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TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 13, 8-10 PM (on most PBS stations)

JUDGMENT DAY: INTELLIGENT DESIGN ON TRIAL

Q&A with Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer of NOVA

Q: This program tackles a contentious issue for many people, particularly for many devout Christians. Why did NOVA and Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions, your coproducer, take it on?

Apsell: Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial is in many ways a hornet’s nest. And we had to think long and hard before we decided to take it on. I think the real reason that we made that decision is because evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences. As Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the great biologists of the 20th century, once said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

In 2004, the Dover, Pennsylvania school board established a policy that science teachers would have to read a statement to biology students suggesting that there is an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution called intelligent design. Intelligent design, or ID, claims that certain features of life are too complex to have evolved naturally, and therefore must have been designed by an intelligent agent. The Dover high school science teachers refused to comply with the policy, refused to read the statement. And parents opposed to the school board’s actions filed a lawsuit in federal court.

The trial that followed was fascinating. It was like a primer, like a biology textbook. Some of the nation’s best biologists testified. When I began delving into the case, it was clear that both the trial and the issue were perfect subjects for NOVA.

Q: But why would a science series cover a court case?

Apsell: This is not just any case; it’s an historic case as well as a critical science lesson. Through six weeks of expert testimony, the case provided a crash course in modern evolutionary science, and it really hit home just how firmly established evolutionary theory is. The case also explored the very nature of science—how science is defined. Perhaps most importantly, the trial had great potential for altering science education and the public understanding of science.

Dover’s lawyers tried to argue that ID is science and, therefore, that teaching it does not violate the principle of the separation of church and state in the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of the trial, Judge John Jones issued a 139-page verdict supporting the teaching of evolution and characterizing intelligent design as a religious idea with no place in the science classroom. It was a landmark decision, all the more so because Judge Jones was appointed by President Bush and nominated by Republican Senator Rick Santorum.

If the decision had gone the other way, it could have had dire consequences for science education in this country. We know that state boards of education in Kansas and Ohio were considering changing science standards and curriculums to accommodate intelligent design, and they since have decided against it in the wake of this verdict.

(Full interview here.)

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.