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Student Perspectives: Addressing Two Montanans’ Concerns over an Academic Freedom Bill


Writing in the Great Falls Tribune this spring, two Montana high school students offered responses to their state’s proposed academic freedom bill. Although the bill did not pass, I would like to address the articles by Kye Burchard (con) and Quincy Balius (pro) since others may share their views. I will focus mainly on Mr. Burchard’s objections.

Although he opposed the academic freedom bill, he did an admirable job in trying to argue for his position. His premises are mistaken, but he argues cogently and logically from them. Miss Balius also made her points clearly and we appreciate her support for academic freedom. However, I would like to correct a few common misunderstandings about ID that appeared in her article too. In particular, both Burchard and Balius incorrectly believed (probably due to media misreporting in their state) that Montana’s academic freedom bill would have protected the teaching of intelligent design.

Burchard conflates intelligent design with teaching the controversy over evolution, stating:

A new bill introduced by Republican Clayton Fiscus in the Montana House of Representatives would require public schools to teach intelligent design, the idea that the universe or parts of the universe were “designed” by an intelligent being, alongside evolution. [Emphasis added.]

This is incorrect. Montana’s academic freedom bill (like two similar laws that have been enacted in Tennessee and Louisiana) does not require schools to teach intelligent design. That is because academic freedom bills are limited to the school’s current science curriculum. As Montana’s bill says:

Sec. 1(4) The board of public education, the superintendent of public instruction, school district trustees, county and district superintendents, and school principals and administrators may not prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

Intelligent design is not among the scientific theories covered in Montana’s science curriculum. Neo-Darwinian evolution is. Moreover, teaching intelligent design is not the same as critiquing evolution. In discussing the weaknesses of neo-Darwinism, a teacher might share scientific evidence regarding Haeckel’s embryos, or the Gal�pagos finches. As a separate scientific theory, intelligent design must stand on positive evidence. We do not detect design simply by critiquing evolution.

Academic freedom bills do not allow for the introduction of intelligent design — unless it were already part of the curriculum, which it isn’t. Rather, they permit teachers to discuss the controversy over evolution without being put in danger of losing their jobs.

Second, Burchard believes that intelligent design is a religious idea, and therefore that teaching ID is unconstitutional.

By teaching a single hypothesis, intelligent design, when there are hundreds of religions in existence, we further one religious idea over any other theory that also competes with evolution. By doing so, the government is choosing one idea and specifically teaching that over any of the other hypotheses in existence, which is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.

Some may argue that creationism isn’t the same thing as intelligent design, which is true, but there are still plenty of religions that don’t believe in either.

While it’s good that Burchard recognizes that ID is different from creationism, he’s still confused. This bill does not address introducing ID in classrooms. He also assumes that Montana’s academic freedom bill permits religion in schools. Yet the text of the bill explicitly excludes advocating religion, and thus it does not violate the separation of church and state:

Sec. 1(5) This section only protects the teaching of scientific information and may not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion.

Additionally, both Burchard and Balius incorrectly assume that intelligent design is religious. Our colleague John West, Discovery Institute vice president and Center for Science & Culture associate director, explains:

Intelligent design is a scientific inference based on empirical evidence, not on religious texts. The theory proposes that many of the most intricate features of the natural world (like the amazing molecular machines within the cell) are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process like natural selection.

Although controversial, design theory is supported by a growing number of scientists in academic and scientific journals, scientific conference proceedings and academic and scientific books. While intelligent design may have religious implications (just like Darwin’s theory), it does not start from religious premises.

Intelligent design traces its roots back to Plato and Socrates, and does not require a supernatural creator. Starting from scientific data, proponents infer the activity of an intelligent agent (or agents) in the origins of life and of the cosmos. Religion, by contrast, begins with sacred texts and/or faith instead of empirical evidence.

Thus, it would not be unconstitutional to teach intelligent design in public schools.

Burchard also claims that intelligent design is not scientific:

Not only is intelligent design not a scientific theory, it’s technically not even a scientific hypothesis. To be considered scientific, it must be testable, predictable and consistent. Intelligent design is not definitively testable, cannot be used to predict future or experimental events or outcomes, and is not a single, unified, consistent theory. Therefore, it cannot even be considered a scientific hypothesis, much less be considered on the level of scientific theory.

This is not correct. Because intelligent design employs the scientific method (observation, hypothesis, experiment, conclusion), it meets scientific standards. ID observes intelligence and what it produces — namely, complex and specified information (CSI). The Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness Center (IDEA) describes how intelligent design theory implements the scientific method:

The scientific method goes from observation –> hypothesis –> experiment –> conclusion. Intelligent design begins with the observation that intelligent agents produce complex and specified information (CSI). Design theorists hypothesize that if objects were designed, they will contain CSI. They then seek to find CSI. One easily testable form of CSI is irreducible complexity (IC). ID researchers can then experimentally reverse-engineer biological structures to see if they are IC. If they find them, they can conclude design.

Thus, intelligent design proponents look for examples in nature that reflect specified complexity. These examples are found in many branches of science, and range from the bacterial flagellum (microbiology) to the galactic habitable zone (astronomy). We have discussed ID as a scientific theory more in previous posts.

Turning to legal matters, Burchard endorses the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover (the case regarding ID in Pennsylvania), noting:

These reasons are exactly why the teaching of intelligent design has been ruled by courts as unconstitutional in past cases in Pennsylvania, and similar bills have died in committees before making it into the mainstream.

As I mentioned previously, this bill does not bring ID into the classroom; therefore it is not analogous to Dover. Furthermore, Discovery Institute does not advocate teaching ID in public school classrooms, and publicly discouraged Dover from adopting its policy.

However, there are many reasons why the Dover case does not reflect a sound legal analysis of whether it is constitutional to teach ID in the public school classroom.

First, Judge Jones claimed that ID is not science. He said that intelligent design posits a supernatural creator. In fact, ID holds that science cannot address the question of the intelligent agent’s identity. Rather, ID restricts itself to the empirical realm. Jones said that ID’s attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community, ignoring testimony of ID scientists at the trial, and ignoring the fact that ID scientists had presented peer-reviewed articles and books as evidence to the court.

Second, Judge Jones did not adhere to standard judicial practice. It is general practice for courts to offer rulings that are as narrow as possible. Jones engaged in judicial activism, even stating that his ruling should serve as precedent for future courts. He hoped that it would “prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources” by a “subsequent trial” on whether ID is science. In his ruling, 90 percent of the section on why “ID is not science” was drawn, nearly verbatim, from a plaintiffs’ brief. This indicates that Jones’s ruling was not an original opinion reached after extensive deliberation.

Third, Judge Jones overstepped his judicial authority. He made determinations regarding the compatibility or incompatibility of science with religion, stating:

Both Defendants and many of the leading proponents of ID make a bedrock assumption which is utterly false….[T]he theory of evolution…in no way conflicts with, nor does it deny, the existence of a divine creator.

Such a statement is not within judicial or government purview, and violates the separation of church and state. It is not the role of a judge or any government official to issue decisions on theology.

Nor is it only proponents of intelligent design who recognize the serious flaws in Jones’s ruling. Jay Wexler, for one, is a Boston University legal scholar and ID critic who has noted, “The part of Kitzmiller that finds ID not to be science is unnecessary, unconvincing, not particularly suited to the judicial role, and even perhaps dangerous both to science and to freedom of religion.”

Finally, Burchard asserts that “evolution is just as proven by hard evidence as gravity.” This an entirely improper comparison. Significant controversy exists in the scientific community over evolution, as evidenced by the Dissent from Darwin list, signed by over 900 PhD scientists. As the signers agree:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

Furthermore, several textbook examples used as evidence supporting macroevolution have come under close scrutiny. As I mentioned earlier, these include the Gal�pagos finches and Haeckel’s embryos. Let’s briefly consider the first of these two.

The standard story observes that Gal�pagos finches on different islands have beaks of varying sizes, and hypothesized that they descended from one ancestor finch, eventually developing dissimilar characteristics. However, data now show that the finches’ beaks vary according to long-term weather patterns. Larger beak shapes make it easier to collect food during a drought, but then when wetter periods return, beak shapes shift back.

Furthermore, some birds with varying features can interbreed, fusing “species” back together! The Gal�pagos finches are excellent illustrations of microevolution (organisms adapting to their environment), but not of macroevolution (species branching into different species). Unfortunately, textbooks overstate the evidence for Darwinian evolution and don’t usually disclose this to students.

At the beginning of his article, Burchard quoted James Madison on the important principle of church-state separation. However, the issue that academic freedom bills address is not whether religion will be allowed in the classroom, but whether teachers will be at liberty to promote a climate of scientific inquiry on controversial topics. Madison himself cast light on the centrality of academic freedom when he noted, “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.”

Congress too has echoed Madison’s exhortation. In the Santorum Amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 conference report, legislators recognized the importance of critical thinking in the science classroom:

The Conferees recognize that a quality science education should prepare students to distinguish the data and testable theories of science from religious or philosophical claims that are made in the name of science. Where topics are taught that may generate controversy (such as biological evolution), the curriculum should help students to understand the full range of scientific views that exist, why such topics may generate controversy, and how scientific discoveries can profoundly affect society.

While I have sought to correct some misunderstandings on the part of Mr. Burchard and Miss Balius, my purpose is not to criticize these two articulate young people. On the contrary, I admire their willingness to state and defend their positions, and I commend the Great Falls Tribune for giving them the opportunity. Debate, after all, is an excellent pedagogical tool — one that promotes the “quality science education” Congress advocates. Encouraging students to appreciate the complexity of serious subjects, through a responsible airing of contrasting views, is what academic freedom bills are all about.

Image: Montana State Capitol, by Parkerdr (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.