Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"Ties" to Canada

It was the morning of the trial and I was in my hotel room trying to decide which of two neckties I should wear. It’s funny how such a seemingly trifling thing can become notable. One of the ties was traditionally sedate, the type no one would think twice about. The other was a tie I wore often and never thought that it might be considered inappropriate. It was purchased in a museum; the tag stated it was “Designed for Dr Richard Leakey and the National Museums of Kenya.” The tie depicts skulls of Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus boisei. I brought this tie along merely because I have numerous such natural history ties, enjoy them, and wear them often. So between the two ties I brought on the trip, I chose to wear this tie for my testimony.

When I arrived that morning in the legal office heads turned and eyes focused on my tie. Immediately the attorneys in the room had a brief quiet discussion among themselves — probably discussing the pros and cons of their witness wearing such a tie. In any case, I thought if the tie were inappropriate, then the attorneys would certainly tell me so — and quickly exchange my tie for one of their more jurisprudently appropriate neckwear. Maybe they were thinking they would have to enter my tie as an exhibit in the trial. Whatever their verdict, no further mention was made of my tie that day by anyone — until after my testimony. Outside the courtroom door, a reporter from Rolling Stone magazine asked if he might interview me and take some pictures. He immediately instructed his photographer to make sure the details of the tie would show up in the photograph. The photograph was never used in the article.

So that day the tie was discussed among constitutional attorneys and photographed by Rolling Stone. But alas, other than briefly being mentioned in the Rolling Stone article, nothing really ever came of it. And of course nothing should have; after all, it’s just natural history depicted on neckwear. However, in a trial such as this, it appears that even a tie draws attention. I still think about the trial every time I wear it, something that certainly wouldn’t happen if I had worn that traditional sedate tie. I wonder what would have happened if the defendants’ expert witnesses wore “intelligent design” ties. Are there such things?

Meanwhile, back home in Canada (although a US citizen, I live and work in beautiful Montréal), the Canadians found one media article of the trial to be the most attention-getting and humorous for understandable reasons (having nothing to do with neckwear): “Dover Statement Bombs, Even in Canada” authored by Mike Argento, the HL Mencken of the trial. Even though Argento is a US columnist, this column was talked about across Canada. Argento wrote: “And speaking of hurt feelings, you had to feel bad for Dover Superintendent Richard Nielsen and the rest of the defendants, sitting in the gallery — on the defendant side of the courtroom No 2 — when Brian Alters, a professor of science education and expert in teaching evolution, started talking. It got ugly. The defendants appeared to be relieved when Alters took the stand and said he taught at McGill University. McGill is in Montréal. That’s Canada. You could almost sense the relief among the defendants. Canada? How bad could it get? And then, the good doctor started testifying and in so many words, accused the school board and administrators, essentially, of child abuse. And he was right. Teaching ‘intelligent design’ creationism in science class wasn’t just a bad idea, he said. It wasn’t just bad teaching. It was ‘probably the worst thing I’ve heard of in science education.’ And it got worse. ... it went on and on.”

ID Closer to Home?

Through this, many Canadians felt that they got a chance for some “one-upsmanship” over their southern neighbors in an academic dispute in a high-profile federal case. After all, Canada certainly doesn’t have problems like “intelligent design” pseudoscience being seriously considered on the same footing with evolutionary science, especially not involving any federal level adjudication. Really?!

Thinking there are no “intelligent design” problems in Canada — as do most Canadians I talk with — is very wrong. I find Canadians are less smug about the “American ID problems” when they learn there are ID problems in their own country. More surprisingly, the most recent Canadian ID upheaval has never even occurred in the US. Less than three months after Judge Jones released his ruling, one of the three major Canadian federal funding agencies for academic research issued a shocking funding-denial letter (to a science education proposal), stating what appears to be ID-sympathetic rationales. By the way, the author of that proposal was me!

The proposal title was “Detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution’s ‘intelligent design theory’ on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators, and policymakers.” The proposal stated: “The purpose of this study is to measure the extent to which the recent large-scale popularization of ‘intelligent design’ is detrimentally affecting Canadians’ teaching and learning of biological evolution at high school, university, and educational administration.” The impetus of the proposal was the immense publicity that the Dover trial was garnering in Canadian (and international) media.

The reply letter from the federal funding agency, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), states, “The decision rests upon the recommendation of the multidisciplinary adjudication committee which studied your application.” The adjudication committee wrote: “The proposal did not adequately substantiate the premise that the popularizing of Intelligent Design Theory had detrimental effects on Canadian students, teachers, parents and policymakers. Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design theory, was correct. It [the adjudication committee] was not convinced, therefore, that research based on these assumptions would yield objective results.”

Within days, the highly prestigious scientific journal Nature broke the story online and in print worldwide. International media followed and carried the story in print, radio, and television — including MTV. This followed with a barrage of stinging open letters of condemnation from major scientific organizations from the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), the American Sociological Association (ASA), the Canadian Society for the Study of Ecology and Evolution (CSEE), and others. Hundreds of scientists have authored communications denouncing the stance of SSHRC.

After monumental pressure, the SSHRC did finally officially state that evolution is one of the pillars of modern science; however, to date, it has neither retracted nor officially commented on any of the ID-sympathetic language in its letter. SSHRC is the major governmental funding source for science education research in Canada.

Dover may have been a US embarrassment that provided amusement for many Canadians, but I know many Americans who find amusement in this “intelligent design” affair at the Canadian federal level.

Judge Jones wrote about the “breathtaking inanity” of the Dover school board’s actions concerning implementing their ID policy. Whether it be ties to wear in court, or a common border that ties our two countries together, we need to realize that all the breathtaking inanity concerning ID does not reside south of the US–Canadian border, eh?

By Brian Alters, McGill University
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.