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Ten Myths About Dover: #5, “Discovery Institute Supported Dover School Board Policy”

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Editor’s note: The Kitzmiller v. Dover decision has been the subject of much media attention and many misinterpretations from pro-Darwin lobby groups. With the tenth anniversary of Kitzmiller approaching on December 20, Evolution News offers a series of ten articles debunking common myths about the case. Look here for Myths 123456789, and 10.

The idea that Discovery Institute switched positions on teaching intelligent design is one of the most egregious untruths to come out of the Dover decision. Both Judge Jones and the media have promoted the myth that Discovery was somehow behind the events that sparked the case. As the National Center for Science Education quips, the question is “To teach ID, or not to teach ID?”

But our position on science education in public schools had been publicly documented since 2002 — several years before Dover.

Our Policy

Discovery Institute holds that it is constitutional to teach intelligent design in public school classrooms. However, as our science education policystates, “Discovery Institute opposes any effort to require the teaching of intelligent design by school districts or state boards of education.”

Why is this? Discovery Institute’s priority is to see intelligent design grow and develop as a science. But when ID is pushed into public schools, that tends to politicize the issue, making it harder for pro-ID scientists to make their case for design to the academy. Thus, our policy goes on to say:

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…. 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.

We advocate that teachers should present both the scientific strengths and weaknesses of neo-Darwinism.

Some Relevant History

In 2002, philosopher of science Stephen Meyer testified before the Ohio State Board of Education on teaching origins. Writing in the Cincinnati Enquirer, he described the advice he offered:

(1) First, I suggested — speaking as an advocate of the theory of intelligent design — that Ohio not require students to know the scientific evidence and arguments for the theory of intelligent design, at least not yet.

(2) Instead, I proposed that Ohio teachers teach the scientific controversy about Darwinian evolution. Teachers should teach students about the main scientific arguments for and against Darwinian theory. And Ohio should test students for their understanding of those arguments, not for their assent to a point of view.

This was two years before the Dover school board voted to teach intelligent design. Consonant with its policy position, Discovery Institute opposed the Dover school board’s measure. Center for Science & Culture associate director John G. West said in a press statement on December 14, 2004:

While the Dover board is to be commended for trying to teach Darwinian theory in a more open-minded manner, this is the wrong way to go about it. Dover’s current policy has a number of problems, not the least of which is its lack of clarity. At one point, it appears to prohibit Dover schools from teaching anything about “the origins of life.” At another point, it appears to both mandate as well as prohibit the teaching of the scientific theory of intelligent design. The policy’s incoherence raises serious problems from the standpoint of constitutional law. Thus, the policy should be withdrawn and rewritten.

Despite this, Discovery Institute has been portrayed as having been associated with Dover’s policy. First, counsel for the Dover school board Richard Thompson inaccurately characterized Discovery’s position as flip-flopping on whether or not to teach intelligent design. In November 2005, CSC’s Rob Crowther responded:

Mr. Thompson recently cited language from a legal guidebook written by Discovery Institute Fellows in 1999 suggesting that it somehow sanctioned Dover’s policy on intelligent design. But Mr. Thompson cited the language of the guidebook out of context. The guidebook focused on supporting teachers who wanted to teach about intelligent design, not on the defensibility of requiring teachers to teach about intelligent design. This is a crucial distinction. Indeed, the guidebook clearly states that “to summarize, the safest course is one in which a school board permits [not “requires”] a biology teacher to teach the full range of scientific theories about origins.”

Second, Judge Jones held that Discovery Institute was involved in Dover’s policymaking and gave legal advice. He wrote: “The only outside organizations which the Board consulted prior to the vote were the Discovery Institute and TMLC [Thomas More Law Center], and it is clear that the purpose of these contacts was to obtain legal advice, as opposed to science education information.”

Discovery Institute attorney Seth Cooper notes this was not accurate, writing:

To be clear, prior to the filing of the lawsuit I never advised the members of the Dover board in a privileged, attorney-client capacity. Further, I never advised members of the Dover board to mandate the teaching of the theory of intelligent design or to adopt the ID policy at issue in the case. Rather, I strongly urged members of the Dover board to either drop entirely the issue of alternatives to the teaching of evolution, or to only present scientific arguments both supporting and challenging the contemporary version of Darwin’s theory and the chemical evolutionary theories for the origin of the first life. The Dover board had their own legal counsel in their solicitor and the public-interest law firm that they later hired. Members of the Dover board who adopted the ID policy acted completely contrary to my strongest suggestions.

Discovery Institute did not endorse Dover’s measure. Why? Because it mandated teaching about intelligent design, which goes against our position. Our policy has been clear: Intelligent design is constitutional to teach, but it should not be required curriculum in public schools. Instead, schools should teach the scientific controversy over evolution. That position has been consistently and publicly documented for the past 13 years.

Image credit: JonRidinger (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Sarah Chaffee

Now a teacher, Sarah Chaffee served as Program Officer in Education and Public Policy at Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. She earned her B.A. in Government. During college she interned at Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler’s office and for Prison Fellowship Ministries. Before coming to Discovery, she worked for a private land trust with holdings in the Southwest.



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