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Making the Case for Science

One warm and breezy morning in September of 2005, Rob Pennock '80 found himself hurrying into a sleek, high-rise office building in downtown Harrisburg, Pa.

Although he didn't know it at the time, Pennock was about to become a key figure in one of the most divisive First Amendment debates in the history of the United States.

An expert in the history and philosophy of science who has published frequently on issues related to the teaching of human evolution in U.S. public schools, Pennock had gone to the federal courthouse in the steel-and-glass high-rise to testify in a lawsuit that would have a huge impact on deciding whether or not the "Intelligent Design" ("ID") theory of evolution can be taught without violating the Constitutional provision that separates church and state.

The federal court case, Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District, was only the latest skirmish in a continuing legal battle that reached all the way back to the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925, when a Tennessee high school science teacher was found guilty of violating state law by teaching evolution.

The plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania case, a group of concerned parents who were suing the Dover, Pa., school board in an attempt to keep Intelligent Design materials out of high school biology classes within the district, had called upon Pennock because of his expertise in matters related to the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution. As the author of Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against The New Creationism, the Michigan State University associate professor of philosophy is often asked to provide an expert opinion on whether or not the Intelligent Design's explanation of evolution is in fact a religious belief disguised as a scientific theory.

After nearly 20 years of research and writing about the conflict between religious conservatives who believe that Intelligent Design (and its predecessor-theory, known as "Creationism") should be taught to students and those who regard ID as theology masquerading as science, Pennock had become "absolutely convinced" that ID is essentially a religious doctrine - and that teaching it in public schools thus violates the Constitution.

Last fall, Pennock told U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III that ID was simply the latest form of "Creationism" … and that it did not include the kind of evidence that would qualify it as a scientific theory. "As scientists go about their business," said Pennock from the witness stand, "they follow a method. Intelligent Design wants to reject that, and so it doesn't really fall within the purview of science."

Two months after providing this key testimony, Pennock was pleased to learn that the court had ruled in favor of the concerned parents and against Intelligent Design. "ID is an interesting theological argument, but … it is not science," Judge Jones noted in his 139-page decision. "Our conclusion today is that it is unconstitutional to teach ID as an alternative to evolution."

Relaxing in his faculty office at Michigan State only a few weeks after the federal court decision made it unlikely that ID will ever be taught again in U.S. public schools, the third-generation Earlham grad said he regarded the outcome as "a really important victory for all those who believe in the vital importance of separating church and state, and in the U.S. Constitution.

"These were values very much worth standing up for," said the gangly, blond-bearded professor, a jazz fan who often bicycles around campus with his three-year-old daughter in tow. "I think it's important to defend the Constitution, of course - but I also think it's important to defend science, and the scientific method, from these kinds of attacks.

Ask Rob Pennock how he became so interested in philosophical questions related to science, and he will tell you that his "fascination with these kinds of matters" got its start in Richmond, back in the late 1970s, while he was studying biology and evolution with Professor Emeritus Jerry Woolpy.

"I remember so vividly how Jerry got us interested in evolution," says Pennock, who went on to earn a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science (1991) at the University of Pittsburgh. "He started us off reading E.O. Wilson on sociobiology, and pretty soon we were caught up in all these terrific discussions of how the behavior of ants can explain evolution. It was fascinating stuff, and Jerry's approach was so engaging and so exciting - it's no wonder we've stayed in touch."

For the laid-back and laughter-loving Pennock, helping to defend science from the "attacks of the fundamentalists" is "logically consistent with the long Quaker tradition of respecting 'scientific virtues' and trusting empirical evidence - rather than depending on what somebody tells you is true.

"You know, the early Quakers were very much involved in the Scientific Revolution (the mid-17 th Century. The two movements started at about the same time, and in many ways, they both display the same attitudes.

"Many of the Quaker ideals came from absorbing the scientific ideas of the time. And perhaps the most important of those ideals is the insistence on integrity - the insistence on finding empirical evidence for your beliefs and then being completely honest about those findings.

"As a writer and a thinker about these kinds of issues, I'm grateful for the intense preparation Earlham gave me. And it was especially helpful in the courtroom, where it was my responsibility to stand up for the truth."

Rob Pennock

Rob Pennock 1980, Associate professor of philosophy - Michigan State University

Ph.D. University of Pittsburgh

Hometown: East Lansing, Mich.

Major at Earlham: Biology

Interests: Evolution, jazz

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