The Need for Accommodation

Eugenie C. Scott

Five years ago, I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. The trial concerned the legality of a policy of teaching intelligent design (ID) in Dover, Pennsylvania, public schools. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), my organization, acted as advisor to the plaintiff’s legal team on scientific, pedagogical, and religious issues and also on the creationism and evolution controversy. In December 2005, Judge John E. Jones III handed down a decision that firmly discredited Dover’s policy, declaring that the teaching of ID was unconstitutional advocacy of religion and in violation of the First Amendment.

The setting was a federal district court; the issues concerned First Amendment law interpretation. The issues weren’t about whether science and religion are compatible, whether one should be nice to religious people, or even, directly, whether evolution was good science. The issues had to do with whether the practice of the Dover school board violated the First Amendment’s requirement that public institutions be religiously neutral.

Establishment-clause law as currently interpreted allows some reflection of religion in the public sphere, but only as a secondary issue. A school district can, for example, provide transportation to parochial-school students because the reason for the practice is to facilitate the education of students—even if parochial-school students benefit from the practice. So whether the Dover policy had a secular purpose was critical to both the plaintiffs’ and defendants’ cases. The defense had to demonstrate a secular reason for teaching ID. The statement offered during a public meeting by Dover school-board member William Buckingham—“Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross; can’t someone take a stand for him?”—was inadequate.

To simplify a complex trial, the defense had to convince the judge that ID was valid science. It also required the defendants to propose that evolution wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be scientifically, which would justify teaching the criticisms of evolution presented in the pro-ID textbook Of Pandas and People. In addition, they contended that presenting both evolution and ID was a good critical-thinking exercise and therefore its teaching was of pedagogical value; our task was to counter each of these claims. We could—and did—easily show that ID was a religious idea. If we could demonstrate that the claimed scientific validity of ID was a sham, then the Dover policy would be revealed as having no secular reason, and the law would be squarely on our side.

We used two approaches to support our view that ID was not a valid scientific discipline. One was to look at the fact claims of ID: Are they backed up with empirical evidence? Are they tested? Do they hold up? The second approach was to look at the nature of science itself and ask, “Does ID fit the common understanding of what science is and how it works [as defined by scientists and the courts]?” Ken Miller from Brown University and paleontologist Kevin Padian from the University of California, Berkeley had the task of showing that ID’s empirical claims are invalid, as is the factual material presented in Of Pandas and People. The main claim of ID—that there are biological systems incapable of being explained through natural causes such as natural selection—was amply refuted. Specific claims about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum, the immune system, and the blood’s clotting system were shown in detail to be simply wrong.

Our lawyers also attacked the logic of ID, which, like that of creation science before it, relies on demonstrating its own validity by disproving evolution—what a judge in an earlier case in the claim had called “a contrived dualism.” Our other focus—questioning whether ID met the standards of science—was addressed by all six of our expert witnesses: two scientists, a philosopher of science, a theologian, an historian, and a pedagogical expert. Every one of them hammered home the same point: scientific explanations reflect a practice known as methodological naturalism. Scientific explanations are restricted to natural causes.

The second part of our philosophy-of-science argument was that for ID to be considered science, it must be testable and its claims must pass empirical tests. Because ID is ultimately a claim of divine intervention, it is untestable at a fundamental level. Any test or experiment that involves an unconstrained variable such as an omnipotent deity could have any outcome. Therefore, it is not possible to come to valid conclusions or build scientific explanations when God is invoked as a cause.

But be aware: we’re talking about a court of law, not a seminar on the philosophy of science. Both the science and the philosophy of science we presented were simplified—though accurate. A court has to come to a conclusion regarding contending claims; it doesn’t have the leisure for a prolonged theoretical and philosophical discussion over what the meaning of is is.

Our expert witnesses reflected the settled interpretation of how courts look at science, among other decisions. The Supreme Court in Daubert et al. v. Merrell Dow identified four factors for determining whether evolution is scientific: whether the technique can be and has been tested, whether it has been subjected to peer review and publication, whether there’s a known or potential rate of error, and whether the technique is generally accepted in the relevant scientific community. I think it would be difficult to find many practicing scientists who would disagree with this minimal description of how science works. The Daubert standards aren’t a definition of science—they certainly do not exhaust what we think about how science works—but they are very useful in a court of law.

We hit ID on peer review, probability of error, and general acceptance in the scientific community and especially on testability. The findings of fact and conclusions of law in our case were written by Richard Katskee, an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State who is really the unsung hero of the Dover trial. Katskee was never in the courtroom before the judge, but he wrote all our briefs, and he did a wondrous job on the evidence appeals as well.

We wrote that

the evidence submitted by both parties demonstrates that intelligent design’s core assertion is that for intelligent design to be “science,” the long-standing scientific ground rule of methodological naturalism must be disregarded so that “supernatural intervention” can be considered as a scientific cause. Not only is this radical proposition inconsistent with McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (as well as the definitions offered by all the major science organizations), but there was no evidence submitted at trial that any other area of scientific inquiry has ever been opened to supernatural causes [quoted in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover decision, 107].

That is entirely understandable: Supernatural causes are not testable, so intelligent design has not been, and cannot be, tested. But Daubert, McLean, and the scientific community agree that testability is a core element of the scientific method. Indeed, defendants’ expert scientific philosopher, Steven Fuller, insisted that testability is the hallmark criterion of science, and he conceded that intelligent design has not been tested.

So, if ID can make claims that cannot be verified (indeed, its fact claims are false), and it doesn’t use the same handbook that other scientists use, there’s no reason to teach it. To compare evolution with ID as a critical thinking exercise is of no pedagogical value. We did a very good job trashing the defense’s claim for a secular purpose for teaching ID. That left only the religious purpose for teaching ID, which led to its being declared unconstitutional.

The reason I went into so much detail about the Dover trial is because it illustrates NCSE’s general approach to the issue of creationism and evolution. In Kitzmiller v. Dover, we had a specific goal: to convince the judge that the teaching of ID was unconstitutional. We are not an atheist organization. To succeed in Dover, we relied upon some science. Margaret Talbot wrote in the New Yorker that “the testimony of the trial was like the biology class you wish you could have taken.” We also relied upon a clear understanding of the nature of science and how it works.

We do this as well at NCSE in our day-to-day activities, where respect for science is combined with the political and communications awareness necessary to achieve our goals. Remember, we’re dealing with science education, which in the United States is highly politicized because school boards are elected. The United States is a democracy. We cannot force decision makers like school board members or legislators to teach good science; we need to persuade them. Scientists have no political clout, so when we battle to defend evolution, we must build coalitions of all the stakeholders in the community, including scientists but also teachers, parents, businesspersons, and members of the mainstream clergy. Time and again, we have found that some of the most vehement opposition to teaching creationism comes from very religious members of mainstream Christian denominations and their clergy. I learned long ago that appreciation for science is not limited to nonbelievers.

It’s worthwhile to think a moment about religion in general. We have to overcome the tendency to think of religion as being primarily about explaining the natural world—it isn’t. It turns out to be quite difficult to define religion in a way that includes world religions like Christianity and Buddhism as well as tribal and other local religions. The definition that I use as an anthropologist is that religion is the set of beliefs and practices that link people with a nonmaterial reality that is perceived differently from culture to culture. Valhalla, Elysium, Heaven, and the Five Underworlds of the Holy People are very different from one another, and Christians, ancient Norse, Greeks, and Navajo have quite different rituals and beliefs. If you’re going to understand religion, you have to understand it cross-culturally, and although many religions have different explanations for the origins of the natural world, such explanations are not their main focus.

One should not generalize about religion based only on the belief system with which one is most familiar. But even if we limit ourselves to Christianity, it is not primarily concerned with explaining the natural world either. In the Bible, part of one book, Genesis, concerns this question, while the rest of the Old and New Testament is about people’s relationship to God. Because Christianity is not primarily about explaining the natural world, it is not necessarily antithetical to science.

Empirically, it is clear that many Christians appreciate and embrace science. It is certainly not accurate to say science and Christianity are compatible, any more than it is accurate to say that science and Christianity are incompatible. Whether science and evolution are accepted by a Christian depends on what tradition he or she follows, and even then there is considerable idiosyncrasy within traditions. On the floor of the new science building at Notre Dame is a meter-wide insert in the marble quoting Theodosius Dobzhansky’s maxim, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Our expert witness John Haught, a Catholic theologian, is fond of saying, “Nothing in theology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Most but not all Catholics accept evolution. Most but not all Baptists follow a more literalist translation of Genesis and believe God specially created living things, including Adam and Eve. Remember that in 1981, the Southern Baptists were among the plaintiffs on the anti-creationist side in McLean v. Arkansas. A member of NCSE in Texas revealed that he sends his child to the Lutheran parochial school so she’ll study evolution, because he has no confidence she will receive instruction in that topic in the public schools.

Some Christian denominations are strongly biblically literalist—Pentecostalists, for example—and they don’t accept evolution. Think of conservative Christians as sort of the “other side” of Catholics and mainstream Protestants. But even conservative Christians should not automatically be viewed as rejecting evolution. The Biologos Foundation was established by Francis Collins, though currently he is not associated with it. It consists primarily of evangelical scientists trying to reach out to fellow evangelicals to encourage a more science-friendly perspective. When I last looked at its web page, the foundation was highlighting Denis Lamoureux’s book, I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution. Theologically, you can hardly get more evangelical than Lamoureaux, and you can hardly find a more enthusiastic evangelist for evolution to the evangelicals. Lamoureux has said, “Evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually satisfied theist.”

So, where are we with all these data? It is empirically obvious that one can be a theist—a supernaturalist, if you will—and still think science is good, valuable, and inspiring. For my goals, those of increasing the understanding and acceptance of evolution and science, and given my understanding of how science works, I am happy to accept all comers. It is methodological naturalism that is necessary for science, not philosophical naturalism.

I am a philosophical naturalist—it works for me—but I see no need for a Christian who loves science and is fascinated by evolution to have to join me in my disbelief. What is necessary, however, is that like me, a person of faith has to employ methodological naturalism when trying to explain the natural world—which is what science does. If a young-earth creationist says, “God created the Earth six thousand years ago,” there’s a fact claim in there that I can disprove through science. If an old-earth creationist says, “God created the earth 4.3 billion years ago,” there is nothing science can say to disprove him or her.

But a more important point is that human beings have interests other than science. Human beings around the world, Christian and otherwise, sit up nights and think about survival and their loved ones. Will rain come at the wrong time and ruin the crop? Science may tell you about frequency of storms in the coming month, but it isn’t going to help you with the meaning of that concern and how it weighs on you. Is my sister going to get off drugs? Science may tell you the effects of drugs on your sister’s nervous system, but it isn’t going to do anything to help you cope with how you feel about her losing her job and neglecting her child, and her life going to ruin. My father is going to die; I’ll never see him again, and I will have a huge hole in my life. Science can tell me why his body degenerated but it isn’t going to do much to alleviate my grief.

About twenty-seven years ago, I was nine and a half months pregnant with my daughter. I was the size of a small mountain. I was sick of being pregnant, and I wondered what kind of craziness had possessed me to get pregnant. Neither my husband nor I had a permanent job, an
d I had never thought of myself as a mother—I was a professional and too busy to have a kid. What was I thinking? This was never going to work out.

If I could have resorbed her two days before birth, I would have. I have two words for you: perinatal hormones. When they kicked in—during and just after delivery when I held my new baby—I felt an indescribable surge of love, protectiveness, and caring, and I bonded like iron to this helpless little pink creature. As a biologist, I can tell you about the enzymes and hormones that kick in during childbirth and their effect on maternal psychology, but so what? It is the meaning of the experience that is important, not the physiology. What is important is how I feel about that bond, which is distinct from any additional scientific understanding of the process.

Science is great, but it’s not the only thing important to human beings. The Dani, the Christian, or any person on this planet may appreciate how science explains or assists with problems, but he or she also focuses on the meanings of these concerns, and that goes beyond science.

Personally, I’m a humanist, not a supernaturalist; it is my secular humanist philosophy that I turn to when I need to deal with grief, compassion, joy, or any of the rest of the suite of things outside of science. Christians and people of other faiths turn to supernaturalism to gain the same comfort or understanding, independent of explaining the natural world.

The conflict is between supernaturalism and secular philosophies like humanism, not between supernaturalism and science. Science is used by both secularists and supernaturalists to support their points of view, and this is not illegitimate. What I think is going beyond what science can do is to claim that science necessarily compels either a supernaturalist or a secularist philosophy. Picture two plants growing in soil: the two plants are in competition for light, water, which one gets the fungus, and so forth, but neither plant is in competition with the soil. Similarly, supernaturalist religions like Christianity or the Navajo faith are not in competition with science; they are competition with secularist philosophy or one other.

Science per se is not a worldview; it’s a way of understanding the natural world. Philosophical naturalism is a worldview, and it draws from science much as a plant draws from soil. Science can provide information that a nonsupernaturalist like me can use to build a worldview, but that is a different claim from science itself being a worldview. Science is an equal-opportunity methodology suitable for anyone, no matter from which personal philosophy he or she creates meaning. And yes, many supernaturalists, including Christians, also use science to refine their sense of meaning and purpose—which is why I have no problem working with religious and nonreligious people toward our common goal of increasing understanding of science and evolution.

If your goal is to increase the number of atheists, fine. Cultivate your plant and watch it grow. But your plant doesn’t own the soil.


Thanks to Blaize Barnicoat for transcribing Eugenie C. Scott’s presentation.

Eugenie C. Scott

Eugenie C. Scott is executive director of the National Center for Science Education, author of Evolution vs. Creationism (University of California Press, 2009), and coauthor (with Glenn Branch) of Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2006).

Five years ago, I was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, at the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. The trial concerned the legality of a policy of teaching intelligent design (ID) in Dover, Pennsylvania, public schools. The National Center for Science Education (NCSE), my organization, acted as advisor to the plaintiff’s legal team on scientific, pedagogical, and religious issues …

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