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Fighting For Darwin: One Woman's Struggle for Science Education

TeachHUB Interview


width=200Last year, Louisiana passed a law allowing public school teachers to use creationist supplemental materials in public school science classes. The Texas Board of Education recently adopted changes in the wording of Texas state science standards that undermine the teaching of evolution.

We discussed this controversial shift in science education with Dr. Barbara Forrest, a philosophy professor and a leader in the fight to keep creationist curricula out of the classroom.


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How did you become so active in the fight to prevent the teaching of creationism in schools?

In 1994, creationists tried to get their materials into my children’s school district. I had a child in high school and one in middle school at the time, so I went to work on that. I was the only parent in my school district to protest what a group of creationists out of New Orleans, Louisiana, was trying to do. They wanted their curriculum guide added to science classrooms as a supplement. That was my first involvement. After that, I began to write about it in my professional capacity as a teacher and a scholar.


With the recent court case of Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District(2005), in which the judge ruled that teaching intelligent design creationism is unconstitutional, what would the repercussions be on national science education?

The Kitzmiller ruling technically applies only in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, although it has already had repercussions outside Pennsylvania such as in Ohio, where the State Board of Education deleted a creationist benchmark from the state science standards in order to avoid a similar lawsuit. I don’t think the creationists at the Discovery Institute are going to get any support at the national level, not after George Bush left office. They saw this coming, so they began to redouble their efforts at the state and local levels. We’re going to see outbreaks in state and local school districts and on state boards, which we’re already seeing in Texas and Louisiana.


Do you see the creationists having much success?

We hope not. They’ve succeeded in Louisiana and, to some extent, in Texas. This year, creationists on the Texas Board of Education succeeded in making changes to the state science standards that are intended to undermine the teaching of evolution. In Louisiana, they succeeded in getting a law passed that permits teachers to use creationist supplements. The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Louisiana has given creationists a policy which is very much to their liking that implements this law. So we have a state law that was written by creationists and passed in the legislature, and we have a policy under which the state board will implement that law which was refashioned to suit the wishes of the Louisiana Family Forum and the Discovery Institute. So that’s what we have.


Next up will be the state science standards, which are being revised this year. That will be the next line of attack for these people. Next year, our textbooks are up for selection and that will be the third line of attack. So Louisiana is going to get a triple whammy.


What are you doing to prevent or remedy this?

Well, we can’t undo the law. We’ve got the law for the foreseeable future. The problem is, in Louisiana, we have not had any organized resistance to what was going on. I was the only person paying attention to what the Louisiana Family Forum was doing. They were not being watched at all by the media until they began taking a high public profile at the legislature in promoting their social causes. Under Governor Jindal’s administration, the Louisiana Family Forum – of which he is a staunch ally – is being allowed to shape public policy in Louisiana on a whole host of issues, not just science education.


When this legislation (the Louisiana Science Education Act) was introduced at the end of last March, nobody really understood the background of it but me. I didn’t have enough of a voice within my own state to rally an effective opposition until it was too late. That is a problem that we still have. There are people who are beginning to wake up, but it’s after the fact. It’s after the damage is done in terms of this legislation. What’s going to happen with the revision of the science standards, I couldn’t tell you. That process is still underway, but it will be finished later this year.


Considering your stance on public school policy, how do you feel about private schools with a religious affiliation?

That has nothing to do with us. They can do whatever they want.


In Louisiana, we have a long tradition of private schools. Because we have such a large Catholic population, Catholic schools are very popular down here. The Catholic Church, long ago, came to accept the scientific explanation of evolution. It’s not a problem. A kid will likely learn more about evolution at a Catholic school than she will at a public school. It’s the public schools that have been under attack from the religious right. It’s really the public schools where we have the problem.


The private schools where children are going to be taught creationism are in the Protestant Christian schools down here. We have a lot of those, too. The Protestant evangelical and fundamentalists schools teach creationism; it’s not the Catholic schools. The Catholic schools are, by and large down here, very good.


What is the biggest problem facing science education today?

Public ignorance and the effective propaganda of the Discovery Institute are the two main problems.


The Discovery Institute is small, but they’ve done a lot of damage. What they’ve done very effectively is to convince people that there are two sides to this issue, that there is a real debate. People understand that, with respect to most issues, there are two sides. On the issue of teaching evolution, there is only one side: the side of the science. There is only evidence that supports teaching evolution. There is no evidence that undermines it. There are still areas of it that are not completely understood, but a lot of it is very well understood after the 150 years since Darwin.


With the Discovery Institute, they just say that they want the other side to be heard. That plays to the American people’s natural sense of fairness. It’s been a very effective propaganda tool. The problem that people don’t understand is that, on this particular issue, there are not two equally valid sides: there’s the side of the science and telling the truth to children about that; and there’s what the Discovery Institute is trying to do – lie to kids about the status of evolutionary theory and to convince them that evolution can’t explain so many things, so a supernatural designer is required.


The Discovery Institute also insists that they’re simply concerned with science and that this is not about the supernatural, but there is ample evidence to show otherwise. They’ve been very effective at propaganda and getting people to think that there is a genuine debate inside science about the status of evolution when there isn’t such a debate at all. The reason they’ve been so successful is that the average American doesn’t understand the science. When you’ve got a population that is as scientifically illiterate as Americans are, coupled with our desire to let everyone have their say, you have fertile ground for the problems we’ve got.


Does the continual creationism dispute take time, consideration, or resources away from solving these problems?

It absolutely does and that’s one of the most unfortunate aspects of it. These people at the Discovery Institute and their supporters around the country have produced absolutely nothing, except a lot of words and a lot of writing and publicity and propaganda.


They’ve contributed absolutely nothing to public schools. In fact, they hate public schools. They’re part of the religious right, and that’s how they need to be understood because that’s what they are. The religious right does not like public education because it is secular. The religious right cannot control it. They’ve spent the last 40, almost 50, years trying to get their hands into public policy to get as much religion into the classroom as they can.


What the Discovery Institute is doing is making its own logistical contribution to that larger effort. But they have produced absolutely nothing by way of support for public education. They’ve produced absolutely nothing by way of support for teaching science or to the way science is done. They haven’t contributed anything, but they want to control the process by which public school policy is made, especially as it concerns teaching science.


In order to fight that, productive people who have done very good work have to take the time. They have to take time to answer the propaganda that these people put out. That takes untold man hours and money that have to be spent in order to do this type of work. Yes, time and money are lost. For every hour that a person is doing that, they can’t be helping teachers to teach science better. That’s what really needs to be done. For every instance where a science teacher has to meet some criticism or deal with an irate parent, that’s time that the teacher cannot spend teaching science properly.


That’s the saddest part: so much time has had to be spent on answering the attack that is made on science education by people who have contributed absolutely nothing.

Do you think that evolution and religion are mutually exclusive?

Religion is a very broad term, so you can’t just make a simple statement that they are compatible or incompatible. It depends on what religion you’re talking about and how a person understands it.


If you’re talking about Biblical literalism, if you’re talking about accepting the Bible in every respect as fact, then you’ve got a problem. Then science and religion are definitely incompatible because the Bible is not a scientific document. It was written by people who didn’t know anything about science, well before modern science was ever even conceived, so it can’t possibly speak scientifically to people.


The tradition of reading the Bible literally has never been the predominant theological tradition. That’s what Americans fail to understand. They think that this is the way theologians always have read the Bible, but that’s false. There are so many different religions and even so many kinds of Christianity. People oversimplify Christianity and they think of it as one thing to everyone. It’s not. It’s many different things to many different Christians. Really, whether teaching evolution and religion are compatible depends on how you look at those distinctions that have to be made.


I have a friend who is a very devout Catholic, Ken Miller. He is a scientist who has made a reconciliation which is satisfactory to him based on a great deal of study of both his own Church’s theology and, of course, on the science. I know other people who have done precisely the same thing. But these people are not Biblical literalists. They understand that a good deal of the Bible is metaphorical.


The Discovery Institute is predominantly Protestant evangelicals. There are a few Catholics and people of other persuasions thrown in as tokens, but the predominant view in that organization is Protestant evangelicalism. Bruce Chapman will dispute that because he is a converted Catholic, but he does not represent the mainstream view or even the predominant religious view in his own organization. There is a contingent of Christians like Chapman – who is on the far right of Catholicism – who insist that evolution is not compatible with religious faith. They insist that you cannot have both.


But there are millions of other examples in the form of millions of other Christians and Catholics who are proof otherwise. These people at the Discovery Institute have a bone to pick with evolution from their own religious standpoint, but it is a bone most Christians in the world today do not have to pick.


So it depends on what you mean by religion and how a person understands Christianity because it is largely Christians that have a problem with evolution.


It’s very important to realize that the side that has always had to make the accommodation is the side of religion. Science has never had to change because of what religious people believe. Religious people have always had to change because of what science shows us about the natural world. A history of science and religion will show you that. It’s always the religious community that has had to go back and rethink things. That’s the only way that the Church has survived, to change with the increasing level of understanding of the natural world. That is really the only thing that makes religion viable. It’s viable only as long as it can change to accommodate what our rational side sees as very compelling evidence. That’s the secret to a viable religion.


If you look back at religion, you can see that it has its own evolutionary history. It has its own history of change. It cannot stay static because if it does, it will die. When it’s too rigid, it turns people off, except for a hard-core group that simply wants to be told what to think and how to think. They’re so scared of the modern world and they’re so scared of science that they’re terrified of having to change the way they think.


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