Intelligent Design on Trial

A Q&A with Paula S. Apsell,
Senior Executive Producer of NOVA

Q: This program tackles a contentious issue for many people, particularly for many devout Christians. Why did NOVA and Paul Allen's Vulcan Productions, your coproducer, take it on?

Apsell: Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial is in many ways a hornet's nest. And we had to think long and hard before we decided to take it on. I think the real reason that we made that decision is because evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences. As Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the great biologists of the 20th century, once said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

In 2004, the Dover, Pennsylvania school board established a policy that science teachers would have to read a statement to biology students suggesting that there is an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution called intelligent design. Intelligent design, or ID, claims that certain features of life are too complex to have evolved naturally, and therefore must have been designed by an intelligent agent. The Dover high school science teachers refused to comply with the policy, refused to read the statement. And parents opposed to the school board's actions filed a lawsuit in federal court.

The trial that followed was fascinating. It was like a primer, like a biology textbook. Some of the nation's best biologists testified. When I began delving into the case, it was clear that both the trial and the issue were perfect subjects for NOVA.

Q: But why would a science series cover a court case?

Apsell: This is not just any case; it's an historic case as well as a critical science lesson. Through six weeks of expert testimony, the case provided a crash course in modern evolutionary science, and it really hit home just how firmly established evolutionary theory is. The case also explored the very nature of science—how science is defined. Perhaps most importantly, the trial had great potential for altering science education and the public understanding of science.

Dover's lawyers tried to argue that ID is science and, therefore, that teaching it does not violate the principle of the separation of church and state in the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. At the end of the trial, Judge John Jones issued a 139-page verdict supporting the teaching of evolution and characterizing intelligent design as a religious idea with no place in the science classroom. It was a landmark decision, all the more so because Judge Jones was appointed by President Bush and nominated by Republican Senator Rick Santorum.

If the decision had gone the other way, it could have had dire consequences for science education in this country. We know that state boards of education in Kansas and Ohio were considering changing science standards and curriculums to accommodate intelligent design, and they since have decided against it in the wake of this verdict.

(Hear key excerpts from the verdict in The Judge Speaks, and learn more about what distinguishes science in Defining Science.)

Q: Why is this topic—and the teaching of evolution—so important?

Apsell: Recent polls tells us that 48 percent—almost half of all Americans—still question evolution and still believe that some kind of alternative should be taught in the public schools. What happens when half of the population doesn't accept one of the most fundamental underpinnings of the sciences? Evolution is the absolute bedrock of the biological sciences. It's essential to medical science, agriculture, biotechnology. And it's critical to understanding the natural world around us.

We're a country built on our command of the sciences and technology. But we now face a crisis in science literacy that could threaten our progress in these areas and ultimately threaten our quality of life. So, at NOVA and at Vulcan, we feel that understanding the importance of evolution, and enhancing science literacy in general, are more crucial than ever.

Q: Does Judgment Day provide a fair representation of the trial?

Apsell: I certainly think so, and Judge Jones, who oversaw and ruled on the case, thinks the portrayal is quite accurate. But I would invite anyone who wants to explore this for themselves to actually read the court transcripts, which are available, in full, through a link on our Web site. They are fascinating.

We think intelligent design got a fair shake in the trial and that it gets a fair shake in this program, since this is a special two-hour program about the trial. Throughout the six-week trial, Judge Jones gave both sides ample opportunity to present their cases. NOVA's intention was never to retry the case. And you will see in the program, just as in the trial, a lot of time is given to intelligent design and its proponents. Richard Thompson, the President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, who represented the Dover School District, himself says in our film, "We got a fair trial," and that is the story NOVA tells.

Q: Of the three expert witnesses who testified on behalf of Dover—Michael Behe, Scott Minich, and Steve Fuller—only Steve Fuller appears in the program. Why did you not interview the other two, who are among the country's leading proponents of ID?

Apsell: Michael Behe and Scott Minich, as well as other proponents of ID, were invited to participate in the program. We were committed to presenting the views of the major participants in the trial as fairly as possible. And our preference would have been to have their views presented directly, through firsthand interviews.

However, Michael Behe, Scott Minich, and other ID proponents affiliated with the Discovery Institute declined to be interviewed under the normal journalistic conditions that NOVA uses for all programs. In the midst of our discussions, we even offered to provide them with complete footage of the interviews, so that they could be reassured that nothing would be taken out of context. But they declined nonetheless.

In some sense, though, we do hear from both Behe and Minich in the program through our recreated trial scenes; the words that our actors speak are taken verbatim from the trial transcripts. And of course we hear directly in the program from lawyers for the defense—Richard Thompson, Patrick Gillen, and Robert Muise—as well as from Phillip Johnson, who is often credited as "the father of intelligent design."

Q: Some critics might argue that NOVA didn't present the entire trial, just parts of it biased toward a certain perspective. How did you choose which sections of the court transcripts to use?

Apsell: Certainly it's impossible for a two-hour-long program to cover everything presented in a six-week trial. But again, we worked hard to fairly represent what happened in court. Our producers pored over all 3,000 pages of the court transcripts. We wanted to capture the main arguments for both sides, so the attorneys' summations were key to what we finally selected.

In winnowing down the transcript of the trial, we made the decision to stick to the scientific points. There were other issues at play in this case—in particular, the factual inconsistencies in the testimony given by some members of the Dover school board. That issue played a large role in the judge's verdict, and we cover it, but given our limited time and NOVA's focus on science, we chose to highlight the scientific arguments.

Q: NOVA is a documentary series. Why do dramatic recreations at all?

Apsell: We are always cautious in making the decision to use recreations. Kitzmiller v. Dover is a landmark case that we wanted to cover, and there simply isn't any footage of the trial since cameras and recording devices are banned from federal courtrooms. We decided that the best way to tell the story was to provide direct, verbatim access to the trial through court transcripts. Dramatic reenactment allowed us to do that.

And we use traditional documentary techniques to put the reenactments in context. Pieces of the story are told or expanded upon in NOVA's trademark style—through expert interviews, state-of-the-art computer animations, and documentary footage.

Q: Do you anticipate, in some sense, adding to the culture wars by taking on this controversial subject?

Apsell: It's true that this subject can be very heated and emotional for many people. The final film, Judgment Day, demonstrates just that. What happened in the small town of Dover, Pennsylvania was really quite sad—parents and teachers and students all became pitted against one another. Even family members, as we see in the film, took different sides.

But the debate over teaching evolution is not simply a part of the culture wars. It's a scientific issue. It's NOVA and Vulcan's goal to help people understand the science, why it is so essential to modern biology, and why most people believe that evolutionary science is not incompatible with religion.

Q: Is evolution inherently anti-religious?

Apsell: Not at all. The view that evolution is inherently anti-religious is simply false. Evolution tells us is that the diversity of life on this planet could have arisen by natural processes. But for many people of various faiths, this is perfectly compatible with their belief in God as the creator of all nature. I personally believe that the beauty of evolution can enhance your belief in a creator and God.

By definition science cannot address the realm of the divine or supernatural. This doesn't mean that science is anti-religious.

And our program, Judgment Day, doesn't promote either a religious or an anti-religious viewpoint. It accurately covers a trial. And the trial itself did not have an anti-religious viewpoint. I think it's worth noting that both the judge and the majority of witnesses—including scientists on the plaintiff side—are people of faith.

Play Video

In this short video, Paula Apsell explains why she felt compelled to make Judgment Day.
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Judge Jones

Judge John E. Jones III, appointed to the Federal courts by George W. Bush, concluded in his ruling, "The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID [intelligent design] is a religious view, a mere relabeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."

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While dramatized on a set, NOVA's reenactment of the trial was historically accurate. All of the dialogue came directly from the courtroom transcripts.

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Actors were chosen to faithfully represent the key players in the trial. Actor Eric Loren (right), for example, portrayed plaintiff lawyer Eric Rothschild.

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Courtroom scene with projected slide

Given the central question of whether or not intelligent design qualifies as science, NOVA focused on those parts of the trial that delved into what ID proponents uphold as scientific arguments.

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Woman with sign

While passions will likely continue to be sparked by the teaching of evolution, NOVA hopes that Judgment Day will offer insights into why understanding evolution is critically important.

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