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The Great Debate takes on intelligent design

Should it be taught in public schools?

To watch a video of Wednesday’s Great Debate, in its entirety (about two hours), click here. RealPlayer® is required to view this video.

The national debate over whether the theory of intelligent design belongs in the curriculum of public schools took center stage at the Tsai Performance Center Wednesday night during the 20th in a series of Great Debates sponsored by the College of Communication’s department of journalism.

The two-hour event attracted a full house and engendered spirited debate about science, religion and public policy as both sides considered the question: Should public schools teach intelligent design along with evolution?

Professor Bob Zelnick, journalism department chairman and moderator of the debate, said that unlike in past debates, participants would not name a winner at the end. But audience reaction, in the form of applause and cries of “Hear! Hear!” and “Shame!” favored the team arguing against teaching intelligent design in public schools. As of yesterday morning, results of an online poll conducted by COM showed 68 in favor of teaching intelligent design and 216 opposed.

The audience also got in on the action during the public response portion of the event. The line to speak against teaching intelligent design snaked well past the line of those in favor. Several students challenged the idea that nature even appears to be intelligently designed and asked if, just because the idea exists, schools should also teach the theory that aliens built the pyramids.

Proponents of intelligent design contend that life is too complex to have evolved from natural selection and must have been created by an intelligent designer, who could be, but does not have to be identified as God.

Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, led the arguments against teaching the theory, along with James Trefil, a professor at George Mason University and an author, and Neil St. Clair, (COM’08, CAS’08), a broadcast journalism and political science major.

They argued that intelligent design is not science and does not belong in high school biology classes, which already devote little time to teaching the established theory of evolution. The push for integrating intelligent design is an attempt to repackage creationism, they contended, which has already been struck down by the Supreme Court for violating the Constitution’s mandate for separation of church and state.

“Intelligent design is not only a Christian view, it is a sectarian Christian view that not all hold and certainly is not appropriate to be taught in public schools,” Scott argued. “When viewed in full, it’s clearly a movement promoting a religious view.”

But the team arguing in the affirmative said that intelligent design offers a viable alternative to the flawed theory of evolution and should be introduced to students. Edward H. Sisson, a Washington D.C.–based attorney, led the argument for intelligent design with William A. Dembski, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, and Nick Barber (COM’06), a broadcast journalism major.

They said that the concept is not the same as creationism or part of a religious or political agenda and emphasized that evolution alone has not been able to fully explain complex biological processes.

“Intelligent design should be taught or at least mentioned in public schools as an alternative to evolution,” Barber argued. “Education involves debate and multiple interpretations…By not teaching and offering an alternative, we are depriving students.”

The next Great Debate will be held in April.