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'Intelligent design' backers relent
Education debate may shift to local level

From the Columbus Dispatch, Tuesday, March 12, 2002

Catherine Candisky 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, anyway.

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 support.

"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 advocates.

"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 science curriculum.

"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 were unchanged.

"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 intelligent design.

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 teach.''

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 schools.

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 design.

"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.

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