The disappearing Disco 'Tute

An interesting pattern of Discovery Institute behavior has become evident in several events over the last 8 years. It’s a hit and run tactic, with emphasis on the “run.” In at least four significant instances of attempts to jam intelligent design creationism or one of its semantic equivalents into an educational context, the Disco ‘Tute was involved early in the process, providing aid and comfort to the local ID Creationism pushers. But later when push came to shove, the Disco ‘Tute backed out, abandoning their local proxies to the courts and the voters. I’ll briefly describe the four instances (Ohio State BOE; Mt. Vernon, OH, Dover, PA; and Darby, MO) I have in mind below the fold, highlighting the Disco ‘Tute’s style of participation.

The Ohio Science Standards affair

In 2002-3. when the Ohio State Board of Education was considering the addition of “critical analysis of evolution” language to the state science standards for 10th grade biology, the Discovery Institute was much in evidence. Jonathan Wells and Stephen Meyer of the Disco ‘Tute participated in a 2002 panel discussion before the Board that was originally set up to examine whether Ohio should include intelligent design creationism (IDC) in the state science standards (Kenneth Miller and Lawrence Krauss argued the contra side). In the discussion Meyer pulled a bait and switch, retreating from arguing that IDC should be included and suggesting that the so-called “scientific controversy” about Darwinism be taught instead. Later, in 2003, when the Board finally adopted “critical analysis of evolution” language for the 10th grade biology standards, Disco ‘Tute operatives were much in evidence. In fact, several were camped in a room just up the stairs from the Board’s meeting room, and within a single minute after the Board’s vote they trooped down the stairs, press releases in hand. Their triumphalism was palpable.

Three years later, immediately following the Kitzmiller decision, the Ohio Board reconsidered the “critical analysis” language it had inserted in 2003, and in the end removed it from the standards along with an ID-tainted model lesson plan. This time around the only Disco ‘Tute presence was Casey Luskin, then a very junior member of the ‘Tute’s staff, lurking in the background, and no one from the ‘Tute testified in favor of retaining the IDC material. Somewhere I have a picture of Casey and me together outside the Board meeting room. After the ID-adverse vote, Casey declined an invitation to go out with us for dinner.

So, for the Ohio State Board of Education there was a substantial presence with the Disco ‘Tute’s big guns deployed in the beginning, but just Casey, forlornly dinner-less, remained at the end.

The Freshwater affair

Soon after the Ohio State Board of Education adopted the “critical analysis of evolution” language in 2003, John Freshwater, a middle school science teacher in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, urged that the district adopt the Intelligent Design Network’s Objective Origins Science Policy. When his proposal was rejected by the district’s science curriculum committee, Freshwater took the proposal directly to the Board of Education, shifting his role from teacher to parent of students in the district. The main support Freshwater offered for his proposal was two documents, Jonathan Wells’ Survival of the Fakest, an article published in the distinguished science journal The American Spectator, and Wells’ Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution. In addition, a number of people spoke in favor of Freshwater’s proposal, often citing one or another of the spurious arguments from Wells’ Icons of Evolution. To cap off one Board meeting, Benjamin Wiker, a senior fellow of the Disco ‘Tute, spoke in favor of Freshwater’s proposal, waving a stack of Xeroxed copies of the ‘Tute’s Bibliography of Supplementary Resources for Ohio Science Education (see also here). Wiker specifically introduced himself as a fellow of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture of the Disco ‘Tute.

So even way out here in rural Ohio we got the attention of a senior Disco ‘Tute functionary, though why he showed up isn’t clear–no one ‘fessed up to contacting the Disco ‘Tute. But that was the last we heard from them. All the way through the three years of the Freshwater affair (Freshwater tag cloud on the Thumb), the Disco ‘Tute didn’t make a single peep that I’m aware of, and a search of the Disco ‘Tute’s site confirms that there were no mentions of “John Freshwater”. So like a miniature of the Ohio battle at the state level, the Disco ‘Tute bailed out. After having supported Freshwater with materials and a personal appearance by a senior fellow when he started his project to cram intelligent design creationism, the only subsequent faint signs of the Disco ‘Tute were two cryptic mentions in one of his lesson plans from 2006, “Specified complexity” (Dembski’s term) and “Irreducible complexity” (Behe’s term).

The Dover, PA, affair

We’re all familiar with the outlines of the affair in Dover, PA. A couple of points are relevant to this post. First, stimulated by a newspaper article describing Dover Board of Education member Bill Buckingham’s reservations about a biology text, characterizing it as “laced with Darwinism,” a Disco ‘Tute attorney named Seth Cooper contacted Buckingham. Accounts of just what they discussed differ, with Buckingham claiming that Cooper offered him legal advice subject to attorney-client privilege (see here), while Cooper denies that, though both agree that Cooper sent Buckingham an “Icons of Evolution” DVD with an accompanying study guide. Cooper claims that he did so “In the hopes of persuading Buckingham away from leading the Dover Board on any unconstitutional and unwise course of action concerning the teaching of evolution, …”. Subsequently, according to testimony in Kitzmiller, two Disco ‘Tute attorneys (apparently including Disco ‘Tute’s Washington office director Mark Ryland) made a private presentation to the Dover Board.

Later, after the Kitzmiller plaintiffs had filed suit and the Thomas More Law Center agreed to defend the Dover Board, Richard Thompson and the Disco ‘Tute fell out. Around the same time, several expert witnesses due to testify for the defendant Board of Education withdrew, their withdrawals coming when it was too late to line up new experts. Those withdrawing were William A. Dembski, Stephen C. Meyer, and John Angus Campbell, all at that time in the Disco ‘Tute’s lineup of “fellows.” (Michael Behe and Scott Minnich, also “fellows,” testified, providing the Disco ‘Tute’s only instance of hanging in when the going gets tough. Why they did so isn’t clear. Given Behe’s delusional perception of his own performance in the trial, I’m tempted to speculate but won’t.) The big three withdrew after submitting their expert reports (and, in Dembski’s case at least, later charging for them, WAD requesting $20K) but before being deposed, ostensibly because the Thomas More Center wouldn’t agree to them having their private attorneys present during depositions. According to Barbara Forrest, at least one of their ‘private’ attorneys was arranged through the Disco ‘Tute.

Again there’s the pattern of early Disco ‘Tute participation, attenuating as time goes on.

The Darby, MT, affair

In 2004 in Darby, Montana, Reverend Curtis Brickley proposed that an “objective origins policy” be added to the public school science curriculum. (It’s not clear if that was same Intelligent Design Network policy that John Freshwater proposed in Mt. Vernon.) Brickley acknowledged getting help from the Disco ‘Tute in preparing his presentation, and like Benjamin Wiker’s appearance in Mt. Vernon, David DeWolf, a Disco ‘Tute senior fellow, showed up at a Darby Board of Education meeting to assure the locals that it’s all perfectly OK and if the district were to be sued he’d personally see that they got appropriate legal representation. Subsequently, like the Thomas More Law Center in the Dover case, the Alliance Defense Fund offered to defend the Darby Board pro bono if it were sued. Fortunately, the voters in Darby were on the ball and elected two supporters of honest science education to the Board of Education, defeating ID creationism pushers and tipping the balance of power on the Board. The new Board rescinded the policy adopted by its creationist-dominated predecessor. As was the case in Mt. Vernon, the Disco ‘Tute was nowhere to be seen in the late stages of the affair. For newspaper articles on the Darby case see here and see also this RNCSE article.

The common pattern

So there’s a common pattern across the Ohio State BOE, Freshwater, Dover, and Darby instances. The Disco ‘Tute shows up early, fans the flames by encouraging locals to pervert the teaching of science, and then flees into the underbrush claiming that ‘No, no, they misunderstood us! We didn’t intend for anything illegal or unconstitutional to happen, we just wanted to encourage good science teaching.’ Yeah, right. With Jonathan Wells’ crap.

During the Ohio State Board of Education battle Father Michael Cochran, an ID creationism-pushing member of the Board, said “Let them sue us” when the prospect of litigation over the “critical analysis of education evolution” was raised. But as I told that Board, it’s not the State Board that would be sued, it would be some poor little rural district, sucked in by the Board’s wink and nod, that would fall into a Dover Trap. The Disco ‘Tute helps create the conditions that lead unwary local school districts into morasses that tear up local communities like Dover and Mr. Vernon and Darby, and then it flees the scene, claiming innocence. Nuts. In fact they repeatedly set someone else up for a fall, playing a game of “Let’s you and them fight,” while cravenly hiding out in the bushes when push comes to shove.