This weekend, I read a couple of stories about people teaching about evolution. As you might expect, these generally aren’t articles that fill me with joy.
The first is an article from Jacksonville, Texas that explicitly compares two local junior colleges, both associated with religious groups.
Lon Morris junior college is affiliated with the Methodists, and the chair of the department is Linda Allen.
“I teach evolution. Science is looking for natural causes to natural phenomena, it isn’t in the business of looking for supernatural reasons for things occurring,” said Assistant Professor Linda Allen, chair of the Natural Science Department at Lon Morris College. “To me science is one of the great themes of modern culture and religion is another. I think the two are equally important, but they are different, and since I teach biology and not theology — I teach evolution as the cause of life.”
She makes several comments about the glory, majesty, and spirituality of the Bible, which just goes to show that lots of people gullibly accept the claims of their religion, even science professors, but her message is simple and plain: she teaches science in science courses. I can live with that. That’s the way it should be done, and aside from her patent religiosity, she sounds very sensible and competent.
The other college in the story, Jacksonville College, is affiliated with the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas, and is very different.
“I teach that the universe was created in six literal days. We believe that the Genesis account refers to literal 24-hour periods. You wouldn’t have the words morning and evening if it was referring to an indefinite time period,” said Professor Billy Wilbanks, chair of the Science Department at Jacksonville College. “People accept either theory just by their beliefs and what they have been taught — we really can’t prove either one.”
Wow. Chair of the Science Department. I have to make a note of that; it’s not likely to happen, but if any student tries to transfer to UMM with credits from Jacksonville College, no, I’m sorry, they won’t count towards a biology degree. That guy isn’t teaching science, he’s teaching primitive theology.
How big an idiot is Billy Wilbanks? He really should have known to shut up before he said this:
“There’s a lot of questions right now that I can’t answer. What holds the clouds up? If we throw a whole bucket of water in the air, the whole bucket is going to come right back down, but when it rains, all these little raindrops fall,” Wilbanks said. “There are still many unanswered things out there. Cell differentiation in human reproduction is something we don’t understand. Back when we are just a small cluster of cells, how do some of our cells know to become blood, brains, muscles, bones or something else. We don’t have an answer for that.”
Uh, what? This guy teaches chemistry, too, and he doesn’t understand how water can exist in different phases? Does he think Jesus is levitating raindrops? The question about development is marginally better, but again, if he can’t explain the esoteric bits about the developmental pathways we do know, he shouldn’t be teaching biology. We do have good, if incomplete, answers for how cells become different cell types; they don’t “know” anything, but it is a process of cell:cell interaction, signaling, and signal transduction by mundane biochemical processes, no angels necessary.
Here’s the sad part, though: it comes down to the kids, and college is too late to correct fundamental deficits in their educations. We’re in the business of building on the foundation laid down by K-12 teachers and family and other sources of information. Come into college with a rickety framework, and you’re already far behind everyone else, you aren’t going to be able to support the more detailed information it’s our business to provide, and we’re going to suggest you follow some other career path where you might have some strength.
According to both Allen and Wilbanks, most of their students come to their classes as believers in creationism.
“Some of my kids understand all of the theories of creationism and are truly creationists, but most of my kids believe in the Bible and have never had their beliefs challenged, so they don’t really know what they believe,” Allen said. “Many of my kids are dead-set against learning evolution. It bothers me that an 18-year-old can be so set in his thoughts and beliefs that he can’t take something new at least to examine it.”
How depressing. American culture is failing these kids to the point where we’re setting up fake institutions of higher learning like Jackson College, where clowns like Wilbanks can play to the ignorance of parents and kids.
Where do we place the blame? Where do we need to take action? (No, the answer is not to fault the existence of atheists in our society, so if that was your first thought, stop reading this page, go sit in a corner and read your Bible.) We don’t have to look far; the problem is perpetuated in the same way everywhere, including my little town here in Minnesota, but here’s a representative story from Florida, where an insurance agent offers a class in ‘origins’. The problem is religion. Religion encourages ignorant people to pretend they know science and to evangelize lies for their beliefs.
Chris Rushton may dress comically in a lab coat and silly glasses to teach a study class for teens, but his message is a serious one.
"People ask the questions ‘Where did I come from?’ and ‘Why am I here? and ‘Where am I going?’ " Rushton said. "The Bible answers those questions."
Last week, Rushton, 49, began a 13-week series called the Answers Academy Creation Study.
We routinely assess classes from transfer students to see if their credits count towards a degree in our biology program, and I just mentioned that Billy Wilbanks’ courses would not meet our standards. I wish it were possible to give out negative credits: incoming students who attended Answers Academy Creation Study should get about -5 biology credits that they need to make up with extra coursework to compensate for the misinformation that has been loaded into their brains.
"The first book I ever read was Ken Ham’s book called The Lie. Basically it addresses your Christian worldview and how that fits in with the creation account in Genesis."
That book is accurately titled if it refers to its contents.
Here’s an example of the kind of foolishness the lab-coat-wearing insurance agent is peddling.
There are two types of science, Rushton says.
"There’s observational science; that’s the type of science that we can test with our senses: smell, sight, taste, touch. But there’s also what’s called historical science or origin science. That is taking evidences or facts and then interpreting the past.
"When you look at origin science or historical science, we have the same facts, the same evidence, whether we’re creationists or evolutionists. What’s different is how we interpret the facts.
"So, we look to see how observational science applies to the information we find in the book of Genesis. If you look at it with an open mind, you’ll see that observational science confirms what’s in the book of Genesis and that evolutionary ideas are not confirmed by observational science."
NO! Every science has an observational component; if we aren’t building ideas on the basis of tested and measured observation, we aren’t doing science, we’re doing theology. Every science has an interpretation component, too. When your heart rate is measured by taking your pulse at the wrist or carotid, that’s basing an assessment on an interpretation, the circulation of blood driven by the action of the heart, one that hasn’t always been recognized. Heck, if your heart rate is measured by slicing open your chest and watching your heart directly, we’re still dealing with stuff that is open to interpretation (How accurate is your watch? Have you ever looked at the complicated, indirect events going on in phototransduction, and holy moly, visual perception is a whole ‘nother can of worms.) There is no difference with these ‘historical sciences’ — what’s removed from our arsenal of tools is the ability to manipulate the past experimentally, but it’s still all founded on solid observations. That geology reveals that the earth is old is as well established as the fact that your pulse is a measure of the rate your heart is beating.
‘Observational science’ is simply Rushton’s (or Ken Ham’s) obfuscatory terminology for evidence. The evidence does not support a literal interpretation of Genesis. It does support evolutionary biology.
Look back at that comment by Linda Allen about kids coming into the college classroom “dead-set against learning evolution”. Where does that come from? Look at Rushton, and Ken Ham, and the whole edifice of fundamentalist religion, and there’s your answer.
We have laws to help us cope with medical quackery—if nothing else, civil law gives us a way to seek redress after the damage has been done. We have federal and state institutions that enforce truth in advertising and try to smack down false claims. Unfortunately, when it comes to preserving the health of our children’s minds, we go the other way: we bend over backwards to give these frauds and child abusers extended privileges to miseducate, and we reward them with tax exemptions and social support. How many parents in those communities will get together and shout out in outrage at the bad educations Rushton and Wilbanks are delivering? There will be some grumbling at newspapers over the morning coffee, and that’s about it. How many will be complaining in church about Linda Allen? How many would complain bitterly to school administrators if the word “evolution” is mentioned in a high school classroom?
We’re in a highly asymmetrical situation, where all the force of censure and public condemnation is applied in our communities in one direction, to favor the lies of religion. Wake up, people. Stop being polite. Start publicly chewing out these dishonest frauds and don’t let them babble unopposed.