Forget the Intelligent Designer: What about Creationist Graphic Designers?

[Thanks to JS for PACE materials.]

Ken Ham is right again.  I’m no creationist, much less a young-earth type, but Mr. Ham’s Answers In Genesis organization has done it again.  As they did with their museum, AIG has managed to overcome the traditional stylistic weirdnesses of creationist outreach.

Weird science, but good-looking graphics...

Weird science, but good-looking graphics…

Ham has bragged recently about the high-class materials his group has cranked out.  In answer to the new version of Cosmos, Answers In Genesis has produced classroom materials to rebut the claims of the popular science show.  As Ham put it,

The AiG graphics department and publications team did a great job designing Questioning Cosmos. Its full-color glossy pages are packed with illustrations, questions for discussion, and detailed answers and explanations to help parents, teachers, and youth group leaders teach young people (and adults!) how to discern what observational science is presented in the Cosmos series and what material is best described as an evolutionary infomercial.

Even those of us who want more evolution taught in public schools must admit that Mr. Ham is right.  The anti-Cosmos materials don’t look any different than mainstream school texts.  Just as Answers In Genesis has done with its museum, this outreach effort has erased some of the obvious outward signs of the non-mainstream nature of creationist science.

It used to be easy.  Creationists used to produce school materials that looked hokey, weird, old-fashioned.  Consider just a few samples from Accelerated Christian Education.  As these pictures show, not only is the science much different from mainstream science, but the workbooks themselves seem obviously out of date.  The graphics are weird, the comics are jerky, and the lettering looks homemade.

Creation science used to look as if it were created in six days...

Creation science used to look as if it were created in six days…

Creation science books used to LOOK different...

Gee whillikers!

That’s just not the case with AIG’s anti-Cosmos materials.  The graphic design is very similar to the production values we’d expect from mainstream school materials.  And that matters more than we might think.  Parents, school administrators, and, most important, children tend to judge books by their covers.  The shoddy production values of cheap creationist pamphlets used to make them less attractive.

In the case of Answers In Genesis, mainstream science-ed materials can no longer count on such weak and ugly competition.


Bill Gates: Creation/Evolution Warrior ???

Bill Gates seems to be wading into the creationism/evolution controversies. But he doesn’t seem to know it. At least that’s the sense I get from an article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

Bill-Gates-bashing is a popular sport these days among progressive-education types. I don’t usually go in for it. But this article makes it crystal clear that Mr. Gates really does have more money than sense. He seems utterly unaware of the history and context of his own pet projects.

The story focuses on Mr. Gates’ new vision for teaching World History in American high schools. Mr. Gates apparently became enamored of the lecturing style of one David Christian, an Australian historian with a penchant for offering what journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin calls a “unifying narrative of life on earth.”

Gates liked it. So he thought everyone should get it. He funded a project to bring Professor Christian’s style of “unifying” world history to high schools nationwide. Instead of lumbering through disconnected areas of culture and geography, the thinking goes, students will be electrified to see the connections behind seemingly disparate events and disciplines.

Let’s ignore for a minute the other painful moments in this article, such as when Mr. Gates gleefully notes his ignorance of the history of teaching biology in secondary schools. Gates told Sorkin happily that he had no idea about this basic history. “It was pretty uncharted territory,” Gates said, “But it was pretty cool.” Of course, this history of biology as a school subject is not at all “uncharted territory.” Even a two-second google search would have offered Mr. Gates some quick historical outlines of the issues involved.

Let’s also pass by Mr. Sorkin’s apparent ignorance of the roughest outline of American educational history, as when he states that high-school education began to be mandatory in the 1850s. It didn’t. In some states, such as Massachusetts, education became compulsory at that date. In other states compulsory education laws did not kick in until the 1910s. Even in compulsory-education states, high school was not required as such. Again, I’m not expecting a journalist like Sorkin to have delved deeply into this history. But even a check of Wikipedia would have helped.

But let’s politely ignore those howlers and move on to the main question: What does this new Gates history curriculum have to do with creationism?

Both Gates and Professor Christian do not seem aware of the long history of their sort of “unifying” history. As Jon H. Roberts demonstrated so brilliantly in his co-authored book The Sacred and the Secular University, the decisive shift away from religious moralizing in mainstream colleges came with the abandonment of the effort to offer students a satisfying “unifying” narrative.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Roberts demonstrated, college presidents traditionally offered a capstone course in “moral philosophy.” This course hoped to give students a sense of the unifying nature of all forms of truth. In most cases, that truth was lodged in Christian theology. In other courses, too, professors in old-style colleges tended to suggest that there was a supernatural glue that held all knowledge together. It was the intellectual revolution that included Darwin’s evolutionary mechanism of natural selection that wrought a wholesale change in this sort of “unifying” education.

As Roberts’ co-author James Turner argued, this shift in university attitudes was pushed and accompanied by the rising prestige of disciplinary knowledge. In older schools, professors were supposed to pursue knowledge as such, to pursue the unifying sorts of knowledge that David Christian seems to prefer. In modern universities, that knowledge was parceled out into the academic disciplines we’re familiar with today.

What does any of this have to do with Bill Gates’ Big History Project?

Gates and Christian seem utterly unaware that the notion of a “unifying” sort of history class is not a new idea. It is, instead, a discarded idea. As philosopher Philip Kitcher might say, this is not “bad history” or “new history,” but rather “dead history.”

In its older incarnation, a sweeping history that unified all sorts of knowledge suggested that the unifying element was God. The reason students should seek knowledge in all its forms, the thinking went, was because all knowledge pointed toward the Creator.

Whether they mean to or not, Gates and Christian will have to choose what sort of unifying idea they prefer. And they seem surprisingly unaware that this choice is precisely at issue in our century-long culture war over evolution and creationism.

The Big History Project doesn’t put God at the center of its narrative. It begins with the assumption that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. It explains the roots of humanity in other forms of life. These are ideas at the center of the continuing creation-evolution controversies.   If Gates and Christian are looking to produce a Cosmos-like statement about the intellectual weakness of creationism, fine.

But they don’t even seem aware of the issue. In the NYT article, at least, Gates seems to worry only about educational bureaucrats getting in the way of his big idea.

Maybe I’m missing something. Perhaps Gates deliberately plans to bypass creationists entirely. Perhaps he hopes that by not mentioning creation/evolution controversies, he won’t have to engage with them. But for anyone even mildly aware of the current state of cultural tension over the teaching of humanity’s long history, such a curriculum seems fraught with controversy.  It seems like something they might want to think about.

The Left Seizes Science

You’ve heard the howls from creationists over Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent Cosmos series.  But did you know non-creationist conservatives also get cheeved at Tyson’s science punditry?

Science Snob?

Science Snob?

The creationist complaints make sense.  The hugely popular new science series pointedly called out young-earthers for their belief in a newish universe.  The series also insisted on the creation of species through evolution.

But the complaints of non-creationist conservatives might not seem so obvious.  In the pages of National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke took Tyson to task for his leftism, not just for his love of evolution.  Cooke accuses Tyson and others of his ilk of a puffed-up condescension, of glibly associating liberal politics with superior intellect.

Too many of these self-righteous faux-nerds, Cooke writes, wrap their insouciance in the mantle of science.  For these Tyson fans and wanna-bes, being smart does not mean doing actual intellectual work, but rather simply adopting a pre-packaged list of things to dislike.  As Cooke puts it, that list includes anything

southern, politically conservative, culturally traditional, religious in some sense, patriotic, driven by principle rather than the pivot tables of Microsoft Excel, and in any way attached to the past.

This sort of prejudice against anything recognizably conservative likes to call itself the side of “science,” Cooke argues.  Yet among progressives, real science often takes a beating.  “Progressives . . . ,” Cooke says,

believe all sorts of unscientific things — that Medicaid, the VA, and Head Start work; that school choice does not; that abortion carries with it few important medical questions; that GM crops make the world worse; that one can attribute every hurricane, wildfire, and heat wave to “climate change”; that it’s feasible that renewable energy will take over from fossil fuels anytime soon . . .

Yet in spite of this demonstrably unscientific attitude, Cooke laments, the Left insists on calling itself the “reality-based” party.

Cooke is not the first to complain about such things.  In the first generation of creation/evolution controversies, anti-evolution activists worked hard—and failed—to claim “science” for their side.  As I noted in my 1920s book, leading anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan maintained his membership in the staunchly pro-evolution American Association for the Advancement of Science.  He refused to allow that leading science group to be wholly taken over by fans of evolution.

Similarly, prominent 1920s fundamentalist activist William Bell Riley fought hard to keep his generation of Neil deGrasse Tysons from pushing conservatives out of the world of science.  As Riley put it in a 1927 speech, the creation/evolution debate was not a debate between

Experts on the one hand, and, as someone has said, ‘organized ignorance,’ on the other.  This is not a debate between the educated and the uneducated.

Like Bryan in the 1920s and Cooke in 2014, the conservative Riley was loath to cede the scientific and intellectual high ground to evolution-lovers.

One of the results of that first decade of evolution controversies was the formation of durable cultural associations, the associations about which Cooke complains.  Since the 1920s, “science” has become indelibly associated in the public mind with progress, with social experiment, with iconoclasm.  Politically, if not logically, all of those things are part of the broad package of cultural leftism.  And, like it or not, conservatism has been associated time and again with obstructionism and heedless obscurantism.

For conservative pundits like Cooke, trying to fight that tradition will be an uphill battle.