The Big Fact-Check: Thoughts On the Day After Dover

When Judge John E. Jones III issued his decision in the Dover creationism trial on Tuesday, I downloaded the document with a vague sense of dread. It wasn’t just that the decision was 139 pages long. I knew that Judge Jones had ruled that teaching intelligent design was unconstitutional, but I was worried that he might have accepted that it was anything but a warmed-over form of creationism.

Months of media coverage of the trial had nurtured my dread. Again and again, reporters felt an obligation to give “equal time” to intelligent design advocates, without feeling an equal obligation to fact-check the claims that the advocates were throwing out. I assumed Judge Jones would follow suit.

Once I started reading the decision, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Judge Jones did not take the claims of intelligent design advocates at face value. They declared that intelligent design was not creationism. But he followed the long paper trail that linked creation scientists to the emergence of intelligent design in the 1980s. The Dover school board had its students to read the book “Of Pandas and People” to learn about intelligent design. Judge Jones observed that in the original draft of the book, the authors had used “creationism” and similar terms 150 times. In the final version, they had turned into “intelligent design.”

The intelligent design advocates claimed that it was a serious field of scientific inquiry. In fact, Judge Jones wrote, intelligent design “has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.” Intelligent design advocates have tried to bolster their case by trying to find weaknesses in evolutionary biology. Judge Jones found that scientists had solidly rebutted these attacks. What’s more, he recognized that simply attacking someone else’s theory as wrong does not make yours right.

Journalists would do well to print Judge Jones’s decision out and read it carefully. It’s not up to a journalist to decide which side is right in a genuine scientific controversy. But it’s wrong to let people use an article as a soapbox where they can make grand pronouncements about science, without looking into whether the science actually backs them up. Judge Jones fact-checked intelligent design and found it wanting. He did not shy away from this realization with worries that he was somehow being one-sided. Justice holds a balance in her hand, but balance is not what she seeks. Instead, she weighs the evidence to see which way it tips.