What does it take for a creationist to earn a PhD? As arch-anti-creationist Jerry Coyne pointed out yesterday, not a whole lot. Coyne looked at the embarrassingly weak doctoral work of young-earth creationist Kent Hovind. This sham dissertation leads us to ask again about the paradoxical relationship between creationism and credentials.
It does not take a creationist-hater like Professor Coyne to find big problems with Hovind’s doctoral work. Hovind cranked out a hundred awkward pages of claptrap about creationism under the auspices of Patriot Bible University of Del Norte, Colorado.
Intelligent creationists might cringe at this sort of hucksterism, with good reason. It allows even the most accomplished creationists, such as Harvard-educated Kurt Wise, to be lumped together with this sort of snake-oil academic flim-flam.
Throughout the history of the creation/evolution debates, creationists have struggled to prove their intellectual bona fides. It hasn’t been easy. For the first generation of modern anti-evolutionists, it came as a surprise to find that their ideas no longer held sway at leading research universities and intellectual institutions.
As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education demonstrated recently, this 1920s revelation led anti-evolutionists to scramble for certifiable creationist experts. The most famous anti-evolutionist of the 1920s, William Jennings Bryan, groped awkwardly among scientists to find some who opposed “Darwinism.”
Bryan wasn’t alone. As I note in my 1920s book, all the anti-evolution activists of the 1920s were obsessed with demonstrating that creationism[*] had expert support. T.T. Martin, for example, who attracted attention with his eye-catching booth at the 1920s Scopes monkey trial, listed his expert supporters relentlessly. In his book Hell and the High School, 67 out of 175 pages consisted of nothing more than lists of anti-evolution experts and their backgrounds.
Another anti-evolution activist from the 1920s showed similar determination. On a typical page of Alfred Fairhurst’s Atheism in Our Universities, Fairhurst included only 23 original words. The remaining 107 consisted of quotes from “leading writers on evolution.”
Writing in 1922, Arthur Brown used the same tactic. He piled up impressive-sounding lists of experts and scientists who disputed evolution. Why should readers accept evolution, Brown asked, when it had been discarded by the likes of
world-renowned men like Virchow of Berlin, Dawson of Montreal, Etheridge of the British Museum, Groette of Strassburg University, Paulson of Berlin, Clerk Maxwell, Dana, Naegeli, Holliker, Wagner, Snell, Tovel, Bunge the physiological chemist, Brown, Hofman, and Askernazy, botanists, Oswald Heer, the geologist, Carl Ernst von Baer, the eminent zoologist and anthropologist, Du Bois Reymond, Stuckenburg and Zockler, and a host of others. . . . It seems to be a fact that NO opinion from whatever source, no matter how weighty or learned, is of any account with those who are consumed with the determination to reject the Bible at any cost, and shut God out of His universe.
As I traced in my 1920s book, following the work of historian Ron Numbers, this impressive-sounding list did not really make the point Brown hoped it would. The names he listed came from earlier generations or from scientists who agreed with evolution’s broad outlines but disagreed on details. But Brown, like Bryan, Martin, Fairhurst, and virtually all other creationist activists felt compelled to establish the academic credentials of anti-evolutionists.
Hovind’s case reminds us of this peculiar conundrum of credentials among creationists. One does not have to be an evolutionary bulldog like Professor Coyne to find Hovind’s academic pretensions silly and reprehensible. Hovind’s work certainly gives skeptics such as Professor Coyne an easy route of attack.
For those of us who don’t care to attack or defend creationism, though, Hovind’s doctoral ouvre offers different lessons. Once a dissenting group has been turned away from mainstream institutions, credentials become both more precious and easier to attain. At least since the 1920s, that is, anti-evolutionists have scrambled to find expert backing for their beliefs. But once creationism had been kicked out of elite research universities, it became far easier for creationists to claim credit for academic work at bogus universities. If universities themselves are suspect, in other words, the ridiculousness of diploma mills like the Patriot Bible University becomes less damning.
[*] The term “creationism” is an anachronism here. Anti-evolutionists in the 1920s did not call their beliefs “creationism” yet. But I’ll use it just to keep things readable.