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Merry Kitzmas! The 10th Anniversary of the Dover Decision and the Demise of Intelligent Design

Sunday, December 20, marked the 10th anniversary of Judge John Jones’ decision in the landmark Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District case, better known as the court case that finally put intelligent design (ID) creationism on trial. The case began in 2004 when creationists on the Dover, Pennsylvania, school board tried to sneak intelligent design creationist material from the Discovery Institute in Seattle into the school curriculum. The science teachers rebelled, as did a number of parents who became plaintiffs in the case. It was finally brought to trial on Sept. 26, 2005, and the trial lasted 40 days and 40 nights before the judge received the case for his deliberation.

During the course of the trial, the witnesses for intelligent design creationism were repeatedly exposed for their bad science, and the documents that were introduced show the clear imprint of having been recycled from older creationist documents. The most striking evidence of this was the discovery of different editions of the textbook Of Pandas and People. Early drafts were full of conventional creationism, but when a federal case struck down young-earth creationism for the final time, the authors just cut and paste a few phrases here and there to remove the references to “God”, “creation”, and “creationism”. In one place, the plaintiffs’ legal team exposed a telltale palimpsest: the phrase “cdesign proponentsists”, where the phrase “design proponents” has been clumsily and incompletely pasted over the word “creationists”.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys also brought together a stellar cast of scientists and philosophers and teachers, all of whom clearly showed that intelligent design creationism was just the religious dogma of creationism disguised with the obvious references to God removed. The most damaging testimony, however, came from creationist school board members Bill Buckingham and Alan Bonsell, who were confronted with the many statements they had made in the past where they clearly stated … their religious motivations for introducing intelligent design to the Dover schools, and perjured themselves by denying their creationist motivations during the trial.

Federal Judge John E. Jones III (a conservative church-going Republican appointed by George W. Bush) took most of November and December to review the case and render a verdict. When it came on December 20, I remember being electrified at the news. It was a slam-dunk total victory for the side of science. Judge Jones wrote:

After a searching review of the record and applicable case law, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. …It is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena.

In particular, he found their tactics to be dishonest and deceitful:

ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.

Nor did he mince words about the perjury of Buckingham and Bonsell:

The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy….The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

Once the decision was announced, the creationists and their sympathizers howled in anger and disbelief, and blamed the decision on “liberal activist judges” (despite Judge Jones’ conservative background). Judge Jones received many death threats, and had to have round-the-clock protection for a while. I eventually got to meet Judge Jones and shake his hand and thank him at the Geological Society of America meeting in 2010 when he spoke to geologists and paleontologists on the fifth anniversary of the decision.

Eventually, the controversy died down, and the poor citizens of Dover (who voted out the creationists and voted in a scientifically-literate school board) got stuck with the legal bills of the trial that their foolish predecessors had caused.

Since the Dover decision, the Discovery Institute keeps on cranking out books and literature and propaganda. As Nick Matzke writes:

Of course, the Discovery Institute is still around, still desperately trying to re-write history, claiming that they never supported teaching ID in public schools (when they clearly did, as even the Thomas More Law Center noted), that they never supported what the school board in Dover was doing (never mind that it was the DI’s care package of ID materials, particularly Icons of Evolution stuff, that ginned up the school board in the first place, which was exactly the intent of all of the emotional language about “fraud” etc. in Icons), that the Dover Area School Board was a bad place for a test case because of obvious religious motivations (never mind that ID is and always has been mostly a wing of apologetics for conservative evangelicals, and in fact that audience is still the only one where ID events, books, etc. have much of an audience today), and that ID isn’t creationism relabeled.

Now the Discovery Institute is trying to put on a brave face and claim that “intelligent design” is alive and well. Last week their site had a long post bragging about their “accomplishments” in the past ten years, which is a monument to special pleading and selective misuse of facts. They mostly brag about how their lawyers have won nuisance suits against real scientists and real museums who crossed them, and about their books (mostly by Stephen Meyer) which have been roundly criticized and mostly ignored by the real scientific community for their scientific incompetence, dishonesty, and outright deception. (See my review of Stephen Meyer’s latest book).

And what about their actual scientific research program? Back in the late 1990s when the Discovery Institute was founded, their “Wedge Document” proposed to get 100 scientific articles published in the next 10 years. Now, almost 20 years later, their latest post touts their “80 peer-reviewed publications” as if it’s some great accomplishment. Heck, most productive individual scientists have at least that many papers, and the Discovery Institute is a giant propaganda mill with many contributors. In fact, even I have over 300 peer-reviewed publications, almost four times their total, all by myself. Moreover, if you look through the list in this week’s Discovery Institute post it is almost entirely papers for their own house journal Bio-Complexity, or sleazy unreviewed online fringe sites like the Journal of Cosmology, or some of these other predatory online journals that will publish anything for a fee. Only one or two articles are found in reputable journals, and the titles of those articles indicate that their content isn’t really about ID at all. (There is also the infamous 2010 Meyer “Cambrian explosion” paper in the tiny, obscure Journal of the Biological Society of Washington, which creationist editor Richard Sternberg snuck in over the objections of reviewers).

What about the Discovery Institute’s claim that ID creationism is alive and well? There are several ways to evaluate it. For one thing, not one school district has attempted to introduce the ID creationist curriculum to their schools since the Dover case. Judge Jones’ legal reasoning was so airtight that no other creationists running a school district has found a way around it, and no lawyer dares take the case to court again. Instead, they have shifted tactics, as creationists do every time they are beaten in court. Over the past decade the creationist strategy has been to get schools to debate the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution (but not any other area of science), or get them to “teach the controversy” or push deceptively titled “academic freedom” bills that allow teachers to propagate any dogma they like without interference. These measures have been implemented in a few Bible Belt states like Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, but by and large most of the efforts to push creationism in most schools across the country have been defeated—thanks especially to the tiny but hardworking group at the National Center for Science Education.

Google Trends search by Nick Matzke of the mentions of ID creationism since 2003. There was a lot of Internet chatter about it in 2004 and 2005, then it dropped off the radar after the Dover decision. (Courtesy N. Matzke).

Perhaps the best indication of how the buzz over ID creationism has died is the evidence of the Internet chatter about it. It was the hottest topic around during the period from 2004–2005, and made the cover of Time magazine, and was endorsed by President Bush. As Nick Matzke discovered when he did a search using Google Trends, after 2005 the mentions of ID dropped off dramatically, and it has had almost no buzz since then except for the yammering from the Discovery Institute. Instead, the main face of creationism has shifted to the young-earth creationist Ken Ham and his Answers in Genesis organization in Kentucky, although there are lots of signs that he is overleveraged on junk bonds as he attempts to build his silly Noah’s ark tourist attraction.

After spending nearly all my life and professional career battling creationism without results, it seemed like there is no hope for change. But perhaps there is a light at the end of the tunnel after all. No amount of publishing scientific books and articles and blog posts, and battling creationists in classrooms and debates and school boards has done any more than slow down their attempts to make inroads in science education. Instead, the thing that is killing creationism is the scary words and overbearing tactics of fundamentalists when they finally gained power in a few states. Finally, people saw what they could do when they were able to enact their right-wing agenda against evolution, climate change, abortion, women’s rights,  gay rights, minority rights, and tried to run their states as evangelical theocracies. As many polls have shown, the younger generations (especially Gen X and the Millennials) are fast becoming the least religious and most secular American generation in history, and rejecting not only conservative religion, but the entire conservative agenda against science, women, gays, and minorities.

Even more interesting are poll numbers that show that about 50–80% of these young people fully accept evolution of not only animals but also humans (depending on how the questions are worded). As the secularization in the developed countries of northern Europe and Asia has shown, once a region becomes more secular, and religion loses hold of the younger generation, it never regains its former strength. Ironically, the thing that most doomed creationism was not science or good education; it was the overreaching when evangelicals finally got hold of the levers of political power and scared the future generations away from their beliefs. END

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