Designing Science by Politics

When President George W. Bush signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law early this year, he came close to penning his approval to a provision that many scientists say would have opened the door to antievolution lessons in America's classrooms. Congress passed the new law, which overhauls federal primary and high school education mandates including testing requirements, after a joint conference committee resolved differences between House and Senate versions of the bill. The Sen

By | May 27, 2002

When President George W. Bush signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law early this year, he came close to penning his approval to a provision that many scientists say would have opened the door to antievolution lessons in America's classrooms. Congress passed the new law, which overhauls federal primary and high school education mandates including testing requirements, after a joint conference committee resolved differences between House and Senate versions of the bill.

The Senate bill included a last-minute, nonbinding 'sense of the Senate' amendment that in part specified, "where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why the subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject." Offered by Sen. Rick Santorum (R.-Pa.), the amendment received enthusiastic support from the bill's floor manager, Edward M. Kennedy (D.-Mass.) and other key senators. The amendment passed 98-1, but since the House version did not include the Santorum wording, the conference committee had to decide what to do with it.

Harmless Legislation?

The Santorum amendment also stated that, "good science education should prepare students to distinguish the data or testable theories of science from philosophical or religious claims that are made in the name of science." The clause sounds like something any scientist could support, but coupled with the other provision singling out evolution as controversial, it set off alarm bells from Capitol Hill to California.

"To someone not familiar with the rhetoric of the antievolution movement, it looked like a straightforward, 'let's all be critical thinkers' approach," says Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, Calif. (See Profile, page 60). But, "the fact that evolution is singled out from all other potentially controversial topics shows that this is an antievolution measure," she adds. Besides, evolution is not controversial among biologists, insisted Ellen Paul, public policy representative for the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS).

Judging by the overwhelming vote in favor, senators were not as concerned about the amendment. Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W. Va.) commented that the amendment "will lead to a more thoughtful treatment of this topic in the classroom." He added, "it is important that students be exposed not only to the theory of evolution, but also to the context in which it is viewed by many in our society." The senator also explained that "I personally have been greatly impressed by the many scientists who ... have concluded that some divine force had to have played a role in the birth of our magnificent universe." Sen. Sam Brownback (R.-Kans.) saw the amendment as payback to "many in the global community, who presumably knew the facts, spread misinformation as to what happened in Kansas," referring to recent state school board actions on evolution. Kennedy thought that Santorum, who invoked intellectual freedom in his remarks, made "eminently good sense," adding, "We want children to be able to speak and examine various scientific theories ...."

Was it Really About Science?

Why did Congress pick evolution for special attention? Apparently, say amendment opponents, because creationists championing a cause called intelligent design flexed their growing muscle on Capitol Hill. Most biologists would argue that evolution has no viable scientific alternatives in explaining how present-day life got here, at least none for which there are supporting material data. Santorum himself offered metaphysical justifications for his actions by claiming "science has become a philosophy known as materialism and naturalism [and] insists that nature is all there is." According to science, thinks Santorum, "the means of creation must not have included any role for God." Despite such language, intelligent design proponents say the debate is not about religion per se; they avoid specifying who the intelligent designer is.

Courtesy of Phillip Johnson

Phillip Johnson

Santorum specifically cited intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. His remarks about materialism and naturalism parrot statements on the Web site of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture (CSRC), a division of the Seattle, Wash.-based Discovery Institute. CSRC is intelligent design's biggest booster. Phillip Johnson, a University of California, Berkeley, law professor and adviser to CSRC who launched the intelligent design movement about 10 years ago, helped draft the amendment's language. According to Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman, "the amendment was the idea of Sen. Santorum," but institute spokesperson Mark Edwards acknowledged Johnson's role in crafting it. Santorum supported the bill on the floor of the Senate by citing opinions of David DeWolf, Gonzaga University law professor and CSRC senior fellow.

File Photo

Richard O'Grady

Richard O'Grady, executive director of AIBS, says the amendment uses standard intelligent design arguments. "ID proponents are trying to make an end-run around legal prohibitions on the teaching of creationism by espousing a version that avoids mention of a creator," claims O'Grady. In turn, Chapman blasts "overly insecure people in academia" and others, saying "they apparently can't stand the idea that students might be allowed to hear both Darwin's theory and also the scientific criticisms of it."

Call Out the Troops

It didn't take long for word to get out after the Senate approved the Santorum amendment. The Discovery Institute's Edwards was quoted in a widely circulated E-mail message as saying "undoubtedly this will change the face of the debate over the theories of evolution and intelligent design in America." By adding "the Darwinian monopoly on public science education, and perhaps the biological sciences in general, is ending," Edwards—who confirmed making the statements—further unnerved scientists.

Leading societies including AIBS, NCSE, the Association of American Universities, and the American Geological Institute (AGI) quickly organized to kill the amendment in conference committee. E-mail and Internet postings flew fast and furious. According to Scott, eventually "officers of almost 100 scientific societies representing over 100,000 scientists" called on the committee to drop the wording. Said Cindy Warkovsky of the National Science Teachers Association of the amendment, "We do not support this. It leaves the door open to pseudoscience and religion."

But amendment opponents also walked a tightrope—they did not want to give intelligent design a lot of attention, fearing it would further legitimize the cause. "We don't want to create a debate on the floor of the House on intelligent design," admitted Paul of AIBS.

Scientists particularly worried about the amendment's potential fallout for biological research as well as teaching. "We're communicating with the conferees and meeting with Kennedy's staff," said Warkovsky. "We hope they hear our voices and clearly understand the amendment's implications." A Kennedy aide told The Scientist, "The senator is a big supporter of science education. I assure you he is aware of the implications."

But was Kennedy really informed? When asked about the way evolutionary principles are used in biomedical research, including pharmaceutical design (Kennedy is a big supporter of affordable drugs), press secretary Jim Manley responded, "That's news to me." Manley insisted Kennedy knows the arguments for and against creationism and evolution, saying, "he doesn't have any problem with it [evolution]." Manley also maintained that the senator actually supported the Santorum amendment for strategic reasons—in his words, "to expedite an important piece of legislation."

All's Well That Ends Well?

The conference committee eventually deleted the Santorum amendment before it returned a consensus bill to the Senate and House of Representatives, which then passed it and sent it on to the president. But intelligent design proponents hadn't entirely lost the fight: The committee added some of the amendment's language to a statement explaining the bill. The committee report has no force of law and carries no funding mandates.

The Discovery Institute ignored the distinction, however, claiming in a press release, "the new bill represents a substantial victory for scientific critics of Darwin's theory." Chapman also pointed out that the bill was strongly supported by intelligent design advocates.

Amendment opponents spun the outcome in different ways. Scott sees the cup as half full, saying "the inclusion of a modified and watered down form of the amendment with no force of law, buried deep in explanatory material, was probably intended to appease religious conservative constituents," she noted. "The law itself doesn't mention evolution. Teachers do not have to alter how they teach evolution as a result of the education bill."

Others were not as optimistic. According to David Applegate, head of legislative affairs for AGI, "the explanatory report has been parlayed by creationists into an even better propaganda tool. They were not trying to enact legislation that supported their viewpoint—they simply wanted their supporters to be able to stand up in a school board meeting or state legislature hearing and say that Congress has gone 'on record' in support of teaching alternatives to evolution"—which is what they can, in fact, say. AIBS's O'Grady agrees. Paul worries that "the general public won't make the distinction" that the wording wasn't in the law itself.

Applegate says design proponents are already using the Santorum language to challenge school boards. "In Ohio, Washington state, and New Mexico, evolution opponents are using the Santorum amendment as evidence that Congress supports their efforts. They repeatedly state that the bill contains the Santorum language, which is simply false," he says. A group called Science Excellence for all Ohioans, which promotes inclusion of intelligent design in the state's science curriculum, carries a statement about the Santorum amendment on its Web site. When asked about plans to use the amendment to push intelligent design, Kennedy's press secretary Manley retorted, "If people at state and local school district levels want to misuse it, I can't do anything about it. It's up to scientists to correct it."

Down the Road

Some scientists worry that proponents of intelligent design have even grander plans: they may be setting the stage for a new Supreme Court challenge to evolution. According to Barbara Forrest, a philosopher at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond who tracks the intelligent design movement, "they have written a legal strategy," pointing to an article in 2000 published in the Utah Law Review by CSRC fellow DeWolf. DeWolf also wrote a 'legal guidebook' on the subject. "They foresee that their efforts will precipitate a lawsuit if they can get some board of education to include intelligent design in the curriculum. They believe they can argue that intelligent design qualifies under the 1987 Edwards v. Aquillard ruling as an alternative scientific theory."

Congressional intent would be important in establishing intelligent design's legality. The conference report is important "because it can be cited, much like any other legislative history, such as debates and speeches found in the Congressional Record, to support varying interpretations of the law," says O'Grady. Adds Paul, "as I recently said to someone who thought we did a good job in getting the Santorum amendment reduced to report language, 'litigation to follow.'"

Barry A. Palevitz ( is a contributing editor.

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