Dealing With “Scientific” Creationists (1994)
An effective response to the political, social, and educational aspirations of so-called “scientific” creationists requires first an understanding of the creation model and of creationist aims. Only with this knowledge can one have some chance of success. One should, in fact, go to great lengths to avoid misrepresenting the creationist position. Paradoxically, one must also go to great lengths to not too easily buy into the creationist definition of the issues. One would do best by seeking to understand accurately what creationists are saying while, at the same time, seeking to learn their hidden motives and agendas. This is not easy. If it were, the creation-evolution controversy might no longer be with us.
One way to get a clear definition of creationism and the creation model is to go directly to the leading creationist source materials. These include books like Henry Morris’ Scientific Creationism and Richard Bliss’ Origins: Two Models, as well as Walter T. Brown’s pamphlet, The Scientific Case for Creation: 127 Categories of Evidence (or whatever number of categories he is up to by now). For short and succinct definitions of creationism one cannot do better than to read the Statement of Belief subscribed to by all members of the Creation Research Society or the definition of “creation-science” appearing in Section 4 of Arkansas Act 590 of 1981. All these explanations of creationism were authored by leading creationists themselves during moments of candor. That there are some who call themselves creationists who do not honestly subscribe to all the stated positions is important to know. But this should never cause one to lose sight of the fact that it is those who do subscribe to all of the stated positions who are at the forefront of politicized creationism. It is their demands that threaten the integrity of public school education, and even scientific research. For convenience, I will quote the definition of “creation-science” appearing in Arkansas Act 590.
Creation-science includes the scientific evidences and related inferences that indicate:
- Sudden creation of the universe, energy, and life from nothing;
- The insufficiency of mutation and natural selection in bringing about development of all living kinds from a single organism;
- Changes only within fixed limits of originally created kinds of plants and animals;
- Separate ancestry for man and apes;
- Explanation of the earth’s geology by catastrophism, including the occurrence of a worldwide flood; and
- A relatively recent inception of the earth and living kinds.
All these items are rendered more precise in the leading creationist textbooks designed for public school use. In particular, these books suggest that the universe itself is only 6,000 to 20,000 years old, that all life forms were created at about the same time, and that a worldwide flood a few thousand years ago is responsible for the lion’s share of the fossil record. Such is an outline of what militant creationists want taught in public schools whenever evolutionary concepts are presented. The fact that the 1981 Louisiana creationism law, which was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, offers no definition of creation-science is irrelevant. It is substantially the same law as that passed in Arkansas the same year, 1981, and has the same original author, one Paul Ellwanger who made it his personal campaign to get his “model bill” before as many state legislatures as he could. The Louisiana law was, then, basically the “model bill” with the definitions conveniently removed by Louisiana legislators.
Once one is armed with a clear definition of the creation model, it is next important to understand creationist political aims. Not everyone knows what all of these are. Most people are familiar with the demand for equal time, also known as “balanced treatment,” in public school science courses. But how many are aware that creationists also have designs on world history courses and other subjects of study?
In 1976, Creation-Life Publishers and Mott Media co-published a creationist history textbook by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton entitled Streams of Civilization. In it, the student learns that the earth is a mere ten thousand years old, that most geological formations are the result of a worldwide flood, that survivors of this flood escaped in Noah’s ark, that humans and dinosaurs once lived together, that all races and civilizations originated in Mesopotamia after the flood, and that human languages had a supernatural origin at the Tower of Babel. There is more, but this is a sampling from a book that describes itself in the Foreword as “a truly objective textbook on world history, suitable for use in both public schools and private schools.”
Most of us are familiar with the Religious Right attacks on various aspects of public education, from sex education to social studies, from the nurse’s office to the school library. That this is also an aspect of the creationist movement was made in the January, 1980, Creation-Science Report published by the Creation-Science Research Center in San Diego, California. There, various courses of study were criticized for lacking a creationist viewpoint. One statement said it all: “As theists and creationists, possessing equal rights and privileges under the Constitution and Federal Civil Rights legislation, we can set forth creationist position papers on any and all problems affecting public morals or health, domestic or foreign policy, whenever government funding is required.”
Of course, this takes us even beyond the public schools themselves. Other leading creationists advocate positions equally broad. Paul Ellwanger has a model federal bill that calls for equal research grants for creation research, equal public museum exhibits for creation-science, and equal national park coverage of creationist interpretations of geological formations. Some action was actually taken in these directions when, in 1978, creationists sued the Smithsonian Institution for promoting “secular humanism” by having an evolution display at public expense without a balancing Genesis exhibit. Even though the creationists lost their case, other museums have since come under attack. Even teacher training and certification have been target areas. Again I quote from the January 1980 Creation-Science Report: “Luther Sunderland has been working with the New York Board of Regents to have included questions on the creation model in the Board of Regents exam for teachers. This would force a change in teacher training.” The fact that Sunderland (now deceased) was unsuccessful does not mean that creationists have given up. And the fact that creationist utterances are less bold than they used to be does not mean that creationist positions or goals have changed.
There is, however, a new emphasis in creationist attacks on public education. Less is said now about the creation model, and more is made of a demand for “full disclosure” of all the arguments and evidences against evolution. Creationists maintain that recent controversies over such things as punctuated equilibria and cladistics demonstrate that it is something of a “club secret” among scientists that evolution is bankrupt. Creationists, therefore, demand that the dirty little secret be revealed to public school science students and that candor replace propaganda in textbooks. Like earlier arguments for “fairness” and “balanced treatment” for the creation model, the current arguments for this “openness” and “honesty” appeal to popular sentiment. And, as always, the creation- ists are waiting in the wings to be delegated to translate these terms into public and educational policy. They are the ones in possession of the “truth” that supposedly scientists know but aren’t telling. They have the “correct” interpretations of the evidence and the best understandings of current controversies. So, in their view, it is the anti-evolution version of the story that should be added to the curriculum.
Of course, I have always supported teaching students about punctuated equilibria, cladistics, and the like. This would make science education more comprehensive and state-of-the-art. It would also guarantee that more time was spent covering scientific material on evolution. But I would prefer to let scientists speak for themselves rather than through the filter of a creationist anti-evolutionary polemic. And if creationists would lay off the pressure on science educators, pressure which promotes reduced coverage of this material, then students would, at long last, have the opportunity to learn about these modern scientific controversies. As I have indicated, properly understanding creationist positions and aims is important for dealing effectively with creationism. But that is not all one needs to know. One needs to also have a working knowledge of the most common creationist strategies.
Creationists themselves have written pamphlets clearly spelling these out. Two leading titles are: Introducing Scientific Creationism into the Public Schools by Henry Morris, and How to Teach Origins without ACLU Interference by John N. Moore. Packets of fiery material can be acquired from the Gabler’s in Texas and the Pro-Family Forum. The National Association of Christian Educators offers something akin to a “party plan” wherein interested parents are to get together with their friends over tea, plan a big banquet meeting at a local restaurant, invite a leading speaker from the central organization to come lecture at the banquet and get everybody fired up, and then get active as a parent group, utilizing the information and techniques provided by the central organization. Most of these materials, which should be read, instruct parents to join with other like-minded citizens, confront their children’s teachers, confront the school principal, address the PTA and school board, testify at state board of education meetings and textbook selection hearings, donate creationist books to the school library, sponsor debates, and promote creation seminars for teachers. Sympathetic school administrators, teachers, scientists, and pastors are encouraged to join in these efforts, with teachers being especially requested to introduce creationism into their own classrooms “no matter what the course subject or grade level may be.” Students are encouraged to raise creationist questions in class and bring the subject into their speeches, papers, and class projects.
Given the nature, designs, and strategy of the modern creationist movement, what actions can scientists and science educators take that will be effective? There are a number of things that have worked well in the past. Here are some examples for scientists and science teachers.
- If you are a member of a scientific organization that has not issued an official statement on the creation-evolution controversy, you should encourage your organization to take action. In the late ’70s and early 80’s a number of scientific and educational organiza- tions issued such resolutions. At that time, many arguments were given against doing this. One was was that taking such a position was dogmatic, unscientific, and closed-minded. But is it dogmatic, unscientific, and closed-minded to state that there is no supportive scientific evidence for something when such a statement is true? Not if one is prepared to rescind the statement if new evidence presents itself. Another argument was that the issuing of such statements would serve to help, not hinder, creationists since they could claim persecution by “orthodox” science. However, in the late 70s and early 80s such statements actually helped prevent the passage of numerous creationist school board resolutions and a number of state legis- lative actions. The final negative argument was that the issuing of such statements dignified creationists with a reply. This would be a persuasive argument were it not for the fact that creationism appeals to the already deeply-held religious sentiments of millions of Americans. As a result, it has tremendous political clout and is a force to be reckoned with. On the horizon is a similar problem in the field of history. There are those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened. At present it would be injudicious for leading organizations in the field of history to dignify this claim with a response. But if this view were ever to gain political significance by tapping into pre-existing prejudices, I doubt that leading organizations would hesitate to answer. I know for a fact that an “equal-time” or “balanced-treatment” public school demand is part of the future strategy of Holocaust-denying groups. So, if a precedent is not set now in standing firm against such demands, there may be no end to the compromising of quality, state-of-the-art education in the future.
- Another valuable action by scientists and educators is the providing of advice and information. Often, when state legislative bodies or school boards consider creationist resolutions, they are not aware of all the facts they need. Scientists and educators can make them aware. They can be on hand to testify at hearings and they can advise attorneys fighting court battles. In the recent past, the Committees of Correspondence of the National Center for Science Education have effectively organized these efforts, and the results have been gratifying. There is less need for this action now, since creationist legislation is rarely proposed and fewer school boards are considering resolutions. But if the U.S. Supreme Court were to give the creationists a favorable ruling, the situation could heat up again. And creationism off and on becomes a problem in Canada where different constitutional standards apply.
- A course of action with more current significance than the above two is the improving of science education. With the waning of creationist legislative and school board actions, the National Center for Science Education has shifted its emphasis to the beefing up of science textbooks and the education of science teachers. It is not enough to simply protect public school science education from religious and pseudoscientific intrusions. One needs to work toward improvements in the teaching of science so that pseudoscience does not so easily take hold in the future. In a sense, the rise of creationism was made possible in part by inadequate science teaching. Students were often taught the conclusions of evolutionary science without being told how those conclusions were arrived at or how science works. Creationists were right in charging that the teaching was “dogmatic.” Students were memorizing facts instead of understanding the scientific method. As a result, they became perfect set-ups for a persuasive pseudoscience. In the interest of remedying this, scientists and educators should become active in demanding a state-of-the-art science education in our public schools.
- In spite of the fact that creationist legislative and school-board actions are less of a threat than before, school teachers, librarians, and museum curators continue to be plagued at the local level. Scientists can assist them in many ways. I gave a talk some time back at the annual conference of the National Science Teachers Association. The organizers of that event gave me a one-half-hour workshop slot and a tiny room. Obviously they thought creationism was dead. But those who crowded into that hot little meeting space, and stood in the hall peering through the doorway, knew differently. When I asked for a show of hands from all those who had been confronted by creationist parents or students locally, almost every hand went up. With there now existing over 150 local creationist groups, more than at any time before in our nation’s history, it is not surprising to learn that the pressure at the local level has increased as the pressure at the national and state level has declined.
When creationists don’t make headway in the legislatures and courts, they shift their emphasis to the local front. They are stronger there because they have the numbers, are vocal, and have more direct access to those teaching evolution. This is why it should be no surprise to learn that local schools and teachers can come under tremendous pressure. Although schools are not generally giving in and allowing “balanced treatment” for creationism, they are knuckling under to the attacks on the teaching of evolution. Evolution is thus increasingly being regarded as “controversial” subject matter. Teachers find it safer not to teach it. School administrators find it safer not to encourage it. School boards find it safer not to insist upon it. And textbook publishers therefore find it financially prudent not to mention it, or if they do treat it, to play it down. The action needed here is strong support for teachers, administrators, and others who see the value in adequate coverage of evolution.
Teachers themselves need refresher courses in the current controversies within science, particularly punctuated equilibria, cladistics, and sociobiology. They also need instruction in more effective and comprehensive ways to teach science. One thing that I have provided in the past is effective answers to the standard creationist arguments against evolution. This has been done through a journal I founded called Creation/Evolution, the only journal of its kind to focus on this topic. Educators find it useful. Other sources of such information are numerous books that respond to creationism. Among the leading titles are: The Monkey Business by Niles Eldredge, In the Beginning by Chris McGowan, Abusing Science by Philip Kitcher, Science on Trial by Douglas Futuyma, and Scientists Confront Creationism edited by Laurie Godfrey. In sum, there is plenty of resource material available for any science teacher or layperson who needs to know how to answer creationist arguments.
But, besides answers to creationist arguments against evolution, one also needs responses to creationist arguments about law and public policy. This came up when the Milwaukee Public Museum, after announcing its planned dinosaur exhibit, came under attack by creationists. The then curator, Mack West, phoned me for advice. I provided a lot of information, but he deserves the credit for the originality and effectiveness of his response.
The creationists argued that since public tax dollars pay for the museum, the public’s beliefs and desires ought to be represented. Therefore, if the public wants a creation exhibit to “balance” the dinosaur exhibit, they ought to have one. But Mack West pointed out that if that argument were valid, the museum ought to fire all the scientists and just hire exhibit builders. Then the museum could run a newspaper poll every year where the public could vote for the exhibits it wanted built. Options could include astrology, the Bermuda Triangle, and the search for Atlantis. But, of course, this would defeat the museum’s whole purpose as a research and educational institution. And the museum would no longer be devoted to scholarship, but to popular culture. Needless to say, Mack West won the day and the integrity of the museum was maintained. Teachers, librarians, and school board members need to be prepared to offer similar arguments when creationists take action against them. They should not be influenced by the argument that the public thinks “balanced treatment” or “openness” is a good thing. The public, if this is indeed their true opinion in a community, is not always aware of what is at stake, the constitutional issues involved, or even what creation-science really is.
To effectively combat creationism and improve science education at all levels requires an alliance of scientists, science teachers, clergy, politicians, business people, parents, students, textbook writers, and concerned taxpayers. Business people are especially important because it is their companies that will have to hire the scientific illiterates that a pressured school system graduates. Obviously, it is not in their interest to stand idly by while this controversy rages. H. Ross Perot (no political endorsement implied) is one business person who took an active interest in the improvement of science education. When he saw what happened to academic test scores in the state of Texas after a decade of creationist influence on the state Board of Education, he got involved.
But scientific organizations should especially care. Low emphasis on quality science education means less people to do the scientific work of tomorrow. College and university professors have a stake in this every time they must teach a student the basics he or she should have learned in high school. There are so many people who should care about this issue, because creationism, if successful in any of its political aims, could have a tremendous negative influence on science education, and hence science and technology, in America’s future.
This is the updated text of a talk given as part of a special symposium on creationism held May 25, 1986, at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Frederick Edwords is the executive director of the American Humanist Association and founder and former editor of Creation/Evolution journal.
© Copyright 1994 and 1986 by Frederick Edwords
For further information on how you can become active in the effort to counter the effects of “scientific” creationism, please contact:
NATIONAL CENTER FOR SCIENCE EDUCATION
PO BOX 9477
BERKELEY CA 94710-0477
Phone: (510) 526-1674
Since 1977, the American Humanist Association has been active in the defense of church-state separation specifically applied to the creation-evolution controversy.