What Is the REAL Deal with Fundamentalists and the Big Eclipse?

As Bart Simpson put it best, “The ironing is delicious.” Secular folks like me blast kooky fundamentalists for their wacky ignorance of science, while we ourselves show a curiously stubborn ignorance about what fundamentalists really believe. Tomorrow’s big eclipse gives us another example of the way most outsiders don’t understand conservative evangelical culture.

What are fundamentalists thinking about tomorrow’s eclipse? It might be tempting to agree with the right-wing watchers at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The AU folks stumbled across a blog post from Billy Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz. Lotz worried that the eclipse is meant as a warning of God’s impending judgment on the USA. Foolish Americans, Lotz warned, are blithely

preparing to mark this significant event with viewing parties at exclusive prime sites. The celebratory nature regarding the eclipse brings to my mind the Babylonian King Belshazzar who threw a drunken feast the night the Medes and Persians crept under the city gate.  While Belshazzar and his friends partied, they were oblivious to the impending danger.  Belshazzar wound up dead the next day, and the Babylonian empire was destroyed.

At Americans United, Rob Boston warned that this sort of blather proved the sad truth about “fundamentalist Christians these days.” Folks like Lotz, Boston wrote, wallow in their

utter repudiation of science. It’s not that they can’t understand it – they choose not to try. Furthermore, they often heap disdain upon it.

Now, I’m no fundamentalist and I’m not worried that the eclipse is a fulfillment of Joel 2:31 or Ezekiel 33:1-6. In fact, I don’t really care what the Bible says about eclipses or anything else. But as I work on my new book about American creationism and my soon-to-be-released book about the history of evangelical higher ed, I can’t help but protest that Boston’s viewpoint is astoundingly ironic. Secular anti-fundamentalists like Boston (and me) need to do more to understand the real relationship between conservative evangelical religion and mainstream science. Too often, it’s not that we can’t understand it, it’s that we choose not to try. And then we often heap disdain upon it.

…oh, the ironing!

In fact, even the most conservative radical creationist institutions in these United States are acting remarkably similar to mainstream institutions in their embrace of tomorrow’s eclipse as a way to bring science to the masses. To be sure, it’s a very different sort of science, what ILYBYGTH calls “zombie science,” but it is nearly the opposite of an “utter repudiation” of science. Radical creationists LOVE science; they engage in endless missionary outreach to bring their vision of real Biblical science to the benighted secular and moderate-evangelical multitudes.

At Answers In Genesis, for example, radical creationist missionaries are falling all over themselves to help curious people view the eclipse and draw the correct scientific lessons from it.

At fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, administrators are pulling out all the stops to use the eclipse to spread the word. Located right in the path of totality, BJU is hosting a huge party, with speakers explaining the proper way to understand the relationship between the Bible and science.

bju eclipse

Belshazzar at BJU?

Bryan College, too, another creationist stalwart, is throwing a viewing party on campus, with faculty experts offering lectures on the proper fundamentalist way to understand eclipses.

Are these radical-creationist institutions saying the same thing as secular institutions about the eclipse? Of course not. No secular scientific experts care much about the Bible’s explanation of eclipses. But just as secular scientific organizations are using eclipse mania to attract attention to their programs, so too are these creationist groups crowing about their scientific expertise and their many scientific resources.

So, even though some conservative evangelicals are warning people away from viewing parties and eclipse-related hubbubbery, many more are using the eclipse as a way to explain their vision of the proper relationship between God and science.


New Evolution Stickers for Alabama

What should they say instead?

Alabama’s famed textbook-warning stickers might be on their way out. The National Center for Science Education reported recently that new science standards in the “Heart of Dixie” make the old stickers outdated.

Watch out!  Learnin' ahead!

Watch out! Learnin’ ahead!

Alabama’s textbooks have carried the warning since the beginning of the twenty-first century. New standards, though, suggest that evolution will no longer be scientia non grata in the state.

So here’s a puzzler for the SAGLRROILYBYGTH: If the old stickers are out, what should new stickers say instead? Of course, smart-alecks will suggest that we leave science textbooks sticker-free. That is the smart answer, but it leaves us with nothing to talk about on a Tuesday.

So let’s make up new stickers. A few ground rules:

1.) The language has to be readable and straightforward. No jargon.

2.) Maximum 250 words.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, I’ve been working on a new evolution/creation book with my co-author Harvey Siegel.  For years now, we have wrestled with this big-picture question.  In short, we want science teachers to teach evolution and nothing but evolution in their public-school science classes.  But we need to help teachers, students, and families understand that learning evolution does not need to impinge on any sort of religious belief.

Our simple prescription: Students need to know about it.  They need to understand it.  But they do not need to believe it.  Students need to be able to explain intelligently what scientists think about evolution.  If they choose not to accept it, that is their business.  More than that: It is the public schools’ business to make sure students and families feel welcomed, whatever their religious beliefs.  It is the schools’ business to encourage students to be who they are.

With all that in mind, here’s my entry:

These textbooks include information about evolution. Evolution is our current best scientific understanding of the ways species came to be different from one another.

Science encourages you to be skeptical about evolution and every other idea. If you choose not to believe that evolution is the best explanation of the origin of species, you have every right to doubt it.

You need to know about evolution. You need to be able to explain how scientists think it worked. You do not have to agree with these scientists.

Okay, okay,…it’s a long way from perfect.  Can you do better?

Here’s What Creationists Call Anti-Science

Who is anti-science? Depends whom you ask! Recently World Magazine offered a creationist list of the real anti-science stories of 2014.

The sophisticated and good-looking readers of ILYBYGTH may be surprised to hear it, but there are still people out there who think this is a simple question. They have not read books such as Ron Numbers’ Galileo Goes to Jail. Such folks are trapped in the old notion that science and religion have been at loggerheads ever since Galileo and Giordano Bruno poked their scientific noses under religion’s intellectual tent.

Your anti-science or mine?

Your anti-science or mine?

Such naïve readers may assume that creationism is simply “anti-science.” They don’t know that creationists and non-creationists have, instead, been fighting for decades over the title of “real” science.

Karl Giberson is not one of these people. Giberson understands the complex cultural politics of creationism and science better than most people. So when Giberson published his list of top-ten anti-science stories of 2014, he knew he was making a political point, not a scientific one. Giberson blasted such creationist institutions as Bryan College, World Magazine, the Discovery Institute, and the Institute for Creation Research. He called out prominent creationists such as Ken Ham and Albert Mohler by name. Such folks, Giberson accused, led the list of “America’s flakerrati” with their “preposterous claims.”

As Giberson knows well, proving that your enemies are anti-science is good politics. In spite of some chatter to the contrary, very few Americans distrust science as an institution. Believe it or not, even conservatives tend to have more trust in science and scientists than they do in such things as big business and churches.

Sure enough, one of the institutions on Giberson’s anti-science list has taken some pains to dispute its anti-science status. At World Magazine, Daniel James Levine has offered a rebuttal. As Levine puts it,

WORLD believes good science is vital, so we want to contribute to the effort to keep research on the straight and narrow.

As we might expect, what World thinks of as anti-science looks very different from Giberson’s list. Levine offers seven top anti-science claims of 2014. Instead of creationism, Ebola hysteria, and climate-change skepticism, Levine gives these top seven anti-science ideas:

1.) “Selling abortion through euphemism;”

2.) “Denying homosexuals can change;”

3.) “Denying the dangers of the gay lifestyle;”

4.) “Searching for extraterrestrials;”

5.) “The ‘overpopulation’ crisis;”

6.) “Gender as a social construct;” and

7.) “The imaginative multiverse theory.”

Clearly, this is not simply a case of to-may-toe/ to-mah-toe. What each side views as “real” science is dramatically different. Nor must we simply shrug our shoulders and conclude that there is no way to differentiate real anti-science from false anti-science. With apologies to creationists and religious conservatives out there, I agree that mainstream science is better science than the creationist alternatives.

In the end, though, we must remember that accusations of “anti-science” are not really about science: They are first and foremost strategic moves in our continuing culture wars.

Atheists and Creationists Agree on This…

You know what they say about the middle of the road: you won’t find anything there but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. In the creation/evolution debates, the John Templeton Foundation has staked out some ground in that dangerous middle. And predictably, the only thing that fervent creationists and obstreperous atheists can agree on is that the Templeton Foundation is terrible.

What does the Templeton Foundation do? According to their website, the foundation

serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

In general, the foundation uses its money to encourage dialogue between religion and science. With its prizes and grants, it encourages people to bridge the gap. For instance, the foundation provided millions of dollars to help launch BioLogos. How might scientists and theologians come together, BioLogos asked, to help evangelical Christians (and others) understand that evolution was nothing more than the “Language of God?”

Is "compromise" a compliment or a curse?

Is “compromise” a compliment or a curse?

Here at ILYBYGTH, this seems like an eminently worthwhile project. Time and time again, we have seen that science and evolution can wear very different cultural faces. Why bundle together ideas that do not necessarily have to go together? Why feed conservative worries that any understanding of science will somehow doom their children to atheism and immorality? Why not help Christians learn evolution? Why not recognize that some “creationists” really do embrace evolution? Why not listen to the life stories of Christians who have learned that evolution is not the devil spawn they were led to believe?

Partisans disagree. The Templeton Foundation has become the target of angry attack from the hardened edges of both creationism and atheism.

At the young-earth creationist ministry Answers In Genesis, for instance, leader Ken Ham recently blasted the efforts of the foundation. “Sadly,” Ham warned readers,

instead of pointing people to answers from God’s Word about history, organizations like BioLogos and the Templeton Foundation are actively discrediting the Bible’s history. Instead of encouraging people to start with God’s Word, they praise those who impose man’s ideas into the Bible.

Ham might not agree with science pundit Jerry Coyne on much, but they agree about the dangers of the Templeton Foundation. For different reasons, of course. Coyne blasts the foundation for watering down the message of real science, of truckling to culturally powerful and wealthy religious aficionados. “If there is to be interchange” between scientists and theologians, Coyne wrote recently,

let it be not a constructive dialogue but a destructive monologue, one in which science’s efforts knock the props out from under faith, one by one. And religion has nothing to say to scientists, at least nothing that will help us in our work. All religionists can do is educate us about the nature and influence of divine fairy tales that have inimically influenced world culture. Do we really need that?

Now, just because the Templeton Foundation has united both atheists and creationists against it doesn’t prove that the foundation is doing the right thing. But it seems logical to me that if our goal is to help people of every background understand the science of evolution, we should not spurn allies who promise to help. If theologians and scientists can come together to improve public understanding of what the Templeton Foundation calls the “Big Questions,” it seems to me an excess of self-righteousness to oppose it.

Conservatives LOVE Science

Or at least they like it very much.  Or maybe they love it, but they’re not in love with it.  That’s the argument coming out of Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition project these days.

Professor Kahan takes issue with the slanted punditry that has latched on to recent analyses of social attitudes toward science. Too often, commentators inflate their claims about the extent to which self-identified “conservatives” have lost faith in scientists and scientific institutions.

Kahan's Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

Kahan’s Kollage of Kwestionable Klaims

As Professor Kahan points out, a closer look at those findings gives a much different picture. In a nutshell, since 1974 there has been a noticeable decline in the number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in the leaders of scientific institutions. Some wonks seized on this finding to claim that conservatives were anti-science.

Nertz, says Professor Kahan. The number of conservatives who say they feel “a great deal” of confidence in scientists may have declined, but the total number of conservatives who say they feel either “a great deal” of confidence or “only some” confidence in science has remained fairly steady.

Even more compelling, Kahan notes that these same conservatives rank “science” near the tops of their lists of social institutions they trust. Since 1974, only medicine or the military has outranked science as the number one most trustworthy social institution among conservatives. Other institutions, , such as organized labor, the President, the Supreme Court, education, TV, and, yes, even religious institutions and big corporations, have ranked lower on conservative rankings of trustworthiness.

You heard that right.  Overall, conservatives have consistently voiced greater trust in the institution of science than in the institution of religion.  Conservatives since 1974 have evinced more trust in science than in big business.

Check out Kahan’s argument for yourself. He has charts and graphs ‘n’ stuff, so you know it’s true.

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.”

Creationism for Liberals

We know the problem with science in America, right?  Ignorant groups cluster around pseudo-scientific claims; people cling to outdated and disproven ideas out of a false sense of moral purity and righteousness.  Worst of all, scheming charlatans profit off this manufactured ignorance.

Same old, same old.  But what if we’re not talking about religious creationists, but rather about secular liberals?  In The Daily Beast, Michael Schulson recently accused shoppers at fancy-pants Whole Foods supermarkets of succumbing to pseudo-scientific claims.  Worst of all, Schulson writes, such folks often do so while feeling intellectually superior to the rest of benighted America.

As Schulson puts it,

From the probiotics aisle to the vaguely ridiculous Organic Integrity outreach effort (more on that later), Whole Foods has all the ingredients necessary to give Richard Dawkins nightmares. And if you want a sense of how weird, and how fraught, the relationship between science, politics, and commerce is in our modern world, then there’s really no better place to go. Because anti-science isn’t just a religious, conservative phenomenon—and the way in which it crosses cultural lines can tell us a lot about why places like the Creation Museum inspire so much rage, while places like Whole Foods don’t.

Read the entire piece.  Schulson describes the more-than-questionable claims of many of the products on sale at Whole Foods.  When he invited a biologist to look at some of the probiotic claims, she offered a quick conclusion about their scientific accuracy: “‘This is bullshit,’ she said, and went off to buy some vegetables.”

Most compelling, Schulson asks why creationist institutions such as the Creation Museum cause such outrage among the mainstream scientific community, while the anti-science on display at Whole Foods doesn’t.  One thing he doesn’t consider is the difference of scale here.  Young-earth creationists claim that the earth is somewhere between six and ten thousand years old.  Such an idea is utterly at odds with the fundamental premises of today’s science.  Claims that probiotics can work medical wonders might be false, but they’re not so enormously out of sync with mainstream science.

But that doesn’t mean that the parallel between young-earth creationism and organic-food fetishism isn’t important and valid.  As I have argued elsewhere, too often anti-creationists take false comfort from calling their creationist foes “ignorant.”  Certainly, some creationists might be naively ignorant, but more significant are those who know modern science and simply reject it.  The real question, IMHO, is not simply who is more ignorant, but rather a question of which cultural authorities people on each side choose to believe.

Along those lines, I appreciate Schulson’s stirring conclusion:

The moral is not that we should all boycott Whole Foods. It’s that whenever we talk about science and society, it helps to keep two rather humbling premises in mind: very few of us are anywhere near rational. And pretty much all of us are hypocrites.

You Won’t Believe What This Poll Found Out About Dumb Americans

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we see a new poll: Only ¾ of Americans know that the Earth goes around the sun.  Dur.  But this sort of ignorance raises important questions about what it means to know something and, crucially, what it means to not-know.

The poll was conducted in 2012 by the National Science Foundation and apparently shared at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  [Editor’s note: we couldn’t find the original poll results themselves, but we found reports of them from sources such as National Public Radio and Phys.Org.]

According to this survey of 2,200 American adults, only 74% correctly answered that the Earth goes around the sun.  For those of us who get depressed about the great US of A, we might take some comfort that similar results have been reported from similar polls in the European Union and China.

But here’s the kicker: There are lots of ways to not-know something.  As Robert Proctor called it a few years back, there are many different meanings to agnotology, the science of not-knowing.  In the case of this survey, we see a crucial detail of great interest to all of us interested in American education and culture.

Though Americans, Europeans and Chinese displayed similar levels of what Proctor might call “native-state” ignorance about the fact that the Earth goes around the sun, Americans had much higher levels of “non-knowledge” about human evolution.  According to the NPR report, 66% of Chinese respondents thought humans had evolved from other animals.  Seventy percent of European respondents thought so.  But only 48% of Americans did.

For those of us interested in education and culture, this suggests a different sort of non-knowledge.  Americans who don’t “know” that humans evolved from animals might simply not know it.  They might be simply, naively ignorant.  But those folks will be joined by large percentages of Americans who don’t “know” humans evolved from animals because they firmly “know” that God created humanity by fiat.

So are Americans dumb?  Yes, of course we are.  But are we DUMBER than Chinese people or Europeans?  This is where it gets tricky.  When knowledge is simply absent, that’s one thing.  But when correct knowledge is knowingly replaced by counter-knowledge, we have a much more complicated situation.


Faith & Physics, Part III

ILYBYGTH is happy to continue our series of guest posts from Anna.  In her first post, Anna described her shift from creation science to mainstream science.  In her second, she described her early education in the world of conservative Christian fundamentalism.  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.  Good news: She has recently been accepted into a PhD program in physics at a top research university in the United States. 

Why is Creationism so appealing?

Last installment, I spent some time discussing my Creationist curriculum.  Through five years, I learned science alongside Young Earth Creation apologetics.  No small amount of time was spent on discussing the evidence for young earth, explaining the Grand Canyon as a result of a global flood, reinterpreting the geological record, and more.  Over and over, it was repeated and reassured that Creationism was a viable theory based on the evidence alone.  Yes, the Bible made assertions regarding the origin of the world, but all of the text books and apologists emphasized that the theory could stand on its own merits and that even atheists should be able to see the evidence and agree to it.

And yet, when it came down to it, the evidence was truly secondary.  On some level, I think that the most devoted creation “experts” still realize that Young Earth might not stand up to honest scrutiny.  This is why almost the entire YEC battle is fought for children.  Creationists have already lost in the arena of mainstream science.  They can’t influence people there.  But children are easy to influence.  Children are much more trusting.  And if they start kids with these theories early, perhaps they can build walls around them that will keep them there.

And they did.  There were walls built around our minds to ensure that we never wandered too far from the correct doctrine.  Creation apologists were very clear: even if you find yourself doubting the evidence for 6-day creation… even if you realize that secular science has the more compelling arguments… you CAN’T change your beliefs.  You can’t, because the creation story in the Bible is the Word of God, while evolutionary science is the word of men.  To question a literal interpretation of Genesis is to question God himself.

For a young conservative Christian homeschooler, this is the ultimate threat.  While most YEC advocates do not claim that salvation is dependent on disregarding modern science, this is hardly much better.  Conservative Christian culture can be surprisingly cut-throat, and demonstrating a lack of faith in God can be paramount to social and spiritual suicide.  Such people were a by-word among my creationist peers… the “lesser” Christians that would probably lose their faith if they were allowed to go to college.

Indeed, this argument was ultimately more compelling to me than all the evidence that was offered for a global flood, the evidence for “design”, or the convoluted explanations of how the universe could have been created 6000 years ago despite the fact that distant galaxies are visible from earth.  Sure, I absorbed all that information and I believed it.  But I quickly realized that my evidence probably looked puny compared to the vast amounts of data and research in evolutionary biology and cosmology.  But I refused to back down, because I was a Good Christian.  I would not trust flawed humans over God.  I would not cave in to scientific “persecution.”  I would not believe, no matter how much evidence I was given, because to do so, would be to spit in the face of my savior.  The guilt and the fear kept me securely in the Creationist’s camp.

Now, being sheltered and homeschooled probably made me especially susceptible to this sort of fear and guilt.  But I am certain that I am not alone in my experiences.  The fact that YEC apologists place so much evidence on this argument leads me to believe that this fear and guilt is quite intentional.  It is the surest way to make sure that their school of thought survives the opposing evidence.  If you can’t make your case with facts, make it with fear.

To be fair, I’ve seen a little bit of these sorts of tactics used against Creationists in mainstream science communities.  For example, I can’t agree with the claim that “a Creationist cannot contribute to science” and the shame and guilt tactics that this statement employs makes me very uncomfortable.  It echoes a lot of the indoctrination I received from Creationists.  I do think that being a young earth believer limits the contributions that you can make to science, but there are many, many fields of research that do not require a background in evolutionary biology and as such, these sorts of blanket statements are deceptive at best.

All the same, I cannot fault scientists for being openly frustrated with science deniers.  No theory should have to be shored up with threats of spiritual damage and guilt over betraying a deity.  The thought is almost laughable.  However, until secular scientists begin to appreciate how influential these arguments can be, they cannot fully understand why young earth creation has such appeal to many… and why it can control even very intelligent and learned people.  Many people do not deny science because they are ignorant or stupid, but because they feel like they have no other choice.

But there’s an up-side to this.  We can change.  And those who accept science can help.  Unfortunately, the attitudes that many people display towards science deniers is not helpful.  In the next installment, I’ll try to delve a little into some of my interactions with some of my secular peers and explain which ones helped me on my journey and which ones set me back.

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.