President’s comments embolden anti-evolutionists

Bush pushes very hot button

The real impact of President Bush weighing in on the national debate over how to teach the origins of life may be felt in the classroom, where much of the anti-evolutionary lobbying is done under the radar.

One tactic is for a student or parent to present the teacher with a list that’s popular in conservative circles called, “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher.”

The result, observers say, is that some teachers fear even mentioning “the e-word.”

“That’s what people would somewhat jokingly call it,” said Al Janulaw, who spent more than 30 years teaching science in elementary and middle schools. For the past six he has been a Sonoma State University instructor teaching student teachers how to teach science.

The White House entered one of the country’s most politically charged red- and-blue battles last week when Bush was asked at a news conference about his views on evolution and intelligent design — a critique that says Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory doesn’t explain some features of the natural world.

“I felt like both sides ought to be properly taught,” Bush said. “I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought.”

The mere fact that Bush mentioned intelligent design on the same footing as evolutionary teaching is being seen as a huge moral boost for anti-Darwin critics.

Although California schools are not in the center of the debate, as are schools in other parts of the country, some of the state’s science teachers are apprehensive and see Bush’s comments as an unwelcome intrusion of religion into the science curriculum.

Supporters of intelligent design say some elements of the natural world “are best explained as the product of an intelligent cause rather than an undirected process such as natural selection,” said John West of the Discovery Institute.

But defenders of traditional evolutionary theory say intelligent design is really a euphemism for creationism. If there’s an intelligent design, they say, then there must be an intelligent designer. Or creator.

“Our guys here were calling it ‘Creationism Lite,’ ” said California Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell. He said evolutionary theory is tightly interwoven throughout California’s science teaching standards and is not in danger of changing at the statewide level, where policy is crafted.

But many of the attacks on teaching evolution are largely unreported, and are raised in scattered school board meetings and classrooms.

One member of the California Science Teachers Association said the issue is most likely to come up in more conservative Southern California school districts.

“There are teachers who avoid teaching evolution — or put it off until the end of the curriculum so if they don’t get to it, they can skip it,” said longtime teacher Judy Scotchmoor, a board member of the association. She said she was speaking only for herself.

“This (evolution controversy) is a very, very weird situation that we’re in,” she said. “It’s a game that we (science teachers) don’t know how to play. It’s ‘he said, she said,’ and we’re used to proving things scientifically.

UC Berkeley biology Professor David Lindberg tells the story of a Christian pastor who appeared at the classroom of a Contra Costa County teacher on the first day of school.

The pastor had a simple question for the teacher: “How do you plan to teach biology this year?”

The implication of such visits to teachers, according to Lindberg and other evolutionary theory defenders: You’d better at least mention intelligent design or some other critique of evolution or you’ll have to answer to some angry parents or other clergy. Or possibly the school board. Or a court.

Even though Bush’s science adviser, John H. Marburger III, downplayed the president’s remarks by telling the New York Times that “evolution is the cornerstone of modern biology” and “intelligent design is not a scientific concept,” others were pleased to hear the remarks coming from the nation’s bully pulpit.

“We’re happy that he said that,” said West of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, one of the nation’s leading think tanks in the fight to include Darwinian challenges in the classroom.

West said his organization “isn’t pushing for intelligent design; what we are pushing for is for the scientific criticism of Darwin’s theory” of all kinds.

Conservative scholars and legal theorists supporting the president’s position — it is a favorite of evangelical Christians — cast this as a free speech issue, and they feel that their side is not getting equal play in the nation’s public schools.

After Bush’s remarks, more than 95 percent of the 78,000-plus votes cast in an online poll offered by the conservative American Family Association say “students should be exposed to the theory of intelligent design in public schools” as opposed to “shield(ing) them” from it.

However, 54 percent of 50,000-plus respondents to an America Online poll opposed teaching intelligent design.

“This is about critical thinking,” said Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento organization that generally defends conservative positions in cases involving religious freedom issues. “And critical thinking has nothing to do with theology.

“This shows the degree of close-mindedness academics have when it comes to challenges like this.”

Intelligent design has been gaining political support in school districts in several states, but the vast majority of the nation’s scientists, starting with the president of the National Academy of Sciences, says intelligent design is not even worthy of being compared to the theory of evolution on a scientific level.

“The president and most people in this country don’t understand how science works,” said Lindberg, chair of UC Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology and curator for the UC Museum of Paleontology, which created a Web site, evolution.berkeley.edu, to help teachers fend off the attacks of evolutionary challengers.

“Words like ‘theory’ and ‘hypothesis’ mean something to scientists. Gravity is a theory. Evolution is a theory,” he said. “Science is not a democracy. We don’t vote on what theory we like best.

“And I have to say that we, as scientists, have not done a good job explaining to people how science works.’

The Bay Area is home to big thinkers on both sides of this debate — including one of the leading proponents of intelligent design, UC Berkeley law Professor Phillip Johnson, and evolutionary teaching’s defenders at the National Center for Science Education in Oakland — but few believe that intelligent design has made significant inroads in California.

In Roseville, parent and attorney Larry Caldwell has been fighting for two years — so far without success — to have “the scientific weaknesses of evolutionary theory” included in the public schools there. Dacus said he’s fielded calls from school board members in a dozen different districts over the past year or so inquiring about how evolution is taught.

But state schools chief O’Connell said intelligent design is “not an issue in California. It just hasn’t come up.”

When told about teachers avoiding the e-word, O’Connell said, “That’s really regrettable.”

“What (Bush) is doing is divisive, something to take people’s attention away from all the other things going on with schools,” he said.

“Why isn’t he talking about funding issues, or class size or,” O’Connell said, pausing, “Do you want me to go on?”

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