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Lori Lipman Brown and Banachek

Continuing from last week’s interviews recorded at the “Amazing Meeting 6” conference, Derek & Swoopy talk with secular lobbyist Lori Lipman Brown and her father Mel Lipman (both secular humanists with backgrounds in law and government).

They also speak with mentalist Banachek, who has been responsible for putting more magic and mentalism on American television than any other magic consultant in the world.

While the paths of these skeptics seem widely divergent, Derek & Swoopy learn that their common decision to further skepticism within their chosen professions illuminates many similar truths…

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In this week’s eSkeptic, Paul Gross reviews Lauri Lebo’s The Devil in Dover: An Insider’s Story of Dogma v. Darwin in Small-town America. (New Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1595582089)

Lying for God: The Dover Debacle

by Paul Gross

The verdict for Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, in Pennsylvania’s Middle District Court, was issued shortly before Christmas, 2005. For the plaintiffs — Tammy Kitzmiller and ten other parents of Dover area schoolchildren — the trial’s six-week ordeal ended in resounding victory. The verdict was unambiguous, not at all the narrowly favorable ruling expected by many on the plaintiffs’ side. For the defendant school district and members of its Board, trial and verdict were a debacle, the ultimate shape of which became visible early in the proceedings — even before the defense was fully launched. Now, in her book The Devil in Dover, journalist Lauri Lebo, native to rural, south-central Pennsylvania and at home among its people, has published an extended human-interest account of the trial.

Kitzmiller was a landmark case, but that designation might at first be thought misleading. It was, after all, only the most recent of a long series of American court actions, beginning more than eighty years ago, including two that reached United States Supreme Court, the most recent being Edwards v. Aguillard (1987), which confirmed 7 to 2 that the Louisiana “equal time” law requiring the teaching in public schools of “creation science” alongside evolution was unconstitutional. In each case to date, creationists have sought either an outright ban on the teaching of evolution, or by other means to render futile any instruction in what they still insist on calling “Darwinism.” But the target of creationism in these actions has always been more than Darwin’s 1859 masterpiece, which set forth natural mechanisms (since then solidly established in science) for the colossal diversification, over time, of life on Earth. Their target has been and remains all of modern biology, and a good deal of the rest of science, because biology is today evolutionary throughout — as has been declared during the last six decades by its most eminent practitioners.

In these trials, creationism has attacked not only the vast matrix of facts of Earth history, descent with modification among the biota, evolution observed and simulated in the laboratory, plus a century and a half of evolutionary theory, but also, directly or otherwise, the ground rules — the epistemology — of natural science. They have scorned methods of inquiry that over the last three hundred years brought the modern world into being. Thus Dover turns out to have been a landmark case because the nature of its proceedings, and the ancillary events in its course, made it impossible for the court to ignore the attack by Dover’s Board on those epistemic ground rules. A sound verdict needed to address not only the constitutionality of the school Board’s policy of promoting “alternative” theories; it was forced also to evaluate the alternative specifically promoted by the Board — Intelligent Design (ID) theory. In so doing the sitting judge had to rule on what, among the claims made for ID, is science and what is not. The commanding judicial opinion, written by John E. Jones, III, presiding, recognized both needs and met them frontally.

Lauri Lebo, an experienced journalist and sometime specialist on education for the York (PA) Daily Record, attended, investigated, and reported on Kitzmiller from start to finish. Her book provides a rich account of the trial, its antecedents, and the post-verdict consequences for the Dover Area community. Of course the literature on this trial is already large: it includes full technical commentary on the relevant scientific issues, on the trial documents and transcripts, and on the principal witnesses and their testimony. Dover reportage provided local color (including levity) day-to-day and general comment from a score of journalists, national and foreign. Among the earliest complete reports following issue of the verdict is a fully documented description of the trial in the updated edition of Creationism’s Trojan Horse (Oxford University Press, 2007) — by myself and Barbara Forrest, who was also a key plaintiff’s witness, the one whose testimony the defense lawyers tried most desperately to prevent.

Nevertheless Ms. Lebo’s account of Dover is unique. It is to date the most intimate, accessible, and affecting report of this court fight. The conflict sundered relationships among neighbors and in some families of what is ordinarily a sober, friendly, district of the country’s heartland. Her story provides simple summaries of the scientific claims and counterclaims made in the course of that fight; but details of the science at the heart of the argument are not its purpose. Rather the author’s effort is to render an account of the people involved in the fight — on both sides — and the changes wrought by the clash in their lives and in the community.

By no means the least of several interwoven threads is that of Lauri Lebo herself, and her fast-aging father. That devout unhappy man, an evangelical Christian, owner of a storefront religious radio station, suffered agonizing fear throughout the days of conflict, fear that because his daughter’s belief in God might waver, because of her possible involvement with Darwinism and Darwinists, she could be doomed to Hell. For non-literalists and non-believers, such terror for the fate of self and loved ones is almost impossible to imagine. But for true believers it is all too genuine; the fear and pain are just as urgent as those ecstatic feelings of release and righteousness that come with the conviction — once it really is conviction — that one is among the saved.

Ms. Lebo suggests broadly that the trouble in Dover, the turning of neighbor against neighbor, started after, and in response to, the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. The implication is that an aroused militancy followed the Bush administration’s call to arms against terrorism, that fear-mongering on the part of the government and some private (often religious) organizations — including fundamentalist Christian churches — fueled among simple folk an unprecedented hostility toward strangers, a new hunkering down under the old-reliable, the good old Christian (-American) verities. It is possible that this was a contribution to the siege mentality of Dover citizens re-committing themselves to the defense of God.

But surely the larger reality is that the national intelligent design movement, with its generous funding, its relentless energy in public relations and politics, its impressive-looking displays of academic degrees and its tracts containing incomprehensible “science,” with their nationwide distribution of the glad tiding that Darwinism is dead — those were the real determinants. All that, a media-wise renaissance by ID of the former “scientific creationism,” began, not after 9/11/01, but in the early 1990s. From the beginning of the ID movement until the Dover Board approved its fatal policy, which was clearly meant to put God into the science classroom by way of ID and its then newly-revised textbook, Of Pandas and People, communities, entire states, across the country were experimenting with policies like that which was to erupt in Dover, PA.

A series of accidents made Dover the locus of events leading to a landmark trial. Most important was the eventual membership on Dover’s school Board of two vigorous and outspoken Christians, Alan Bonsell and William Buckingham, together with a number of less outspoken members who were nevertheless in sympathy, and who colluded with them, determined to limit or undo evolution in the district’s biology classes. All these good people were outraged that Darwinism is in the textbooks unchallenged, that it was being taught in their district as if there were nothing on the most sacred subject, life’s — and humanity’s — origins, in the holy Bible! Messrs. Bonsell and Buckingham, most of their fellow Board members, and a host of fellow citizens, felt that as a disgrace.

In October of 2004, after much argument about the need for recognition of creationism in the schools, some of the argument behind closed doors but some of it public and reported in the local press, the board approved curriculum language that included this: “Students will be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design.” And in November the board ordered high school biology teachers to read in every biology class a statement recommending for alternative study, inter alia, ID as “an explanation of the origin of life” and the creationist text, Of Pandas and People. It was to be made clear to all students that enough copies of the book would be available in the school library. About the provision of those books, Bonsell and Buckingham were later to lie quite freely.

Needless to say, the teachers, some very active Christians among them, rebelled. With soul-searching and some indecision — recounted by Ms. Lebo — they refused to cooperate with such an intrusion into curriculum-making by the patently ignorant. That is to say, by the school board members, whose cheerfully-admitted ignorance of the ID they had offered officially was part of the comic relief at the trial. Finally, the announcement was read to biology classes not by any science teacher but by an administrator. The following month eleven parents filed their complaint against the school district.

Ever-ready to aid officialdom in such an anti-Darwin revolution was the Discovery Institute of Seattle, Washington, and its Center for Science and Culture, home of the ID movement, which had for a decade been urging school boards and legislators nationwide to revolt against the standard teaching of evolution. It had provided them (and continues to do so) with arguments claimed to prove, by scientific means, the role of an “intelligent designer” — name unspecified — in the origin and diversification of life. Moreover the ID movement’s leadership insisted, not least in a lengthy law review article, that it would be perfectly proper, Constitutional, for teachers, schools, and whole systems to do as Dover eventually did. Reinforcing these goads to action from Seattle, and looking eagerly for a new court opportunity against evolution, was the Thomas More Law Center (TMLC), a Michigan group funded by the multi-millionaire, actively Catholic, Thomas Monaghan (Domino’s Pizza). TMLC (“Sword and Shield for People of Faith”) is dedicated to the support of Christian values, wherever such values might come under attack by the forces of secularism. ID leadership and TMLC were hungry for a big court case. TMLC’s lead attorney, former prosecutor Richard Thompson, was clearly hoping for a case in which the ID strategy for bypassing Edwards v. Aguillard would be challenged, a case that would then go up to the Supreme Court for the long-sought victory over Darwinism. In due course, TMLC, offering the Dover district its services pro bono, took charge of the defense. Representing the plaintiffs, eventually, were the Pepper Hamilton law firm of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s branch of the ACLU, with assistance from Americans United for Separation of Church and State and critical help from the National Center for Science Education.

From the start, however, the ID movement was unhappy with this trial. Having failed, between the early 1990s and 2004, to produce any evidence in support of “intelligent design,” or to demonstrate any serious flaw in evolutionary biology, or for that matter anything important enough in science to justify attention in the K-12 curriculum, its leaders had decided not to push for the specific inclusion of ID. Their strategy was now to argue for “critical analysis” (implying its absence in standard science), critical analysis of evolutionary biology. By that means, the mass of ID print and online material could be offered and promoted.

By 2004, truly critical, indeed devastating, analysis of ID was plentiful in the scientific and philosophy of science literature, and in many forms in the blogosphere. Therefore no sustainable argument for ID could any longer be offered as an official teaching standard. The ID movement’s dissatisfaction with the Dover trial, which threatened early to become a scientific trial of ID, led eventually to their withdrawal from the defense. All but one of ID’s small cadre of heavy hitters withdrew as witnesses. They couldn’t afford to a legal defeat, which was already a strong possibility. Later, as the defense began to disintegrate, they tried by indirect means (including an amicus brief) to get their talking points into the trial and its records; but that Judge Jones quite properly disallowed. In the end, only Michael Behe, among leading ID proponents — and the only professional biologist among them — remained as a key defense witness. Biologist Scott Minnich, not a major ID figure, testified late for the defense; but his performance was weak and self-deprecatory. It had no effect on the outcome.

At stake in the proceeding were two big questions, one primary, the other secondary. The primary, constitutional question was whether or not the Dover Board’s action was in violation of the establishment clause. Government (including public school committees) may make no law establishing religion, or inhibiting the free exercise thereof. The traditional test for establishment questions, on precedent, is the Lemon test (from Lemon v. Kurzman, U.S. 1971), which has three prongs: 1. The government action at issue must have a clearly secular purpose; 2. its effects must neither advance nor retard any religion; and 3. the challenged action must not lead to “excessive government entanglement” with religion. The strength of Ms. Lebo’s account is that it documents the unequivocally religious motives, from the start, for the board’s actions, despite their belated claim that the goal was simply “to improve science education.” It was in fact, and in public fact, to make room for God in the science class. She tells the story sympathetically, humanely, even on behalf of Bonsell and Buckingham, who lied shamelessly in deposition and on the stand and were rebuked for it by the judge. The book documents the Lemon test failure of Dover’s acts.

The first of two astounding episodes in the trial appeared in the testimony of Dr. Barbara Forrest, who showed that the board’s recommended reading resource for students, Of Pandas and People, ostensibly an intelligent design text, was in fact the older creationist textbook of the same title, in which (following Edwards v. Aguillard) every entry of “creation” and “creationism” had simply been deleted and replaced with “intelligent design.”

The secondary, but in the long run more important, trial question was on the scientific merit of the putative science offered by ID advocates, supposedly demonstrating fatal flaws in evolutionary biology and its teaching. Even if Dover failed the Lemon test, it was still important to know whether or not such gross weaknesses exist, since those certainly should affect the curriculum. But on this score, failure of the defense was, if possible, even more abject. Plaintiff’s distinguished witnesses, including cell biologist and textbook author Kenneth Miller, paleontologist Kevin Padian, philosopher of science Robert Pennock, theologian John Haught, and science education specialist Brian Alters shredded the published claims of the ID movement. The trial transcript is a solid record.

The second astounding episode occurred during the testimony of defense witness Michael Behe, in whose best-selling book, Darwin’s Black Box (1996), and regularly thereafter, he argued that nothing had ever been done in biology to show the evolution of immunity — one of several biochemical systems he dubbed “irreducibly complex” and therefore (in his view) impossible to produce by any Darwinian mechanism. Witness Miller had earlier explained how so-called “irreducibly complex” systems can arise in the course of ordinary evolution, and moreover that they have demonstrably done so and are doing so now. The dumbfounding moment came when plaintiffs’ attorney Eric Rothschild presented Behe (on the stand) with hard copy of some fifty scientific books and papers on the evolution of immunity, a literature that Behe admitted not having read. In the course of this cross-examination, Behe came around to arguing that astrology is a “scientific theory” — under his own definition of “theory” — and that it applies to standard evolutionary biology and to ID.

And so, as the trial came to an end, with the town divided into hostile camps, an election took place. In it, all eight school board members who had supported the ID policy were ousted and replaced by members friendly to the ordinary science of evolution. The verdict found the school board’s policy in violation of the establishment clause, and beyond that, it found that ID, at least as presented by its defenders at the trial, is religion, not science. Like the run-up to the trial, and the trial proceedings themselves, Laurie Lebo relates its aftermath with simplicity and economy, but also in places with forlorn emotion. Nine days after Judge Jones’s decision, Dean Lebo, Laurie’s father, died of a heart attack in the midst of charitable work at a local prison. And today, in 2008, school board and state legislative actions opposing evolution are in progress in several states. Some hope to introduce ID, and one of those might be the next case that goes to the U.S. Supreme Court. An outburst of anti-evolutionism spreads from the Islamic world into Europe. And meanwhile, damage to the education of children — whose main and usually sole exposure to rationality and rules of evidence comes in science class — will continue.

Why Darwin Matters on CD

Evolution happened, and the theory describing it is one of the most well founded in all of science. Then why do half of all Americans reject it? There are religious reasons, such as the fear of atheism and the perceived loss of ultimate meaning; there are psychological reasons, such as the ego-deflating realization that we are mere animals; and there are political reasons, such as the equation of evolution with moral relativism on the right, and the connection of evolution to eugenics and social Darwinism on the left. READ more >

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