Zombie Science on Noah’s Ark

Smart people don’t say it’s not science.  Some call creation science “dead science.”  But anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear can see the bustling activity in the world of creation science.  A recent blog post from Answers In Genesis offered an introduction to what creation science can look like.  If it’s not dead, but not quite alive in the normal sense, maybe the best term for this sort of research is “undead science” or “zombie science.”

Alternative Science in Action

Alternative Science in Action

As those of us who follow the creation/evolution debates are well aware, Answers In Genesis is planning a big new museum project.  They want to build a replica of Noah’s Ark to prove its practicality.  Indeed, this ark project has attracted a sub-controversy of its own, with secularists complaining about public tax benefits going toward this explicitly sectarian religious project.

In a recent blog post, AIG explained some of the scientific challenges of their Ark project.  AIG demonstrated some of the unique features of the sort of creation science practiced by AIG scientists. As the post explained, one of the challenges of designing a replica Ark is figuring out how many animals would be on board.  Most believers in a literal world-wide flood do not insist that Noah’s Ark contained two of every species we have today.  Rather, they say that the Ark contained two of every “created kind,” as described in Genesis.  That is, the Ark did not have two wolves, two dingoes, two foxes, two dogs, etc.  Instead, the Ark had two of the “kind” of canine.

The term AIG scientists use to describe these “created kinds” is “baramin.”  In the recent blog post, AIG uses the example of the mule deer to show how scientists can figure out what kind of created kinds were on the Ark.  Creation scientists hypothesize that fossils from the baramin must be in a certain fossil layer, since those fossils were predictably laid down at a certain point in the Genesis flood.  In this case, the most likely fossil deposits, according to AIG, were from “moschids buried in rock layers deposited by localized catastrophes just after Flood.”  Those samples allow creation scientists to figure out what the baramin on the ark would likely have looked like.

Is this science?  It’s tempting for those of us outside the circle of creationism to pooh-pooh this sort of thing as outlandish non-science.

But more thoughtful non-creationists have offered more subtle explanations.  Philosopher Philip Kitcher, for example, argued that we should understand this not as non-science, but as “dead science.”  This sort of thinking, Kitcher said, had a long and influential career as mainstream science.  However, it has been replaced by better science.

Historian George Marsden also offered an explanation of this sort of scientific thinking.  Marsden argued that early creationists worked in a Baconian framework.  Science, according to this way of thinking, must begin with an authority.  From that firm starting point, scientists can collect and classify information.  This is not non-science, but rather a certain form of dissenting science.

Throughout the twentieth-century history of creationism, creationists themselves have insisted on the scientific legitimacy of their projects.  The leading creation scientist of the 1920s, George McCready Price, repeatedly argued that non-creationists were behind the times.  As Price told an audience in London just a few months after the 1925 Scopes trial,

I am perfectly confident that any competent person who will take the time to traverse the evidence now available on this side will reach the same conclusion that I have reached—namely. That the theory of Organic Evolution was a very plausible theory for the times of comparative ignorance of the real facts of heredity and variation and of the facts of geology which prevailed during the latter part of the nineteenth century; but that this theory is now entirely out of date, and hopelessly inadequate for us, in view of the facts of geology and of experimental breeding as we know them.  We are making scientific history very fast these days; and the specialist in some corner of science who keeps on humming a little tune to himself, quietly ignoring all this modern evidence against Evolution, is simply living in a fools’ paradise.  He will soon be so far behind that he will wake up some fine morning and find that he needs an introduction to the modern scientific world.

Mainstream scientists in the 1920s and ever since would dispute Price’s prediction.  But in every generation since the 1920s, creationists have developed and honed their distinct version of science and of scientific research.  As this Ark Encounter article makes clear, over the past century creationists have identified research problems and research methodologies that are utterly foreign to mainstream science.  They have built schools, museums, and academic publications.  They have changed and honed their thinking.

“Dead” science does not grow and change in this way.

So if this sort of creation science is thriving and changing, it seems misleading to adopt Kitcher’s label of “dead science.”  I know creationists won’t like the idea of calling it “zombie science” or “undead science.”  But is there a better term to describe this unique sort of active-but-dead kind of research?



Thank God You’re Wrong

When in doubt, look to the heavens.  These days, your view might be blocked by a billboard from the young-earth creationist outfit Answers In Genesis.

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

From Times Square. Image Source: Answers In Genesis

If you look closely enough, you might see a clue as to why the creation/evolution debates have been so divisive for so long.

According to their press release, yesterday AIG rented billboards in high-visibility sites in New York’s Times Square and San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.  Soon similar billboards will hit the skies in Los Angeles.

The billboards announce, “To All Our Atheist Friends; Thank God You’re Wrong.”

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

San Francisco. Image Source: Answers In Genesis

AIG leader Ken Ham described the choice of wording.  AIG wanted to be “cordial and engaging,” he explained.  Though these high-profile billboards were an explicit response to Christian-bashing billboards posted by atheist groups, Ham said he wanted to take the high road.

Image Source: Answers In Genesis

An Atheist Billboard. Image Source: Answers In Genesis

“We are not angry at the atheists at all,” Ham wrote.  Instead, AIG feels “burdened” by atheists’ separation from God.

For those new to the creation/evolution debates, it might seem surprising that this latest publicity stunt does not mention creationism, dragons, or zip lines.  After all, AIG has had some success in the past with such creation-focused billboards.

But as Ken Ham repeats, creationism is not the main interest of his organization.  Rather, salvation is the point; creationism is merely the vital theme.

For those of us interested in conservative themes in American education, this distinction matters.

Many non-creationist commentators on the creation/evolution issue assume that if readers can be convinced of the scientific truths of evolution, the debate will be over.  Even the insightful philosopher Philip Kitcher seemed to fall into this trap in his book Living With Darwin.

These AIG billboards demonstrate the difficulty of the issue.  The young-earth creationists at AIG care a lot about creationism, but that is not their central concern.  Their central concern is salvation.  As long as evolution is seen as a threat to salvation, it will never be open to discussion and compromise.

More perspicacious religious minds understand this.  Francis Collins and the BioLogos Foundation set out to prove not only that evolution is true, but that evolution does not threaten salvation.  Without that focus on salvation, creation/evolution discussions will get nowhere.

These AIG billboards do more than attract attention in America’s big cities.  They demonstrate the true heart of the evolution/creation controversy.


Required Reading: Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms

For those who care about creationism, evolution, and America’s schools, stop reading this shine-ola and go get your hands on a copy of Michael Berkman’s and Eric Plutzer’s Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (New York: Cambridge Univ Press, 2010).  Not only is this the best “street-level” analysis about the way real teachers teach evolution and creationism, but the authors’ approach sheds light on schooling and culture far beyond the bounds of biology instruction.

Image source: Cambridge University Press

The same authors released some of their survey data in an article in Science in January 2011.  That National Science Foundation-funded survey of 926 high-school biology teachers from across the United States offered dramatic results.  A full 13% of respondents taught creationism or intelligent design in their public-school biology classrooms.  Twenty-eight percent taught recognizably evolutionary biology.  The rest, roughly 60%, muddled through in the middle, teaching neither or both evolution and creationism.  This book is built around the same survey responses, but it contains much more.

The authors argue compellingly that the evolution/creation deadlock involves three moving parts.  Berkman and Plutzer label these the procedural issues, the substantive issues, and the issues concerning the autonomy of teachers.  In other words, the tangle of evolution includes issues of who decides what gets taught, the science and religion involved, and the final decisions of teachers themselves.

Not surprisingly, these political scientists conclude that the real question here is political.  More than simply science, more than just religion, the contest is at heart “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (31).

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing part of the authors’ Science article in January 2011 was the sheer volume of anti-evolution education that went on in American public-school biology classes.  As they argue in the pages of the book, their 13% number as a mark for the number of teachers who actively teach creationism or intelligent design is actually a lowball.  The real number may surge more toward 21% (138).

For those like me who want more evolution taught in America’s schools, Berkman and Plutzer’s findings may be profoundly disheartening.  For instance, in addition to the very high numbers of teachers who omit evolution, teach both ideas, or teach explicit creationism, the authors conclude that teachers don’t care too much about changing state standards in science (160).  Thus, while evolution promoters may work hard to improve those standards, the authors here suggest that actual classroom practice will likely not be much affected.

The most important factor in teachers’ choices about evolution education, Berkman and Plutzer conclude, remains teachers’ personal opinions.   Although some factors, such as a full-semester college course devoted to evolutionary biology, may tend to improve the quality and amount of evolution education offered by teachers, such changes pale in significance compared to teachers’ beliefs.  Dwarfing every other factor, if teachers don’t believe evolution, they don’t teach it (186).

Another powerful contribution of the book is the authors’ application of the notion that teachers function as what political scientists call “street-level bureaucrats” (149).  Like other such functionaries, teachers often teach what their communities want them to teach.  In the United States, despite the chagrin this causes among evolutionary scientists, large majorities want their public schools to teach both evolution and creationism, or even creationism alone (49).  This is true even among those American adults who agree that mainstream scientists have agreed on the veracity of evolution.  Berkman and Plutzer analyze a fistful of polls and surveys to conclude that, even among the 52% of adults who agree that mainstream science has embraced evolution, only 20% want only evolution taught in their local public schools.  You read that right.  Even when Americans acknowledge the scientific consensus in favor of evolution, they still favor teaching both evolution and creationism, or even creationism alone.

As “street-level bureaucrats,” teachers tend to fit in with their local communities.  Among the 926 teachers who responded to Berkman and Plutzer’s survey, most agree with the attitudes in their area.  For instance, among the 136 “most cosmopolitan” school districts, only 4% of teachers taught young-earth creationism.  On the flip side, among the 139 “most traditional” school districts, a whopping 37% of teachers taught young-earth creationism (198).

The book contains chapter after chapter of survey analyses like these.  If you’re like me, you’ll want to buy a copy to keep on your desk as a reference for all the different surveys and multivariate regression charts the authors include.  But the survey and polling data are not the only strength of the book.  Also extremely helpful is the authors’ sketch of the structure of the durable evolution/creation controversy.  As they point out, we will never make heads or tails of it if we understand it as mainly a scientific or religious dispute.  Those “substantive” issues are very important, but they are not the whole problem.  This is why, for instance, many mainstream scientists will insist that there is no controversy over the teaching of evolution.  They mean, of course, that the scientific community does not dispute whether or not evolution should be taught.  If we end there, however, we will remain hopelessly flummoxed over the nature of the continuing controversy.  Because, of course, there is a controversy.

The authors suggest two other important dimensions.  First, we need to get our heads around the “procedural” elements at play.  Where do decisions about teaching get made?  By courts, to protect minorities?  By legislatures, to represent majorities?  By professional bodies such as the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, to ensure superior expertise?  If we ignore these crucial questions we’ll never understand the nature of the impasse.

Also, Berkman and Plutzer inject a new element into these discussions.  Unlike the generations of historians, scientists, theologians, and political scientists that have preceded them, the authors emphasize the critical importance of the “autonomy of teachers” (29).  Teachers can and do consistently make daily decisions about the kind of instruction that goes on in America’s public schools.  Without looking at the impact of those decisions, we will never be able to wrap our heads around the true contours of this culture-war debate.

The authors conclude that these questions remain, at root, a fundamental “political struggle over who decides” (31).  This insight alone makes a significant contribution to stale discussions over the nature of evolution/creation.  Some of our brightest minds have foundered over this simple truth.  In a recent book, for instance, philosopher Philip Kitcher implies that the conflict has lasted so long primarily because the two sides have not adequately understood one another.  In Living with Darwin (2007), Kitcher writes, “detailed replies” to creationist challenges have calmed the controversy temporarily (3).  Yet, due to lack of understanding by creationists, Kitcher suggests “we shall not escape the cycle of controversy until it is completely clear what lies at the bottom of it all” (xi).  Clearly, Kitcher knows the science involved.  He knows the theology involved.  But his implication that a clear enough explanation will somehow clear the air ignores Berkman and Plutzer’s convincing point: this is not about understanding, this is about power.

No matter how brilliant and erudite Kitcher’s explanations of evolution, no matter how clear and cogent his arguments, Kitcher and his ilk will ultimately have little effect on the course of the creation/evolution debates.  Of the teachers who teach creationism in Berkman and Plutzer’s survey, 32% had completed a college-level semester-long course devoted entirely to evolutionary science, 55% held a bachelor’s degree in science, 13% held a graduate degree in science, and 49% had earned 40 or more college credits in biology courses.  It is not that teachers of creationism don’t know the evidence for evolution.  They simply reject it (186).  After all, how clear and convincing would an argument based on the Old and New Testament have to be to convince Kitcher of the truths of creationism?

For all its explanatory power, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms includes a few minor hiccups.  First of all, the authors insightfully note that the essence of the evolution/creation struggle has been a struggle for control of educational decisions.  But among the groups involved–“Federal judges, scientists, education policy makers, and teachers” (13)—the authors curiously omit parents as direct curricular decision-makers.  Since at least the 1920s, activists have insisted on the rights of parents to control the curriculum for their own children.  Recently, in places such as New Hampshire and Missouri, as I’ve argued in these pages and in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet, state laws have changed the playing field.  These new laws have finally introduced what Berkman and Plutzer might call direct curricular democracy.  Not only can judges, scientists, policy makers, and teachers take part in this durable battle, but parents can and have successfully exerted their significant political influence.  The authors’ failure to include parents as interested and influential parties is a puzzling omission.

In addition, as political scientists, the authors overlook some simple historical errors.  They date the end of the American Civil War, for instance, to 1869 (66).  In a similar slip, they refer to the leading creationist Seventh-day Adventist Church as the Seventh Adventist Church (91).

But such minor quibbles do not detract from the overall argument.

The authors will likely continue to attract the most attention for their original survey data of biology teachers.  And those data are indeed compelling.  But far more important to understanding the nature of the creation/evolution debates are the authors’ arguments about the inherently political and deeply local nature of those debates.  They are not decided in state houses, but in school houses.  They are not decided in courtrooms, but in classrooms.