The American TV network PBS has a record of showcasing documentaries that heavily criticize biblical creation and/or intelligent design (e.g., its famous and ambitious seven-episode “Evolution” program of 2001, which we rebutted). While most documentary producers today seem to be advocacy-oriented (i.e., they promote a cause or viewpoint of deep interest to them personally, and to be fair in presenting the other side is not necessarily desired), one might expect that a tax-supported institution like PBS would be more balanced in covering a controversial topic such as biological origins.1 Yesterday we were disappointed once again with PBS, as it aired a two-hour documentary "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.”

This program in PBS’ ongoing NOVA series attempted to summarize and analyze the 2004-2005 controversy in the public school science classes of Dover, Pennsylvania. In the broadcast, reenactments of the 2005 trial (taken from court transcripts), as well as post-trial interviews conducted with some of its main participants, were shown. The film also featured the comments of other evolutionist observers about a case known as Kitzmiller v. Dover School District.

Three years ago, the school board in Dover mandated that high school science teachers read a four-paragraph statement to biology students that indicated that intelligent design (which is different in many respects to creationism—see The Intelligent Design Movement) is an alternative to Darwinian evolution—and that evolution was not a fact. The program did admit (there were many secular media outlets that got this wrong) that ID was not actually being taught in science classes in Dover. The fuss was over a mere one-minute statement that pointed students to an optional-reading book in the school library called Of Pandas and People. The somber PBS announcer, however, made it sound as if the sky had fallen on Pennsylvania: “Hanging in the balance was not just the Dover biology curriculum: the future of science education in America , the separation of church and state, and the very nature of scientific inquiry were all on trial.” Such hyperbole and hysteria over a one-minute statement which was mandated by the school board (which AiG believes, by the way, should not have been forced on the schools in the first place2) is remarkable.

Perhaps the most annoying and unfair aspect of the whole broadcast was the PBS announcer’s scripted narration. He discussed, for example, the anti-evolutionists who as a group “reject modern science” (a comment echoed by the trial judge, John Jones, who told PBS that ID is “bad science”), ignoring the fact that there are thousands of scientists practicing in our modern world who reject Darwinian evolution and have a great respect for what science can achieve. In addition, evolution scientists often made over-the-top comments in the PBS broadcast, such as: there was an “infringement” of civil liberties occurring in Dover. And ID and creationism, though similar in some ways, are wrongly used synonymously in the program. (ID is the concept that life is too complex to have evolved naturally and therefore was designed by some intelligent agent; though some ID proponents do believe in theistic evolution).

Furthermore, and despite what was declared in the early part of the broadcast, the program continually stated that “the teaching of intelligent design” was going on in Dover. This helped foster the false notion that indoctrination in ID was happening in Dover’s science classes. Yet the hysteria was actually over a mere four-paragraph statement that was to be read to biology students, while no teaching of ID had occurred in the classes and no ID textbooks were issued.

Some of Dover’s science teachers refused to read the short statement and a few parents of the students filed a lawsuit, which accused the school board of violating the so-called “constitutional separation of church and state” as the program described it. (The U.S. Constitution does not contain this phrase, though it is often mistakenly believed by the general populace to be found there.)

In the broadcast, evidence was presented from paleontology (such as the Tiktaalik example of a supposed transitional form between fish and tetrapods—which we rebutted) and from genetics to put “Darwin’s theory to the test,” or so we’re told by the program, in the real world. The program particularly looked at DNA blueprints, and how mutations can occasionally be beneficial (e.g., for certain types of butterflies to taste bad because of a mutation, so they are less likely to be eaten and thus will survive over other types of butterflies3). Common ancestry of humans and apes was also emphasized, with our supposed ape-like ancestry seen in the genetic markers of human chromosome (even though humans have one less set of chromosomes than apes) and through the fossil evidence of “Lucy” (but read Farewell to “Lucy”).

The plaintiffs argued that ID was really just a form of creationism. Judge Jones ultimately decided for the plaintiffs, writing in his decision that intelligent design "cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents." As part of his decision, Judge Jones ordered the Dover school board to pay legal fees and damages, which were set at $1 million.

The program did not portray the ID advocates of Dover and some of their science defenders in a good light. Frankly, some of the local ID advocates were not knowledgeable about the issues and science involved (e.g., they continually misused the word theory—see “What Is Science?” for how creationists should properly use the term). More egregious, some of them came across as mean-spirited. The broadcast even referred to very profane hate mail received by the judge (even death threats) and others associated with the evolution side in the trial.

Furthermore, two Dover board members—who were in favor of the ID statement being read in science classes—were shown to be inconsistent with what they said in depositions compared to what they stated in public (Judge Jones thought of having someone bring perjury charges against one or both), and one of these board members severely ridiculed the judge on camera. Then there was Dr. Michael Behe of Lehigh University, author of Darwin’s Black Box; as the main ID witness in the trial, he was quoted (from the trial transcript) as agreeing that even astrology could be a theory. Also, a clip of televangelist Pat Robertson was shown, who declared that if a disaster befell the Dover community, the citizens should not be surprised.

In contrast, Philip Johnson, considered the father of the ID movement, came off as articulate in the program. Johnson not only defended ID beliefs well on the broadcast, but on the PBS website, he also did a good job of summarizing what most biblical creationists believe about ID (even though Johnson is not recognized as a biblical creationist/young-earth proponent)—though we would tone down his wording somewhat here: “The real creationist organizations are highly critical of intelligent design, because they say it doesn't do the job that is the very essence of creationism. It doesn't defend the Bible from the very first verse. It doesn't defend the Bible at all, and it doesn't even defend Christianity. It's saying that there's an intelligence, but the intelligence could be natural as well as supernatural. And that if you assume it's supernatural, what the God is—well, we have nothing to say about what kind of God it is. It isn't limited to one particular kind of religion, to Christianity or to a particular kind of Christianity. If you want, it can be the Muslim god.” 4 (AiG does not believe it has been “highly critical” of the IDM, though, but it has pointed out where we differ.)

Conclusion and concerns

Paula Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA, claimed that her documentary was a fair representation of the trial. That may be true, even with her judicious excerpting from the court transcripts which occasionally showed some stumbling of ID advocates. But the relative fairness of how PBS portrayed the trial in its courtroom reenactments did not make up the bulk of the two hours. Most of the program featured commentators who buttressed Apsell’s opinion that (in her words) “evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences. As Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the great biologists of the 20th century, once said, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ … If the decision had gone the other way, it could have had dire consequences for science education in this country.”5

So what viewers continually saw in the program was evolution being presented as incontrovertible fact. The pattern was this: present an evolutionary argument, have an ID spokesperson attempt to rebut it, but then an evolutionist gets the final word to rebut the IDer. Hardly a true balance. Furthermore, if you go to the PBS website, of the several video clips found there, the majority of them showcase evolutionists.

In the wake of this national broadcast, we have two main concerns. First, PBS has issued a teacher's guide in conjunction with the NOVA program. In other words, the audience for the documentary will not just be this week’s PBS viewers—untold numbers of young people in America’s schools will be shown a video that presents evolution as fact. Additionally, the leading ID group, The Discovery Institute, which decided not to get behind the Dover defendants and did not agree to be interviewed by PBS producers (unless certain pre-conditions were met), notes that the study guide “unconstitutionally injects religion into the classroom,” because PBS “is telling public school teachers how they should talk about religion in relation to evolution.”6 (We have yet to review this study guide.)

More distressing is the long-term impact this trial will have, and which the documentary helps forecast. An apparent precedent has been set in a federal court about the dominance of evolution teaching in public schools. School boards will now be less inclined to even think about challenging evolution teaching in their schools. In fact, with the setbacks in Pennsylvania and other states like Ohio and Georgia (where in the latter the very questioning of evolution as a fact in a textbook sticker led to a court battle), evolution will probably be taught with even greater fervor in America’s science classes.

With such court rulings that continue to protect evolution teaching and also rebuff any questioning of it, the ID movement appears to have lost a lot of steam. That is largely not the fault of the leading ID advocates, for they generally do not wish to see ID be mandated in schools; it is those ID supporters who at a local level have taken ID beliefs and, largely ignoring the advice of ID strategists, have gone their own way with zeal (and who have probably been spurred on by just-as-zealous attorneys who want to assist in the cause).

The current academic and judicial climate is not at all open to free inquiry about the creation/ID/evolution debate. AiG, which is not directly involved in legislative or litigation efforts to affect change in science classes, prefers to see concerned citizens employ a grassroots approach to change science curricula in their area’s schools. That effort, however, may not be as efficacious as it was once hoped, for schools boards who might listen to their constituencies about deemphasizing evolution as fact now know that they will probably be met by a challenge in court. Also, the academic freedom that science teachers should already possess (in theory at least) to present the problems with evolution to their students is now in even greater peril because of the appearance of a federal court virtually endorsing evolution as the only view of origins to be taught in schools.

Many biblical/young earth creationists have decided to enter the big tent of the ID Movement, hoping to find a way to comply with the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court decision that declared that Genesis creation could not be mandated to be taught in public schools. The IDM leaders have tried a more secular approach by avoiding overt religious terminology. Their well-intentioned efforts (though we have concerns about ID) have been thwarted by some of their zealous followers, who, to the consternation of the national ID leaders, have time and time again miscalculated and have encountered a very hostile academic and judicial establishment which will tolerate no challenger to evolution dogma. It’s possible that any future strategies employed by IDers in schools—even if well thought out—will not pass muster in federal court, in a judicial system that is increasingly ruling against any hint of religion (even a nebulous designer) in the public arena.

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Footnotes

  1. Co-produced by billionaire Paul Allen's company Vulcan Productions. Back
  2. AiG has long held that it is not wise to mandate that ID or creation be taught alongside evolution in public schools. It would be counterproductive to force instructors to teach something they don’t believe, for they will probably teach it poorly. Even a small thing like reading a short statement to students about ID was, in our opinion, not a wise move because it was mandated. Back
  3. To read why these kinds of mutations do not add any new genetic information required for one creature to eventually become another over time (i.e., as a part of molecules-to-man evolution), go to: Refuting Evolution 2, chapter 5 Back
  4. In Defense of Intelligent Design,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/id/defense-id.html. Back
  5. A Q&A with Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/id/apsell.html. Back
  6. As summarized by the news service OneNewsNow.com: in http://www.onenewsnow.com/2007/11/pbs_evolution_teachers_guide_d.php Back