Cover Story


by Walter Pierce

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Creationists are jeopardizing science education in Louisiana public schools and once again making us the laughing stock of the country.  By Walter Pierce

"I am an open-minded person, and I challenge anybody to come and tell me - and I've asked a couple of educators that are friends of mine - can you do me a favor and tell me, can you swear on a stack of Bibles there's no other refutable data that provides an objective other approach to Darwin's theory?"

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Creationists are jeopardizing science education in Louisiana public schools and once again making us the laughing stock of the country.  By Walter Pierce

"I am an open-minded person, and I challenge anybody to come and tell me - and I've asked a couple of educators that are friends of mine - can you do me a favor and tell me, can you swear on a stack of Bibles there's no other refutable data that provides an objective other approach to Darwin's theory?"

Speaking by phone from his insurance agency in Lake Charles, Dale Bayard is excited, defensive, his voice rising with his blood pressure.

A member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education - the state's public school board - Bayard represents District 7, which includes Lafayette and the rest of southwest Louisiana. He's defending his decision to vote against proposed biology textbooks for Louisiana's public high schools.

Yesterday, Tuesday, Dec. 7, BESE's Student/School Performance and Support Committee, of which Bayard is chairman, voted 6-1 in favor of approving several science textbooks for Louisiana public high schools. Bayard was the lone BESE member to vote against the textbooks. The full 11-member BESE will vote on approving the textbooks at its meeting tomorrow, Thursday, Dec. 9. Proponents of mainstream biology curricula, which include Darwin's theory of natural selection and the science of evolution that has grown from it, say they still plan to attend the meeting to make sure the books are given final approval. Tuesday's vote was a huge albeit preliminary win for them.

Board President Penny Dastugue last week told the publication Education Week, "I don't think it's a done deal, but I believe, given what I have seen thus far of the debate, that the textbooks will ultimately be approved."

Tuesday's meeting was - and Thursday's meeting is expected to be - heavily attended by both sides of the evolution debate, with proponents and opponents sitting on each side of the aisle like attendees at a shotgun wedding.

Back on the telephone, Bayard explains his decision to oppose the textbooks and simultaneously demonstrates how effectively creationists have muddied the topic of evolution with invented controversies over Darwin's theory.

BESE's Dale Bayard

"Can you just swear on a stack of Bibles and bet your life [that evolution is correct]?" Bayard continues hypothetically. "And they say, Absolutely not.' I say, Well then why do we print a textbook that says that? Why can't we provide the children with textbooks that provide objective educational methods to look at what's out there? Must we go out and do the research ourselves? We're going to spend $72 million with a textbook company, and they're not going to swear this is accurate?' They don't even want to put a disclaimer in their textbook."

We hear little such carping about accuracy or disclaimers in science books for chemistry or physics - sciences with as many gaps in understanding as evolutionary biology - although geology and climate science occasion some grousing from the creationists, the former for deducing that the earth, contrary to the book of Genesis, is several billion years old, the latter for global warming.

"[Evolution] has exactly the same status as electromagnetic theory, germ theory of disease, cell theory and gravitational theory, and it is about as strong an explanation as science can come up with," says Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond who has long manned the fort against creationists' assault on science curricula.

Forrest's 2007 book, Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press), coauthored with biologist and University of Virginia Emeritus Professor Paul Gross, chronicled the creationists' systematic - and politically sophisticated - attacks on science curricula in public schools.

"So now they're back, trying again to influence the content of the textbooks," Forrest says, resigned to the battle that has punctuated her academic life for more than a decade.

Louisiana's public high school biology textbooks, drawn from mainstream, national publishers like McGraw-Hill and Prentice Hall - the same publishers and books used in high schools across the country, usually with little acrimony - have been under attack in Louisiana for more than a quarter century, first by creationists who believe the Genesis story is a more than adequate account of human origins, and more recently by proponents of intelligent design. The latter group also comprises creationists, more or less, but it's donned a scientific mantle and clutters its arguments with arcane scientific terminology because of repeated rebuffs by federal court judges including the U.S. Supreme Court. And it wants to insinuate its quasi-religious ideas into public education.

"Intelligent design is simply a rehashed version of creationism," says Forrest. "This is how they understand it, except they have to lie to the public for legal reasons, because they know they can't say creation science' and have anything hold up in court."

Evolutionary biologist and UL professor Joe Neigel

BESE, through various committees, selects new textbooks for Louisiana's public schools every seven years. And like cicadas burrowing up toward the light, religious right groups go after the biology textbooks in an effort to get intelligent design - biblical creationism was ruled unconstitutional in 1987 by SCOTUS in a case that originated in Louisiana - either added to textbooks or have disclaimers placed in textbooks asserting that evolution is only a theory and that there are controversies about its accuracy.

There are no such controversies within the mainstream scientific community, but it's a life cycle Darwin would have appreciated.

"One of the biggest problems that we have in this country is the way creationists misuse the word theory' and the way the average American misunderstands what a scientific theory is," says Forrest. "When creationists put for example a sticker into a textbook saying that evolution is only a theory, what they're saying is, We're not sure it's true - it's something that hasn't yet been proven,' and that is so far from being true. They don't acknowledge that a theory is a system consisting of well-known facts and confirmed hypotheses.

"A theory is a very well-founded explanation of the facts that ties the facts together and unifies them. So, when somebody says that evolution is only a theory and they put it in a textbook, a kid's going to look at that and say, OK, we're not sure evolution is true, which means we don't have to believe it, we don't have to accept it - it's not proven, it's not a fact, evolution is not a fact.' And that essentially is to lie to children about the status of one of the most robust scientific theories in the history of science."

And that sounds like exactly what Bayard and other evolution skeptics would have us do.

"Do you think since the 1800s there's been no scientific discovery that refutes Darwin's discovery? And the answer to that is absolutely yes," Bayard argues, adding, "A theory is a theory is a theory until you can prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt, and that theory has not been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt."

Joe Neigel has heard it all before.

"To suggest we need to teach both sides is like saying we should be teaching the opinion that the earth is flat because there are some people who believe the earth is flat and they claim they have evidence the earth is flat, so we should give equal time to these people. Or we should give equal time to people who say there was no Holocaust," says Neigel, a biology professor at UL who teaches undergraduate and graduate courses related to evolution. "It's an attempt to make it seem like there are two sides that have similar weight when in fact that isn't the case at all."

Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor at
SLU, co-authored a book about creationist
efforts to compromise standard biology
education in American high school classrooms.

But the creationists are nothing if not persistent, and their biggest triumph to date is the Louisiana Science Education Act, aka Senate Bill 733.

Passed by the Legislature and signed into law in 2008 by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has an undergraduate degree in biology from Brown University - go figure - SB 733 has been slammed as a "stealth creationism bill" by advocates of evolution education. It was introduced by state Sen. Ben Nevers with backing by the Louisiana Family Forum, a Christian lobbying group and offshoot of the national organization Focus on the Family. The bill was also promoted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that promulgates intelligent design, which critics characterize as creationism with a secular patina.

The bill was presented as "academic freedom" legislation - giving science teachers the latitude to introduce supplementary materials in their curricula. But as creationists and their intelligent design brethren would have it, those supplementary materials would ideally erode the supremacy of evolution. That's the whole point of the law, critics like Neigel say, and it has opened up the door for this latest maneuver before BESE.

"I think the intention of the act was to allow teachers to feel they would be protected if they introduced material that isn't really part of the standards, that, for example, might have religious content or not follow the mainstream views on issues like global warming," notes Neigel, who in 2008 served on a state-appointed panel tasked with establishing a protocol for such supplementary materials to be challenged. Neigel says he wasn't a proponent of SB 733 and, like Forrest and many others, sees an ulterior motive: "I do believe the intention was to encourage people to bring religious material and material contrary to the standards into the classroom. Considering the source of where a lot of it was coming from, that seems to be a likely motive for it."

The most notorious gambit by Discovery and the creationists to insert ID/creationism into biology education occurred in Dover, Pa., five years ago when the school board there voted overwhelmingly to require a statement suggesting evolution is controversial be read aloud in ninth-grade science classes when the topic was taught. Eleven parents sued, and during the trial, at which Forrest testified as an expert witness for the plaintiffs, an undeniable link was drawn between creationism and intelligent design. The conservative Republican federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush who heard the case agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling that the proposed statement violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment and, more important, that ID is creationism by another name. The statement would not be read to students. The eight board members who voted for the measure were soundly defeated in the next school board election, and the subsequent board abided by the ruling and didn't challenge it.

The case was made into a compelling NOVA documentary - Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial - that aired on PBS.

"It was my job in court in Pennsylvania to show the judge that intelligent design is simply another version of creationism and it's based on a belief that there's a supernatural creator who created all living things," Forrest explains. "That's basically what it is. All intelligent design is is a renamed version of creationism."

Meanwhile, Dale Bayard, our man on BESE, remains impervious to mainstream science.

"A vast majority of the scientists will sign on to the fact that [evolution] is the only thing we have to follow, all we have to discuss," Bayard acknowledges. "But there are a number of detractors, and I've talked to a number of professors who agree, and they said - and I don't want to get into their names - but they said that they would be glad if the Legislature wants to look at [evidence against evolution], they'd be glad to send it.

John Oller, a UL linguistics professor,
routinely works on behalf of the
Louisiana Family Forum to oppose the
biology curriculum.

"It's funny that we never get to the discussion of what's out there. The Legislature needs to revisit the [Science Education Act] and give us refutable data that I'm talking about. I wish I was a scientist because I'd probably have a more scientific explanation, but I don't."

The problem is, no one outside mainstream biology believes this evidence, this "refutable data" as Bayard puts it, exists. But there are plenty of "experts" outside the mainstream - very smart people with Ph.Ds, many of whom work at public universities - lined up to challenge evolution, and to influence elected officials like Bayard.

One of them is John Oller.

A linguistics professor at UL who specializes in autism research, Oller is an evolutionist's gadfly, appearing routinely at BESE meetings on behalf of the Louisiana Family Forum.

His championing of creationism/ID actually goes back well over a decade to his time as a professor at the University of New Mexico when he lobbied the state Legislature there to allow creationism into public school science textbooks. And he has long contributed articles to the Institute for Creation Research, a Dallas-based entity whose name says it all.

Oller was there in 2002 when a BESE committee voted to put disclaimers in high school biology books calling into question the validity of evolutionary science. (State Superintendent Paul Pastorek was BESE president at the time and was instrumental in getting the full board to vote down the disclaimers, saying he had no intention of "returning to the Dark Ages.")

Most recently, as the review process for proposed textbooks began - the proposed books were distributed to public libraries statewide earlier this fall to give the public an opportunity to review the books and register any misgivings they may have with the content - Oller was once again lobbying BESE to reject the books.

"The main deficiencies in the books are in taking a doctrinaire, everything-is-solved attitude toward just about every problem addressed (and many important biological issues are not touched on)," Oller writes in a Nov. 8 letter to BESE's Life and Environmental Science Committee, which four days later approved the books proposed for adoption. "They should all be sent back to the publishers as unacceptable," Oller continues in the letter. "They are a poor commentary on the American school systems at large. The authors of the books on display seemed not to have access to modern databases or the journal literature of the most recent decades of biological research."

Also on display in the letter is Oller's facile use of technical jargon - epigenetic phenomena, retroviruses, biosemiotics - that lends an air of scientific credibility. But the letter devolves into what Forrest characterizes as a typical viewpoint of the anti-Darwin crowd: Teaching evolution is corrupting our youth and contributing to the moral decay of America.

"Nonsense of that sort is what has led to the sorry state of our current educational system and the rampant crime and the deterioration of our social and economic systems," Oller adds in closing.

Yabba Dabba Doo: The LFF's Gene Mills (top) and Tony
Perkins of Focus on the Family would prefer students
learn biology from The Flintstones.

Charles Darwin, meet Jeffrey Dahmer.

"I think some people are misinformed because they've been exposed to propaganda; other people who are creating the propaganda are clearly, deliberately misrepresenting what's out there," Neigel says with a sigh. "I'm not sure what their motives are in every case, but I think it's unfortunate."

Oller is also closely aligned with young earth creationism - that is, the belief that the earth is no more than 10,000 years old and that geologic wonders like the Grand Canyon were created by the great flood that Noah, his ark and every species of animal on earth so famously rode out in the book of Genesis.

Oller has attended a conference at the Creation Museum in Kentucky where visitors can enjoy dioramas depicting prehistoric humans living among dinosaurs.

He has also been an invited speaker at a conference hosted by the Society for the Advancement of Creation Science, a student organization at Mississippi State University whose mission statement reads, in part, "By faith in what God has revealed through His Holy scriptures, we believe that God created the world in six 24-hour days about 6,000 years ago and that science supports this claim."

"These are the people he hangs out with," Forrest says of Oller. "And what this indicates is, he is a young earth creationist who believes the earth is only 6- to 10,000 years old. I haven't found him saying that, but that's who he runs with."

The Ind reached out to Professor Oller for comment on his views on these topics via phone and email. He didn't respond to our overtures.

Bayard insists he's not a point man for the Louisiana Family Forum, as Forrest has characterized him, and lays the blame for much of the controversy over science curricula at the feet of book publishers, whom he accuses of essentially recycling the same old textbooks without updating them to include the most recent research.

"What do you think book publishers are all about? Look at our textbooks. They keep reproducing textbooks every seven or eight years - the same textbooks under different covers - and making millions and millions of dollars off of us," Bayard says, his voice again rising. "And are they doing their job? No, they're not. They should take it upon themselves to incorporate as much information and research into each and every textbook without us having to spend tons of money passing a law to force them to do what's right for kids. That is a shame; it's a crying shame, and it's a rip-off of the taxpayer.

"It is a rip-off for us to spend $70 million on a book that doesn't give us enough information to teach children. And you can take that to the bank because that's the problem."

"It's a very competitive field - biology textbooks," counters Neigel, who as a university biology professor is well acquainted with the topic, "and they are heavily scrutinized before they're adopted, and they are very up-to-date. ...There is no new evidence that suggests the principle of evolution is flawed. There's a pseudo-science movement, but they're not mainstream scientists. What they're trying to argue is that some of this pseudo-science should be included in textbooks. But no mainstream evolutionary biologist, no one who publishes in good, peer-reviewed journals would accept that. It's just a ploy, and courts have ruled against it. It's bound not to succeed, but they keep trying anyway."

It's important to remember that two BESE committees - the Textbook Review Committee and the Textbook/Media/Library Advisory Council - have already voted to approve the proposed biology textbooks. Those committees largely comprise educators as well as a handful of elected officials.

UL linguistics professor John Oller, back row far left,
attended a conference at the Creation Museum in
Kentucky, which includes depictions of dinosaurs
and humans coexisting. Oller has also served as an invited
speaker at a conference of the Society for the Advancement
of Creation Science at Mississippi State University, and is
a regular article contributor for the Institute for Creation
Research. Because of his associations with young earth
creationism - the belief that the earth is about 6,000
years old and was created by God in six 24-hour days -
it's unclear where Oller stands (he didn't respond to Ind
requests for an interview) on intelligent design, an offshoot
of creationism whose adherents posit that because biological
life is so complex, it must have been created by a supernatural
designer, or God. Intelligent design was concocted by
creationists to disguise the religious nature of their opposition
to Darwin's theory of natural selection because federal courts
have ruled on numerous occasions that creationism violates
the separation of church and state.

"We can hand pick committees to do what we want them to do," says Bayard, suspicious and unswayed. "And how do I know that those people who were hand picked to be on that committee didn't do what the Department of Education wanted them to do? How do I know that? I'm elected to represent thousands of people, and I got to do what I think is best for constituents and children."

What is best for children, say folks like Forrest and Neigel, is not polluting widely accepted scientific data with pseudo-science and superstition.

"People hear these arguments," Neigel says, "and if they don't go dig into them they believe maybe there is a controversy. But there is none at all - there's no controversy about evolution."