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The Email That Ended a Career: Intelligent Design and Texas Education

Branch I send a lot of e-mail in the course of the average day, and ordinarily nobody is fired as a result. But I’m not always so lucky.

I work at the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools. Even eighty-two years after the Scopes trial, that’s a job that keeps us busy. In a 2005 survey conducted by the National Science Teachers Association, for example, 30% of the science teachers responding indicated that they experienced pressure to omit or downplay evolution and related topics, while 31% indicated that they experienced pressure to include nonscientific alternatives to evolution, such as “creation science” or “intelligent design,” in their science classrooms.

Sometimes the pressure isn’t so quiet, either. In 2004, after efforts to have a creationist textbook adopted were stymied, a creationist majority on the school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, passed a policy misleadingly describing evolution as “a theory ... not a fact” and recommending “intelligent design”—the latest incarnation of creationism—as a scientifically credible alternative, and tried to force the science teachers to read a disclaimer to that effect.

Eleven Dover parents filed a lawsuit, contending that the policy violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. NCSE consulted pro bono for the plaintiffs, and no fewer than three members of NCSE’s board of directors served as expert witnesses. Among them was Barbara Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and the coauthor, with Paul R. Gross, of Creationism’s Trojan Horse—the definitive exposé of the “Wedge strategy” of the “intelligent design” movement.

The verdict in the Kitzmiller case was devastating for the ambitions of “intelligent design.” The judge in the case was scathing, both about the behavior of the defendants (who were castigated for “breathtaking inanity” in adopting the objectionable policy) and about the scientific credibility of "intelligent design" (which, the judge wrote, “is not science and cannot be adjudged a valid, accepted scientific theory as it has failed to publish in peer-reviewed journals, engage in research and testing, and gain acceptance in the scientific community”).

Forrest’s testimony was instrumental. In his decision, the judge wrote, “Dr. Barbara Forrest ... has thoroughly and exhaustively chronicled the history of ID in her book and other writings for her testimony in this case. Her testimony, and the exhibits ... admitted with it, provide a wealth of statements by ID leaders that reveal ID’s religious, philosophical, and cultural content.”

In the wake of the Kitzmiller case, Forrest continued to speak about the career of the “intelligent design” movement, lecturing at institutions like Columbia University and Loyola University and to groups like the American Society of Cell Biology and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (She also featured prominently in the recent PBS documentary about the case, Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.) So when she mentioned to me that she was going to be giving a talk in Austin, Texas, entitled, “Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse,” I dropped a quick note to people in the area, as is my usual procedure.

“Dear Austin-area friends of NCSE,” it began. “I thought that you might like to know that Barbara Forrest will be speaking in Austin on November 2, 2007.” After giving the details of the place, time, and sponsor, it explained, “In her talk, Forrest will provide a detailed report on her expert testimony in the Kitzmiller v. Dover School Board trial as well as an overview of the history of the ‘intelligent design’ movement. Forrest is a Professor of Philosophy in the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University; she is also a member of NCSE’s board of directors.”

Among the people to receive the note was Chris Comer. Apparently she didn’t have a good idea who Forrest was—she later told “Science Friday” that she searched the web to find out--and was impressed with Forrest’s credentials and accomplishments. Having satisfied herself that Forrest was a worthwhile speaker, she promptly forwarded my e-mail to a few individuals and mailing lists, adding, “FYI.”

Unfortunately, Comer works at the Texas Education Agency, as its director of science curriculum—or, rather, she worked there. Less than two hours after sending the e-mail, she was called on the carpet and instructed to send a disclaimer. And then she was forced to resign. Although a memorandum recommending her dismissal referred to various instances of alleged “misconduct and insubordination” on her part, it was clear what her real offense was: “the TEA requires, as agency policy, neutrality when talking about evolution and creationism.”

It’s absurd, of course, to regard Comer’s forwarding of my announcement of Forrest’s talk as endorsing Forrest’s view (ask a linguist). But that absurdity pales in comparison to the absurdity of the Texas Education Agency trying to adopt a position of “neutrality” on evolution, when (as the National Academy of Sciences observes) “The scientific consensus around evolution is overwhelming.” As Forrest commented, “Maybe the TEA can’t afford to take a position on what constitutes good science education—maybe it must remain neutral on whether or not to lie to students about evolution—but if so, that's just sad.”

Both Comer and the TEA kept quiet about her resignation, but eventually the Austin American-Statesman got wind of it, and a spate of reportage and editorials, even as high in the media’s pecking order as The New York Times, followed. The interest was not only due to Comer’s plight, however, but also due to what it foreshadows about the upcoming revision of Texas’s state science standards—which is to be overseen by Don McLeroy, the chair of the state board of education, and himself a creationist.

Texas isn’t the only state preparing to revise its state science standards; Florida is, too. Trouble is on the horizon there as well: it was recently revealed that a state education official abused her position to rally public opposition to the section of the draft standards that present evolution. (Was she forced to resign? No: she was “counseled.”) And with a constant climate of ignorance of, skepticism about, and hostility toward evolution across the country, it looks as though my colleagues at NCSE and I won’t be out of a job any time soon. So we’ll continue to defend the teaching of evolution in the public schools, and to help concerned teachers, parents, and citizens in general to do the same.

We’ll keep the e-mails coming, too.

Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools. With NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott, he edited Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for Our Schools (Beacon Press, 2006).