Dissecting Design

Dr. Alters analyzes Dover statement

So, as I was saying, in the AM, Dr. Alters went through the Dover biology statement on evolution and intelligent design that is read to students before the start of the evolution chapter. (FYI, this link is to the updated statement, which was changed in June, according to opposing counsel. Vic Walczak and Dr. Alters discussed the original statement that was read in January. But don’t fret, dear readers, Dr. Alters tangled with the new statement. Keep reading.)

Here’s a look at the statement and Dr. Alter’s thoughts on it:

The statement, paragraph 1: The Pennsylvania Academic Standards require students to learn about Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and eventually to take a standardized test of which evolution is a part.
The messages that students receive, according to Dr. Alters: “Evolution must be a special science… We’d rather not do it, but the state requires it.”

Paragraph 2: Because Darwin’s Theory is a theory, it continues to be tested as new evidence is discovered. The Theory is not a fact. Gaps in the Theory exist for which there is no evidence. A theory is defined as a well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations.
The message students get out of this: “A theory is a half-baked idea.”
Analysis from Dr. Alters: “All theories continue to be tested. Why is evolution singled out? … Evolution is a theory and a fact. [Scientists] no longer debate it.”

Paragraph 3: Intelligent Design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin’s view. The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.
Analysis: Dr. Alters noted that, “Darwin didn’t posit a view in public on origins of life.” Evolution only explains the origin of species. Furthermore, Dr. Alters repeated a fact that has come up several times throughout this trial: “Panda‘s central theme of intelligent design has been judged not to be science.”

Paragraph 4: With respect to any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves the discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families. As a Standards-driven district, class instruction focuses upon preparing students to achieve proficiency on Standards-based assessments.
The unwritten message: “It seems like what we’re about to learn they really don’t want to teach us.”
Analysis: “They’re only encouraged to keep an open mind with this theory.”

Dr. Alter’s conclusions: “It’s about as bad as I could possibly think of. It’s absurd to me. I can’t imagine anything worse.”

During re-direct from Vic Walczak in the afternoon, Dr. Alters looked at the new statement, which has just one change, which is in the third paragraph and in bold below:
“The reference book, Of Pandas and People, is available in the library along with other resources for students who might be interested in gaining an understanding of what Intelligent Design actually involves.”

When Vic asked the professor about the change, he said that the revision “makes it worse.”

“It sounds like there are even more books on non-science,” Dr. Alters testified.

On re-cross examination, opposing counsel Robert Muise asked Dr. Alters if he would change his opinion if he knew that the “other resources” include books challenging intelligent design. Dr. Alters responded that now you’re telling students that there are books calling ID non-science while administrators are telling the students it is science.

Before I sign off, we would be remiss if we didn’t fill you in a little more on the cross-examination of Bertha Spahr by Patrick Gillen this morning. By and large, the questioning was reiterating statements that were already on the record, as most of Mrs. Spahr’s answers were “yes” or “correct.”

However, perhaps the most interesting piece of her testimony this morning regarded a textbook catalog she received. In the catalog, according to Mrs. Spahr’s testimony, Of Pandas and People was listed under the category “Creation Science.” Our team entered the catalog into evidence, despite the objection of opposing counsel, which was overruled by Judge Jones.

Mrs. Spahr also talked about the resistance from the science faculty on the curriculum change and noted the tension in the community.

“Some in the community felt if we didn’t support the board, we were atheists.” She said that she was taken aback by that since two of the school’s teachers are children of ministers.

Submitted by Andy Hoover, community education organizer, ACLU of PA

10 thoughts on “Dissecting Design

  1. Pretty good, Dr. Alters. A witness with acuity and attitude. I particularly like “It’s about as bad as it can get” followed by the revision, which “makes it worse”.

  2. How effective has the cross been? Is the defence scoring points and, if so, what are they? So far, the case has been solid and the defense has been impotent to establish any credibility.

  3. As someone who only recently abandoned religion, it is shocking and somewhat frightening that so many people seem to think that the most vile insult they can label you with is “atheist”, said in the same way one would say “Nazi”.

  4. ipecac,

    Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon in many places. There are many people that don’t seem to realize that there’s a very big difference between an atheist and a satanist.

    But when you have people that have religion so ingrained in their thought process that they can’t possibly conceive of any other way of thinking, one shouldn’t be surprised that people do this. It’s unfortunate, but this is the world we find ourselves in. There aren’t very many candles in the dark, and the demons are seen everywhere.

  5. I didn’t think that Dr. Alters comments about the ID statement was very moving. I think people will see what they want to see.

    It’s not so much what the statement said, it’s that 1) it’s cites a religious dogma, and 2) it’s read in a science classroom. IMHO, the degree of the religious overtones, or hidden meanings are not very relevant, and very subjective.

  6. …the degree of the religious overtones, or hidden meanings are not very relevant, and very subjective.

    I couldn’t disagree more. The subtext here is extremetly important. High school students aren’t stupid, if you feed them a line of bs, they will pick up on it immediately, and that’s partially because high schoolers spend quite a bit of time bs-ing. So they know it when they see it.

    Let’s also be real clear here. Every one of those students knows exactly what’s going on in that statement.

    I recall my own high school experience in a conservative community as an example. When we began our 2 or 3 days of instruction on evolution, the number of smirks and low whispers let you know exactly how certain students felt about it. In other words, the students that didn’t believe in evolution weren’t about to be swayed by a two or three day lecture on it. So why the need for a statement in the first place, if it’s not to publicly demean the scientific method? The students weren’t going to be swayed in any way by the presentation, for the most part, their minds are already made up.

  7. Andy – I love your blog, BUT IT IS HARD TO READ FOR ME! I AM OLD NOW! I can’t read your stinking teensy, tiney small fonts! PLEASE EITHER ADJUST FONTS OR CHANGE BLOG FORMAT!

  8. It looks like the defense is trying to disentangle religion from ID in order to make teaching it legal. They have made the argument that scientists are allowed to make non-scientific comments which should not be construed as their science. If Darwin believed in Jesus, that does nothing to invalidate evolution. Similarly, the things said in e.g. the Wedge document or by school board members have no bearing on the validity of ID.

    Will this strategy work?

  9. It looks like the defense is trying to disentangle religion from ID in order to make teaching it legal.

    I guess there are two issues there.

    1. It presupposes that ID is *really* scientific, without redefining science in some completely unfounded way….which is a different issue entirely. I would *really* like to see them try this argument in court, ID is easily assailable from a number of different directions, and they know it. This is why they want to redefine science in some fuzzy way to make it more compatible with their views.

    This also touches on the issue of what exactly are they doing that warrants elevation of ID to the status of science? Where is the rigorous definition of irreducible complexity? And how do you *really* tell the difference between something that is irreducibly complex and something that is not? They claim to be working on this, but there is not a single scientific paper published on this subject. It is either a scientifically viable concept or it is not, but they have proven that they have little interest in actually doing this. Otherwise there would be some research to show for it.

    2. Proving you can disentangle the religion from ID is going to be difficult when their stated goal is to redefine science some how so that they can specifically include supernatural explanations compatible with their religion. I don’t think you can say that you’re pushing something that is both religious and scientific, but only if you redefine science in a certain way, and then maintain that there is no religious connection.

    Trying to redefine a thing using different words doesn’t change the nature of the thing being defined.

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