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.



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.


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!

What If Stories, Part III: Schools, Scopes, and the War

What if World War I had never happened?  How would the history of creation/evolution controversies have changed?  That’s the question the folks at the National Center for Science Education blog are asking these days.  In today’s third post of the series, historian Adam Shapiro makes his case for a vastly different story without the Great War to stir the pot in 1914-1918.

Shapiro’s the right person to ask.  His recent book Trying Biology offered a smart new argument about the importance of textbook publishing in the history of creationism in the United States.

So how does Shapiro think World War I changed things in the world of American creationism?  You’ll have to read his NCSE blog post to find out.

What If Stories, Part Deux: War, Islam, and the Ottoman Empire

How would creationism have looked different if World War I had never happened?  That’s the question the National Center for Science Education is asking these days.

In the second post of the series, Taner Edis of Truman State University asks how creationism would have evolved differently in the Islamic world.  How did the cataclysm of the war change Muslim’s attitudes about evolution?  How did the war-time collapse of the Ottoman Empire change the course of creationism in the Islamic world?  Take a look at Professor Edis’ post to find out.

Ken Ham Is My Guidance Counselor

Why does Ken Ham care where you go to college? Where you send your kids?   Because “college” is more than just a collection of classes and academics. For religious conservatives as for everybody else, “college” represents a formative experience. The ideas one will encounter, the personal connections one will make, and the changes in one’s outlook and worldview all make the college years some of the most transformative in our lives.

In recent years, Ham, America’s (and Australia’s) leading voice for young-earth creationism, has established himself as the arbiter of creationist orthodoxy in college attendance. And his word carries weight in the world of evangelical higher education.

Recently, for instance, Ham warned readers at Answers In Genesis about the dangers of attending Calvin College. Students at that storied Christian school, Ham explained, were “being influenced . . . to undermine the authority of Scripture in many ways.” When faculty engage in evolutionary research and teaching that might turn away from Ham’s strict attitudes about knowledge and creation, Ham warns, students will too often abandon their creationist faith.

As a precaution, Ham offers readers a list of schools that adhere to the young-earth creationism taught by Ham’s Answers In Genesis ministry. To be safe, Ham warns, parents and students ought to stick with schools that have proven their fidelity to these ideas.

Ham’s anxiety over the crumbling orthodoxy in Christian higher education is nothing new. As I argue in my 1920s book, many of today’s evangelical schools had their origins in the founding decade of American fundamentalism. Back in the 1920s, religious schools often faced a choice between fundamentalist orthodoxy and modernist adaptation. Most chose modernism. The University of Chicago, for example, founded as a Baptist beacon of learning, became the leading voice for theological modernism, employing such folks as Shailer Mathews and Shirley Jackson Case. In contrast, a few Christian schools, most famously Wheaton College, sided with the fundamentalist movement.

Leading fundamentalists in the 1920s also founded a spate of new schools to embody their theological and cultural conservatism. Perhaps most prominently, evangelist Bob Jones Sr. opened Bob Jones College (now Bob Jones University) in 1926. The goal of this school was to form the fundamentalist character of young people while educating them in the best traditions of arts and sciences. In order to reassure parents that the school would never slide toward theological modernism or cultural liberalism, Jones and his allies established a rock-ribbed charter. This charter hoped to guarantee the continuing orthodoxy of the school. The charter’s second paragraph outlined that orthodoxy:

The general nature and object of the corporation shall be to conduct an institution of learning for the general education of youth in the essentials of culture and in the arts and sciences, giving special emphasis to the Christian religion and the ethics revealed in the Holy Scriptures, combating all atheistic, agnostic, pagan and so-called scientific adulterations of the Gospel, unqualifiedly affirming and teaching the inspiration of the Bible (both Old and New Testaments); the creation of man by the direct act of God; the incarnation and virgin birth of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; His identification as the Son of God; His vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind by the shedding of His blood on the Cross; the resurrection of His body from the tomb; His power to save me from sin; the new birth through the regeneration by the Holy Spirit; and the gift of eternal life by the grace of God.

Perhaps most notably, the next line specified that this charter “shall never be amended, modified, altered, or changed as to the provisions hereinbefore set forth.” Also remarkable, according to a 1960 reminiscence by Bob Jones Sr., at its founding BJU decreed that every graduating senior would pledge to monitor the school’s continuing fundamentalism. “Should the policy and conduct of the University ever, in my lifetime, deviate, in the slightest particular, from the letter or spirit of this Creed,” seniors would promise,

I hereby pledge myself to exert all my influence to affect a change in conditions; failing which, I will resort to such legal measures as the courts may offer to the end that the institution may be kept true to the University Creed and the original intentions of the founder.

Most evangelical colleges established similar creeds and many promised never to amend them. Not many others, to my knowledge, required such strict supervision by their alumni.

These days, Ken Ham has taken over the role of orthodoxy’s gadfly. In addition to his warnings about waverings from his definition of creationism at Calvin College, Ham has warned that other evangelical schools might be threatening the faith of their students. And Ham’s warnings carry weight.

In one recent episode at Bryan College, for example, Ham’s public worries about faculty orthodoxy led the school’s leadership to instigate a new sort of creationist orthodoxy pledge for faculty. From now on, faculty must publicly avow their belief in a real, historic Adam and Eve. As I argued at the time, the fallout from Bryan College’s policy shift might lead to a shake-up of faculty. More directly relevant, the furor at Bryan seems to testify to Ham’s influence. Worried that creationist parents might not send their students and their tuition dollars, Bryan’s leaders acted to shore up their image as a home of young-earth creationist orthodoxy.

Also intriguing, I must ask again if the drive to protect their reputations as safe theological and cultural havens has led some conservative evangelical schools to cover up incidents of sexual assault. Of course, these are very serious allegations, and I do not ask these questions lightly. I am certainly not accusing Ken Ham or the leadership of these schools of condoning sexual assault. But the drive to present a public face as a uniquely safe environment for fundamentalist students certainly puts undue pressure on college leaders. It is not unfair to wonder if such pressure might lead schools to downplay any cases that might threaten those reputations.

Outside the world of conservative evangelical Protestantism, colleges spend an inordinate amount of time and treasure to attract students. Flashy dorm rooms, high-visibility sports programs, celebrity faculty, and lavish campus lifestyles all hope to convince families to send their kids and their money to certain schools. The pressure on recruiters is intense.

There is a similar pressure on evangelical colleges. Influential voices such as that of Ken Ham are able to exert outsized influence by warning creationist families toward or away from certain schools. Without Ham’s imprimatur, conservative schools may lose the loyalty of students and families.


What If Stories: Creationism and World War I

Much Less than 6,000 Years Ago

Much Less than 6,000 Years Ago

What if World War I had never happened? As the centenary of the start of that cataclysmic war nears, the National Center for Science Education has asked a group of eminent historians (as well as yours truly) to speculate how things might be different.

The first post in the NCSE series was penned by the Dean of Creationism History, Ronald L. Numbers.* Numbers, the author of the definitive history The Creationists, argues this morning that World War I was central to the shape of the creation/evolution struggles that emerged in the 1920s. As Ron notes, this sort of “counterfactual” game is tricky for historians. There are so many factors at play, such a varied interplay of contingencies and possibilities, that academic historians tend to shy away from guessing what might have happened. Nevertheless, Ron makes a strong case that the 1920s would have looked very different—in terms of creationism—had there been no big war. But does Professor Numbers think there would still have been a creation/evolution battle in the 1920s without a war? You’ll have to read his full post to find out.

I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the posts in this series. My own humble offering will come at the end of the series, I’m told.

* Full disclosure: Ron was my PhD mentor at the University of Wisconsin and is still a personal hero and friend of mine.



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