Does Life Imply Creation? Don McLeroy Says Yes

Should mainstream scientists debate with creationists?  This morning we have another chance to discuss the nature of life, science, and evolution with a prominent creationist intellectual. Will anyone take it?

Don McLeroy

Science, c’est moi…

Some mainstream scientists affect a pose of exhaustion. Speaking with creationists, they say, is not worth the effort. Some folks criticize popularizers such as Bill Nye “The Science Guy” for deigning to debate young-earth impresario Ken Ham. Doing so, critics say, only feeds creationist pretensions to the label “science.” Doing so, critics insist, only gives creationists a win; it falsely implies that evolution is “controversial,” a controversy worth sharing in America’s classrooms.

Dr. Don McLeroy, erstwhile head of the Texas State Board of Education, has shared an essay he’s penned about the deficiencies of materialism.

I hope readers will take time to read and consider Dr. McLeroy’s intellectual claims. Dr. McLeroy, after all, is not your run-of-the-mill creationist. While other creationists fume and fuss over new evolution-heavy textbooks, Dr. McLeroy encourages kids to read em. Why? Because, Dr. McLeroy thinks, the truth will out. If students read about evolutionary science, they will quickly see that the evolutionary emperor has no clothes.

In his essay, Dr. McLeroy insists that only “biblical explanations” pass the test of science. As he puts it,

materialist explanations concerning the origin of the universe, the origin of plant life, the origin of creature life and the origin of human consciousness, fail the test of science.

Dr. McLeroy claims allies such as Richard Lewontin, who insisted in 1997 that only our “prior commitment” to materialism makes it seem convincing.

If we can only lay aside for a moment our faulty assumptions in favor of materialism, McLeroy argues, we can see how empty they really are. For example, the astounding suggestion that something—everything—could come out of nothingness only makes sense if we assume that God is involved as the Uncreated Creator.

As McLeroy concludes,

we do see a cosmos that had a beginning and thus had a cause; we do see plants and animals that reproduce after their kind and can be organized into distinct classifications; we do see creatures with a life and not just a living form; and we do see man in a separate class from all the other unique creatures. All these simple observations support the ideas of Genesis; they pass the test of science. Therefore, why not give the biblical explanations a better look? As [Neil DeGrasse] Tyson explained: let us ‘build on those ideas that pass the test, reject the ones that fail, follow the evidence wherever it leads and question everything.’

Are you convinced? More important, if you’re not convinced, why not?

Can We Tell Students the Truth about Truth?


I don’t know what to think.  For almost a hundred years, creationists and other conservatives have complained that mainstream science—often symbolized by the idea of evolution—threatened their children’s faith.  For just as long, leading scientists have insisted that there was nothing religious about real science.  But a recent chat with physicist Carlo Rovelli makes me wonder.

First, some premises:

1.) Public schools should not be teaching religious ideas to children.  Schools may and should teach ABOUT religions, but public schools should not attempt to push students toward or away from any faith.

2.) Public schools must offer students the best available scholarship.  In science class, this means students must learn the modern evolutionary synthesis.

3.) Secondary-school education–in the USA, that means high schools and middle schools–should train students to think in ways familiar to the scholarly disciplines.  So, in history class, we follow Stanford’s Sam Wineburg in hoping to teach students to engage in the “unnatural act” of thinking like a historian.  The same should be true in other disciplines.  Students should be learning basic principles of mathematical thinking, literary thinking, and scientific thinking.

So here’s our dilemma.  For a while now, conservative creationists have complained that public schools are teaching evolution as a religion.  Nonsense, mainstream scientists have responded.

Because, of course, if evolution were a religion, it should not be taught in public schools.  It could be taught ABOUT, but not taught as something towards which students ought to be pushed.

But as trenchant observers have observed, there are indeed some religious aspects of mainstream scientific belief.  Or, to put it more precisely, there are important ways in which the attitudes of mainstream scientists clash with certain conservative theological beliefs.  As my favorite atheist observer of American creationism Jason Rosenhouse argued, traditional Christians are correct in thinking that evolutionary ideas pose a drastic theological threat.

And today we come across more fuel for this dilemma.  In a recent interview in Scientific American, physicist Carlo Rovelli seconds the notion that mainstream science is–as much as it is anything–a skeptical attitude toward absolute truth.  As Dr. Rovelli put it,

I have no idea what “absolute truth” means. I think that science is the attitude of those who find funny the people saying they know something is absolute truth.  Science is the awareness that our knowledge is constantly uncertain.

Tell me the absolute truth: Do these glasses make my face look fat?

Dr. Rovelli, Tell me the absolute truth…

I don’t need to be up on the latest in quantum physics to see how such an attitude could be problematic for the conservative parents of American school children.  If such children were being taught the basic principles of mainstream science, and if those principles coincided with Rovelli’s attitude, then conservative parents might indeed have cause for complaint.

A family wouldn’t need to be any sort of creationist to take issue, either.  Anyone who takes their Judaism or Christianity seriously might be chagrined to find their children coming home from school and telling them, “I find it funny when people say they know something is absolute truth.”

Montana Tech Faculty: Conservatism YES, Creationism NO


Can a science-oriented public museum welcome creationists as commencement speakers? No way, says a faculty group at Montana Tech.

According to an article by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Ed, the controversy at Montana Tech revolves around the coming commencement address by Greg and Susan Gianforte. No matter which way we slice it, this discussion raises crucial questions about the values of diversity, the politics of creationism, and the nature of science.

According to the university’s Chancellor, Don Blackketter, the Gianfortes are the perfect choice. After all, Montana Tech is a science-oriented subunit of the University of Montana. Ms. Gianforte has engineering degrees from fancy schools including Cornell and Berkeley and the couple together has a long record of success in software entrepreneurship. As Blackketter gushed on the school’s website,

Greg and Susan are a great example of passionate individuals and entrepreneurs who have had much success and have given back in so many ways. Their messages will resonate well with our students who will be leaving Montana Tech to make their mark out in the world. We are honored they will be a part of our event.

If you ask some of the faculty, however, you’ll likely get a different story. In addition to supporting conservative causes such as the Milton Friedman Foundation and the Association of Classical Christian Schools, the Gianfortes have donated to the creationist Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum. The museum endorses a vigorously creationist vision of the origins of the earth and of humanity.

According to journalist Scott Jaschik, faculty protesters insist they do not have a beef with the conservative politics of the Gianfortes. But the faculty faction DOES object to the Gianfortes’ support for creationism. Pat Munday, department chair for technical communication and a professor of science and technology studies, told Jaschik that a “publicly funded, science-based institution” like MT could not seem to condone such anti-scientific beliefs. More provocatively, Henry Gonshak of the English Department told Jaschik that the Gianfortes could not cut the mustard. Though they promised not to discuss their political activism, Gonshak was not convinced. “If Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden promised not to mention their own political and religious beliefs,” Gonshak asked, “would we pick them as commencement speakers?”

Though I find Gonshak’s comparison excessive and counterproductive, I agree with him that inviting creationist-supporters to speak at a public science school’s commencement raises some difficult questions. First of all, are the Gianfortes automatically “anti-science” for their support of a creationist museum? Chancellor Blackketter doesn’t think so. He told Jaschik the Gianfortes were “great supporters of science and . . . science and math have been part of their successful business ventures.” As we’ve argued time and time again, the notion among some mainstream scientists that creationists are incapable of learning or using “real” science just doesn’t hold water. The Gianfortes seem like an example of successful creationist engineers.

Second, does it suppress the university’s mission of intellectual diversity to ban commencement speakers of any kind? What if the university wanted to ban prominent science pundit Jerry Coyne due to Coyne’s in-your-face atheism and unapologetic dismissal of religious beliefs? Wouldn’t that seem outrageous? How can we ban one sort of speaker and not another?

Third, should we think about this as a political question? That is, must we who want more evolution taught in our nation’s public schools fight against any event that lends scientific credibility to evolution deniers? If so, the faculty’s move at Montana Tech seems appropriate. Hosting the Gianfortes as commencement speakers at a public science university sends a message. If science does not include creationism, the Gianfortes should not be invited to speak.

Fourth, does it matter that the Gianfortes are charged with supporting a creationist institution, rather than promoting creationism directly? It seems an illegitimate McCarthyite tactic to dig through the record of public figures to denounce them by association. Do we know if the Gianfortes themselves are creationists? I’ve given money to the Catholic Church, for example. But I would not consider it fair to label my politics as anti-contraception because of that. People should be judged on their own merits, not smeared by tenuous affiliations.

The ultimate question, I suppose, is this: Would you sign a faculty petition to oust the Gianfortes as commencement speakers?


Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?: An Anthropologist’s Response

Guest Post by David Long

David Long is an anthropologist and science educator at the Center for Restructuring Education in Science and Technology at George Mason University.  He is the author of Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography, based on his PhD dissertation at the University of Kentucky.  The editors asked David to respond to a recent ILYBYGTH post: Will Creationists Take Half a Loaf?

Will historians and philosophers accept that they are not baking or dividing bread?

I conduct research on the American relationship toward science as it plays out in schools.   When I began doing this with professional earnest a few years ago, my intention was much the same as Adam Laats, and many others who work in this area.  Originally, it was my hope that anti-evolution attitudes could be something that we set aside in American life.  Like many scientists and science educators, my unexamined assumption was that knowledge of evolution—as a well-reasoned, scientifically supported argumentation about the state of biological affairs—was something unavoidable.   Science disclosed a truth, and as such public attitudes should come along.

We know this is not the case.  Publics are multiple and working towards different ends. As Adam Laats should know well, the purpose of public schooling in the United States has always been in contention, and there have always been dissenters.  Science as a topic of study has been champion, demon, and utilitarian tool depending on who is reading the message it presents.  More importantly, as I came to see clearly while going to college with creationists as they studied evolution, evolution doesn’t fit within a creationist understanding of the world.  Making it fit changes one’s beliefs.  While this point may prompt quizzical looks, it’s germane to understanding the position Laats and Siegel seem to be holding, and where the weaknesses of that position are.  The conversation I intend to invoke can range wildly across disciplines.  To rein this in, I’ll simply do my gadfly work by commenting on Laats’ assertions toward some better conversation.  Let’s begin:

~ Students in public schools must be taught the best science available. 

This seems like a no-brainer claim about how school should be, except:  We have never had and for the foreseeable future do not have anything close to a teaching force that either knows or is pedagogically effective at teaching “the best science available”. The Devil’s advocate would point out that those who arguably understand the ‘best’ are Ph.D. scientists at the edges of their field. The “best science available” is vast, excruciatingly detailed, and often simply hard to learn.  Scientists rely on science’s authority when looking at the claims of science far afield from their own specialty in ways not unlike the public. Also, what moral warrant do Laats and Seigel draw upon to claim that this ‘must’ be so?  Shouldn’t students have the best of every subject?  A better question for me is why do we not have it currently and how are historians and philosophers fixing this?  I agree with Laats’ intent, but underscore the fact that the pipeline of science teachers is not currently prepared to do so.  It seems odd then to listen to historians and philosophers about a problem whose ‘fix’ lies within science education.  The help is of course welcome, but what practical steps are they taking to improve the concrete situation?

~ Too many scientists and science teachers take this to mean that creationism must be purged from students’ minds. 

As commentary to Laats’ post attested, supported by Berkman and Plutzer, the teaching profession has already produced a pragmatic ‘fix’ to this problem by downplaying evolution where it prompts local political turmoil in schools. Teachers are not well paid, work under a current accountability regime of non-stop, high-stakes standardized testing, and for the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects, have an incredibly high professional turnover rate.  Evolution education, from this point of view, is not job no. 1.

For scientists who decry what they perceive as an abandonment of reason in classrooms, the root of their perspectival problem lies in the legacy of positivism which the sciences carry.  The sciences have been fairly slow in acknowledging that the social landscape and playing field of civic discourse has moved on to one that’s strongly post-modern.  Leaving debates about evolution aside, there is likely a bigger issue of general ambivalence toward science which may pose a much greater threat to the health of the enterprise in the coming years.

~ Public schools should tell students nothing about what religious beliefs they should hold.

This statement simply doesn’t correspond with what a critical eye on the political and social content and implicit curriculum of schooling sees.  Many religious and political conservatives reject a form of schooling that has made the policy move to set God aside.  Laats’ and Seigel’s normative position in these regards doesn’t stop creationists from seeing it for what it is—a liberal ideal of church and state separation.  Being mute, or feigning toward a Jeffersonian ideal is a political position—one that tells some conservatives clearly that you are not one of them, nor on the same Godly educational mission.  It’s the same idea of being mute or not regarding marriage equality, abortion, school prayer, etc.  Normative values that we (Laats, etc.) hold aren’t value-neutral.  It also explains a lot of the reasons why many conservatives homeschool their children.

~ In short, the goal of evolution education should be for students to understand or know evolutionary theory, but not (necessarily) to believe it.

What is understanding and what is knowing?   These are epistemological questions.  For me, understanding “inhabits a domain of possibility” as Mark Wrathall describes it, in a way useful for thinking through the logic of many who reject evolution.  For creationists, they cannot imagine a way in which evolution could ever possibly work within the content of their day-to-day lives, for the damage it inflicts on the narrative content of their faith relationship. Seeing it otherwise—in the affirmative—is outside their current domain of possibility.  For those who have come to ‘know’ differently, they are no longer—as a matter of belief—creationists in the way Ken Ham or those like him would hope.  They also, as I show in my book, have incurred social costs in how this new knowledge works within their social lives.  Suddenly being affirmative toward evolution with Grandma and your Youth Group marks you as heretic.

A distinction like Laats and Seigel make may well be a red herring.  A majority of the creationists I have worked with as research participants were excellent test takers and understood the internal logic of evolutionary theory—they just rejected the facticity of it.   The distinction Laats and Seigel draw depends on an overly formal sense of rationalism, which has been shown by Jonathan Haidt and other motivated-reasoning researchers to not be an accurate description of everyday human reason.  The point: Would Laats and Siegel be satisfied with their above distinction if the U.S. were to become radically more creationist?—so much so that public schooling came to outlaw evolutionary theory? Refraining from interrogating belief is easy. Working with students to come to understand the epistemologies they’ve been raised with, and what mediating work those thinking styles do when examining the claims of science is hard.  It is hard work we can’t back away from.

The framing of Laats’ post is instructive, especially in light of my above criticism of historians and philosophers making expert recommendations toward a population that is mostly not listening.  We, through the varieties of American social life, bake the bread that Laats speaks of.  As a nation, we produce creationism as an output of religious tradition, as well as the science educators for whom Laats’ loaf is to be split. But it’s not a clean split—nowhere close to it.  Science teachers sometimes are creationists themselves.  Many more have sympathies far less divisive than the terms of the split.  Most importantly, do historians and philosophers carry moral weight such that they are the bread-breakers?


Science and Its Discontents

What keeps Americans from believing in evolution?  In climate change?

Around here, we focus on principled religious dissent, such as the creationism of ministries such as Answers In Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research.

But what about a much broader, more amorphous sort of anti-science?  What about a strangely popular anti-science that isn’t part of any religious subculture, but is rather a mainstay of mainstream culture itself?

It seems as if the most influential scientific dissenter out there might not be Ken Ham or Henry Morris, but Oprah.

Scientific Dissenter #1?

Scientific Dissenter #1?

In a recent essay in The Verge, Matt Stroud discusses the implications of Oprah’s reign of error.  In this piece, Stroud points out that the alt-science on offer by Oprah’s pet gurus has done more than just confuse schoolchildren.  In the case of James Arthur Ray, Oprah’s scientific influence has actually killed people.

In 2009, according to Stroud, Ray led a group of believers into a sweat-lodge in Arizona.  In the end, three of those scientific dissenters were dead and many more suffered injury.

Why would they subject themselves to this sort of physical peril?

Because Oprah told them to.

Stroud makes a strong case that Ray’s meteoric rise to celebrity depended on Oprah’s alt-science imprimatur.  To be sure, Ray had been peddling his version of energy-science before Oprah discovered him.  But when Oprah touted a 2006 film in which Ray discussed his alt-scientific ideas about “Harmonic Wealth,” Ray became a national and international figure.

Stroud demonstrated the link between Oprah’s support and Ray’s success.  Soon after Oprah showcased the film and book in which Ray made his alt-science case, Ray was everywhere.  As Stroud put it,

Ray soon appeared on Larry King Live to say, “Well, Larry, science tells us that every single thing that appears to be solid is actually energy. Your body is energy. Your car is energy, your house, everything, money, all of it is energy.” The Today Show, Fox Business News, and local network affiliates followed. He toured the country while guesting on smaller venues from Tom Green’s internet talk show to Coast to Coast AM with George Noory. He even judged a Miss America pageant. “Whatever you fear or love will come into your life,” he’d repeat for his agreeable hosts.

Stroud doesn’t make the connection, but this sort of shoot-from-the-hip spiritual guruism can be far more influential, and far more dangerous, than the principled and storied religious dissent of creationists.

Let’s look at another example of the disparate influence of traditional science dissenters and that of Oprah.  Perhaps Ken Ham and his Answers In Genesis ministry can attract attention to the question of atheism with their series of billboards in Times Square and Fisherman’s Wharf.  But Oprah can make a much more influential statement just by questioning one of her guests.  Recently, Oprah told super-swimmer Diana Nyad that Nyad didn’t sound like a real atheist.  More than any billboard, Oprah’s off-the-cuff theism provoked an outpouring of hand-wringing over questions of belief and unbelief.

The disturbing implication for those of us who hope to see better science education in schools is that the problem is not limited to principled religious dissent.  Much more widespread and amorphous is the sort of alternative-science guruism on tap from media moguls like Oprah.

Oprah has made her billions by knowing what millions of Americans want to hear.  Outside the traditional ranks of religious skeptics like the folks at Answers In Genesis, the market-driven dissent of Oprah’s pet gurus can cause much more confusion and consternation.




Faith & Physics, Part I

ILYBYGTH is happy to welcome a new series of guest posts from Anna.  Anna blogs about her experiences leaving the fundamentalist subculture at Signs You Are a Sheltered Evangelical.  She holds an M.Sc. degree in Astroparticle Physics and currently lives in Virginia with her fiance Chelsey and a cat named Cat.

As a scientist, it’s a bit awkward for me to confess that I used to be a science denier.  I would never have classified myself as such at the time.  I would have called myself an intelligent, well-educated, critically thinking, aspiring physicist.  Yet I was a fervent believer in 6-day Biblical creation, I staunchly disbelieved global warming, I thought homosexuality was a conscious decision to rebel against God, and I was deeply skeptical of any sort of environmental preservation initiatives, even though I was a devoted nature-lover.  Yep, I was about as bad of a science-denier as they come.

Despite all of this, I cannot think too ill of my younger self for my ignorant beliefs.  Admitting them is uncomfortable, of course, but largely because of misunderstandings in the secular and science communities regarding these sorts of beliefs and the people who hold them.  The prevailing opinion is that science-deniers are stupid, uneducated, unable to think critically, and usually just too stubborn to admit they are wrong.  I certainly am not going to excuse my former beliefs, but  I also do not believe they were a result of stupidity, stubbornness or even a lack of research or study.  The truth behind them is much deeper and more complex than most of my peers realize.  This is why I am writing; I want to chronicle my transition from science-denier to scientist, hopefully helping others understand the anti-science mindset, the actions and attitudes that contribute to it, and the attitudes from my more science-savvy peers that made my transition either easier or harder.

If you are going to follow me on this journey, you will need to know who I am.  My name is Anna.  I am a mathematics instructor at a local career college and I also tutor students privately in higher-level math and physical sciences.  I currently hold a Masters Degree in Astroparticle Physics from Jacobs University.  I earned my Bachelors Degree in Physics from New Mexico Tech (where most of my transition occurred) and before then, I was homeschooled.

From kindergarten through 12th grade, I was taught at home with Christian-based curricula, and socialized in a staunchly fundamentalist Christian sub-culture.  TV and video games were off-limits in my home, secular music was all-but banned until I was 17 or so, and my internet useage was strictly monitored.  My world experience, therefore, was quite limited.  I often laugh among friends that I grew up in the 1800’s, not just because I had to wear ankle-length skirts and waist-length hair for much of my young life, but because community isolation like this was very common 100 years ago.  Indeed, being ignorant or skeptical of competing opinions and viewpoints would not have been considered closed-minded in an age before radio broadcasts, television, internet, cellphones, and national and international travel.  It would have been normal.  Human.  That is how it was for me.

That is not to say that I was unaware of differing opinions or viewpoints.  Rather, my sources for this information were almost exclusively biased.  If I brought home a book from the library that mentioned the Big Bang, my parents would sit me down and explain how the book was wrong.  If I saw an advertisement on a billboard that had a scantily clad woman posed on it, I would be told that it was a sign of the downfall of our nation and that it was wrong.  If I read an article in the newspaper that held a left-leaning political viewpoint, a discussion would be opened about how this viewpoint was wrong.  Without fail, ideas that fell outside of the realm of accepted ideas were dismantled, disproven, argued, or shown in a negative light.  A negative reaction to such ideas then became instinctual.  I lived in a never-silent echo-chamber of my subculture’s worldview.

And yet, through all of this, I was taught to think critically.  Most of my peers were as well.  The ability to rationalize, to argue and debate, to pursue knowledge, and to question authority was considered the peak of achievement and intelligence.  Public speaking and debate were cornerstones of Christian homeschooling culture.  “Never believe everything you read” was often on my mother’s lips.  “Always question.  Find things out for yourself.  Never take someone else’s word for anything.  Learn, grow, challenge.”  That was my mandate… a mandate that eventually led me to rejecting the views that my culture espoused.

Many of my secular peers begin to disbelieve my story at this point, which I find very frustrating.  The stereotypes about science-deniers, fundamentalists, and creationists run so deep that I have been called into question on my own life story.  Some people don’t want to hear that people like me, like my family, like my community can be intelligent.  They don’t want to hear that they encourage critical thinking and discussion.  They want to call into question my family’s motives.  “Obviously, they were just saying things like ‘question everything’ to make themselves feel better.  All they wanted was a mindless drone and a copy of themselves.  They were just lying to you.”

These comments are hard to swallow, because on one hand, I partially agree.  My parents and community leaders certainly did not intend for me to turn out the way I did.  And yet, I assert that they truly believed their motives were honest.  They WANTED me to think, to learn, to question.  They just honestly believed that all of that thinking, learning and questioning would inevitably lead me to validate their opinions.  And unfortunately for them, they were wrong.

And so, before I delve more deeply into the culture of fundamentalist education, before I discuss my studies on creationism, my meetings with Ken Ham, my awkward debates with my college peers, and my sloooooow deconversion from science-denialism, I have a request to make: please listen.  Please believe.  Please be open to seeing me and the people I knew outside of the ignorant-hateful-redneck stereotype.  My experiences and motivations were real, and much more complex than many people outside of that subculture realize.  I am telling my story because I am tired of others (on both sides) thinking they can tell it for me.  So, please respect me in that regard.  Thank you, and I hope you enjoy the ride!

No More Talk: Popular Science Closes Its Comments

Why can’t we ever have a civilized conversation?

That’s the lament we hear all too often when it comes to issues such as evolution or climate change.

As science pundit Greg Laden noted recently, a new editorial policy at Popular Science shuts down conversation entirely.  The online version of the magazine will no longer be open to comments from readers.

Why?  Such comments, online editor Suzanne LaBarre explained, could have a negative impact on the way readers understand science.  She cited academic studies in which readers of hateful comments had changed their opinions about the scientific content of essays and articles.  “Trolls and spambots” had a negative impact on readers’ understanding of key scientific issues.

LaBarre concluded,

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

As a result, Popular comment forums will be closed.  Are such policies draconian?  Totalitarian?  Orwellian?  Is it a symptom of defeat among mainstream science popularizers that they can no longer accommodate disagreement?

Or, more chilling for those of us who want to see more and better science education in all sorts of institutions, could this new policy be a sign that mainstream academic science has been defeated at the popular level?  That is, is this new policy a sign that small-p popular science has become utterly unmoored from its connections to mainstream academic science?

When commenters, “cynical” or not, can close down the public conversation at such a storied institution as Popular Science, it demonstrates an epochal popular victory for non-mainstream science, whether that be creationism, climate-change denial, homeopathic medicine, or anything else.


Truth and Science in Louisiana

What is Truth?  The question is as old as Pilate, and still as troublesome.

As anti-creationist activist Barbara Forrest notes in a perceptive article in the Louisiana Coalition for Science blog, anti-evolutionists in that state have made a telling error in their reading of mainstream science education.

In a struggle to impose a two-model evolution/creation curriculum in Central, Louisiana, creationists misquoted the Louisiana Department of Education’s (LDOE’s) 1997 Louisiana Science Framework (LSF).  In that framework document (see page 12), the LDOE offered a carefully worded articulation of the mainstream vision of the nature of science.  As Forrest notes, the LDOE explicitly demanded that true science should be taught “as a human enterprise and a continuing process for extending understanding, instead of the ultimate, unalterable truth.”

When creationists of the Louisiana Family Forum crafted their argument for teaching both creationism and evolution as science, they misrepresented this statement.  The Louisiana Family Forum’s proposed resolution contained the following assertion:

“WHEREAS, the Louisiana Science Content Standards at page 12 indicate that science should be ‘presented as a . . . [ellipsis in the LFF document] continuing process for extending understanding of the ultimate, unalterable truth’(7);”.

As Forrest points out, there is a world of difference between what the Louisiana standards demand and what the LFF said the standards demand.  Forrest notes that this slip could be due either to dishonesty or carelessness.  True enough.

But I think this mistake also tells us a great deal about the yawning chasm that separates the two sides’ understandings of the nature of education.

For science educators such as Barbara Forrest, the notion that a state standards document would define science education as a quest for “ultimate, unalterable truth” seemed immediately, obviously bizarre and suspicious.  That is simply not the way mainstream science educators talk.  Indeed, the paragraph from which that line came says a great deal about mainstream understandings about education.

Here is that paragraph in full:

“The purpose of science education is not for students to memorize the ‘right’ answer, but for them to move along a learning continuum toward a deeper understanding of science concepts and processes.  Current research indicates that it is best for understanding to be constructed actively by the learner.  This learning style offers a new role for the science teacher as a facilitator of learning versus an imparter of knowledge.  Instruction should minimize rote learning and focus on in-depth understanding of major concepts and topics, with students actively exploring those ideas through activities they can relate to their own lives.  Students often work cooperatively in small groups to exchange and critique their own ideas, with the teacher facilitating discussion rather than providing answers.  Science is presented as a human enterprise and a continuing process for extending understanding, instead of the ultimate, unalterable truth.”

Now THAT is the way mainstream education folks talk!  Note the emphasis on teacher as facilitator, the role of student as an active constructor of knowledge.  Note the emphasis on cooperative learning and the de-emphasis on the traditional delivery of information from teacher to student.

This is how many mainstream education researchers understand the process of learning and teaching.  This is NOT the way most conservatives and traditionalists understand education.  Though I don’t know the LFF and certainly can’t speak for them, many conservatives and educational traditionalists have a very different understanding of the nature of education.  For many conservatives, education—whether it’s about evolution, the American Revolution, or any other topic—is precisely about transmitting “ultimate, unalterable truths” from one generation to the next.

So whether the Louisiana Family Forum made a mistake in reading the Louisiana science standards or whether the LFF deliberately misrepresented those standards, the LFF ended up articulating a vision of education much closer to the understandings of most American conservatives.  Education, in the conservative view, must be about “ultimate, unalterable truth” in order to have any meaning at all.



Marsden & Gould on Creationist Science

What is science?

Andrew Hartman offers a review of some of the keenest analyses of fundamentalist/creationist science at US Intellectual History.

Hartman looks at a few essays from the mid-1980s about the nature of science in the intellectual world of conservative evangelical Protestants.  Hartman reviews an essay by leading religious historian George Marsden  in which Marsden sums up the fundamentalist difference.  The key to understanding creationist science, Marsden argued, is to understand the Baconian/Common Sense roots of fundamentalists’ self understanding.

Marsden’s analysis certainly fit the intellectual world of the 1920s.  In that era, leading fundamentalists articulated a different vision of science, one that did not match the world of leading mainstream scientists.

Since the 1960s, however, the scientific visions of creationism have transformed themselves.  Though 1920s creationists might insist with some justification that the jury was still out on natural selection, later generations of creationists have had to come to terms with the fact that mainstream science had embraced evolution.  More recent arguments that evolution is “just a theory” often do not match the intellectual sophistication that 1920s fundamentalists demonstrated about the nature of science.  Instead, later generations of creationist intellectuals have moved away from the Baconian/Common Sense vision.  Most often, creationists have derided evolutionary science as mistaken, fallible, closedminded, and even duplicitous.  But they have not as often criticized the framework of mainstream science as having slipped away from a proper Baconian framework, at least not nearly as often as did 1920s fundamentalists.

Pro-Evolution IV: The Nature of Science


Science is not a simple discovery of truth.  It is a human process, a cultural process.  There have been scientific “truths” that generations of scientists have ardently believed.  Ideas such as phlogiston (although this can cut both ways; see the anti-evolution spin on phlogiston in this post) have convinced scientists and elbowed other ideas out of the realm of science.  This notion that science is somehow a social construction as much as a deduction of objective truth has led some evolution opponents to hope that evolution might be only a fashion among scientists rather than a basic truth about life on earth.  But even this understanding of the nature of science points out the fundamental truth of evolution.

Real science means continual skepticism.  The most ardent searchers for holes in the theory of evolution are not creationists; they are evolutionary scientists.  Any scientist who could come up with a big new theory that displaced evolution would be made an instant celebrity.  His or her career would be made forever.  It leads again to the question of the most likely: Which is more likely, a conspiracy of thousands of scientists over generations to keep a false theory as established science in order to undermine Christian faith (one of the implicit arguments of many creationists) or thousands of ambitious, aggressive scientists who have hammered evolution theory with every test imaginable, looking for a hole that would make their careers?

Take just one example to illustrate.  Stephen Jay Gould was one of the leading evolutionary scientists of the late twentieth century.  His writings attracted large appreciative audiences among both scientists and lay readers.  Yet he was also one of the fiercest critics of mainstream thinking about the nature of evolution.  Along with fellow evolutionist Niles Eldredge, when Gould found a weakness in standard scientific thinking about evolution, he pounced.  In 1972, Eldredge and Gould published a paper critical of the notion that species gradually evolved.  Rather, the fossil record seemed to argue for long periods of equilibrium punctuated by periods of rapid species change.  Rapid, of course, must be understood relatively.  Gould and
Eldredge did not argue—in spite of claims by later anti-evolutionists—that such change happened in sudden catastrophes.
They did not argue that there were no transitional fossil forms.  Rather, they argued that the pace of evolution must be understood to vary substantially over time.  The periods of change, Gould suggested, likely came in windows of between 50,000 and 100,000 years.  Nevertheless, their notion of punctuated equilibriums was a major criticism of contemporary thinking about the nature of evolution.  And it was suggested not by anti-evolutionists, but by evolutionary scientists themselves.  Far from conducting a campaign to enforce an evolutionary orthodoxy, scientists such as Gould and Eldredge continually probe the weaknesses of evolution.

The nature of science also tells us something about the origins of modern evolutionary thinking.  The idea of evolution is bigger than Charles Darwin.  Darwin gets the credit for introducing the modern notion of evolution with his 1859 book Origin of Species.  And he deserves a lot of credit.  His book spelled out a notion of changing species that could actually work.  But Darwin was not by any means the first to suggest that species had evolved from one another.  That idea was as ancient as Western culture itself.  Nor could Darwin claim all the credit for the notion of natural selection as the mechanism by which species changed.  Darwin finally published his book in 1859 after decades of working on it.
He was pushed to finally get it out into the public sphere by similar work by a man named Alfred Russel Wallace.  The fact that the two scientists came up with the notion of natural selection independently shows that the idea did not come from the unique genius of just one man.  Rather, it was an idea whose time had come.  Darwin’s patience in waiting for twenty years to publish his book and his elegant prose went a long way toward making his ideas credible.
But even without Darwin’s clout among the scientific community and his impressive style, the truth of natural selection would have made an impression on both scientists and regular readers.

Science is a competitive process.  It does not fit well with ideas of conspiracies.  It does not even fit well with ideas of ideology.  Scientists hope to establish themselves by proving something new.  If they smell a problem with the theory of
evolution, they will rush in to poke holes in it.


The TalkOrigins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy;; Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Anniversary Edition (New York: Signet, 2003); Stephen Jay Gould & Niles Eldredge, “Punctuated Equilibria: The Tempo and Mode of Evolution Reconsidered,” Paleobiology 3:2 (1977): 115-151; Niles Eldredge, Time Frames: The Evolution of Punctuated Equilibria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985);  Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002).