What If Stories, Part V: World War I as Game-Changer

What would the history of creationism have been like if World War I had never happened?  Today we read the most far-reaching argument yet in this series at the National Center for Science Education blog.

Much Less than 6,000 Years Ago

Much Less than 6,000 Years Ago

As ILYBYGTH readers are aware, we’ve been following this series of historians’ arguments.  The NCSE asked a tough question, and historians have offered different perspectives and ideas.  Today, Professor George E. Webb suggests that everything would have come out radically different if there had been no Great War.

What would have made such a difference?  You’ll have to read the NCSE post to find out the details.


Americans Know that We Don’t Know about Evolution

Smoking will kill you. Americans are confident about that scientific fact. But we are far less confident in the scientific truths about evolution, the Big Bang, and creation. A new Associated Press/GfK poll of just over a thousand American adults reveals some fairly predictable results. It also raises important questions about the meanings of knowledge and ignorance. As this poll shows, most Americans are not entirely confident in either our incorrect knowledge or our correct knowledge. What the poll only hints at, though, is the way most mainstream American scientists are heartily ignorant about the thinking of the majority of Americans.

Most Americans now agree that smoking is unhealthy. Just over half think that life is too complex to have happened on its own. And only minorities of adults seem to have great confidence in evolution, an ancient earth, or the Big Bang.

There Are Known Unknowns...

There Are Known Unknowns…

These poll results can tell us more than just the raw numbers, though. Perhaps most interesting, this poll did not quiz respondents about their scientific knowledge. Rather, it asked people to rate their confidence in these scientific facts. Most Americans were very or extremely confident in their knowledge that smoking causes cancer. Only a minority, however, felt the same way about evolution.

As the Associated Press commented, these results struck mainstream scientists as particularly troubling, since these questions represented “settled scientific facts.” Mainstream scientists, in other words, are extremely confident in these ideas. Overwhelmingly confident.

Clearly, there is a more complicated dynamic going on here than simple non-knowledge of science. As historian Robert Proctor argued, tobacco companies spent a good deal of time and treasure to promote a certain sort of ignorance about the connection between smoking and cancer. This poll suggests that those efforts at manufactured ignorance have been foiled by mainstream science and public-health campaigning. Americans are now confident in their knowledge about the dangers of smoking.

But in the case of evolution and creation, skepticism about mainstream science still flourishes. A slim majority of Americans are “extremely” or “very” confident that life is so complex it must have been created by a “supreme being.” Most Americans are confident about this knowledge. And most Americans lack confidence in evolution.

When Americans lack confidence in the dangers of tobacco or the truth of evolution, they are doing something very different than simply being unaware of facts. They are expressing—some of them at least—confidence in a different set of facts, a different system of knowledge. There is a vast difference, after all, between the “knowledge” tobacco executives had in the 1960s about the health dangers of smoking and the “knowledge” most Americans in the 1920s had about the health dangers of smoking. The tobacco executives carefully built their non-knowledge in the 1960s. Most Americans in the 1920s, on the other hand, were simply unaware of the health dangers.

Similar complexity swirls around Americans’ current non-knowledge about evolution. Many of the people who are most furiously opposed to mainstream evolutionary science “know” a great deal about it. But they have very little confidence in the truth of those evolutionary ideas. That is a vastly different sort of non-knowledge than when someone is simply unaware of modern evolutionary thinking.

In short, it is not that Americans simply don’t know about evolution. We know that we don’t know.

Elite scientists, on the other hand, seem simply to not know things. Most elite scientists, it seems, don’t know much about what non-elite-scientists think. As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund argued in her book Science vs. Religion, elite academics tend to be woefully unaware of mainstream religious ideas. The fact that so many Americans are so radically unconfident in ideas that mainstream scientists call “settled scientific facts” underlines this cultural divide once again.

If we want to talk about ignorance, we have to do it very carefully. Scientists are ignorant about Americans. Americans are ignorant about science. But scientists seem simply not to know about the ideas most Americans feel confident about. Most Americans, on the other hand, even when we know about scientific ideas, express very little confidence in them.



Theology in the U.K.


Thanks to Our Man In Scotland, we hear of a developing flap in Britain over religion and the public square.  Normally the purview of ILYBYGTH runs only to the US borders, but this case seems so relevant we felt obliged to comment.

Yesterday a collection of fifty high-brow British intellectuals signed a public letter.  They objected to Prime Minister David Cameron’s repeated assertion that Britain is a “Christian country.”  A few days back, Cameron wrote in Church Times, an Anglican newspaper,

I believe we should be more confident about our status as a Christian country, more ambitious about expanding the role of faith-based organisations, and, frankly, more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.

In Britain, such comments led to much public gnashing of teeth.  Some pundits assumed Cameron was hoping to shore up his rightward flank against the cultural traditionalism of the UK Independence Party.  Other public figures rushed to defend Cameron’s bold assertion of public faith.

To be frank, this British kerfuffle has us scratching our heads.  In the US of A, nearly all public figures vying for national office make loud and proud attestations of their personal faith.  Even President Obama, no conservative, repeatedly publicizes his Christian practice.  As OMIS pointed out,

if you want to be in public office in America, you have to say [that this is a Christian country], but over here it’s considered a “row.”

Even more puzzling, a quick google search netted similar statements from Cameron going back at least as far as December 2011.  In a speech back then, Cameron seemed to say the same sorts of thing that are causing such consternation today.  “We are a Christian country,” Cameron told an audience at Oxford on 16 December 2011,

and we should not be afraid to say so. . . . the Bible has helped to give Britain a set of values and morals which make Britain what it is today.

So how is his recent statement any different?  Why did people complain now, and not then?



The OTHER Hobby Lobby Case

You’ve been following Hobby Lobby’s case for religious freedom before the US Supreme Court.  But did you know Hobby Lobby’s Steve Green has also prepared an ambitious Bible curriculum for use in America’s public schools?

According to Religion News Service, the school board of Mustang, Oklahoma has voted to use the Bible curriculum in its public schools.  Of course, despite some rumblings to the contrary, there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching the Bible in public schools.  The US Supreme Court’s ruling in 1963’s Schempp decision specified that the Bible can and should be taught in public schools, as long as it is not taught devotionally.  That is, children can learn about the Bible, about religion, but not be drilled in any particular religious belief.

But it often seems as if the folks who want to see more Bible in public schools have a decidedly devotional bias to their activism.  As Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University found in his study of Texas Bible classes, a significant proportion of them end up teaching religion, not just teaching about religion.

In this case, no one questions Steve Green’s ardent religiosity.  As the Religion News Service article points out, Green has admitted in public statements that he hopes the Bible curriculum will show that the Bible is “good,” that it’s “true,” and that the Bible’s impact,

whether (upon) our government, education, science, art, literature, family … when we apply it to our lives in all aspects of our life, that it has been good.

It seems evident that Green hopes this Bible curriculum will lead students toward faith, at least incidentally.  For that reason, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has promised to “scrutinize” the Bible curriculum.

More evidence, it seems, of the uselessness of talking about “America’s public schools” in general.  Schools in some communities, such as Mustang, Oklahoma, may welcome evangelical Protestant curricula into their class schedules.  In other places, Green’s Bible curriculum will not be an issue.  Local school boards make decisions that fit with the cultural politics of their local communities.


Required Reading: Adam Shapiro, Trying Biology

[Editor’s note: This review is an extended version of a review published in the most recent edition of the  Register of the Kentucky Historical Society.  It is reproduced with permission.]

The Scopes Trial gets all the attention.  Still.  In popular histories of evolution controversies, and even in some academic histories, Scopes still hogs the stage.  As Adam R. Shapiro rightly notes, the trial itself needs to be put in context of a much broader set of cultural, scientific, and educational issues (p. 11).

Trying Biology

Trying Biology

In Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools, Shapiro offers an indispensable new argument about the crucial issues at play in evolution education in the 1920s.  The Scopes trial, Shapiro argues, must not be understood simply as an epochal, inevitable clash of cultures.  Rather, the trial and its environment can only be understood in the context of the nitty-gritty history of textbook publishing.

And that is a profoundly dirty history, deliberately obscured by textbook sales agents themselves (p. 42).  As Shapiro relates, textbook sales agents routinely engaged in bribery, illegal snooping, and political chicanery (p. 18).  It is no wonder that self-styled progressive school reformers often lamented the power of the “book trust.”  Indeed, in its heyday in the 1920s, the American Book Company conglomerate controlled up to eighty percent of the textbook market (p. 20).

This is more than just a lament about sharp monopoly practices.  As Shapiro argues, the publishing business “provides a striking example of how scientific knowledge has been produced and distributed to nonspecialists” (p. 43).  Two starkly different communities bumped along in the high-stakes work of textbook production.

Textbook authors, Shapiro writes, tended to work collaboratively, in a culture dominated by science teachers from New York.  These authors wanted sales, but they also hoped to spread the gospel of evolutionary science.  In many cases, authors tied that message to “progressive solutions to economic, public health, and social problems” (p. 71).

Textbook sales agents, on the other hand, cared little about the content of their product.  Instead, they lived in a world of cutthroat competition, their eyes fixed squarely on the bottom line.  Shapiro convincingly demonstrates the way the influence of these sales agents often determined editorial decisions (p. 113).

The tension between salesmen and authors is not the only complicating factor in Shapiro’s book.  Issues of science and religion in the 1920s, he argues, often took a back seat to political questions of textbook cost and quality.  Issues of creation or evolution came as secondary considerations to more basic questions, such as the expansion of compulsory education.  In Tennessee, for instance, Shapiro notes the maneuvering that went on to pass the famous 1925 anti-evolution Butler Act.  Governor Austin Peay, Shapiro argues, signed the anti-evolution law as part of a grand compromise.  Conservatives got their anti-evolution law, while progressives finally passed their General Education Act.  This new law got more young people into schools for longer.

As Governor Peay noted at the time, this seemed like a no-brainer for progressives.  Compulsory education laws had long been anathema to conservatives.  By passing the new compulsory education law, Peay hoped to change the educational and economic landscape of Tennessee for decades to come.  In contrast, at the time, an anti-evolution law seemed to hold only symbolic value.

Of course, the tumultuous Scopes Trial proved Peay wrong.  The conflict in Dayton, Tennessee made Tennessee the symbol of rural creationist revolt.  Afterwards, as Shapiro explores, textbook publishers rushed to revise their textbooks to make them more palatable to anti-evolution conservatives.  Historians have long assumed that such revisions took out evolution content, content that was not replaced in American textbooks until the 1960s.  Shapiro tells a more nuanced story.  Using the example of George Hunter’s Civic Biology—the book at issue in the Scopes Trial—Shapiro reconstructs the complex process of textbook revision.

As Shapiro shows, Hunter himself insisted on keeping evolution as a prominent theme.  Such a focus, Hunter believed, would increase sales among science-minded education leaders (pp. 114, 131).  Given the number of influences involved in textbook production, however, revised editions of the book carefully excised the word evolution.  As did other leading science textbooks, new editions of Hunter’s biology kept much of the content in place.  But editors and sales agents cynically removed the word evolution from the text and from the index.  In most cases, that simple change passed political muster.

A page from George Hunter's Civic Biology.  Bryan objected to this page at the Scopes Trial.  By putting humans in among a small circle of "Mammals," Bryan objected, this chart misrepresented the central place of humanity in God's plan.

A page from George Hunter’s Civic Biology. Bryan objected to this page at the Scopes Trial. By putting humans in among a small circle of “Mammals,” Bryan believed, this chart misrepresented the central place of humanity in God’s plan.

Those interested in the tangled history of creation/evolution debates will be well advised to consider Shapiro’s careful argument about the relationships between science, education, and textbook publishing.  As Shapiro notes, the antievolution movement must not be reduced to a Scopes-Trial caricature.  In order to make sense of the tumultuous culture of educational politics in the 1920s, we must understand the nascent field of biology education and the convoluted process of textbook production.

Further Reading: Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution Movement in American Schools.  By Adam R. Shapiro. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.  Pp. 193.)

Ham on Nye: The Debate Continues

He-said-he-said.  Who are we to believe? Bill Nye “The Science Guy” and creationist leader Ken Ham have published reflections on their recent debate.  Nye explains his triumphHam says, not so fast.  To this reader, Ham seems to be on the defensive.

As ILYBYGTH readers recall, the debate itself occurred a couple of months ago.  Bill Nye traveled to Ham’s Creation Museum to tackle the question, “Is creation a viable model of origins in the modern scientific era?”  The debate rollicked over some familiar territory and included some surprises.  Ham focused on his idiosyncratic definition of science, split into authentic “observational” science and illegitimate “historical” science.  Nye piled on the traditional skeptical puzzlers: How could a tree be more than 6,000 years old on a young earth?  Why are there no fossils out of order?  How could an Ark survive?

In the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer, Nye recently offered his reflections on the debate.  He explains his strategy to pile on example after example of young-earth-confounding science.  He explains his decision to spend his first precious ninety seconds on a mild joke about bow ties.  He profusely thanks his advisers, such as the experienced creation/evolution debaters at the National Center for Science Education.  Nye’s tone is profoundly celebratory.  In short, he explains how and why he triumphed.

Perhaps not surprising, Ken Ham took exception to Nye’s comments.  Never one to back away from a challenge, Ham recently published a rejoinder to Nye’s memoir.  To me, Ham’s article seems strangely defensive.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m no follower of Mr. Ham.  But I have defended him against vicious verbal assaults from skeptics.  I have also taken The Science Guy to task for his woeful misunderstanding of the culture of creationism.  But in this case, Ham’s only defense seems to be to niggle around the edges of Nye’s memories.

Ham objects, for example, to Nye’s memory of how the debate came about.  The way Nye tells it, Ham persistently challenged Nye to a debate until Nye agreed.  The way Ken Ham remembers it, however, the whole thing came about at the suggestion of an Associated Press reporter.

Ham also objected to Nye’s repeated suggestion that Ham has a “congregation,” and that all of these museums appeal to “Ham’s followers.”  Such language, Ham protests, seems to be an effort to marginalize Ham’s Answers In Genesis ministry as a fringe cult.  Fair enough.  I would be surprised if Bill Nye knew much about the history of parachurch organizations in American (and Australian) evangelical Protestantism.  For evangelical Protestants, there is often a clear distinction between church and broader organizations that also help the cause.  Missionary groups, Bible leagues, youth organizations, and similar parachurch organizations are a familiar part of the evangelical experience.  Nye really does seem to miss this distinction entirely.  But does it matter?  Does it really hurt Ham’s cause if outsiders think of his work as a “congregation” instead of a “ministry?”  It seems the distinction only matters to members themselves.

Perhaps strangest of all, Ham claims to catch Nye in an embarrassing distortion of the truth.  Nye insists that he had never been inside the Creation Museum before the debate.  One time when he was in the area, Nye explained, he drove around the parking lot, but the museum itself was closed.  Nye says he saw the “infamous” statue of a dinosaur with early humans outside the museum.  But Ham seems to prove that Nye distorted this memory.  Ham produces a photo that apparently shows Bill Nye outside the Creation Museum in 2011.  Ham even notes a 2011 Facebook post that seems to confirm the date and duration (122 seconds!) of Nye’s visit.  The museum, Ham claims, was indeed open at the time.  Plus, there is no statue outside the museum that depicts humans cavorting with dinosaurs.  How could Nye have seen a statue that doesn’t exist?

Nye's 122 Seconds Outside the Creation Museum

Nye’s 122 Seconds Outside the Creation Museum

These sorts of nitpicks put Nye in an awkward position.  Why would Nye embellish his memories of his 2011 visit to the Creation Museum’s parking lot?

In the end, though, they don’t seem to make a difference.  Throughout this post-debate commentary, Ken Ham takes a decidedly defensive tone.  He pokes holes in Nye’s memories, but he doesn’t really challenge Nye’s central conclusion that the debate was a triumph for mainstream science.


Abortion and Social Justice at Yale

A pro-life student group at Yale University has been refused membership in a “social justice” organization.  Why?  Because, in the words of one student leader, “The pro-life, anti-choice agenda stands in the way of gender equity, and thus in the way of social justice.”

The controversy raises difficult questions: Is conservative religion still seen as a legitimate force for good?  For “social justice?”  Or has conservatism become irredeemably trapped by accusations of bigotry?  At least in the effete environs of Yale, it seems pro-life thinking has been stripped of its moral legitimacy.

Well-dressed Activists

Well-dressed Activists

The student group, Choose Life at Yale (CLAY), had been a provisional member of Dwight Hall, an umbrella group of student social-justice clubs.  Membership in Dwight Hall would have given CLAY access to meeting rooms and a sense of campus legitimacy.

Is pro-life a “social justice” cause?  Former CLAY president Michael Gerken thinks it is.  As he explained in the pages of First Things, CLAY members

realized that abortion has never been solely a matter of a baby’s life and liberty. It’s about the desperation and hopelessness of the mother that walked into the clinic. It’s about the grandfather who will never put that little girl in his lap. It’s about the classmates who will never sit next to her, and the boy who will never work up the courage to write her that awkward poem. It’s even about that friend who she would drift away from over the years, the successful sister who would make her insecure, and the God she’d curse when she lost her job and then her mortgage. The biggest lie in all this is that the choice to end (or to save) a life is a solitary one.

Of course, Yale will always have a special place in the history of conservatism and education.  It was William F. Buckley’s precocious expose of the godless atmosphere on campus that launched his career, and in many ways signaled the start of the modern conservative movement.

And college campuses have become leading forums to debate whether or not conservative religious ideas are legitimate traditions or vestiges of bigotry.  ILYBYGTH readers may remember a case at Tufts University a while back.  In that case, the evangelical student group Intervarsity was stripped of its official student-group status.  Other student groups complained that the prominent evangelical group represented an inherently bigoted worldview, one that did not recognize the full equality of homosexual students.

The current controversy at Yale represents a similar conundrum.  Do conservative religious groups automatically lose the right to participate in campus life?  Is it inherently bigoted to fight against abortion or gay marriage?  Perhaps most important, who gets to define “social justice?”


Schools and Science: Good News for Creationists

Whose science gets taught in America’s public schools?  A new study of Oklahoma high-school students finds that students emerge from their Biology classes with a creationist-friendly understanding of evolution.  This study suggests once again that we can’t just ask HOW MUCH science education young people receive.  We must also ask about WHOSE DEFINITION of science is taught.

Looks like more evidence that science in public schools might be far friendlier to dissenting visions of science than we might think.  Communities that include large numbers of creationists may take solace from the implication: Science in schools might mean very different things to different people.

The findings were published recently in the pages of Evolution: Education and Outreach.  Researchers Tony B. Yates and Edmund A. Marek surveyed students at thirty-two Oklahoma high schools.  They administered tests before and after the students took a course in Biology.  Taken as a whole, the students expressed 4812 misconceptions before they took the class.  Afterward, they had 5072.

Yates and Marek pulled those misconceptions from a list of twenty-three common ones, including the following:

According to the second law of thermodynamics, complex life forms cannot evolve from simpler life forms.


Evolution cannot be considered a reliable explanation because evolution is only a theory.

Though the students had more misconceptions about evolution after their classes, Yates and Marek claimed, they also came out more confident in their knowledge of evolution.

What’s going on here?  Yates and Marek blamed the teachers.  As they concluded,

teachers may serve as sources of biological evolution-related misconceptions or, at the very least, propagators of existing misconceptions.

Of course, for creationists, this must be a cause for celebration.  What Marek and Yates call “misconceptions,” creationists might call “critical thinking” about evolutionary “dogma.”  In spite of conservative worries that public schools have become godless institutions, hostile to religious belief, this study provides more evidence that teachers represent the beliefs of their local communities.  As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer argued in their book Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms, teachers most often teach the values of their communities.  In the case of creationism and evolution, we see more evidence here that teachers do not challenge the religious beliefs of their students.  The science on tap in these Biology classes seems accommodating to skepticism about mainstream evolutionary thinking.



What If Stories, Part IV: War and Creationism in Europe

How did World War I change creationism in Europe?  Check out part four of the National Center for Science Education’s series.

If you’ve been following the series, you’ve read what historians Ron Numbers, Taner Edis, and Adam Shapiro had to say.  How did World War I change the history of creationism in the USA?  In Turkey?  In textbooks?

In today’s post, Abraham C. Flipse of VU University Amsterdam puts in his two cents.  Flipse attracted attention a couple years ago with his history of creationism in the Netherlands.

Obviously, the devastation of the war was much closer to home in the Netherlands.  How would creationism’s history have been different in this “stronghold of creationism” if the war had never happened?

Read Dr. Flipse’s post to find out!

Women against Woman

What counts more: The fact that you’re a conservative or the fact that you’re a woman?  In Texas, conservative women seem to vote as conservatives first and women second.

A new poll from Public Policy Polling reveals that Texas women prefer conservative (male) gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott over liberal (female) candidate Wendy Davis.

There’s no doubt about the relative ideology of the two candidates.  Attorney General Abbott has consistently run as the conservative choice.  So much so that the liberal Texas watchdog group Texas Freedom Network refers to Abbott as an “extremist.”  And Davis has been called a “liberal folk hero” for her inspiring personal story and ferocious filibustering of an anti-abortion bill.

But when it comes to voting, more Texas women prefer Abbott.  According to a poll of 559 registered voters conducted between April 10-13 (margin of error +/- 4.1%), Abbott has a 49 to 41 percent lead among women.  About a third of women had a favorable image of Davis, while almost half had an unfavorable opinion.

Of course, this might not be a simple matter of conservatism trumping gender.  Abbott has a much longer record in Texas politics.  It would make sense for him to crush any opponent, no matter what gender.  And it’s silly to think that there is a single “women’s” position on issues such as abortion, education, or the economy.

Nevertheless, conservative politicians have struggled to fight the image that they are conducting a “War on Women.”  It doesn’t help when blundermouthed GOP leaders such as Todd Akin represent conservatism in the minds of many voters.

This news from Texas shows that conservatives can win among female voters.  In Texas, it seems, women voters put their conservatism first, their gender second.





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