Wednesday, February 15, 2006



The Ohio Board of Education voted 11 to 4 yesterday to eliminate an intelligent design inspired requirement that 10th-grade biology classes there include "critical analysis" of evolution.

A letter sent to Ohio Gov. Bob Taft on Feb. 7 by 24 of the 32 members of the school board's science advisory committee describes the board's "critical analysis" requirement and accompanying lesson plan as "intelligent design creationism poorly concealed in scientific sounding jargon."

The decision by the Ohio board to toss out "critical analysis" is the third strike intelligent design activists have suffered in the past two months.

In December, Judge John Jones ruled intelligent design violates the constitutional separation of church and state. In the decision, Jones wrote, “We find that the secular purposes claimed by the board amount to a pretext for the board’s real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom.”

Following the Dover decision, the El Tejon school board in California agreed to cancel a philosophy class that proposed taking "a close look at evolution as a theory… discuss the scientific, biological, and Biblical aspects that suggest why Darwin’s philosophy is not rock solid… discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative response to evolution."

If this were baseball, intelligent design would be out. They'd have to put down their bat and sit on the bench. But, this isn't baseball. It’s politics, pure and simple, and we can expect activists from the religious right to stay at the plate and swing wildly for the fence for some time to come.

As right-wing Ohio school board member Deborah Owens Fink told the New York Times, the vote was just another round in the culture war, not a knockout.

"There are no permanent victories in politics," Ms. Fink said. "You do not get paradigm shifts overnight. Whether the ultimate victory is today or it's tomorrow or it's two years from now, people demand that they get open discussion of this issue."

Predictably, Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based intelligent design think tank, was unhappy about the decision.

“This is a completely outrageous slap in the face to the 69 percent of Ohioans just polled who said they want students to hear the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory,” says John G. West, associate director of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture.

Supporters of quality science education are right to be concerned about public opinion polls that indicate high levels of support for teaching variants of creationism, intelligent design, or critical analysis. We must do more to educate the public about the importance of science and the central role of evolution in biology.

But, there are also good reasons be skeptical about the survey results being touted by the Discovery Institute.

Here in Kansas, voters who'd had a belly full of the antics of creationists and intelligent design activists on the state board of education voted them out in 2000.

Last November, in Dover, Penn., voters in the school board election there reached the same conclusion about intelligent design in public schools that Judge Jones did. They voted out every incumbent member of the board who had voted to mandate reading a statement to students critical of evolution.

Those are the kind of public opinion surveys that really count. Just ask Ohio Gov. Bob Taft.

Taft, an early supporter of the intelligent design inspired "critical analysis" of evolutionary theory in Ohio turned against it for very pragmatic reasons. Public opinion surveys show he is one of the least popular governors in the nation. After reading the tea leaves, Taft concluded that intelligent design was a liability he just couldn't afford.

Since Taft controls the appointment of a number of Ohio school board members, his decision to abandon "critical analysis" to its fate set the stage for yesterday's vote.

Following their defeat in 2000, a number of Kansas creationists and intelligent design activists found their way back onto the board. One of them, Iris Van Meter, ran as a stealth candidate, refusing to speak publicly prior to the election. An election-eve smear against her opponent succeeded in putting Van Meter into office.

The success of the religious right in that election happened because the moderates who became energized by the battle to defend science education assumed they'd won a decisive victory. They became complacent, and failed to recruit candidates, communicate effectively, raise money, and go to the polls on election day.

Today, the situation in Kansas is much different. Moderates are ready to take back Kansas once again. Early indications in the school board race suggest the religious right may be in for the same kind of beating they took in 2000.

We should not be surprised that surveys of public opinion on teaching creationism, intelligent design, and critical analysis, tend to show a high level of support, particularly if they are framed in terms of "teach both sides of the issue."

That frame appeals strongly to the ingrained sense of fairness that most Americans possess. However, experience shows that when voters become familiar with the real agenda of the religious right, they turn decisively against it.

A survey takes a couple of minutes to complete over the phone, but you have to live with a board of education for a number of years. And voters who live with creationists and intelligent design activists on their school boards for any period of time learn the hard way that anti-science agitation comes as part of a package.

Here in Kansas, for example, intelligent design comes bundled with charter schools, vouchers, the appointment of an education commissioner utterly unqualified to hold his job, a cavalier attitude toward the filing of expense reports, foolish statements to the media, and a mindset hostile to public education.

Intelligent design activists are hopeful that Dover, El Tejon, and Ohio will start a backlash against science education. In truth, the backlash was already well underway. Each of those decisions reflects a growing uneasiness with the consequences of the religious right's war on science.

While we see a continuing series of setbacks for ID and its variants, Scientists, educators, and supporters of science education must begin to organize for a long-lasting battle with the right. As Deborah Owens Fink points out, there are no permanent victories in politics


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