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On Academic Freedom Bills and More, Here’s Why I Rarely Trust Reporters: The Case of Patrick Anderson

Casey Luskin

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Image by Jake DeGroot [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

With some reporters, facts count for little or nothing. They’re not interested in reporting on a situation objectively. They have their minds made up, and they are going to promote their agenda no matter what. I’ve had this experience numerous times since I started working at Discovery Institute in 2005. Well, it’s happened again.

Yesterday reporter Patrick Anderson at the Argus Leader in South Dakota called to interview me. We discussed an academic freedom bill that’s recently been submitted in his state. He was convinced that the purpose of the bill is to allow intelligent design in the classroom. He has now posted an article to that effect, even after I patiently and in detail tried to help him understand it isn’t true. I’ll get to the post in a moment. First, here’s what we talked about during the interview.

I explained Discovery Institute’s long-standing position that we oppose attempts to introduce intelligent design into public schools. I also told him exactly what I wrote at ENV recently — that academic freedom bills only protect discussing the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the courses being taught.” That language, which is also in the South Dakota bill, means it only covers discussing the strengths and weaknesses of topics that are already in the curriculum. Since intelligent design isn’t in the curriculum anywhere in South Dakota, it’s not protected under the bill.

I explained all this to Mr. Anderson. His comeback was that if we discuss problems with Darwinian evolution, then that means we must be implying intelligent design is the answer. No, I said, that’s not at all the case. Critiquing an idea isn’t the same as advocating an alternative explanation. In fact, scientists often discuss problems with a theory and say, “This theory isn’t correct, so right now we don’t have an answer to the problem it addresses.” In a scientific (or really any) context, being willing to leave a question unanswered is healthy and honest. It reflects the tentative, careful nature of science, and it can inspire researchers to come in and work on solving the problem.

At this point Mr. Anderson said that when we talk about irreducible complexity, we’re by necessity arguing for intelligent design. No, I explained, that’s not the case either. Yes, irreducible complexity can form part of an argument for intelligent design, but it can also be just a negative argument against Darwinian evolution. Since ID is much more than just a negative argument against evolution, you can’t demonstrate ID simply by critiquing Darwinian mechanisms.

I told Mr. Anderson that if you want to make a case for intelligent design, you must offer a positive argument. You need to talk about the type of information that is produced by intelligent agency, about how science has discovered precisely that kind of information at work in nature. Without this positive element, you don’t have an argument for design. And for policy reasons, we’re against bringing that sort of positive argument into public schools. (Again, see here for an explanation why this is our recommended policy.)

I explained to him that we could discuss many scientific problems with Darwinian theory without getting into ID. For example, we could point out that Darwin’s finches in the Galápagos Islands can still interbreed, that they only demonstrate small-scale oscillating selection, and that they do not show the evolution of fundamentally new types of organisms. Biology textbooks that students use often present the finches as powerful evidence for Darwinian theory, but the birds fall far short of showing the origin of new species or new forms. We could talk about all of it without getting into intelligent design.

As another example, I told him about the many papers in mainstream scientific journals finding data that contradicts the “tree of life” hypothesis. But intelligent design doesn’t take a position on common ancestry, and so we can certainly talk about difficulties with the tree of life hypothesis without necessarily getting into intelligent design.

All the facts available to Mr. Anderson showed that the bill in South Dakota doesn’t include intelligent design. He had no comeback other than to say that he just didn’t believe me.

Today he published an attempt at a comeback. Over at the Argus Leader he has a short piece titled “Intelligent design: A course guide.” He writes:

Earlier this week, I worked on a story about Senate Bill 114, which a teachers’ group has told me would make it easier to teach creationism in class.

Makers of such legislation deny the claim, but it’s hard to ignore given the passage of a very similar bill passed in Tennessee in 2012. The Tennessee law was dubbed as pro-creationist and anti-evolution.

OK, let me get this straight: because some unidentified critic said that the Tennessee law includes creationism, and because the South Dakota bill is similar to the Tennessee law, that means the South Dakota bill includes creationism. Does that make any sense? Your logical fallacy detector should be blaring its alarm right now.

Perhaps, if the Tennessee law covers teaching creationism, he might have a point. But it doesn’t. The U.S. Supreme Court has declared creationism to be a religious belief, and the Tennessee law has an express provision that says it does not protect the teaching of religion. Here’s what it says:

This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

Can the critics really be serious in their attacks on these bills? If we were trying to push creationism into public schools, then we wouldn’t be promoting bills that say things like: “The provisions of this Act only protect the teaching of scientific information and may not be construed to promote any religious … doctrine.” How could a bill that says this be interpreted by a court to authorize the teaching of religion? It can’t. A teacher promoting religion (in the form of creationism, or any other form) would not be protected by this bill.

So in trying to show the South Dakota bill would allow creationism, Mr. Anderson’s first gambit fails. He then switches his claim, alleging that the bill allows intelligent design. He notes this:

I talked to a representative for the group who said this to me: “We actually do not support teaching or pushing intelligent design in public schools.”

That’s true, I did say that during the interview. But then he tries to insinuate that this isn’t true, writing:

So, here are classroom resources I found from the Institute for teaching intelligent design in class.

The curriculum section of the group’s website includes disclaimers for each subject, and mentions the intelligent design materials are “especially suitable” for home school and private school teachers.

He’s talking about Discovering Intelligent Design, a textbook I co-authored in 2013. He apparently seems to want the reader to think that we intend that curriculum for use in public schools. That’s wrong. In fact, what he doesn’t mention is that the textbook explicitly says it should not be used in public schools. Here’s what we wrote in the Introduction, at the very beginning of the book:

A NOTE ON USE IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS
This supplemental textbook is not intended for use in public schools. ID is a scientific theory and is not religiously based, but we live in a highly charged political climate that is often hostile to ID. While ID should be perfectly legal to discuss in public schools, there are strong reasons not to push ID into the public school curriculum.

In particular, the priority of the ID movement is to see the theory progress and mature as a science. However, when the subject is forced into public schools, it tends to generate controversy, changing the topic from a scientific investigation into an emotional, politicized debate. This can result in persecution of ID proponents in the academy, ultimately preventing ID from gaining a fair hearing within the scientific community. The policy of Discovery Institute, the leading organization supporting ID, states:

As a matter of public policy, Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education. Attempts to mandate teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. Furthermore, most teachers at the present time do not know enough about intelligent design to teach about it accurately and objectively.

Instead of mandating intelligent design, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in textbooks. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.

The Discovering Intelligent Design curriculum website similarly states:

The Discovering Intelligent Design curriculum is designed for educational use by home schools and private schools rather than public schools. When the subject of intelligent design is forced into public schools, it tends to generate polarization, transforming the topic from a scientific investigation into an emotional, politicized debate. However, the use of this curriculum should not be restricted to formal educational environments. It is perfect for anyone interested in learning more about the world around them and discovering the scientific evidence for intelligent design.

Every week I talk with public school educators and policymakers and I explain to them that intelligent design should not be pushed into public schools. I send them letters, emails, and packages of materials stating the same thing. Our words, actions, and policy positions all reflect this policy. But none of that matters to reporters like Mr. Anderson. He’s going to say what he wants to say, regardless of the facts, and no matter how patiently you lay them out for him.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.

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