PBS’ “Nova” might seem like an unlikely place for one of the year’s most quietly important TV projects, but the insidious campaign to discredit science and elevate religion as a legitimate academic alternative shouldn’t escape notice. Using a widely publicized Pennsylvania court case, this special deals with a local school board’s attempt to mandate that “intelligent design” be taught alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution, fueling discord in the tiny hamlet of Dover. Illuminating the scientific issues with welcome clarity, these two hours should be shown not just in every U.S. high school but in houses of worship as well.
Although the questioning of Darwin’s theory seemed to peak in the 1930s with the Scopes monkey trial (dramatized in the movie “Inherit the Wind”), resurgent evangelism has renewed debate that has bled into schools. Columnist/actor Ben Stein is among the latest to assault the scientific community for its alleged tyranny on the topic, adopting the conservative ploy of casting scientists who advance dubious minority opinions on issues such as evolution and global warming as victims.
As constructed, the two hours unfold on two distinct levels, capturing the strategies surrounding the legal dispute along with its effect on the Dover community, where science teachers and a group of parents took a principled stand against teaching intelligent design — a term birthed in the 1980s arguing that an “intelligent agent” (really just a veiled way of saying “God”) must have steered the development of various species and organic structures.
In “Judgment Day’s” most TV-friendly flourish, the producers employ dramatic recreations to present key bits of actual court testimony in the case, conducted before Judge John Jones III, a conservative President Bush appointee who, sadly if predictably, faced death threats because of his ruling.
Through the expert testimony as well as interviews with the actual scientists, the production drives home that whatever one’s religious beliefs, incorporating an untestable theory based on faith into school curriculum bastardizes the long-held definition of science as something that can be challenged, examined and proven.
Finally, there’s even a kind of “Perry Mason” moment, where researchers expose intelligent design advocates using the term interchangeably with “creationism” in published materials, despite their insistence that the two are not directly linked.
The prevailing trend in television, of course, is to lay out two competing viewpoints on every issue, with talking heads espousing their respective causes. While “Nova” affords both sides an opportunity to plead their case, “Judgment Day” is a scientific mismatch, one that makes the guys in white lab coats look like Gulliver next to the Lilliputians.