US Government Employs Creationist Scientists

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn of plans to open a new, enormous creation museum near Boise, Idaho.  But in exploring the announcement of this planned mega-museum, we came across an interesting tidbit: Two of the creationist scientists involved in this project worked for the US government as geologists.  Does this mean that the government is funding creation science?  And does it prove the creationist claim that their experts are engaged in “real” science?

As reported yesterday by the Boise Weekly, the Northwest Science Museum has big ambitions.  Its founders want to open an enormous display area, 300,000 to 450,000 square feet.  They hope to build a full-size replica Noah’s Ark that could rival the plans of the more-established Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Big Plans for Boise

Big Plans for Boise

Whether or not the Idaho creationists succeed in their lavish plans, they will likely end up adding another stop to those who want to tour the nation’s many creation museums.  More interesting, the announced plans also raise crucial questions about creationism and government support for religion.

In their attempt to raise funds for their new project, the leaders of the Boise museum published a prospectus that includes information about themselves.  According to this document, the leadership team includes two experienced geologists.

Douglas J. Bennett, founder of the museum, has degrees in geology and science education from Boise State University.  For the past eighteen years, Bennett has worked as a geologist for the US Bureau of Reclamation.  Similarly, museum founder Brent Carter earned a degree in geology from a large public university and worked for 42 years as a geologist for the same US Bureau, retiring with the title of Chief Geologist of the Pacific Northwest Region.

More than the opening of a new creation museum, these careers raise important questions for those of us interested in issues of evolution and creationism.

First, some might suggest that long governmental careers for these ardent and active creationists implies government support for religion.  But does it really?  After all, the government likely hired them to do specific jobs.  They had the necessary qualifications.  Whatever they chose to do in their private lives wouldn’t be any of the government’s business.  Nor would the government be supporting these men’s religious work, as long as each geologist didn’t do his creationist research while on the clock.

More interesting, we have to ask what these careers tell us about the intersection of mainstream science and creation science.  In the recent debate between leading creationist Ken Ham and leading science pundit Bill Nye, Nye repeated his charge that creationism blocked kids from learning science.  Ham retorted with several examples of successful creationist scientists and engineers.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to help the creationist case.  After all, if they have both had successful careers as geologists, how can we say that creationists can’t do science?  One might suggest that the sorts of engineering tasks these creationists engaged in were not primary science.  But it seems to me a stretch to say that these creationist geologists did not have careers specifically in the science that is contested.  In other words, both of these men worked as geologists, though their religious beliefs gave them very non-mainstream ideas about that geology.

Consider—again from the museum prospectus—the tasks Bennett claimed to have worked on for the US government.  As part of his job, Bennett

Performed surface and subsurface geotechnical studies and exploration programs utilizing diamond drill, power-auger, test pits, tunnels, and other processes to secure data for seismotectonic, ground-water, and other special studies of dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, spillways, power plants, and related structures.

One might say that none of this engineering work includes primary geological research.  And if it did, someone who believed in a young earth and a recent world-wide flood would be at a crippling disadvantage.  But anti-creationists sometimes make a different point.  Bill Nye, for instance, has warned that a creationist nation will soon fall behind in technology and engineering.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to demonstrate the weakness of that argument.  Indeed, Nye argues that creationism will turn kids away from science-related careers.  But in the case of these two men, at least, it was precisely their religious beliefs that led them to careers in geology.

So does this case show government support for creationism?  Not really.  But it does offer evidence that creationism does not necessarily deter young people from going into science-related careers.  Indeed, because of the tumult over the nature of biology and geology, perhaps creationist beliefs actually drive some young people into careers in science.

 

 

Evolution Rock

I ran into some mysterious evolution-related lyrics in a trademark song by my favorite band ever.

Of course, this is not the first time rockers have messed with evolutionary themes.  ILYBYGTH readers may remember our ponderings about Bruce Springsteen’s muddled ideas about evolution.  And thanks to Jonny Scaramanga we all learned something about the vibrant creation-rock scene.

But I guess I had never listened closely enough to the lyrics of MC5’s “Sister Anne.”  The Detroit outfit’s signature song starts out like this, the best I can decode:

Sister Anne don’t give a damn about evolution

She’s a liberated woman, she’s got her solution

Like a dinosaur, she’s going off the wall

She’s gonna make it her own crusade

It raises two obvious and difficult questions.  First, how much more evolution-rock is out there?  Not to be too nerdy about it, but how deeply do the questions of evolution and creationism sink into the marrow of American culture?  If we hear the echoes of creationism even in the skudjiest of Motor City rock anthems, is there anywhere we won’t find them?

The second question is much simpler: What the *@#% do these “Sister Anne” lyrics mean?  The title character seems to be some sort of soul-saving, evolution-hating, sexy Catholic nun.  I know she can…but can what?

 

 

Evangelicals and Evolution: A Closer Look

We all know large numbers of evangelical Protestants disbelieve in evolution, right? But among evangelicals, who does and who doesn’t? Thanks to Professor Thomas Jay Oord and the Nazarenes Exploring Evolution project, we can see a breakdown of evolutionary disbelief in one large evangelical denomination. In the Church of the Nazarene, at least, most academics allow for God-guided evolution and an ancient earth, while among the laity there is a more pronounced split.

For those outside of the kaleidoscopic world of American evangelicalism, the Church of the Nazarene is part of the Holiness tradition. That means, in a very crude nutshell, they are part of a tradition that emphasizes an experience of sanctification and sanctified work. In the analogy of one early holiness evangelist, sinful human nature is like a weight, but that weight can be lifted up by the hot-air balloon of the Holy Spirit. The sin is still there, but earnest Christians can be buoyed up to perform missionary work if they open themselves to the Holy Spirit.

In more mundane terms, according to its Wikipedia page, the Church of the Nazarene claims 2,263,249 members in 29,007 churches around the world. That’s a lotta Nazarenes. And while we can’t make any claims that Nazarenes somehow represent the totality of evangelicals, we can learn something about evangelicalism and evolution by looking in close detail at what Nazarenes say on the subject.

In general, American evangelicals are one of the most skeptical groups about evolution. As a recent Pew survey found, sixty-four percent of white evangelical Protestants believe that humans “have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Only a small minority (15%) of white mainline Protestants hold that view. And while it is notable that so many self-identified “evangelicals” don’t believe in human evolution, we can see that a significant minority of evangelicals DO believe.

Oord’s more nuanced look at one evangelical denomination allows us to get a better inside scoop on this breakdown.

In brief, Oord and his colleagues found that most Nazarene academics believed that evangelicalism and evolution could co-exist without traumatizing Nazarene theology. Your regular Nazarene-in-the-street, however, is much more likely to insist on a young earth and on hostility to evolutionary theory.

For example, among Nazarenes as a whole, 14.39% strongly agree, and 7.37% agree, that the Bible requires “Christians to believe the earth was created less than 15 thousand years ago.” Among lay Nazarenes, 18.95% disagree with that statement, and 55.09% strongly disagree. We see that this evangelical denomination does not, by and large, go in for “young-earth” creationism, though clearly a significant minority of its members does.

Lay Nazarenes and a young earth

Lay Nazarenes and a young earth

But look at the results when Nazarene academics answer that same question. Absolutely ZERO strongly agreed that biblical beliefs require belief in a young earth, and only 1.23% agreed. In contrast, a whopping 81.48% strongly disagreed with the notion that Christianity requires belief in a young earth.

Academic Nazarenes and a Young Earth

Academic Nazarenes and a Young Earth

Check out Professor Oord’s essay in the BioLogos Forum for more details. You will see, for example, that among lay Nazarenes there is much more hostility to the notion that “Humans likely became a species as God worked with the evolutionary process.” Academic Nazarenes feel much more comfortable and confident with that idea.

Lay Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Lay Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Academic Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Academic Nazarenes on God-guided Human Evolution

Friday Night Lights: Evolution in Schools

How can evolutionary ideas help education?  This Friday, biologists and evolution mavens David Sloan Wilson and Richard Kauffman of Binghamton University’s Evolutionary Studies Program will be giving a talk about using evolutionary theory to improve education.  And you’re invited.

Professors Wilson and Kauffman will not just be talking about teaching evolution as a subject, but about ways to use evolutionary ideas to help increase learning in all subjects.  As they put it,

Evolutionary theory is highly relevant to education in ways that go beyond the need to teach evolution in public schools. We will make two additional evolution-education connections in our talk. First, evolutionary theory can be used to design social environments that are maximally conducive to learning all subjects. Second, evolutionary training can increase general cognitive thinking skills, including the ability to transfer knowledge across domains. We will illustrate these points with two studies, involving a program for at risk-high school students and a college course that teaches evolution across the curriculum, respectively.

The talk will take place on the scenic campus of Binghamton University, Friday, May 9, between 5-7 PM, in room 124 of Academic Building B.  All are welcome, but the talk will be targeted toward graduate students and science educators.  There is no need to register and the event is free.

For those of you who are unable to travel to Sunny Binghamton, the presenters will be talking about two academic studies: “A Program for At-Rish High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science,” and “The Evolutionary Biology of Education: How Our Hunter-Gatherer Educative Instincts Could Form the Basis for Education Today.”

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

What Would Bryan Do?

H/t KT

Would William Jennings Bryan support the recent move by the president of Bryan College?  That’s the question Bryan’s great-grandchildren are asking these days.

As we’ve reported, Bryan College’s leadership has imposed a new, stricter faculty policy.  From now on, faculty must believe that Adam and Eve were real, historical persons and the real, genetic origins of all subsequent humanity.  As science pundit Jerry Coyne has pointed out, that puts evangelical scientists in a pickle, since genetic evidence indicates that the smallest possible pool of original humans had to be at least 2,250 people.  Bryan College is home to science-curriculum innovators Brian Eisenback and Ken Turner, who hope to show evangelical students that evolution does not necessarily disprove their Biblical faith.

What would the original Bryan say about all this?  The college, after all, was founded as a memorial to Bryan’s last decade of work defending the centrality of Biblical wisdom in American life and politics.  As I argued in my 1920s book, though, Bryan himself held some beliefs about both the beginnings and the end of time that have made other conservative evangelical Protestants uncomfortable.  Bryan did not believe in a young earth, nor in a literal six-day creation.  Nor did Bryan think Jesus had to come back before the earth experienced its promised thousand-year reign of peace and justice.

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Bryan Gets Grilled by Darrow at the Scopes Trial

Other historians, too, have noted Bryan’s complicated relationship with the fundamentalist movement in its first decade, the 1920s.  Lawrence Levine’s Defender of the Faith and, more recently, Michael Kazin’s A Godly Hero both get into the gritty details of Bryan’s anti-evolution crusade.

Historians might disagree, but we all will get nervous about trying to predict what Bryan would say about today’s dust-up at Bryan College.  Because Bryan’s ideology and theology remain necessarily part of his life between 1915 and 1925.  It is mostly meaningless to ask what he would say today, because the situation today is so wildly different from what it was back then.

For example, when Bryan led his anti-evolution movement in the 1920s, the scientific jury was still out on the mechanism of evolution.  Darwin’s explanation—modified descent through natural selection—had been roundly criticized and nearly dismissed by the mainstream scientific community.  So when Bryan led the charge against the teaching of evolution, he could claim with scientific legitimacy that natural selection was not established scientifically.  It was not until years after Bryan’s death that biologists and geneticists such as Theodosius Dobzhansky, Ernst Mayr, R.A. Fisher, J.B.S. Haldane, Sewall Wright, and others solved the problem of genetic “swamping” that seemed to make Darwin’s idea of natural selection a non-starter.

I’ve spent my time with Bryan’s papers at the Library of Congress.  I like Bryan.  He was a successful politician, but I don’t hold that against him.  I believe he was also sincere and devoted to justice.  I came to believe that Bryan was profoundly shocked and surprised when he could not produce his dream team of scientific experts at the Scopes Trial to put evolutionary scientists in their place.

Of course, Bryan died just a few days after the trial.  I can’t help but wonder how he might have “evolved” in his thinking if he had lived.  Would his experience at the Scopes Trial have caused him to re-think his confidence that evolutionary science would soon be disproven?  And, more intriguing, how would Bryan have responded if he had lived for an even longer stretch?  An Old-Testament sort of lifespan?

Would Bryan have embraced the “new evangelicalism” of Carl Henry and Billy Graham?  Would he have worked to make sure Biblical religion remained in conversation with mainstream American culture and politics?

I can’t help but think that he would.  I agree with Bryan’s great-grandson Kent Owen, who told reporter Kevin Hardy, “My view of Bryan is that things weren’t set in stone. . . .  He was pragmatic.”

What does this mean for today’s leadership at Bryan College?  On one hand, they are continuing the legacy of their school.  Bryan College was never bound too tightly to the thinking of the original William Jennings Bryan.  From its outset, Bryan College took a firmer, more “fundamentalist” position than Bryan himself ever did.  But on the other hand, the insistence of today’s leadership that Bryan College faculty sign on to a specific understanding of the historicity of Adam & Eve does not sound like something the Great Commoner would have supported.  As long as the principle of respect and reverence for the Bible was maintained, the original Bryan thought, people of good will could disagree on the details.

How Richard Dawkins Begat Ken Ham

Why is there creationism?  Marc Barnes at Bad Catholic makes the argument that today’s young-earth creationist movement is nothing more nor less than a theistic outgrowth of Richard Dawkins-style materialism.

Today’s sort of Ken-Ham-style creationism, Barnes correctly observes, is an entirely modern phenomenon.  Barnes doesn’t make the point, though he could have, that ignorant partisan anti-creationist hack jobs like that of Mark Stern in Slate miss the boat entirely when they accuse creationism of being “medieval.”  Nonsense.  Today’s creationism is a thoroughly modern affair.  Even the briefest familiarity with the history of the movement makes that point abundantly clear.

Today’s creationism, Barnes argues, is not a wholesale repudiation of the materialist viewpoint, though it falsely claims to be.  Materialism, after all, in this sense, means the assumption that life and everything has purely material origins.  Primordial soup somehow got a transformative spark, perhaps from undersea volcanic vents.  Life came from non-life due to purely material causes.  Similarly, life itself, though it may feel like it has transcendent spiritual meaning, is nothing more than biochemistry.  When the switch goes off, the magic ends.  Back to carbon.

Such a view of life separates God out entirely, Barnes points out.  And Ken-Ham-style creationists make the woeful mistake of simply plugging God back in, from the outside.  In other words, Barnes argues, young-earth creationists stupidly think that by insisting on a God who popped into time, created life and the universe, inspired a Bible, and sent his kid in to fix things, they have refuted materialist assumptions.  Not so, Barnes contends.  That sort of outsider God, a God who creates, judges, and saves, all from somewhere outside of, beyond the creation itself, actually endorses the materialist vision of life.  Instead of electricity as the prime mover, though, Ken Ham’s style of creationism plugs in a Bearded-Guy-in-a-Throne sort of God.

God, in this YEC vision, is a mere competitor with electricity for the role of life’s spark.  God, in this YEC vision, is simply the materialist understanding of life with a quick substitution of God for an unintelligent spark.

Instead of falling for this materialist presumption, instead of simply rebutting one part of materialist assumptions about life, real creationism needs to posit an entirely different relationship between the world and its Creator, Barnes argues.  As he puts it,

God is not simply the Creator of the material order, and the theistic tradition has never made such laughable claims. The concept of God as Creator has always been the source of existence as such. This means that God does not just answer the material question of “Where came this rock, that plant, or the entire conglomerate of material thingmabobs we call the universe?” He answers the ontological question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

 

 

Evolution Is Racist

Evolution is racist, says thinking-man’s conservative Rod Dreher.

But before we anti-creationists pull out our handy refutations of the Darwin-Hitler smear, take another look at Dreher’s real argument.

Dreher is no knee-jerk creationist.  He wants public schools to teach evolutionary science.  For that matter, he wants ALL schools to teach evolutionary science.  He explicitly rejects the simplistic equation of “Darwin” with “racism.”

But Dreher yet objects to the ways liberals hasten to conflate creationism with anti-scientism.  Too many liberals, Dreher argues, pick and choose from their scientific principles.  Just as do creationists, liberals begin with the notion of “forbidden knowledge,” of facts that may or may not be true, but in any case are too dangerous to be widely shared.

For Dreher, the implications of Darwinian natural selection are just such ideas.  Too often, the facts of genetic variation among humans have led all-too-fallible humans to a sinister conclusion.  As Dreher explains,

I flat-out don’t trust our species to handle the knowledge of human biodiversity without turning it into an ideology of dehumanization, racism, and at worst, genocide. Put another way, I am hostile to this kind of thing not because I believe it’s probably false, but because I believe a lot of it is probably true — and we have shown that we, by our natures, can’t handle this kind of truth.

The point, for Dreher, is not the crude creationist mantra that evolutionism leads directly to Hitler.  The point, rather, is that capital-s “Science” has and will be misused to justify humanity’s darkest impulses, just as Religion can be so misused.  Dreher’s point, as I understand it, is that those anti-creationists who smugly wave the flag of Science to discredit religious opposition unwittingly expose themselves as shamefully ignorant of the real issue.  As Dreher concludes,

liberals who love to put the Darwin fish on their cars and rail against fundagelicals who want to teach Creationism in public schools should be honest with themselves and admit that they don’t really want to teach Science and nothing but either. Their enthusiasm for just-the-facts science typically stops the moment science tramples upon one of their sacred principles.

Evolutionary theory may not be racist, in a simple sense.  But Dreher gives us an important reminder that any idea can be misused as a smear to discredit one’s opposition.

 

Year-End Poll: America and Evolution

Do Americans think humans evolved?  Sorta.

Thanks to the watchful folks at the National Center for Science Education, we see a new year-end poll from the Pew Research Center.

The Pew folks talked to about 2,000 respondents over the phone.  All told, about sixty percent of them seem to accept evolution, while a third rejected it.

As always, the wording of these questions matters.  In this poll, respondents were asked if they thought humans or animals had “existed in their present form since the beginning of time,” or if they had “evolved over time.”

When interviewers put it that way, a significant majority of Americans seems to agree that humans or animals had evolved over time.  In contrast, when the Gallup pollsters ask people to pick between three options, a larger percentage–nearly half of respondents–tend to agree that “God created humans beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last ten thousand years or so.”

It seems Americans have an easier time agreeing that humans had evolved over time than they do agreeing that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”  Indeed, many of the respondents who agreed that humans or animals had evolved over time also believed that God had directed this process.

Breaking it down by demographic groups, we see some predictable results.  White evangelical Protestants tended to reject evolution in the largest numbers (64%).  Republicans tended to reject evolution more often than Democrats.

One surprise: no one seemed to care much if they were talking about human or non-human evolution.  In the past, as historians such as Ron Numbers have demonstrated, the sticking point of much resistance to evolution has been specifically human evolution.  In this poll, however, the answers did not change much when the questions were about human or animal evolution.

 

 

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