'Intelligent design' backers relent
Education debate may shift to local level
From the Columbus Dispatch, Tuesday, March 12, 2002
and David Lore
Dispatch Staff Reporters
Advocates of teaching "intelligent design'' alongside
evolution in the science classroom abandoned their fight in Ohio yesterday -- for now,
Instead, they said they will push the State Board of
Education to allow, but not require, their view to be taught in public schools.
In a surprise move, Stephen C. Meyer, a Washington state
philosopher and intelligent-design supporter, suggested the compromise during a panel
discussion on science standards that drew more than 1,000 to Veterans Memorial.
His proposal could shift to local school boards and even
teachers the debate over the validity of Darwinian evolution and whether intelligent
design -- the idea that life couldn't have begun or developed without some unidentified
designer -- is merely a guise for biblical creationism.
Meyer was one of four members of a panel that discussed the
issue yesterday at the invitation of the state school board.
Afterward, several on the 19-member board said they would
push to include such a compromise in grade-by-grade guidelines of what Ohio's 1.8 million
students should know about science. The standards, which must be in place by the end of
the year, will be the basis for Ohio's new graduation test and other student assessments.
Deborah Owens Fink, a board member from Richfield and
leading advocate of intelligent design, said there is not enough backing on the board to
require its instruction, but she was hopeful that the compromise would attract more
"Intelligent design has become a lightning rod for
controversy and, in the period of time we have, it will be hard to resuscitate,'' said
James L. Turner, another supporter and board member from Cincinnati.
Teachers should be free to talk about intelligent design,
Fink and Turner said, regardless of arguments from most scientists who say the concept
does not have merit because it has not been tested nor subjected to extensive peer review.
"They worry if they crack that door open a little,
they are going to come in and teach the Bible in the classroom,'' Turner said. "But I
don't think that's going to happen, and, to me, we are just left with bad science.''
Even those who want only evolution taught in the biology
classroom expressed grudging admiration for yesterday's move by the intelligent- design
"This is very clever of them,'' said Eugenie C. Scott,
director of the California-based National Center for Science Education, a promoter of
evolution planks in school standards. "Local control has always been the third rail
of American politics, so just as they've cleverly exploited the argument for 'equal time,'
so they're quick to seize on the popularity of local control.''
Scott, who did not participate in yesterday's debate, said
the fact remains that intelligent-design advocates are "trying to cut to the head of
the line'' by getting their ideas into schools without first submitting them to normal
scientific testing and debate.
Phillip E. Johnson, a law professor at the University of
California-Berkeley whose 1991 critique of evolution, Darwin on Trial, helped launch the
intelligent-design movement, said allowing alternative views can only strengthen Ohio's
"If Ohio permits and encourages teachers to help
students understand alternative views, then Ohio's teachers will be able to provide good
science education consistent with recent federal legislation,'' said Johnson, who did not
participate on the panel.
Afterward, half a dozen board members said their positions
"I don't believe there are any limitations on what can
be taught now,'' said Martha Wise, a board member from Avon, who questioned the need for
such a compromise. She supports proposed standards emphasizing evolution.
Marlene R. Jennings, a board member from Kirtland, said she
still prefers presenting all sides to students, although she is not an advocate of
Richard E. Baker, a board member from Hollansburg, agreed.
"If only one idea is taught, I think it would be
unfortunate,'' he said. "It doesn't mean that I believe it's evolution or intelligent
design. My concern is that we teach young people all ideas.''
In January, an Ohio group asked the state board to require
teaching intelligent design.
But yesterday, the leading national organization advocating
intelligent design said that was not part of their agenda.
"There may be people in Ohio who want to order
teachers to teach intelligent design, but we're not doing that,'' said Bruce Chapman,
president of the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture in
Seattle. "The idea is not to force people to do something; it's to allow them to
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly rejected the teaching
of biblical creationism in schools. Those rulings gave birth about a decade ago to the
intelligent-design movement, which holds itself as a strict alternative to evolution.
Outside Veterans Memorial yesterday, a few demonstrators
distributed religious leaflets and bright yellow T-shirts advocating intelligent design,
which some wore inside.
During the 2 1/2 -hour panel discussion, Meyer and Jonathan
Wells, both fellows at the Seattle institute, argued that intelligent design is a
legitimate scientific theory even if it's been shunned by the scientific establishment and
the professional groups and journals that arbitrate what is legitimate science.
Intelligent design, Wells said, is an "inference from
the biological evidence -- we can only speculate where the designer came from.''
Opposing intelligent design in the standards, Case Western
Reserve University physicist Lawrence M. Krauss and Brown University biologist Kenneth R.
Miller said the Discovery Institute is trying an end run to get its ideology into the
Intelligent design, they said, has not been subject to peer
review and criticism -- and, being untested, deserves no place in the classroom. The idea
is being promoted by a handful of scientists, most affiliated with the Seattle institute,
the opponents said.
"If this debate were fair, there would be 10,000
scientists vs. one representative of the Discovery Institute,'' Krauss said to illustrate
that the mainstream science community overwhelmingly rejects the notion of intelligent
"There is an agenda here, no matter what you hear, to
replace materialistic explanations with a theistic understanding of nature.''
Miller said that if intelligent-design supporters want to
be taken seriously, they must submit their proposals to scientific journals and subject
them to the criticism of their peers, as any other scientist does. But they can't do that,
Miller said, because intelligent design is a philosophical, not a scientific, point of
view and would not withstand the rigors of such review.
Miller, noting that he is a religious person, said he
worries that by forcing intelligent design into the classroom, students will feel
pressured to choose between science and religion.
But Meyers said a broader definition of science to include
the controversy would enliven classroom teaching and improve science education in Ohio.
He said he'd like to see more alternative theories taught
across the range of sciences, not just in biology.
Although a similar debate over science standards two years
ago in Kansas led the state school board to strip evolution from its standards -- a
decision reversed when voters unseated several board members who supported the removal --
Ohio is the first state where intelligent design has become a statewide issue.