The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for December, 2015

The Tenth Anniversary of Dover & the Demise of Intelligent Design’s Wedge Strategy

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 20, 2015

Ten years ago today, on Dec. 20th 2005, skeptics, scientists, and science-boosters celebrated a huge win in the perpetual creationist war against evolutionary science: the historic ruling in the Dover v. Kitzmiller trial. The ruling by federal judge John Jones in the Dover case was a no-holds barred beat-down against the notion of so-called “intelligent design” (ID) as science.

Judge Jones

Judge John Jones – my hero 🙂 (image source)

For those who don’t know, it is important to understand the historical context: in the early 1990s, creationists were trying to figure out a way to move forward after having suffered a major setback when, in 1987, the Supreme Court ruled that creationism wasn’t science and therefore could not be taught as such in public schools. Through the 1990s on into the early 2000s, creationists came up with a new way of branding their ideas, which they called Intelligent Design (ID). The Intelligent Design Movement (IDM – which is just another way of saying “creationist movement”) put together a slick and well-funded think tank known as the Discovery Institute, whose sole purpose at the time was to write about and promote the whole notion of ID as a scientific concept. However, some digging revealed that ID was simply a thinly-veiled attempt to rename and relabel the old-fashioned creationism that had been defeated time and time again through both scientific analysis and courtroom rulings; further investigation also showed that the IDM’s motives were explicitly religious in nature and had little or nothing to do with science. In fact, the IDM’s own stated goals were to, among other things, completely overturn and re-define the entire endeavor of science so as to be in keeping with their narrow religious worldview; in fact, the IDM explicitly stated as much in their now-infamous Wedge Document (an actual PDF of the original document can be found here) in the section titled Goals

Governing Goals

  • To defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural and political legacies.
  • to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God.

Five Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences and scientific research being done from the perspective of design theory.
  • To see the beginning of the influence of design theory in spheres other than natural science.
  • To see major new debates in education, life issues, legal and personal responsibility pushed to the front of the national agenda.

Twenty Year Goals

  • To see intelligent design theory as the dominant perspective in science.
  • To see design theory application in specific fields, including molecular biology, biochemistry, paleontology, physics and cosmology in the natural sciences, psychology, ethics, politics, theology and philosophy in the humanities; to see its influence in the fine arts.
  • To see design theory permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life. [emphasis added]

The IDM pushed the idea of ID in the popular press, trying to avoid any religious overtones, attempting to make it look like a scientific concept. But all along, the real goal of the IDM and Discovery Institute was to get a federal court ruling in their favor stating that ID itself was a scientific concept so that they could “push the thin edge of their Wedge” into public school science classrooms as part of their larger goal to, in their own words, have their narrow religious beliefs “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life.”

In 2004 the IDM got what it wanted in the form of a federal court case wherein ID was put on trial after the school board of Dover, PA tried to force science teachers in the town’s public school district to teach ID as science. The IDM and Discovery Institute thought this case was going to be a slam dunk for them, partly because Judge Jones was both a Republican and appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and they thought he would be sympathetic to their worldview, but also partly because they really believed they had good arguments. As it turned out, they were wrong on both counts. Here’s just a taste of what Judge Jones had to say in his ruling of Dover v. Kitzmiller (a more thorough break down, including the all-too-predictable reaction from creationists, can be found here)…

(from p. 63 of the ruling):

“After a searching review of the record and applicable case law, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position,ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.”

(from p. 88-89 of the ruling):

“After this searching and careful review of ID as espoused by its proponents, as elaborated upon in submissions to the Court, and as scrutinized over a six week trial, we find that ID is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community. ID, as noted, is grounded in theology, not science. Accepting for the sake of argument its proponents’, as well as Defendants’ argument that to introduce ID to students will encourage critical thinking, it still has utterly no place in a science curriculum. Moreover, ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM [Intelligent Design Movement] is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.”

(and the money quote, from p. 136 of the ruling):

“The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

More juicy quotes from Judge Jones can be found here and here.

So after this high-profile defeat of their pet “theory”, what did the IDM do? Sadly, they kept on doing the same thing: misrepresenting evolution and science in an attempt to give ID some thin veneer of credibility. But it was too late, because Dover clearly showed the emperor had no clothes, and only those already committed to the creationist cause kept up their attempt to promote ID as science.

Some years after the Dover ruling, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Casey Luskin, who at the time worked for the Discovery Institute, and I was interested in seeing whether or not ID’s biggest proponents had lived up to their talk of ID being science. That’s because actual science adapts and evolves, refining theories as a result of observation and experimentation. But I saw no evidence of this in Luskin’s talk; in fact, I saw quite the opposite: little more than a sad rehashing of the same tired old creationist arguments against evolution, lame attempts to label ID as science, ranting against the evils of materialism, and a  general collapse of all arguments under even the barest scrutiny. Here is my more detailed account of Luskin’s talk, and here is his response to my criticism. Lastly, in the spirit of throwing Luskin and his colleagues at the Discovery Institute a bone, I even came up with an experimental method for testing a key aspect of ID, but – ironically – they have yet to take up that (or any other) challenge and actually test out this supposedly scientific concept.

Of course, to say that creationism is dead and buried would be incorrect. After all, once the IDM could no longer promote ID as science, they fell back on the time-honored creationist tactic of attacking evolution and science in general, and these attacks still continue; a great way to keep track of attempts by creationists and others to tamper with science education is to stay tuned to the National Center for Science Education. Fortunately, the evidence suggests that creationists are, slowly but surely, losing the fight as more and more Americans become accepting of evolutionary science and view creationism with suspicion. It’s been a long, hard fight, but it’s one well worth having, given the stakes. And we’ll continue the fight as long as it takes.

Last, but not least, I cannot help but point out the irony of the timing: right around now is when the writers of the Wedge Document stated that they had hoped to have ID “permeate our religious, cultural, moral and political life”, and – thanks in large part to the Dover ruling – that certainly hasn’t come to pass.

Happy 10th birthday, Dover v. Kitzmiller 🙂


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Santa, Skepticism, and the Holiday Season

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 19, 2015

A recent article posted by skeptical writer Greta Christina titled No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus over at Freethought Blogs caught my eye. In it, she makes a compelling argument for why it is that children should be skeptical of some adults’ attempts to hoodwink them…

… You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that you’re a bad person for not believing things you have no good reason to think are true. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that, in order to experience love and generosity and devotion, you have to believe in Santa Claus, or any other mythical being there’s no good evidence for. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that “childlike faith” — i.e., believing things you have no good reason to think are true — is somehow in the same category as poetry and romance. You should be extremely suspicious of anyone who tells you that the world would be dreary without Santa Claus: that without Santa Claus, the light of childhood would be extinguished, we would have no enjoyment except in sense and sight, and existence would be intolerable. That is one seriously messed-up idea.

Adults know that there is no Santa Claus. If they tell you otherwise, they are lying to you. That’s okay: some parents tell their children that Santa Claus is real as a sort of game, and there’s no evidence that this does any real harm. But if anyone keeps lying to you — about Santa Claus, or anything else — when you ask them a direct question and explicitly ask them to tell you the truth? That’s a problem. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed, or inferior, or like your life will be dreary and intolerable, simply because you don’t believe in this lie they’re telling you… you should be extremely suspicious. They are trying to manipulate you. It is not okay.

I agree wholeheartedly with Greta’s thoughts on this matter, and I recommend that you read her entire post on the topic. That said, I’d also like to take this opportunity to share (or re-share) some of my previous work on the entire matter of skepticism, education, Santa Claus, and the Holiday Season in general.

1. If Santa ever existed, he didn’t live for long

This is perhaps what I’m most famous (or infamous) for on this topic: I use physics to kill Santa Claus; to be more accurate, I use physics to kill the idea of Santa Claus (because it’s impossible to kill something that doesn’t exist in the first place). Originally, I made a post years ago outlining how, assuming the jolly old elf existed in the first place, Santa would be simultaneously fried to a crisp and squashed into jelly in his attempts to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.

Then, last year, I decided to up my game a bit. I got commissioned to write an article for a UK Education periodical on the topic, and I went so far as to perform the explicit calculations showing that not only would Santa have to absorb the equivalent  energy of 20 Tsar-Bomba nuclear weapons every second due to air drag, but he’d also experience roughly 192 million g’s worth of acceleration in the process – more than enough to make short work of him!

Now, I’d like to share with you the specific PowerPoint I use to annihilate the Santa Claus myth. Feel free to download and use it as you will 🙂

Physics of Santa 2.0

Physics of Santa

2. The Santa Myth isn’t all bad and can serve a skeptical purpose

I’ve argued before that I think the myth of Santa Claus can actually be a very useful tool to promote skepticism and critical thinking in young children. Please note that my argument here is not in any way, shape, or form in opposition to Greta Christina’s well reasoned post above; I simply think that it is good for children to work out for themselves that Santa isn’t real, and once they’ve done that they should give the stink-eye to anyone who tries to give them grief or make them feel bad for not believing in the fairy tale. Even better, once kids figure it out, they should go forth and argue with their peers about the existence of Santa; what could be better than skeptical children promoting critical thinking to other kids?

3. It isn’t all about Santa

While it is perhaps true that Santa Claus is the most popular aspect of the Holiday Season, it certainly isn’t the only myth of the Holiday Season. Once children become skeptical of the existence of Santa Claus, then why not encourage them to ask questions and become more critical of other aspects of the season? For example, they can take the following myths and misconceptions quiz on the issue, examining everything from the more pagan aspects of Christmas to blatant falsehoods regarding the Gospels in the Bible. After all, once one starts to question one myth, then why not another?…



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