Dealing With "Scientific" Creationists (1994)
Frederick EdwordsAn 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:
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.
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.
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