An Age of Denial—of History

Attention, fellow followers of the evolution/creationism controversies!  Want to read

  • Hysterical exaggerations?
  • Misleading claims?
  • Willful ignorance?

Then look no further than the pages of the New York Times.

These aren’t the ravings of a fringe Bible-thumping creationist, nor are they the feverish exhalations of a Dawkins wannabe.
Rather, the New York Times recently ran a sadly mistaken opinion piece by physicist Adam Frank of the University of Rochester.

Professor Frank and I are on the same side of these debates.  We both want better evolution education in America’s schools at every level.
But Professor Frank engaged in some terrible punditry that even his allies must protest.  Frank made the tortuous claim that

Narrowly defined, “creationism” was a minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century. But in the years since I was a student, a well-funded effort has skillfully rebranded that ideology as “creation science” and pushed it into classrooms across the country. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.

Creationism is not Professor Frank’s only concern.  He also blasted America’s growing—or at least durable—disdain for climate-change science and vaccination science.  For those notions, Frank may have a point.  But his claims about creationism don’t pass the smell test.

Even on his own terms, Professor Frank muddles things.  He opens by acknowledging the fairly flat lines of American creationism illustrated by Gallup polls.  Since the 1980s, about 42-44% of respondents have agreed that God created humanity in pretty much its present form at some point in the last 10,000 years.

How, then, does it make any sense for Frank to conclude that his “professors’ generation [in the 1980s] could respond to silliness like creationism with head-scratching bemusement”?  Creationism in the 1980s was a roaring lion, pushing “two-theory” laws onto the books in states such as Arkansas.  Indeed, President Reagan swept into the White House based, in part, on his ardent support for creationism.

Frank’s personal experience with self-satisfied academic scientists in the 1980s who looked at creationism with “head-scratching bemusement” demonstrates the surprising cultural isolation of academic scientists more than it does any weakness of creationism in the 1980s.  As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund has argued, many scientists in elite academic settings these days show a surprising ignorance about conservative religion in America.  That may have been true of Frank’s teachers in the 1980s as well.  If they thought 1980s creationism posed no threat to mainstream science and science education, they certainly misunderstood the nature of American culture and politics.

More startling is Frank’s bizarre claim that creationism was a “minor current in American thinking for much of the 20th century.”  Such a statement reveals a breathtaking ignorance about the career of American creationism, indeed about American culture in general.

I don’t suggest that physicists such as Professor Frank need to take the time to read the excellent academic literature out there, such as Ron Numbers The Creationists, Michael Lienesch’s In the Beginning, or Jeffrey Moran’s American Genesis.  Though it wouldn’t hurt, especially if one is planning to spout off about the history of creationism in the pages of the New York Times.

But even if Frank only scanned through the Wikipedia entry on the Creation-Evolution Controversy, he would see that creationism has never been a “minor current.”  Creationism has always been embraced by leading figures; creationism has always had powerful political support.

So what could the good professor have been thinking?  How could an intelligent, informed commentator really believe that creationism has grown from inconsequential to insuperable between 1982 and today?

Perhaps Professor Frank believes that his claims are true if we look only at creationism “narrowly defined.”  That is, one could make the case that today’s sort of creationism did not exist for most of the 20th century.  This could hold some water.  After all, the sort of creationism we’re used to today is very different from that of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  The 1961 publication of Morris and Whitcomb’s Genesis Flood heralded a new sort of creationist thought and belief.

If this is what Professor Frank meant, good for him.  But I don’t think it is.

After all, Frank does not claim that creationism has become powerful since the 1960s.  He seems to believe that creationism has escalated in political intensity since 1982.

Also, if he hopes to argue that creationism’s political power is stronger now than it has ever been, he can’t hide behind his faulty “narrow” definition of creationism.  In the first half of the 20th century, creationism—not the same creationism as today, but recognizably the same cultural and political impulse—ruled the ballot box in states across the country.  It did so far more powerfully than it has done since.

The claims of “early” creationism were far more strident than the claims of latter-day “creation scientists.”  Since the 1960s, most creationists have fought to include creationism alongside evolution in public-school science classes.  Earlier activists had much greater ambitions, hoping to ban evolution entirely.

So what can we make of Professor Frank’s anxious tut-tutting?

Frank’s misleading conclusions, I believe, result from a disturbing willingness to ignore the historical record and rely on flawed personal experience to make sweeping charges about the way America has changed over time.  The goal is to create a sense of hysteria, a sense that we are now approaching a crisis worse than any we have seen.

Such antics may make for good politics.  But they make for very bad policy-making.  Our thinking about creationism, education, and culture should be based on clear-heading thinking, not on false claims.

So, to set the record straight, let’s look at a few simple facts:

  • Is America in 2013 ferociously creationist?  Yes.
  • Do politicians truckle to creationists?  Yes.
  • Has America become more ferociously creationist since Professor Frank began his college career in 1982?  No.

It may be politically expedient to skew the history this way, but it doesn’t do justice to the facts.  In the end, this kind of misrepresentation hurts the cause of evolution education.  It depends on a false sense of crisis; it gives readers a misleading depiction of our current cultural situation.

America is not facing the strongest creationist surge in our history.  Education policy should not be based on hysterically misleading claims.  Rather, creationism today is powerful, just as it has been since before America landed on the moon, just as it has been since before America landed on Omaha Beach.

American creationism, in short, is not a sudden new challenge to mainstream science, but rather a durable tradition.  Science pundits such as Professor Frank must recognize this.


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