Monday, January 24, 2011

The Meaning of Kitzmiller v. Dover

Six years ago last December in the celebrated case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Judge John E. Jones III decided that a school board in south central Pennsylvania (in the town of Dover) could not make Intelligent Design (ID) literature available to its students. In fact the decision was initially praised as a landmark handling of the difficult science and religion controversy. A well-written account of the case, including valuable background information, has been written by Gordy Slack in, The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything. Slack is a popular writer on evolutionary themes and clearly places himself in the evolution camp but his book is usually fair. (At least the biases are obvious.)

Nearly a year later we learned that Judge Jones wasn’t nearly as informed on the science presented in the case as he should have been. As it turns out, he copied the bulk of the scientific argument in his written decision from documents provided to him by the ACLU before the trial even started. This is quite significant considering the fact that the ACLU was also providing legal help to the plaintiffs. What makes the copying so pathetic is that it suggests that the judge was not well enough informed to detect differences in the creationist arguments of his ACLU report and the arguments of ID that were presented in court.

I’m guessing that Slack was unaware of this finding when his book went to press, although this is giving him the benefit of the doubt. The Center for Science and Culture broke the story in December, 2006. Slack’s book was published in May, 2007 giving him time to have learned of the judge’s misbehavior. But since one never knows how long publishers hold on to manuscripts, it is possible that Slack was in the dark. The latest reference I could find in his Notes was to a website posting for January, 2007.

The case is an important one in America’s ongoing culture war. And the negative ruling against ID has had significant impact. The full effect of Judge Jones foul play may not be known for years but in the meantime a few things need to be reconsidered.

A good place to start is to rethink what the meaning of Kitzmiller should be. My take from Slack’s account is that the real issue in Dover was the religious motives of the school board. On this point I think the ruling was fair although ultimately unconstitutional. This may be a difficult position to hold, but let me explain.

Slack’s account makes it clear that the school board had little understanding of the science behind ID. Several of the early statements indicated strong fundamentalist positions against anything differing from its own brand of Christianity. This is clearly not the kind of environment where open enquiry can thrive. And as Slack shows, these professed Christians were caught in deceptive acts of dishonesty as the trial progressed, leaving one to only guess at the potential for manipulation from the erstwhile school board itself.

However, the case that was officially presented was about the right to have literature available for students to read. Textbooks containing a discussion of ID were to be placed in the library and a statement was to be read in class informing the students that they were available.

There was no pressure in this process from teachers or from anybody else. There is certainly nothing here that comes close to an establishment of religion one way or another. To suggest that putting a scientific book in a high school library violates the 1st Amendment is like saying that celebrating Martin Luther King Day does too - since the civil rights leader was a Christian preacher. This just stretches things too far.

Now perhaps you might take offense at my referring to ID as a science, so let me explain. During the trial, Kenneth Miller was asked by the Plaintiffs to define science. He did so by saying that it is an attempt to “provide natural explanations for natural phenomena”. I think this is a fully acceptable definition for experimental science but it hardly can be considered a complete definition for all science. It is similar to some of the definitions we find in various educational standards around the country. But it lacks a key element that has always been a part of science: namely observation. An earlier definition of science from the Kansas Science Standard that Miller has commented on reads: “Science is the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us”. This is a much better definition but Miller decided against using it in Dover.

My advanced degrees (M.S. and Ph.D.) are both in a branch of evolutionary biology known as systematic zoology – which has been called the “science of diversity”. A large part of my research is descriptive. For example, I describe the morphology and biology of animals. Now this sort of research is not experimental per se. Even so, it has been considered a science from as long as we have been calling anything science. As a matter of fact, descriptive biology is the oldest science we have. To consider otherwise would require kicking Linnaeus out of our biology classes.

What makes descriptive biology so important is that it serves as a base from which other sciences work. For example, knowing how to tell the difference between a malaria-vectoring mosquito and a benign mosquito can be tricky but without this kind of knowledge advances in medicine and public health are limited. This argument also holds true for ecology, agriculture and many other sciences.

From my perspective, the current research centered on irreducible complexity (and ID) is similarly descriptive. It may not be providing “natural explanations” for how this complexity came about, but the identification of this complexity by itself is a net gain in our understanding of life. It is a base of information that can be accessed by many other disciplines in the future, even by those who wish to argue against ID.

This importance of observation is recognized by the National Academy of Science. In fact the very first paragraph in the introduction of its influential publication Science and Creationism makes this clear: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are limited to those based on observation and experiments that can be substituted by other scientists...”

I am a bit surprised that Miller decided against using this definition – coming as it does from our most eminent scientific body. It is particularly surprising because it was written for the primary reason of bolstering the claims of science against the rising influence of “creation science”.

But the problem for Miller and the other Plaintiffs in Dover is that this definition isn’t sufficient to keep ID out of the halls of science. So instead of being embarrassed by this ambiguity, Miller chose a different definition, or so it seems.

Of course I may be wrong but a lot depends on definitions – especially in court. The larger issue, however, is that arguing over what is and what is not science has a long history of getting us nowhere. Philosopher Larry Laudan has traced this history in some detail.

Over two thousand years ago Aristotle argued that logical demonstration was the key element in scientific findings. In the pre-modern era it was determined that a more robust understanding of science would involve a particular method. Accordingly the scientific method was used as the defining ingredient.

When this definition proved imperfect, philosophers decided that science needed to be verifiable. Later still this perspective was altered so that scientific data and conclusions would be generally falsifiable instead. And there have been other definitions that could be added to this brief list.

Laudan comes to the conclusion that science should be determined by the credibility of the data and not the “scientific” status of the claims. He originally made these observations in 1983 and they are just as important now (if not more so) in the wake of the Kitzmiller case. This bickering over he meaning of science may have kept creation science out of the classroom. It will not work indefinitely for ID.

So what should be the meaning of Dover? My answer is that three things stand out.

The first one is that Judge Jones was right in identifying an underlying religious antagonism against evolution among members of the Dover Area School Board. It certainly appears that the level of scientific misinformation was becoming a problem and I think the judge made the right decision in this local area at the time of the trial.

However my other points suggest that Judge Jones will go down in history as an activist judge who was not capable of handling his most visible case. I say this because ID cannot be truthfully taught and be seriously considered a breach of the 1st Amendment (my 2nd point); and, because ID also makes observations of reality that can indeed be verifiable – and that fall under the umbrella of science (my 3rd point).

But I would like to make one final point that has significance well beyond the Kitzmiller case. It is that we are at a critical point in this conflict that requires a reasoned tolerance between both parties.

In this highly charged debate, a lack of understanding can become disastrous. Zealous biases that remain uninformed lead to dogmatism. And dogmatism, as Huston Smith has explained, is a character disorder. Even worse, it can destroy public order. This may sound like I’m being critical of conservative Christians. And in fact I am, in part. But the argument goes both ways. There is far too much dogmatism coming from the materialist camp as well. And its refusal to understand the basic Christian concerns in this issue can only make things worse.

Let’s face it. Both sides have legitimate concerns. The Plaintiffs in Kitzmiller, like thousands of other Americans that value the scientific method, were (and are) deeply concerned about the anti-intellectual tendencies that misinformed fundamentalists threaten to impose upon our children. It doesn’t matter that ID is good science (and I am arguing that it is). There are many vocal bigots that are downright scary to people trying to maintain a balanced position in this debate.

On the other hand, the defendants in the case have very legitimate concerns of their own. Materialism in its atheistic forms has been used to justify some of the worst civil rights violations of the last century. And one doesn’t have to go very far to see the connection between the moral decline of Western Society and the marginalization of religion.

Of course there has been a lot of ink spilt over this argument by both parties, and not everybody will agree with me. But strict materialists, with even a modicum of understanding, should be able to see the legitimacy of their religious opponents’ arguments.

There are a lot of strong opinions in this debate. And, as often happens when the stakes are this high, people take up sides – and sometimes a sword. No doubt this is inevitable. There are a lot of people who see the issues in absolute terms. And I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad thing.

As Huston Smith has written, one can think absolutely about an issue (with strong feelings) and still be tolerant of other people who think differently. In fact this is what tolerance used to mean: people with strong beliefs peacefully putting up with each other.

There has been foul play on both sides. It’s time to let it go and strive for understanding. This is more than just an academic argument, or even a political argument. This can divide us as a people in very harmful ways. Let’s all try to be a little bit smarter, and maybe our children will grow up to be wiser than we have been.


DeWolf, David et al. 2006. Traipsing Into Evolution, Intelligent Design and the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Decision. Discovery Institute Press.

Laudan, Larry. 1996. The Demise of the Demarcation Problem; in Michael Ruse ed. But is it Science? The Philosophical Question in the Creation/Evolution Controversy. Prometheus Books, New York.

Miller, Kenneth R. 2008. Only a Theory, Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul. Viking. The Kansas definition of science is on page 186.

The National Academies. 1999. Science and Creationism, A View from the National Academy of Sciences. National Academy Press, Washington D.C. Second Edition.

Slack, Gordy. 2007. The Battle Over the Meaning of Everything. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Smith, Huston. 2001. Why Religion Matters. Harpers, San Francisco.

West, John G and David K. DeWolf. 2006 A Comparison of Judge Jones’ Opinion in Kitzmiller v. Dover with Plaintiffs Proposed “Findings of Fact and Conclusion of Law”.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Building Soil in the Desert

Soils in arid lands are usually not very productive. Because they are dry for long periods, many living things that normally work together to form rich soil are lacking. Very often the soils are sandy or of hard clay and only a few kinds of plants adapted to these harsh conditions can survive in them. As a result, agriculture has not been sustainable in these areas like it has in many parts of the world.

Today, however, there are apparent exceptions to this claim. Many desert regions are very productive. The Central Valley of California, for example, is one of the richest agricultural places on earth. Yet surprisingly it gets less than 12 inches of rain a year. In this dry land farmers have been producing abundant harvests for over a century. Even so, I stand by my claim: it just isn’t sustainable – at least at a local level.

In the desert, we have only been able to grow crops by bringing in billions of dollars worth of artificial inputs such as: fertilizers, pesticides, adjuvants, pheromones. I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad thing. The reality is that we would not be able to feed the world in its current condition without using the desert so proficiently. It is true that industrial agriculture is responsible for the loss of vast amounts of productive agricultural lands - especially through erosion and the sterilization of croplands. But this isn’t really an issue so much in desert regions where the rich soil wasn’t present to begin with.

In those deserts that have had the luxury of warm sandy soils, with enough water nearby, modern agriculture has made out quite nicely. In other deserts it’s been more difficult. These areas, though rich in biological diversity, have never been very agronomically productive.

My grandparents (on my father’s side) learned this the hard way. They were both raised in the cold desert of central Utah where sage brush is supreme and where the 5,000 foot elevation makes it cold enough that only one crop a year is possible. They got married at the turn of the 19th Century; and, after living for several years in Emery County, they loaded up their things and moved south to Hanksville, in Wayne County looking for a better life. This is the country east of Capitol Reef National Park and just north of Lake Powell. It is strikingly beautiful in its spare colorful formations but the soil is the soil of arid lands. It is not very productive.

My grandmother had to work very hard just to raise a small vegetable garden. Grandpa Wells would divert water from the local canal (that he helped dig from the Fremont River) to moisten the hard clay soil enough for Grandma to work with a shovel. This was a long hard process but without it, the ground couldn’t be broken and there was not nearly enough rain to grow a crop without it. Grandma and Grandpa had six children (and I don’t know how many grandchildren). Almost all of them had to live somewhere other than Hanksville. To this day the area remains mostly unfarmed.

The question that nobody seems to be asking is whether or not it is even worthwhile to develop a locally sustainable agriculture in places like Hanksville. And by locally sustainable I mean an agriculture that is continuous, year after year, without artificial inputs.

I guess that nobody has asked the question because on the surface it makes no sense whatsoever. How can anybody imagine growing a crop in hard clay or sand without adding fertilizer or other inputs from the world of agribusiness?

My answer is that pursuing agriculture as a business is not a very good idea in many of these desert lands. On the other hand, pursuing agriculture as part of a locally sustainable lifestyle is a real possibility.

The key to making it work all depends upon the soil. Historically, our American agriculture (even in the desert) has been based on using the soil. If a desert region lacked a suitable substrate for growing crops we never bothered with it. Maybe a few cows were left to find a meager sustenance on such land but that was about it. In fact that’s about where things stand today.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible to build soil, in the desert. Take the silty clay loam of Hanksville as an example. There are abundant minerals in this soil that would greatly enrich a crop, but they just aren’t available. But if a dedicated individual were to put forth the effort of creating compost - and lots of it - over time the hard clay would crumble and become part of a more frangible soil.

You would need to start with a big compost pile using the fallen leaves from local shrubs and trees. Mix these with animal manure and keep it moist, while turning it over occasionally. When this turns to soil, spread it on the garden. Seeds planted in this soft earth will grow. You may not have a lot to start with but keep at it. A drip line for watering would serve well if you have a lot of plants or a frequent hand-watering with a bucket or hose will do. Once the seedlings are on their way, add more leaves (even straw will work) and then place rocks over the leaves around the seedlings to retain moisture. If you keep things moist enough you will soon see signs of earthworms. After a few seasons the worms will work the ground from hard dirt to a rich soil that can be easily cut with a spade. Before too long you will have discovered one of the best kept secrets of these under-utilized lands: deserts can be extremely productive.

Of course local conditions will vary. You may need to bring in earthworms yourself if they don’t occur in your area. You may also have to be creative about finding enough plant material for composting. Then once your garden is thriving you may need to figure out how to keep rabbits or rodents out. But be persistent. Desert agriculture isn’t a well-established science in any form. And locally sustainable desert agriculture is a discipline that hardly even exists. It shouldn’t be this way. With the right care and determination the desert has a lot to offer.