Editor’s Note: Glenn Branch is deputy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, Calif. Branch has been with NCSE, which works to defend sound science education in public schools, since 1999 and has served as deputy director since 2002. Before joining NCSE, he was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of California-Los Angeles, where he won prizes for scholarship and teaching.
In this interview with Rebecca Rifkind-Brown, Branch shares some reflections on the Kitzmiller v. Dover case and where sound science education stands today.
Q. On Dec. 20, we are going to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the victory in Kitzmiller v. Dover. What do you think has been this case’s most enduring legacy over the last decade and a half?
Branch: Kitzmiller was, as NCSE’s former executive director (and current Americans United trustee) Eugenie C. Scott recently observed, the last gasp of the creationist strategy of balancing the teaching of evolution with the teaching of a creationist alternative. The strategy started taking form in the late 1960s, after the Scopes-era bans on teaching evolution were legislatively repealed (as in Tennessee) or struck down as unconstitutional (as in Arkansas and Mississippi).
What ensued was a series of attempts to require the teaching of various supposed alternatives to evolution – biblical creationism, creation science, intelligent design – for the ostensible sake of balance. Over time these became less and less overtly religious and more and more vague, but their underlying creationism was always visible, especially through the scrutiny of a federal court. Since Kitzmiller, formal attempts to balance the teaching of evolution have been increasingly rare.
Q. The plaintiffs in Kitzmiller were represented by Americans United, the ACLU of Pennsylvania and Pepper Hamilton LLP. What was NCSE’s specific role in the case?
Branch: After the Dover Area School Board voted in October 2004 to adopt a policy requiring students to “be made aware of gaps/problems in Darwin’s theory and of other theories of evolution including, but not limited to, intelligent design,” concerned local parents started to seek legal advice. NCSE helped to coordinate the organization of the legal team that would represent 11 of these parents, including Tammy Kitzmiller, and to recruit Pepper Hamilton LLP, one of the state’s largest private law firms.
NCSE then worked closely with the legal team both before and during the trial, with one staff member, Nick Matzke, spending over a year working virtually full-time and non-stop on the case. NCSE’s familiarity with the creationist movement was a definitive asset to the plaintiffs, enabling their legal team to anticipate and challenge the likely claims of the defendants’ expert witnesses. And the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses – who proved to be remarkably effective on the stand – were selected largely by NCSE. Three of them (Brian Alters, Barbara Forrest and Kevin Padian) were then serving on NCSE’s board of directors, and a fourth (Kenneth R. Miller) is currently the board’s president.
Q. Are there any specific memories you have about the case that stand out?
Branch: There was the rush of Schadenfreude in October 2005, a month into the trial, when the chief lawyer for the defendants, Richard Thompson of the far-right Thomas More Law Center, squabbled with Mark Ryland, a representative of the Discovery Institute, the de facto institutional headquarters of the intelligent design movement, on national television.
During the course of the discussion, Ryland claimed that the Discovery Institute had “never set out to have school boards” teach intelligent design. He was swiftly corrected by Thompson, who held up a copy of a book entitled Intelligent Design in Public School Science Curriculum: A Guidebook, and quoted a passage from it that said, “school boards have the authority to permit, and even encourage, teaching about design theory as an alternative to Darwinian evolution – and this includes the use of textbooks such as Of Pandas and People that present evidence for the theory of intelligent design.”
The guidebook had been coauthored by members of the Discovery Institute, including the director of its intelligent design division, Stephen C. Meyer. Asked for comment, the biologist Kenneth R. Miller (then serving as an expert witness for the plaintiffs) jokingly demurred, saying, “Do we have to? I’m really enjoying this.”
From the trial proper, the testimony of Fred Callahan, one of the plaintiffs, was especially moving. Dover is a small town, and its social fabric was tattered and torn by the actions of the school board. Tempers were high, and cross words were exchanged; there even were threats against the plaintiffs. On the stand, Callahan testified that he and his fellow plaintiffs had been publicly vilified as intolerant. “Well,” he asked quietly, “what am I supposed to tolerate? A small encroachment on my First Amendment rights?” He answered: “Well, I’m not going to.” So powerful a statement was this that it is no wonder that it was quoted verbatim at the beginning of the closing statement for the plaintiffs.
Q. The school board in Dover made the decision to advocate for the teaching of intelligent design in the school district’s science classes. How did intelligent design evolve from the teaching of creationism and how are these concepts associated?
Branch: Intelligent design is not so much a coherent view as it is a branding strategy for creationism in general. It emerged with a couple of religious organizations in Texas in the early 1980s. Hoping to become a credible rival to the Institute for Creation Research, then the dominant voice for creationism in the United States, these organizations started work on what would become Of Pandas and People (published in 1989), intended for use as a supplementary textbook in high school biology classes. Of Pandas and People sought to maintain neutrality about issues that divide creationists, such as the age of the earth, while mounting a sustained, and scientifically unwarranted, attack on the evidence for evolution.
It was Of Pandas and People that the Dover Area School Board saw fit to commend to the attention of its high school students in a disclaimer statement adopted pursuant to the October 2004 policy. During the trial, it was revealed that terms like “creation” in drafts of Of Pandas and People were replaced with terms like “design” in the published version, with the replacement occurring in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in Edwards v. Aguillard that teaching creationism in the public schools is unconstitutional. Not presented during the trial – although it was tempting! – was the occurrence of a transitional form in one draft, caused by a faulty search-and-replace: “cdesign proponentists.”
Q. A recent study has shown a decrease in the number of public high school biology teachers promoting creationism in the last decade, yet there is still a minority who continue to advocate their religious viewpoints instead of scientific fact. How does NCSE continue the fight for the separation of science education and religion in our public schools?
Branch: Let me blow my own horn first by observing that the study you allude to was conducted by NCSE with Eric Plutzer of Penn State! We found that between 2007 and 2019, the percentage of public high school biology teachers endorsing creationism in their classrooms dropped from 31.6 percent to 17.6 percent. Part of the reason for that seems to be a generational shift: 16 percent of the teachers in 2007 were themselves creationists, while only 10.5 percent of the teachers in 2019, and only 7 percent of the teachers who began teaching after 2007, were creationists. But part of the reason for the drop is the generally improved treatment of evolution in state science standards, which have a huge influence on what’s actually taught in the public school science classroom.
NCSE works to rally support for improved treatment of evolution, climate change and the nature of science in state science standards when they’re under revision. Similarly, NCSE also works to rally opposition to proposed state legislation and district policies, such as Dover’s, that would undermine the teaching of such topics in the classroom. In addition to such wholesale work, we also do a lot of retail work. This includes helping individual teachers, students, and citizens in general facing challenges to the teaching of science in their own community; preparing and disseminating model lesson plans on these socially but not scientifically controversial topics; and aiding informal science education efforts, especially in “science deserts,” to develop relevant exhibits and activities.
Q. What steps are necessary to take to ensure that all students get a science education based on facts? Are you optimistic about the future for the separation of church and state in our public education system?
Branch: Recent shifts on the federal judiciary are a cause for concern about the future of the separation of church and state in general, and in particular two recent appointments to the federal judiciary – Steven Grasz on the 8th U.S. Circuit and Lawrence VanDyke on the 9th Circuit – bring a history of sympathy for creationism with them to the bench. So we’re definitely not out of the creationist woods yet. The 15 years since Kitzmiller v. Dover certainly show that progress is possible. But it isn’t guaranteed. It takes the concerted vigilance and effort of parents, teachers, administrators, policymakers, activists, attorneys and citizens in general to ensure that teachers are empowered to teach about evolution honestly, accurately and completely – and without interference from the misguided foes of evolution.
Q. NCSE monitors proposed legislation in state legislatures. What form has this typically taken after Kitzmiller?
Branch: The successor to the creationist balancing strategy is the belittling strategy – requiring or allowing teachers to misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial, as a theory in crisis, supposedly in special need of critical analysis or examination of its “weaknesses” as well as its strengths.
At least 80 bills have been introduced since 2004 proposing versions of the belittling strategy, with three enacted (in Mississippi in 2006, Louisiana in 2008 and Tennessee in 2012).
During the same period, bills to require or allow the teaching of creationism have occasionally appeared, despite the court decisions on the unconstitutionality of their provisions, but these are increasingly rare. NCSE and Americans United have collaborated to oppose such bills whenever and wherever they arise – and doubtless will continue to do so.