Boston I don't know whether to call this good news, but something is happening when the opponents of evolution recast themselves as defenders of academic freedom and guardians of open debate.
This is the take-home lesson from Kansas, where another in the apparently endless controversies over science and religion took place on the 80th anniversary of the Scopes trial. This time, hearings were called by the State Board of Education on whether to change the science standards and require Darwin's theory be challenged in the classroom. This time, the anti-evolution crowd was carrying a new slogan: Teach the Controversy.
The parade of Darwin's adversaries argued in terms that might have been ripped from the playbook of People for the American Way. One insisted, "We're looking for an objective approach that looks at both sides." Another called the evolutionists "the true censors." A third called evolution "an ideology." A fourth said, "It's important to foster academic debate and thinking and reasoning."
My favorite remarks came from a member of the Kansas science standards committee, William Harris, who said, "Public science education is an institution. It appoints a teacher to be a referee among ideas. ... Nobody would tolerate a football game where the referee was obviously biased." Who knew the budgets were so tight that teachers were now referees?
My, how the opponents of evolution have evolved. As recently as 20 years ago, the leaders quoted Genesis as the one true scientific source: The world was created in seven days, those geological layers were the work of Noah's flood, case closed. This evolved into creationism or creation science. But in 1987, the Supreme Court declared that teaching creation in the classroom was teaching religion and unconstitutional.
Now the leading argument is "intelligent design," an intelligent redesign of the old arguments in new clothing. As Ken Miller, co-author of one of the most respected biology textbooks, says, "So-called intelligent design is nothing more than creationism stripped of everything that a court would immediately recognize as religious content."
Unlike the earlier creationism, ID is agnostic on questions such as the age of the Earth, but not on the role of an intelligent designer (or Designer) in the creation process. Unlike the earlier creationists who fought to get Darwin out of class, the new generation of intelligent designers ostensibly wants equal time to debunk him and promote their alternative.
The Kansas rule-makers also want to change the way science is now defined as a search for natural explanations. Says Miller, "Think hard. What's a non-natural explanation? A supernatural explanation." He can imagine an earth science class teaching about tsunamis. "One side teaches about tectonic plates. The other side teaches about people punished for their sins."
Miller also worries about mandating doubts about evolution: "I'm not the least worried these guys will prevail scientifically. What they may succeed in is giving young people the message that the science establishment is dishonest with the evidence. If that's written into the curriculum it will drive a wedge between young people and science."
It's the height of irony to hear the same partisans who intimidate science teachers positioning themselves as the defenders of fair and open debate. Open-minded? Listen to the words of committee member Harris: "Our overall goal is to remove the bias against religion that is in our schools. This is a scientific controversy that has powerful religious implications." Science that doesn't teach his religious beliefs is biased against his religious beliefs.
This is what's going around. At least around the political circuit. If a court remains neutral on religion, it is now immediately attacked as hostile to religion. When an oil lobbyist argues against global warming, it's cast as a plea for open scientific debate. It's like tobacco companies criticizing the cancer researchers for only giving the bad news about cigarettes.
In this case, the opponents not only cast evolution as a flawed "ideology" but deliberately characterize evolutionists as atheists. They then insist on a false equivalency between evolution and intelligent design, and demand equal time for the faithful with the so-called faithless.
I suppose there is something positive in the audacious way that the right has taken over the language of the left. It means that values such as open debate and academic freedom are so universally accepted that the right is using this popular vocabulary.
But only when they need to. The same political allies in Texas who argued for an open debate in science textbooks last year are back arguing to close the debate -- abstinence only -- in sex ed textbooks this year.
So let's "Teach the Controversy." I'm all for it. But this controversy doesn't belong in biological science. It belongs in political science.
-- Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.