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Science | A new PBS docudrama aims to discredit intelligent design

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

A new NOVA docudrama, slated to air Nov. 13 on PBS and available for online viewing thereafter, purports to articulate an established definition of science, one that excludes intelligent design. Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial follows a landmark federal lawsuit in 2005 that pitted ACLU-backed parents against the Dover, Pa., school district. At issue was whether the inclusion of a brief statement on ID in the ninth-grade biology curriculum amounted to establishing religion in the classroom. Judge John E. Jones III ruled that it did.

Because no cameras were allowed in the courtroom during the trial, NOVA created dramatic reenactments of the proceedings with actors quoting lines from the case transcripts. Filmmakers also interviewed attorneys, school board members, scientists, and local teachers and parents. Conspicuously absent: interviews with fellows of the ID-advancing Discovery Institute, several of whom testified at the trial.

Paula Apsell, NOVA's executive producer, claims Michael Behe, Scott Minich, and other institute fellows declined to participate in the project. But Behe, Minich, and Stephen Meyer say they were excited for the chance to share their views when NOVA first approached them early last year. But negotiations over interview procedures broke down when Apsell refused to allow a Discovery Institute representative to record the exchanges for public release should NOVA use any statements out of context.

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Apsell instead offered to provide Discovery officials with complete footage of the interviews provided they signed away any right to make it public. Rob Crowther, the institute's communications director, told WORLD that arrangement defeated the purpose of holding NOVA accountable. "We have had some other experiences with the media where we've been edited and kind of sliced and diced," he said. "NOVA didn't want to be held accountable."

The docudrama's accompanying education packet for teachers claims, "There is no scientific controversy about the existence of evolution," a statement that glosses over the critical difference between macro and micro evolution. The packet further contends, "Intelligent design advocates have never attempted to test their own work through basic research or submitted papers to peer-reviewed journals." That charge suggests NOVA has shifted genres from documentary to fiction-with hired actors, to boot.

Lab Notes

TECHNOLOGY: Although you'll have to overlook an accident or two, the 2007 Urban Challenge, organized by the Department of Defense, demonstrated that robotically controlled cars are capable of navigating downtown traffic. As spectators watched, 11 sensor-laden vehicles with nobody inside them raced for a $2 million prize through a 60-mile course populated by professional human drivers. Six of the vehicles crossed the finish line.

NEUROLOGY: Harvard researchers have developed a brain-mapping technique that lights up neurons like so many neon signs. By inserting a fluorescent protein-producing gene into mice, they are able to trace the routes of neurons, which take on one of 90 hues. The technique is expected to open doors in the study of neural development and diseases-but researchers will have to decipher the maze of color first.

SPACE: An 11-day visit from the Discovery space shuttle brought the International Space Station a new module named "Harmony." Besides delivering the module, which will function as a port for European and Japanese additions to the ISS in coming months, the Discovery crew helped relocate-and ultimately repair-one of the station's sets of solar panels.

-Daniel James Devine


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