University News

Miller reflects on intelligent design case

11 years after historic trial shut down creationist curriculum, Miller weighs in on science, religion

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2016

During his 2005 testimony in Kitzmiller v. Dover, Professor of Biology Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02 defended the teaching of evolution in classrooms.

Kenneth Miller ’70 P’02, professor of biology, spoke at the Feb. 13 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington D.C., where he reviewed the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case, in which he testified as an expert witness. The historic ruling condemns the teaching of intelligent design in public schools as unconstitutional.

When the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania demanded that intelligent design be included in biology classes, the district’s teachers refused to comply. In response, the school board formulated a brief lesson on intelligent design.

“One day, they sent the assistant superintendent of schools into all the biology classrooms to teach the lesson while the teachers literally, physically stood outside in the hallway,” Miller said.

Eleven parents promptly filed a First Amendment lawsuit, and “legal forces lined up on both sides of the case,” Miller said. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Pepper Hamilton firm joined the side of the parents, while the Thomas More Law Center offered to represent the school board.

Miller was asked to be an expert witness in the case, so he spent the first two days of the Sept. 2005 trial being cross-examined on the stand. His testimony was designed to attack the arguments of opponents before they even spoke in court, he said. An author of the best-selling biology textbooks in the country, Miller had previously testified in a Georgia case about stickers placed on his textbooks that cautioned students to think critically about the theory of evolution presented in the book.

“Parts of it were funny. Several people representing the school board obviously perjured themselves,” Miller said. “Any pretense that intelligent design might have had to be a scientific theory had fallen apart — everyone in the courtroom knew it.”

The testimony presented by scientists at the trial was very convincing, said Cornelia Dean, visiting lecturer in environmental studies and a former science editor for the New York Times. “It’s important for people to stand up against the deliberate embrace of ignorance,” she added.

The news of the judge’s ruling reached Miller while he was on a train months later. “The judge swung for the fences and he basically said intelligent design is entirely a religious idea — it cannot disentangle itself from its religious roots, and therefore it’s constitutionally impermissible,” Miller said.

After a few minutes, he realized his phone conversation was “loud and obnoxious” on the crowded train car, but several passengers expressed interest in the news. He ended up “giving a little lecture to about ten people in the back of one of the cars of the Northeast Regional.”

“Judge Jones wanted to write a decision that would settle this issue,” Dean said.

“He wanted to leave no room for argument or ambiguity, (saying) as explicitly as possible that creationism or intelligent design or any of its ideological cousins are religious ideas that have no place in a publicly finessed science classroom,” Dean said. 

“Many people on the other side thought they could kill discussion about the idea of intelligent design by using a federal judge,” said John West, vice president of the Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design. “Well, this is America. You don’t kill ideas through court decrees. People still can discuss them,” he added.

The Discovery Institute encourages teachers to educate students about the current state of science — which may touch on intelligent design — and does “not teach Darwinian theory in some sort of dogmatic manner,” West said. “All we’re asking for in K-12 public education is to give teachers the right and the encouragement to be able to objectively discuss the sort of disputes that are already in the mainstream science journals,” he added.

Science and religious faith are not always seen as compatible, but Miller disagrees with this idea. “The stereotype is stronger among secular people in the United States than it is among religious people that science and religion are unalterably in conflict, but I don’t think they are.”

Dean also believes in the compatibility of science and religious faith. She noted the argument made by Stephen Gould in his book “Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life,” which asserts that “there are questions that religion can answer for us, and there are questions science can answer for us, and those groups of questions do not overlap,” Dean said. “That way is a recipe for happiness.”

“Religious faith and science are not enemies. I think that they’re friends, and I think they’re harmonious,” West said.

“The Kitzmiller case was the first time in a long time that a lot of issues that had been bubbling underneath the surface finally broke out and got national attention,” said Carl Zimmer, columnist for the New York Times and author of 12 science books. “One of the good things that came out of the case was actually that some people became aware of the really interesting scientific research that does show how people evolved,” he added.

After the Kitzmiller case, “reporters started to really appreciate that science isn’t just ‘he said, she said,’” Zimmer added. “You actually have to dig deeper and understand what scientists really have figured out — what is true and what isn’t true.”

“The Dover case did not kill off interest in intelligent design,” West said. “If anything, it was like throwing gasoline on the fire. We’ve seen even more interest.”

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