The Springfield

case is typical of

the grassroots 

efforts creationists 

are taking following

the series of court

rulings in the 1980s

which struck down 

"equal time" laws.


An Up-to-Date Debate?
A Textbook Case
 By Jeanine DeNoma 

In May 1995 the creation controversy returned to the news.  A textbook example of how creationists continue to attempt to bring religion into science classes was played out in Springfield.

A recent Oregon event demonstrates the relevance of understanding creationists' claims and tactics.  On May 22 the Springfield School Board delayed approval for science textbooks because they did not include "intelligent design theory" as an alternative to evolution.  Board member Bob Johnson, who has opposed every biology textbook purchase since 1976, was quoted by the Eugene Register-Guard as saying, “The textbooks have only one side.  The way they are written amounts to brainwashing.”

     A second board member, Steven Arnold, opposed adopting the texts unless supplemental books on creationism were also found.

     The district-recommended books were finally approved by a three to two vote, but only after a three-week delay during which a heated community debate raged.  Opinions poured out over local talk radio.  A radio debate was staged.  And newspaper editorials and letters to the editor argued both sides of the controversy.

     Springfield city councilman Greg Shaver took up the creationists' banner.  Shaver argued for teaching "intelligent design theory" along with the "random chance model."  In a lengthy opinion published in the Eugene Register-Guard Shaver equivocated, "My interest is in seeing that we no longer shortchange our youth by preserving an atmosphere in which we are afraid to question our scientific 'norms' or present credible scientific evidence.  This protectionist paradigm is a relic of the past, dating from the days of Galileo.

     "The false impression that there is no scientific evidence supporting a design model is equally understandable.  However, this underscores the need to present this evidence in our classrooms."  Shaver recommended the board find nonreligious texts on "intelligent design theory" for the district.

     Seventh-day Adventist minister, Elden Walter, wrote in a June 8 opinion that it was a matter of fairness that both theories be heard.  He used selected quotes from well-known scientists and engineers to support the legitimacy of "intelligent design theory."  Walter's letter highlights a common problem among advocates for creationism: a confusion as to what constitutes science.

     "Evolution is a theory.  It is not science.  It is fiction," wrote Walter.

     Both Shaver and Walter claimed they had no interest in teaching religion in the Springfield schools.

     The Springfield case is typical of the grassroots efforts creationists are taking following the series of court rulings in the 1980s which struck down "equal time" laws.

Fighting Back

     The question arises as to how to effectively respond to such assaults on science education.  As with all issues, it is important to know your topic and have articulate spokespersons available to talk with the press and the public.  Be reasonable, moderate and, above all, maintain your credibility.  Be prepared to explain what constitutes science and what does not, how a scientific theory must be testable and falsifiable, and that science can neither prove nor disprove the existence of a God.

     Be prepared to discuss scientific claims, but try to avoid them, suggests Scott Goodman of Vancouver, BC writing in the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) Reports (Spring 1995).  Just state "the scientific community has looked at the claims and found them to be scientifically worthless."  Emphasize that the courts have ruled that creationism is religion and teaching religion in science classes violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

     "Turn the tables.  Don't defend science.  Point out that creationists are the ones who need to prove their case, not scientists."  Goodman suggests you encourage the creationists to air, and then attempt to defend, some of their more extreme and ludicrous claims.

To Debate or Not?

     Dr. Brent Dalrymple, Dean of Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University and a scientific expert witness for the prosecution in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education (1982) speaking recently to the Corvallis Secular Society pointed out debate is not a good forum for fact-finding.  The rhetorical techniques of debate do not lend themselves to developing complex scientific arguments.  Creationists, however, love them because they can almost always win, he said.

     After participating in multiple debates with creationists, geneticist Dr. Bill Thwaites of San Diego State University has concluded he will no longer accept offers from creationists to debate unless creationists offer a large honorarium - which he says he would donate to NCSE!  The main reason for not debating, says Thwaites, is that debates are creationist affairs.  Even if the debate is held on a college campus, creationists are in control.  They pack the audience with Christian fundamentalists, often bussed in from out of town.  They may hold a prayer meeting before the debate; they bring in sympathetic news people to officiate and cover the debate; they sell the refreshments for their own profit.

     In a recent letter Thwaites told me, "Just giving totally logical arguments for evolution won't work.  One time we argued a creationist into the proverbial comer with a series of logical and devastating arguments against a major tenet of creationism.  Finally the creationist responded with, 'Well, that may all be true, but you are arguing from a logical perspective.  You have failed to justify this choice.'

     "These and other considerations make it easy to lose and difficult to win a debate with a creationist.  Our advice is to resist the temptation, unless you can earn enough money for the rational side to make up for the loss," said Thwaites.

It's the Law

     It's the legal, not the scientific arguments, which stop creationists.  Legal issues likely convinced the Springfield School Board not to incorporate "intelligent design theory" into their science curriculum: The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened to challenge the district in court if creationism was introduced.

     Rulings under both the Oregon Constitution and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the US Constitution have clearly stated that both prohibiting the teaching of evolution and requiring the teaching of creationism is illegal.  Under a three-pronged test developed by the US Supreme Court (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971) a government action is legal under the First Amendment if it:

     1) is secular in purpose;
     2) neither advances nor inhibits religion; and
     3) avoids excessive government entanglement with religion.

     Under the Oregon Constitution, schools must be completely neutral towards religion.  A 1988 opinion from Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohmayer stated, "Neither public funds nor the official acts of government bodies may officially advance the cause of a particular creed.  No person may be forced, by governmental action, to endure religious indoctrination in which he or she does not believe."

     In the opinion of the state, a policy proposed by the Marcola school district to not teach human origins would "advance specific religious beliefs: those held by persons opposed on religious grounds to the theory of evolution."

     The opinion went on to say that the Superintendent of Public Instruction is authorized to withhold Basic School Support Funds, under ORS 327.109, for any violations of religious neutrality.  Furthermore, individual school board members can be held personallyliablefor compensatory and punitive damages assessed for violating the constitution.

     "If a fact finder were to find that members of the board violated the constitution willfully or wantonly (for instance, by adopting and implementing an unconstitutional policy against the advice of counsel), individual board members would not be entitled to defense and indemnity by the public body, and would be personally liable for any damages, as well as responsible for their own defense costs."

     While popular opinion may support the creationists' demand for "equal time," to date, the above legal consequences have generally been effective in preventing even creationist-dominated school boards from introducing "intelligent design" pseudoscience into Oregon public schools.

     The National Center for Science Education hotline number for parents and teachers is 1-(800)290-6006.

Recommendations for further reading:

     Berra, T.M. 1990.  Evolution and the Myth of Creationism.  Stanford University Press. 187p.

     Dawkins. R. 1986.  The Blind Watchmaker.  W.W. Norton & Co., 332p. (How the cumulative effects of natural selection make a designer unnecessary).

     Dobzhansky, T., F.J. Ayala, G.L. Stebbins and J.W Valentine. 1977. Evolution.  Freeman. 572p. (University text on evolution).

     Eldridge, N. 1982.  Monkey Business: A Scientist Looks at Creationism.  Washington Square Press. 157p.

     Hughes, L.R. (ed) 1992.  Reviews of Creationist Books.  The National Center for Science Education. 147p. (A collection of reviews written by scientific experts critiquing the "science" books written by creationists).

     Journal for Geological Education. 1982. 30(l). (An issue devoted to answering creationist's claim of a young earth also see later issues).

     Kitcher, P. 1982.  Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism.  MIT Press. 213p.

     McCollister, B. (ed). 1989.  Voices for Evolution.  The National Center for Science Education. 141p. (Statements and resolutions from religious, civil and scientific organizations opposing "scientific" creationism in science curriculum).

     Newell, N.D. 1982.  Creation/Evolution: Myth or Reality?  Columbia Univ. Press. 203p.

     Ruse, M. 1982.  Darwinism Defended: A Guide to the Evolution Controversies.  Addison-Wesley Publishing Co. 356p.

     Scientific American.  1978.  Evolution.  Sept.:239(3). (Special issue devoted to the topic.  Nine articles by experts).

     Strahler, A.N. 1987.  Science and Earth History: The Evolution/Creation Controversy.  Prometheus Books. 552p. (According to Dr. Brent Dalrymple this is "probably the single best reference exposing the flaws in the 'scientific' creationists' arguments about science.”).

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