural universal. There is certainly no shortage of origin myths available for discussion. Yet the course description and the original syllabus here reflect a narrow focus on a particular sectarian account of origins.

Similarly, there is no mention in the course materials of any religious viewpoints, Western or non-Western, that accept evolution. An example of these would be any of the many varieties of Christian theology known as theistic evolution: A number of mainline Christian denominations in the United States regard evolution as no threat to their theological views. For example, a number of prominent religious figures, including the late Pope John Paul II, have expressed the view that evolution is compatible with, or even enriches, their faith. A number of prominent scientists, including Francis Collins (the leader of the Human Genome Project), have made similar claims. But students in this course will not learn about any of these views. Instead, they will be told that evolution and religion are involved in (in the words of one of the videos on the original syllabus) a "War of the Worldviews".

The absence of the viewpoints of other religious traditions from the course materials belies any claim that the course's aim is to present a balanced, comparative, or objective treatment. Moreover, since the only religious viewpoint presented is in opposition to evolution, the effect is to present evolution as intrinsically antireligious. The course thus employs the "two-model" approach (beloved of proponents of creation science and "intelligent design") that Judge Overton aptly described in the McLean case as a "contrived dualism."

Bias in the course materials

Second, the course materials make clear that the class is being taught from an anti-evolution, pro-creationist and pro-"intelligent design" perspective.

The course description promises that the course will present evidence that "Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid" and present evidence "suggesting the earth is thousands of years old, not billions," thereby plainly reflecting a manifestly pro-creationist perspective. Furthermore, the course description's reference to treatment of "the age of the earth, a world wide flood, dinosaurs, pre-human fossils, dating methods, DNA, radioisotopes, and geological evidence" bespeaks a plainly religious agenda, as these are topics repeatedly singled out by proponents of creationism and "intelligent design" as reflecting areas on which evolutionary theory is flawed.

Twenty-three of the 24 videos listed on the original syllabus are one-sided presentations, produced by creation-science ministries and advocating a pro-creationism perspective, without any critical treatment of the arguments or other rebuttal. These videos are not ordinarily regarded as suitable material for the public schools because of their poor scientific quality as well as their religious advocacy. The twenty-fourth video, The Fire Below Us, pertains to volcanic activity rather than evolution and can scarcely bear the weight of holding up the "pro-evolution perspective".

The video selections — including Unlocking the Mystery of Life — also advocate the view that scientific practice should be changed and methodological naturalism should be abandoned in order to accommodate reference to the supernatural.

Similarly, the original syllabus devoted two days each to the "Laws of Thermodynamics" and "Fossil Records and Dating Methods". These are areas of scientific inquiry that proponents of creation science have traditionally attacked, with the scientific community regarding the attacks as lacking any scientific merit.

On the original syllabus, two of the five prospective speakers ([Ross] Anderson and [Joe] Francis) are identifiable proponents of creation science; a third, "David Kopich," is probably meant to refer to a local proponent of creation science named David Coppedge. Of the two prospective speakers on the original syllabus who were supposed to present the case for evolution, one is a local parent [Kenneth Hurst, the lead plaintiff] who opposed the class. The other is the Nobel laureate Francis Crick (misspelled "Krich"), who died in 2004.

The revised syllabus appears to have been revised to de-emphasize creation science in favor of "intelligent design", presumably in the hope that the course would better be able to survive constitutional scrutiny. The revision is thus a microcosm of the national debate, in which "intelligent design" emerged in the wake of Edwards v Aguillard as a form of creationism intended to avoid the Supreme Court's decision declaring the teaching of creation science in schools to be unconstitutional.

"Intelligent design" was recently recognized in Kitzmiller v Dover as unconstitutional for the same reasons as creation science was in Edwards. Although the erroneous scientific claims distinctive of creation science, such as those involving the age of the earth and thermodynamics, are no longer explicitly mentioned in the revised syllabus, "intelligent design", as the progeny of creation science, retains many of the same erroneous scientific flaws. All but one of the videos listed on the revised syllabus are the products of the "intelligent design" movement. Those videos, like the creation-science ones, are not ordinarily regarded as suitable material for the public schools.

Both the original and revised syllabi include numerous videos purporting to address the "evidence against evolution," but not a single video on either list addresses the gaps/problems with creationism or "intelligent design". Because creation science and "intelligent design" are religious rather than scientific viewpoints, advocating the tenets of these viewpoints — as opposed to addressing them in an appropriate context and in an objective manner — amounts to religious advocacy that cannot have a valid secular purpose.

Misrepresentation of the standing of evolution

Third, the course materials present a distorted view of the scientific standing of evolution. Throughout those materials, evolution is presented as a "worldview" or "philosophy". In the anti-evolution movement, these terms are often used synonymously with "religion", in order to suggest that evolution is accepted only on faith, thus converting evolution from a scientific theory (which has a particular meaning and special status in the scientific community) to a belief system (which does not).

In that regard, the very first sentence of the course description reads, "This class ... will discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin's philosophy is not rock solid" (emphasis added).

Topics in the original syllabus include "Is Evolution a science or a philosophy?," "Is Evolution based on a religion?," and "Is evolution based on philosophy?" Although those questions are not explicitly answered in the syllabus, the fact that these questions are raised repeatedly in a course entitled "Philosophy of Intelligent Design" strongly implies that the instructor intends to teach or suggest that evolution is based on a "philosophy". The videos on the syllabi, such as "War of the Worldviews," further support that conclusion.

In the revised syllabus, although one topic is "How does the Philosophy of Intelligent Design differ from the Theory of Evolution?" (a formulation that might suggest evolution is no longer going to be presented as based on "philosophy"), the very next topic on that syllabus demonstrates otherwise by referring to "this debate concerning philosophies" — that is, evolution and "intelligent design".

Similarly, the revised syllabus states that "Equal and balanced instructions will be given on all philosophies". Because the only concepts taught are a religious view and evolution, this statement has the effect of labeling both concepts as "philosophies." Neither the original nor the revised syllabus calls for informing the students that the scientific community overwhelmingly accepts evolution.

Inaccurate and irresponsible treatment of evolution

Fourth, and related to the third consideration, is the fact that the course materials do not treat evolution in ways that are either scientifically accurate or pedagogically responsible. A genuine comparative treatment of cultural ideas concerning the origin and history of life would not necessarily have to discuss scientific ideas at all. It would be sufficient, for example, to describe the origin myths of a number of different cultures, to compare and contrast them, and to discuss the role that the origin myths play with respect to the rest of their cultures. But if scientific ideas like evolution are to be discussed in such a course, they should be discussed in a scientifically accurate and pedagogically responsible way. That is not the case with the course at issue here.

As noted, the original syllabus devoted two days to "Laws of Thermodynamics", which is a topic from physics. It is primarily proponents of creation science, and not physicists or other scientists, who regard that topic as relevant to the scientific study of evolution, for creationists incorrectly maintain that the Second Law of Thermodynamics renders evolution impossible.

The revised syllabus describes evolution as a view "on the origin of life". In the sense most common in modern biology, "evolution" denotes descent with modification — the scientific theory that living things have descended, with modification, from common ancestors. The origin of life is a separate question and a separate area of research.

Additionally, there is reason to doubt that the course presents evolution in a way appropriate to the students' ages and level of preparation. In the original syllabus, no scientifically credible and pedagogically appropriate instructional materials about evolution are listed. Apparently Mrs Lemburg was content to have the students learn about evolution almost entirely from creationist sources. Since evolution is typically presented in California only in high-school biology, it is likely that the students in this course would have had, at most, one course in which they were formally exposed to evolution; and some of the students may not have had even that. They therefore would not have the prerequisite knowledge to enable them to evaluate critically the scientific claims contained in the creationist sources.

In the revised syllabus, non-creationist instructional material about evolution was added: the PBS series Evolution, the "Understanding Evolution" website, and Evolution vs Creationism. As a consultant to the first two and the author of the third, I can certainly vouch for their scientific credibility. However, none of these materials was intended to provide a first exposure to evolution. The Evolution series was intended for a general adult audience, and (like any science documentary) was not intended to provide a complete education to its viewers. The parts of the Understanding Evolution website to which the revised syllabus refers are aimed at teachers who are striving to improve their ability to teach evolution effectively. They are not directed, aimed at, or geared to students. While there is a section of the website that provides a basic introduction to evolution, it is not mentioned in the syllabus, and it would not in any case be appropriate as the students' primary source of information about evolution. Evolution vs Creationism is suitable for advanced high-school students and for college students, but certainly not for students who have not yet even taken a biology course at the high-school level. And like the Understanding Evolution website, the book provides only the most rudimentary introduction to the science of evolution; it is no substitute for a real biology class with a competent teacher using a mainstream textbook.

If there were genuine scientific evidence against evolution — that is, if scientists had scientific debates over whether evolution actually occurred — there might be a secular pedagogical reason for teaching students "the controversy." The scientific community, however, overwhelmingly views evolution (the inference of common descent of living things) as a solidly supported scientific view. (The National Association of Biology Teachers writes, "Modern biologists constantly study, ponder and deliberate the patterns, mechanisms and pace of evolution, but they do not debate evolution's occurrence." Similarly, the National Science Teachers Association has stated, "There is no longer a debate among scientists over whether evolution has taken place," and specifically recommends that "[p]olicy-makers and administrators should not mandate policies requiring the teaching of creation science or related concepts such as 'intelligent design', 'abrupt appearance', and 'arguments against evolution'."). Indeed, the consensus of the scientific community is that "[t]he contemporary theory of biological evolution is one of the most robust products of scientific inquiry" (American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS Board Resolution on Intelligent Design Theory, 2002; the AAAS is the largest general scientific society in the world).

Conclusion

Because there is no scientific "evidence against evolution" and there is no pedagogical value in teaching "evidence against evolution," yet there are conspicuous religious motivations for promoting this practice, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the underlying purpose and the intended effect of efforts to require the teaching of "the evidence against evolution," such as those in the course at issue here, are to protect or advance a particular set of religious beliefs.

Presenting evolution in a philosophy class as a philosophy or belief system on a par with the religious view of creationism misrepresents the nature of evolution. It confuses students about what evolutionary theory is, interfering with their education when they are presented with the concept of evolution in their science classes. There can be no valid secular purpose for misleading students about the nature of evolutionary theory in a public-school philosophy class any more than there can be in a public-school science class.

Any citizen, of course, has the right to advocate a religious position, including advocating theism over materialism. But that does not translate into the right to engage in such religious advocacy in the public-school classroom. Mrs Lemburg's "Philosophy of Design" class is just such advocacy. It therefore suffers from the same defect as the teaching of creation science in Edwards and McLean, and the inclusion of intelligent design in the curriculum in Kitzmiller.

[For the sake of readability, headings were added, paragraph numbers and internal references were removed, and footnotes were incorporated into the text; a few corrections and amplifications were inserted in square brackets. For the entire declaration as submitted, visit http://www2.ncseweb.org/hurst/Scott_expert_witness_declaration-20060110.pdf.]

About the Author(s): 
Eugenie C Scott
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
scott@ncseweb.org