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Big bang in Ohio

Intelligent Design | State school board to consider alternatives to Darwinism; advocates challenge schools to "teach the controversy" and hope the movement will embolden other states

Issue: "BMOC: Big mandate on campus," Sept. 14, 2002

ROBERT LATTIMER KNEW he was headed for controversy when he signed up a year ago to help write Ohio's public-school science curriculum. He recommended that public schools allow teachers to raise objections to Darwinism in class. Mr. Lattimer's colleagues blew him off: "The deck was stacked from the beginning."

But Mr. Lattimer, who works as a chemist in private industry, pressed on. He helped start a group called Science Excellence for All Ohioans (SEAO), which raised the issue of academic freedom in public meetings. The effort drew more heat than many expected, but appears to have paid off: Later this year, the Ohio state Board of Education will decide whether strict Darwinian evolution will remain the only concept about the origin of life taught to students. Proposed changes to the state's new standards would suggest that Darwinism is just one theory among others. That would give teachers and students more freedom to debate its pros and cons.

While it would not bring creationism or intelligent-design curricula into the classroom, the proposed change in Ohio would at least open up discussion. Intelligent-design advocates hope success in Ohio will spread elsewhere.

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Mr. Lattimer and his supporters believe that teachers should be allowed, but not required, to discuss alternative theories, and that educators should take up a definition of science that involves looking for the most logical explanation of phenomena. They emphasize the word logical instead of natural, which they say limits the ability to discuss the existence of a creator. SEAO spokeswoman Jody Sjogren makes the point this way: "Is science the search for the best naturalistic reasons for what is around us or finding the best explanations?"

The reformers' slogan is "teach the controversy." Instead of striking evolution from the classroom, teachers are encouraged to present the subject fully-from both sides. Prominent intelligent-design advocates agree. Biochemist Michael Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, said he thinks "it would be good pedagogy and exciting for the students" to hear open debate about origins.

Baylor University's William Dembski said that the approach upholds the ideals of academic freedom and liberal education. It lets students see what he calls the "failure of evolutionary biology" and helps break up that worldview's monopoly in mainstream education: "A truly liberal education means being exposed to different points of view. This is the classical liberalism of John Stuart Mill, not the politically correct liberalism of today, which actually endorses intolerance and censorship."

SOME OHIO TEACHERS COMPLAIN that current science curricula straitjacket them into presenting only Darwinist orthodoxy. "Some of the things in textbooks just aren't true," one veteran biology teacher complained to WORLD. The 14-year Ohio public-school teacher spoke on condition that he not be named because he's been threatened with loss of his job for speaking out on the origins controversy. Randy McClay, who teaches chemistry at Valley Local High School in Lucasville, Ohio, says the problems of established Darwinism extend beyond biology class: "Even an introductory student can say that unless you have a statement that's testable, you don't have a scientific issue."

The current debate centers on Ohio's science standards, which represent the bare minimum that teachers are expected to present in class. In response to the origins controversy, the state school board proposed some changes this summer that would tweak science curricula. They include:

  • The word origin would be eliminated from the standards, along with the estimate of the Earth's age.
  • The phrase "evolution of life" would be replaced with "the process of evolution" or "the development of living organisms" to reflect that evolution is a theory only.
  • In some places the word evolution would be changed to speciation, a less-controversial term that refers to how new groups of animals and plants develop.

The changes may seem like small semantic differences, but they could change how students are taught science. "The scientific establishment went ape when we put the word theory after evolution," recalled pro-reform board member Deborah Owens-Fink, a marketing professor at the University of Akron.

SEAO claims no direct influence over the proposal before the state school board, and standards committee co-chairman Tom McClain claimed this was no compromise. Yet the thought that Darwinism's grip over the classroom might be loosened was enough to provoke protests.

ACLU of Ohio Legal Director Raymond Vasvari complained about "the newest intellectual Trojan horse of the religious right" and vowed to fight it. The American Society for Cell Biology fired off a letter in March saying that "imposing the doctrine of intelligent design in the science classroom will compromise students' understanding of modern biology and leave them with devalued academic credentials."

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