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An intelligent decision

December 22, 2005

EVEN A STINGING REBUKE from a federal judge will not keep "intelligent design's" believers from trying to crash the public school curriculum.

The Dover, Pa., school board made it easy for U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III to rule against it and what he called its "breathtaking inanity" in the first court test on intelligent design, which posits that life is so intricate that it must have been created by a higher intelligence. The board's self-contradictions and what the judge termed "outright lies" made it clear that members were looking to insert creationism, or as close to it as they could get, into high school science courses.

It would be nice if that were the end of it. But like life on this planet, the movement to bring the teaching of religious beliefs -- largely, Christian religious beliefs -- to the public schools hasn't gone extinct. It has evolved, and it will continue to do so.

Religious activists first pushed for the teaching of creationism, the literal word of the Bible, to explain the origins of the planet and its organisms. When that was struck down in firm tones by the U.S. Supreme Court, the movement plastered a thin veneer of pseudoscience over creationism, substituted the words "higher intelligence" for "God," and went back to the school boards claiming that it had a new scientific theory, at least as valid as evolution.

The next move will be a sleeker form of intelligent design. There will be no clumsy backdrop of school board members wishing openly for the teaching of Christianity in the schools or using the terms "creationism" and "intelligent design" interchangeably.

In his written decision, Jones paraphrased one of the expert witnesses in the trial, who likened intelligent design to believing that God intervened on behalf of the Boston Red Sox last year. It may be true, but it's not science. Science is about the natural world and what can be tested in that world using scientific methods. Because supernatural power, by definition, is beyond the natural world, the study of such power (or higher intelligence) is by definition outside science.

Science doesn't deny or confirm the role of divine power in the natural world; it is simply uninterested in such questions. This is where the more lyrical, and equally fascinating, studies of philosophy and religion come in -- and where intelligent design properly belongs.

The Dover schools come out bruised but wiser, after dragging students and parents through what the judge labeled "this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources." Recent elections threw out the school board's intelligent design crowd, and the district will not appeal. No doubt other school board members elsewhere will make the same mistakes, raising legal troubles instead of academic standards. But perhaps Jones' sweeping and sometimes acerbic ruling will dissuade a few of the smarter ones from trying.

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