Dover, PA

by Jon Mandle on December 7, 2005

Last week’s New Yorker (Dec.5, 2005) had a very good article on the trial concerning “intelligent design” in the high school of Dover, PA. (It’s not online, but a Q&A with the author, Margaret Talbot, is.) It included lots of interesting original reporting, including the following:

The night after the board approved the evolution disclaimer, Brad Neal, a social-studies teacher at the high school, had an e-mail exchange with [assistant superintendent Mike] Baksa. “In light of last night’s apparent change from a ‘standards-driven’ school district to the ‘living-word-driven’ school district … I would like some direction in how to adapt our judicial-branch unit,” Neal wrote. “It is apparent that the Supreme Court of the United States has it all wrong. Is there some supplemental text that we can use to set our students straight as to the ‘real’ law of the land? We will be entering this unit within the next month and are concerned that we would be polluting our students’ minds if we continue to use our curriculum as currently written in accordance with [state] standards.”

Neal’s message was sarcastic, but Baksa’s reply was not. “Brad, all kidding aside, be careful what you ask for,” he wrote back. I’ve been given a copy of ‘The Myth of Separation,’ by David Barton, to review from board members. Social studies curriculum is next year. Feel free to borrow my copy to get an idea where the board is coming from.”

Fortunately, those are now ex-board members.

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12.07.05 at 11:38 pm



Dr. Azo Mazur 12.08.05 at 1:03 am

Hello Jon,
Nice post. We in the Design Movement most certainly have chemistry in our sights. Mendeleevists are on the run. Chemical Design is ascendant at the reDiscovery Instute (
All the best,
Dr. Azo Mazur


Ed Darrell 12.08.05 at 3:54 am

Barton, of course, is the former junior-high math teacher from Waco, Texas, (now of Aledo), who collected “quotes” from the “founders” to “prove” that there should not be separation of church and state in the U.S., and that a rugged, Old Testament Angry God type of Christianity was what the founders had intended as the government for this nation, regardless what they wrote in their various constitutions and laws over 100 years (somehow they just kept forgetting to put that in there!).

Barton has purveyed his book into a bit of an empire — should that be “purloined” instead? — speaking to militias, paint-ball activists, Second Amendment fanatics and creationists. He is also the Vice Chairman of the Texas Republican Party.

I think Barton thinks that title means he is in charge of all vice in the party.

And if you want to really get scared, read Justice Rehnquist’s dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree, which appears to be ripped wholesale from Barton’s writings. How did that happen?


Brendan 12.08.05 at 5:12 am

I don’t know why members of the reality based community are so excited by the school board being voted out. People get voted out all the time. The fact is that the trial won’t be over (I think) until January. We won’t be able to breath a sigh of relief until then.

Even then (I don’t know anything about the American judicial system) will there not be the possibility of an appeal? The really scary thing about the article was that there was some off hand comment about Scalia having dissented from the majority (sane) judgement in a similar case.

If this is true, and Scalia doesn’t ‘mellow out’ in the intervening years/decades, the Right’s plan is fairly obvious. Even if they lose in January, they will be back in a few years/decades with some new ‘alternative’ to natural selection, which they hope they will be able to take all the way up to the supreme court*, where, they hope, the all new, all thrilling ‘biased to the extreme right’ supreme court will let the judgement stand. Like it or not, the Bush ite extreme right have Roe vs Wade and natural selection in their sights, and they are not going to let one defeat stop them. Wars and battles and all that.

*Like I say, I don’t know much about American law so don’t know if this is possible but I assume it is.


Craig Pennington 12.08.05 at 7:58 am

Since Bush per appointed Thomas, Scalia has only been the 2nd scariest Justice. For example, check out his opinion in the Newdow case:

I accept that the Free Exercise Clause, which clearly protects an individual right, applies against the States through the Fourteenth Amendment. … But the Establishment Clause is another matter. The text and history of the Establishment Clause strongly suggest that it is a federalism provision intended to prevent Congress from interfering with state establishments. Thus, unlike the Free Exercise Clause, which does protect an individual right, it makes little sense to incorporate the Establishment Clause.

But even assuming that the Establishment Clause precludes the Federal Government from establishing a national religion, it does not follow that the Clause created or protects any individual right. For the reasons discussed above, it is more likely that States and only States were the direct beneficiaries. … Moreover, incorporation of this putative individual right leads to a peculiar outcome: It would prohibit precisely what the Establishment Clause was intended to protect–state establishments of religion.

So, get ready for good ole State Establishments! Madison was really a big fan of State Establishments, you see, and in no way intended the Establishment Clause as a proetction of the Individual Rights of Conscience.


NonyNony 12.08.05 at 8:35 am

People are excited about the school board getting voted out because it validates that it isn’t the majority who are pushing this idiocy – its a small group of very vocal people. When the majority in the town found out what was going on they unanimously smacked it down. That’s something to be heartened about, even if the question still hangs in the air.


jet 12.08.05 at 8:51 am

Your response typifies what is wrong with the opposition to those who would forcefully inject religion into public education. The extreme over-reaction to this is a waste of effort and a red herring for education reform. Does anyone really care if a few schools transform their curriculum to a more religious based one? These school typically are rural, are good performers on standardized tests, and make sure their students are as good or better prepared than most other schools in the US.

In other words, a few school districts choosing to make their students have to, at worst, play a little catch in Biology in college is a long way down the list of what needs to be corrected in the US education system. We have millions of kids who will never even get close to the quality of education these ID students will get. They will be pre-destined to clinging to the bottom rung of our society. And what is everybody up in arms about? Not the fact that millions go to crappy schools who spend $10,000 a year per student only to have them graduate them unable to read, but that a few hicks out in the sticks want to add a few ID seminars to Biology.

Discussing poor performing education districts in the US would be a far more useful topic to bring up than this, which amounts to an excuse to bash on red state’rs.


Brendan 12.08.05 at 8:58 am

I take it your argument is basically what Gore Vidal’s was, when he pointed out that IDer’s (and others) ‘want religion to be in our schools, there not having been any actual education in them for about fifty years.’

For a start it’s a pretty scathing statement about the American school system if (as your second sentence, second para) seems to imply, most american kids are getting such a poor education that being taught ID would be a step UP.

But in any case, it’s a false dichotomy (either we fight ID, or….). For a start: as the IDers make perfectly clear, this is ‘foot in the door’ territory. First you get a few schools to teach evolution and ID. Then a few more. Then a few more still. Then you start phasing out evolution (natural selection) in the first schools. Eventually, if they have their way, natural selection will be taught only in ‘elite’ universities, and even then only because America’s biotechnology might depends on that knowledge. And then, as ‘Dr. Azo Mazur’ points out, then you move onto chemistry, and then…..


jet 12.08.05 at 9:25 am

But the political debate in the US can only handle a few major topics at the same time. The US public forum quickly narrows down to a few keystone topics. I blame this on God for giving us culture before we had evolved far enough to handle it, but either way the public debate on single topic is usually a place of few ideas, just the sound bytes that tug the heart strings.

So getting everyone fired up over ID in school takes up valuable real estate that could be used for something like making sure African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, and anyone else hamstrung by our educational system in the early years of their life, gets a real education.


Brendan 12.08.05 at 10:05 am

‘But the political debate in the US can only handle a few major topics at the same time. ‘

But this isn’t really about the education system. It really ties into a much wider range of issues, such as the role of religion, the role of science, and so forth.

If I might be so cynical, I wonder if anyone would be quite so sanguine about this if we were talking about Islamic anti-evolutionary sentiment, and if an American Moslem were to say “Until we gain total control, keep the Koran part of our agenda quiet because it frightens normal people”. If Moslems were trying to create an American theocratic state (and make no mistake, these people are attempting to create a Christian theocratic state) would be all be sitting around stroking our chins and asking ourselves whether this would be a good thing or not?


Thomas 12.08.05 at 10:30 am

Ed, Brendan, and Craig seem to have an argument with Mr. Brad Neal. Neal is under the impression that whatever the Court decides is the “real” law of the land, while Ed, Brendan, and Craig are all clearly worried about the possibility of the Court getting things wrong. Perhaps, once the 4 of them have worked this out, we could have a real conversation on the subject.

Incoherence is one thing. But combined with the pretention to some sort of sophistication it becomes quite another.

And Pharnygula: no. Not really. Or at least, not in this case.


Rebecca 12.08.05 at 10:34 am

Wow. Although, I can’t say I’m surprised. I had a speech teacher in high school who tried to convince our class that women really do come from men’s ribs, and thus should be subservient to men. She also explained to us, in all seriousness, that we should start our classes with a prayer. And this was a decade ago….


John Landon 12.08.05 at 10:49 am

The way in which the Dover case turned out shows a bungled strategy by the ID folks. Perhaps just as well. Criticism of Darwinism can’t be sustained in this environment of conservative strategies, think tank manipulations, and Bible Belt wishfulfilments.
The net result is that critique of Darwin’s theory has suffered a setback.
Time to do it right.
What can’t the ACLU change gears and conduct the ‘Darwin on Trial’ case?

Comment on New Yorker article at:


fish 12.08.05 at 11:21 am


I agree with Brendan on the foot in the door argument, but there is also the training in “reason suspension” that is profoundly disturbing. If you teach kids that it is okay to believe something without being able to support it rationally, then all their education is a failure. They will believe any nonsense the are told by an authority figure. Jamming stuff into kids’ heads is never education, but jamming unsupported stuff into their heads is actually regressive and must be fought aggressively at every turn.


BigMacAttack 12.08.05 at 11:23 am

Sure, it serves as a placeholder for a broader range of issues, and there is a slippery slope, that makes the issue much more, than if a few rural students get a bit about ID in biology class.

But it is also such a big issue because it keeps the party base riled up.

No, not the conservative base, the liberal base.

It is a social wedge issue for liberals. This stuff is poison to the Republican party outside of a very narrow segment. Republicans would mostly just like the issue to go away. It sells like Ratkabobs in the NE and West Coast and it really doesn’t bring in extra votes else where. Those folks are voting GOP anyway.

It is a great social wedge issue for the left.

Notice the preposterous juxtaposition/segue between evolutionary biology and interpreting the constitution. Because, you know, interpreting the constitution is every bit as much a scientific enterprise as evolutionary biology. Stupid conservatives, against the science of evolution and against the science of Roe v Wade.

Actually given the general positions in regards to the science of the constitution, Brad Neal’s, ‘In light of last night’s apparent change from a ‘standards-driven’ school district to the ‘living-word-driven’ school district’, is a nice bit of irony. You know, penumbras and all.


Ed Darrell 12.08.05 at 11:25 am

Yes, Scalia’s views can be breath-taking, too. Madison was quite clear that religious rights — all of them — reside in individuals, and Jefferson was at least as adamant in public. The Constitution was created as a compact between people, with the states as near-passive by-standers on the issue of rights. As Madison correctly pointed out to Jefferson in 1787, each and every state already had disestablished churches, nine completely and four more almost completely. There is absolutely no legal or historical basis for a claim that states have religious privileges, duties or rights.

And yet, with Mr. Barton thumping the tub, there is Justice Scalia thundering that — history and law be damned! — states might indeed be able to establish sects.

Ignorance is appealing because it doesn’t require any heavy lifting. Reading Barton — and in some cases, reading Scalia — might remind one of times gone by when people who had heart attacks were told to rest, thereby weakening the heart and vascular systems. A physician prescribing that now might be subject to malpractice charges.

Where do we go to prosecute historical, ethical and judicial malpractice?


eudoxis 12.08.05 at 11:51 am

NonyNony, I wouldn’t be that optimistic. The intelligent design movement is growing, not just in the US, but in places like Europe, Australia, and Asia.


a 12.08.05 at 11:57 am

“But the political debate in the US can only handle a few major topics at the same time.”

Then maybe those trying to force ID into the classroom should shut the f* up. The status quo is that ID is not taught.


Brendan 12.08.05 at 12:15 pm

More to the point, people don’t realise this really is a situation where the frog is being boiled to death and doesn’t realise that the water is heating up. Cast your minds back guys. Read a history book. Thirty five years ago, the radical Christian right weren’t a political force. They weren’t even a powerful force in religious circles. Most people had never heard of them. The few that had thought they were a joke.
Now they have one of their boys in the White House and they are very close to taking over the Supreme Court.

And…gulp…what people don’t realise is that the current loonbats are just the first wave. They are…double gulp…the moderates.

The next wave are the really scary ones.

The loonies who we currently face are ‘Pre-millenialistists’. They ‘believe that humanity is inevitably headed for Armageddon, which will most likely arrive with a nuclear blast, whereupon Christ will appear in the Second Coming.’ After this (i.e. after the famous rapture) God would establish his kingdom of heaven on earth, homosexuals, Moslems and Democrats will be exterminated and so forth. So far so bad.

But the next wave of Christian extremists are postmillenial (or Reconstructionists). That is: they believe ‘Christ will not return until the church claims dominion over government, and most of the world’s population accepts the Reconstruction brand of Christianity.’ (i.e. first the Christians have to take over, and THEN the rapture etc. will happen: the premillenialists think it’s the other way round).

The whole article (from which i took these quotes) and which talks about this movement is worth reading .

Before I make my next statement could I just make clear that I am not comparing Bush to Hitler or the US to Nazi Germany or anything like that, ok?

But…watching the TV documentary ‘The Nazis: a warning from history’ one of the key points was that the internal structure of the party was such that when ideas started, there was an inbuilt tendence for them to become more and more radical as time went on. Unlike most parties, the Nazis did not ‘sell out’ or ‘compromise’ or make deals with existing political forces. Instead they became progressively more and more extreme.

In the same way, the religious right in the States has an inbuilt tendency not to compromise, and not to return to the middle ground but to progressively become more and more radical, more and more opposed to the status quo. Every generation since the 70s has been more and more radical than the generation before, and the numbers have grown. Does this mean that in thirty years time the US will be like Iran? Hardly. Or at least, I hope not. But the threat is real and it is there. So I think we have a lot to gain by nipping these things in the bud, and standing up to these people in situations like Dover and not just sitting back passively and assume that things will be ok. ‘First they came for the evolutionists’ etc.


BigMacAttack 12.08.05 at 12:54 pm

Jet, see Brendan is in a frenzy, or as the Poor Man might say, he is wanking so hard I can here the slapping sounds across the internet, as he grapples with Nazi post/pre millenialists and saves America.

It is a great wedge issue for liberals. A crude branding of the Republican party as ignorant. Which dovetails nicely with the common liberal conceit, of the liberal man as a man of science, who through the force of his towering and autonomous intellect has discovered the only rational set of views.

All of which is much easier than figuring how or even if we can ‘save’ poor kids from broken families even given ‘unlimited’ resources.

That kind of stuff is tough and liberals might even end up agreeing with conservatives as much as with each other.

That is dangerous stuff if you are looking to elect Democrats.


Steve LaBonne 12.08.05 at 1:19 pm

One thing working in the theocrats’ favor is that they have so many useful, “reasonable” fellow travelers.


Brendan 12.08.05 at 1:40 pm

‘Which dovetails nicely with the common liberal conceit, of the liberal man as a man of science, who through the force of his towering and autonomous intellect has discovered the only rational set of views.’

Is it appropriate to use the phrase ‘not a republican, just on the other side’ here?


jet 12.08.05 at 2:18 pm

Bigmackattack, except for the harshing of Brendan, I agree. “The Theocrats are coming” is a nice 5 second sound clip to scare those who spend two seconds a day thinking about their leaders, but it wastes our limited debate on barely important issues. We have countless kids who will be forever denied the american dream simply because they live in the bad side of a big city. No one is worrying about the kids being toutght ID, because the schools teaching it are, while being silly, making sure their kids are educated. Education rarely makes the national stage, and when it does, there should only be one topic, and that is the plethora of kids whose lives are ruined before they are 12.


Slocum 12.08.05 at 2:27 pm

More to the point, people don’t realise this really is a situation where the frog is being boiled to death and doesn’t realise that the water is heating up. Cast your minds back guys. Read a history book. Thirty five years ago, the radical Christian right weren’t a political force.

Nah, that’s just not true — this fight has been going on since Scopes. Here’s a chronology:

The ‘Epperson vs Arkansas’ decision involved not a law that permitted the teaching of a watered-down ‘Intelligent Design’ version of creationism but actually banned the teaching of evolution. The creationists have been giving ground for a century. From a position of trying to legally ban evolution and legally mandate creationism, they’ve fallen way back to merely trying for warning stickers or a highly diluted, decaffinated version of creationism (with only implicit religious implications) into the curriculum. Creationists have seized on I.D. from a position of weakness and, as the Dover election showed, even that’s not working out too well for them.


Steve LaBonne 12.08.05 at 2:32 pm

Right, so let’s start “fixing” the problem by making it worse, letting the fundies further gut science education. Is this some kind of Marxian “contradictions of public education” stratagy, jet?

I have news for you. Biology education for quite a few years now has already been seriously damaged because the cretinists and their useful idiots have intimidated many teachers and nearly all textbook publishers out of giving students any serious introduction to evolution- the conceptual core of biology. To anyone concerned with scientific literacy (or the lack thereof in the US population) this is a BIG BIG problem, one that is on or nearly on a par with the plight of inner-city schools in terms of serious problems in public education.


joe o 12.08.05 at 2:57 pm


There isn’t an easy solution to the general problem of education. It is pretty easy to get an adequate school if you can pick or filter the students in some way using private schools, expensive houses in a school district, vouchers or other filters for parental involvement. Getting good schools with challenging students is a hard problem.

Keeping ID out of biology texts is not a hard problem.


jet 12.08.05 at 3:32 pm

I think I’m being piled on here, but that’s pretty normal. But I’ll reply to Joe O, because I think he got it backwards. Private schools and vouchers are a way for students to filter schools, not the other way around.


harry b 12.08.05 at 5:07 pm

I agree that ID is coming from a position of weakness. Good grief, prayer in schools, and bible study were the NORM a fifty years ago. ID is an appalling intellectual fraud, and its perpetrators deserve to rot in hell, but it is not going to be hard to keep it out of the schools.

Jet — most Democrat and Republican voters have no interest in the problems you raise, because their kids don’t go to those schools. They don’t go to ID teaching schools, either, but the prospect of creeping ID and issues like it, are a gift to the Dems, because they enable them to play to their wealthy liberal supporters, without having to threaten their pocket books (or their ability to get private schooling for their kids on public funds, which the kind of intervention required to fix schools with high concentrations of low income kids in them would threaten).


a 12.08.05 at 5:17 pm

Harry b – Oh yes you just see so perfectly the hypocrisy in the “wealthy liberal” Democrats. What about the wealthy conservative Republicans? Any hypocrisy there, sleeping with the loony right so they can get their tax cuts (and so, incidentally, do nothing to fix schools with high concentrations of low income kids in them) ?


Steve Reuland 12.08.05 at 6:11 pm


“I don’t know why members of the reality based community are so excited by the school board being voted out. People get voted out all the time.”

You have to understand where school boards sit in the context of American politics. School board elections are the most local and least visible of all elections, so hardly anyone pays attention to them or bothers to vote in them. Over the last 25 years, they’ve been the target of creationists and other far-right “stealth candidates” who want to introduce extremist views into the government and public schools. The creationists target school boards precisely because the public’s lack of interest means that a small, special interest group can swing the election.

The conventional wisdom is that it’s very difficult to stop this sort of thing because the “reality based community” is too apathetic and unorganized to mount an effective counter-campaign at such a small level. Futhermore, polls show that a healthy majority of Americans are okay with teaching creationism, so merely exposing their agenda is not enough to get them kicked out.

The Dover school board results do much to dispell that conventional wisdom. People might say they’re okay with teaching creationism when asked in a poll, but when it happens in their community and causes religious divisiveness, they think differently. And when pushed hard enough, rational people can organize effectively enough to counteract the zealotry of the creationists. The decisiveness of the election is a hopeful sign.

Of course no one should get too excited or read too much into this. It’s a good sign, not the end of religious right or anything.


harry b 12.08.05 at 6:14 pm

a — the hypocritical wealthy Republicans make no pretence of being in my side. No-one on the left makes alliance with them. No-one on my side has any illusions about them. So why worry about their hypocrisy?


John Quiggin 12.09.05 at 11:31 pm

Jet & Bma,

The reason ID is energising the liberal base in a way that previous rounds of creationism did not is that it’s the model on which a whole range of Republican strategies have been formed, most obviously the denialist/contrarian campaign on climate change. ID is a hot topic partly becuase its the original and partly because it can be fought out at the local level.

As PZ Myers notes, and Chris Mooney documents, this kind of thing is now endemic across policy debates involving science (the DDT myth, stem cells, abstinence-based sex ed etc etc). It’s impossible now to be an orthodox Republican and support science (I assume this was Brendan’s point).


jet 12.10.05 at 8:40 am

“It’s impossible now to be an orthodox Republican and support science…”

I don’t want to be rude, but that is a bit of magical thinking. I’ll be locked in a moving van for the next couple of days so won’t see any responses, but I’m blown away by this.

-DDT Myth – Republicans aren’t denying science. They are interpreting environmental group’s actions as a “ban” on DDT. And when you add up all the pressure against DDT, and the fact that outdoor spraying is still quite effective in many areas, you can get a fairly good argument here. It certainly isn’t cut and dried that they’re wrong. See Lambert’s site for the catfights in the comments.

-Stem cells – These have nothing to do with science and is a purely moral argument. A trade-off between morals and science.

-Abstinence-based sex ed – If you are going to argue against abstinence-based sex ed, you aren’t just going up against the Reps, you’re going up against the WHO. Not many argue that abstinence ed doesn’t have a place in fighting AIDs and solving poverty.

(The big one)
-Climate Change – No one doubts that humans are causing some fraction of the change in the Earth’s climate. But there is still plenty of argument as to what that percentage is. If it is 50% do policies like Kyoto make sense? If it is 75% do they make sense? If it is 35%?

It is quite amusing how liberals treat Republicans like some sort of 18th century shaman cult emerging from some desert island with no knowledge of all the nifty new ideas the “educated” people have found.


jet 12.10.05 at 8:42 am

Textile added the strikes with their funny markup language. What’s wrong with HTML and CSS?


John Quiggin 12.10.05 at 4:00 pm

Jet, I think you illustrate my point perfectly. Given that your line on ID “why worry, there are bigger fish to fry”, is effectively the same as “give them equal time if they want it”, you’re arguing prettu much the straight Republican party line, which disagrees with science on every point. I’ll give you some credit for agreeing that climate change is real and at least partly human-caused, but note that large sections of the Republican leadership, not to mention the right-wing blogosphere, haven’t accepted either point.

I’m not going to rehash the main talking points, which we’ve covered before, but on stem cells, you might want to read Mooney’s book regarding the bogus scientific claims about the number of viable stem cell lines.

If you can find a WHO source advocating abstinence-only sex education (and I’m sure you know that’s what is meant by “abstinence-based”), please point to it.

“It is quite amusing how liberals treat Republicans like some sort of 18th century shaman cult emerging from some desert island with no knowledge of all the nifty new ideas the “educated” people have found.”

I wouldn’t associate shaman cults with the 18th century, myself. Actually, “cargo cult” is a much better metaphor. As has been discussed here before, today’s Republicans love technology, they just imagine the science behind it as a kind of magic which can be controlled by the appropriate use of ritual incantations and so on.


jet 12.12.05 at 9:45 pm

19th century, then?

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