Judgment on "Judgment Day"

I just watched the new Nova documentary, "Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial." The documentary examined the background of the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. A short summary: A Pennsylvania school board, led by a majority of creationist members, decided to impose an "evolution disclaimer" in biology classes, claiming that intelligent design (ID) is an alternative scientific theory. The statement directed students to the intelligent design creationist book, Of Pandas and People, 60 copies of which had been anonymously donated to the district. Science teachers in the district refused en masse to read the statement, and a number of parents sued in federal district court, claiming a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

More on the trial and the "Judgment Day" documentary may be found at the National Center for Science Education website, including the NCSE's archive of documents related to the trial.

As a viewer, I found the documentary interesting -- it went behind the story to interview people in Dover on both sides of the case. They interviewed the science teachers who decided as a group to oppose the school board's statement. They talked to the teacher who left the district because he couldn't teach in an environment where he was required to discuss creationism, but then ran for school board to try to fix the schools his kids would still attend. They related the stories -- most offensive, the people who called the Sunday-school-teaching school board candidate an "atheist" because he wanted evolution taught properly.

Most important, the documentary showed the extent to which the trial itself was a science lesson for the attendees. The witnesses for the plaintiffs, including Ken Miller and Kevin Padian who were featured in the film, presented clear expositions of the success of evolution as a scientific theory, featuring its accurate predictions about transitional fossils and molecular genetic findings. These kinds of presentations clearly show the importance of learning evolution as the central foundation of biology.

I take this as the most important message of the film: One of the witnesses (I forget who) related a story that a journalist asked, incredulous, why he hadn't been taught such examples in biology classes. The response: the extent of creationist feeling on school boards across the country means that today's biology textbooks are watered down, with a bare minimum of evolution content, to make them sell more widely. The film includes an interview with school board member Bill Buckingham, who -- when evaluating the new biology textbook coauthored by Ken Miller -- found "literally 16 or 17" references to evolution. Personally I found it astounding that there would be so few in a huge biology textbook. I suspect he missed some, but the point remains: high school biology curricula do not include evolutionary biology in any substantial way. That jibes with my experience teaching: my undergraduates find some of the most elementary facts surprising, because they have never heard them before.

Yet, as a teacher, I found the documentary very unsatisfying. Although it gives a valuable perspective on the trial, and on today's ID movement, it is much too long to show in my courses. The information about evolution in the film is inspirational, but it is ultimately very superficial. Not only the existence of the examples, but also their details are important to understanding why evolution explains them. Yet, Nova was really not able to explore these details,

In a now-standard science-doc trick, they introduce Darwin's theory with a clever 3-d graphic of the "tree of life," quickly zooming over various parts. They return to this image again and again through the film, quickly zooming over pretty much the same parts. It's repetitive, redundant, and very uninformative. Yes, Darwin predicted that all life forms are related, and that there should be transitions between different kinds of organisms. Yes, the "transitional fossil" concept was important to the trial. But repeating the icon of the tree of life hardly reinforces that message, and it provided no new information at any point in the film where it appeared.

I was surprised that the documentary had such trouble showing the concept of transitional fossils. The film makers chose to devote a 5-minute segment to Tiktaalik. It is surely one of the best recent examples of transitional fossils, but it is entirely irrelevant to the trial because it hadn't been published at that time! They mentioned the long list of other transitional forms discussed at the trial; I can't believe that they couldn't have done a better job of presenting this evidence. If they had used the same time to discuss 4 or 5 transitions in moderate detail, they would have made a segment that could be used effectively in courses.

The film highlights just how foolish the ID witnesses were made to appear by the plaintiff's lawyers -- remarkably, Michael Behe admits that astrology would be taught as science by his definition of the term. But it leaves the likely impression with many viewers that this foolishness is "a lot of fancy lawyer tricks."

For many, the facts of the case will stand by themselves -- the school board had only to demonstrate that ID was a credible scientific theory, and that they had no religious intent when they decided to require the ID statement in classes. That they failed on both of these simple counts shows that ID is simply a scam. This point is showed to great effect during the film with the testimony of Barbara Forrest, who had painstakingly tracked editorial revisions in Of Pandas and People, showing the botched text replacement of "creationists" in early drafts with "cdesign proponentsists". This ludicrous episode more than anything else demonstrates the dishonesty at the core of the ID movement.

So I can recommend the film for anyone who didn't get a chance to see the first version. It documents the great chicanery of ID, still foisted on school boards across the country by scoundrels preying on religious feeling and misunderstanding of science. It gives a good feeling to see the truth about evolutionary biology's successes so effectively portrayed. And yet, it is really not suitable for showing in the forum that matters most: to students of biology.