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March 4, 2006

Newsday: Science panel aims at evolution

Category: News – bioslp 9:59 PM

STAFF CORRESPONDENT,0,7204235.story?coll=ny-
February 20, 2006, 3:37 PM EST

ST. LOUIS — Emboldened by recent successes, researchers, clergy and teachers assembled at a national science conference said they’re taking the offensive in the pitched battle over teaching evolution in American classrooms.

At the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science here, panelists described how the anti-evolution Intelligent Design movement has changed its tactics in response to recent legal defeats as more than 140 educators from the St. Louis area gathered for an interactive forum on defending and expanding evolution instruction in the classroom.

Intelligent Design holds that life in all its forms is too complicated to have arisen by chance and thus requires the intervention of an unnamed supernatural designer.

On Sunday, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.) told the assembled K-12 science teachers that attacking evolution in the classroom “risks the validity of science across the board,” and announced three new legislative initiatives to promote research and science education, while the teachers received kits to help them with their classroom instruction.

Organizers of the new Alliance for Science separately announced their goal of bringing together teachers, scientists and clergy “to heighten public understanding and support for science and to preserve the distinctions between science and religion in the public sphere,” while coordinators of the Clergy Letter Project announced their success in gathering signatures from 10,000 clergy for an open letter in support of teaching evolution.

“Science is absolutely neutral with regard to religion,” said the Rev. George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory. The Clergy Letter Project, though, hopes to send the message that science and religion are far from incompatible.

AAAS also released a statement denouncing the anti-evolution bills pending in 14 states, including New York’s Assembly Bill 8036, which explicitly calls for K-12 students to receive instruction “in both theories of ID and evolution.”

Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, said other bills contain more coded language arising largely from the anti-evolution movement’s legal defeat in Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District, in which District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled in a strongly worded 139-page decision in December that the Pennsylvania school board’s pro-Intelligent Design stance promoted religion and was therefore unconstitutional.

“As a legal strategy, Intelligent Design is dead,” Scott said. “That does not mean that Intelligent Design is dead as a very popular social movement.”

On Monday, the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture — a Seattle-based Intelligent Design think tank — hit back with a new release announcing that more than 500 scientists have publicly expressed their doubts over Darwinian evolution.

“From our point of view, Intelligent Design is not a legal strategy, it’s a scientific theory,” said center spokesman Robert Crowther in a telephone interview. “It’s a robust theory and we’re getting more and more interest in it all the time.”

In the past, Scott said, anti-evolutionists proffered the argument that balancing evolution with Intelligent Design was only fair. Now, she said, the movement’s arguments are de-emphasizing their own alternative — with its implicit understanding that a supernatural designer must be involved — and tending toward euphemisms such as “sudden emergence,” or “creative evolution,” and focusing on the “flaws,” “controversy,” or “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution.

By attacking evolution’s credibility, Scott said, opponents hope to raise enough doubt in the minds of students that they will embrace Intelligent Design as a viable alternative on their own.

At a Stony Brook University lecture earlier this month as part of the university’s Darwin Day observance, Scott said Intelligent Design’s concept undermines science because it subverts the agreed-upon scientific method.

“How do you put God in a test tube or keep him out of one?” she asked.

Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University in Providence, R.I., said in an interview that the best way to counter Intelligent Design is to show what’s behind the “scientifically bogus” concept.

Those opposed to teaching evolution, he said, would like to portray the fight as a controversy between liberals and conservatives. But the strong legal decision by Jones, a life-long Republican recommended by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), has undermined that strategy, Miller said.

Even so, teachers gathered in St. Louis said they often feel uncomfortable when teaching evolutionary concepts in public school classrooms. A survey commissioned by the National Science Teachers Association found that nearly one-third of 1,000 respondents said they felt pressured to include creationism, Intelligent Design or other non-scientific alternatives to evolution in classroom instruction.

Jennifer Miller, a biology teacher from Dover, Pa., said she and other teachers at the high school banded together in the face of enormous pressure from the school board at the height of the controversy there.

“It was really the first time I had felt uncomfortable in my own classroom,” she said in an interview. Later, in a video presentation for the assembled teachers, she concluded, “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t stand up.”

Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.