Curtsinger on creationism

Kristine Harley attended James Curtsinger‘s lecture at UMTC last night, and passed along an abbreviated copy of her notes. I wish I could have gone—it sounds like it was an informative evening—but living out here in the wilderness, I have to plan those long drives into the Big City with some care.

Curtsinger’s talk was only very loosely organized around the theme of “ten things,” and was mostly a comprehensive overview of the various forms of creationism from Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656) to Michael Behe’s embarrassing performance at the Dover trial. I would say that there were around 20-25 people in attendance, most of them members of the organization and U of M students (unlike me, an alumna). He covered a great deal of historical ground that will be familiar to those of us who know the history of American creationism, which he admitted was, for him, “oddly stimulating, like Victorian pornography.”

He first made the distinction between “young earth” and “old earth” creationists, and described Ussher’s backdating of the earth to 4004 BCE. To the surprise of many in the audience, he mentioned that William Jennings Bryan was actually not a young earth creationist. However, Young-Earth Creationism experience a resurgence in the 1960s with the help of Henry Morris and Duane Gish, men of some learning who came up with the theory of the biblical Flood causing fossils to be deposited through a combination of hydrologic sorting (marine invertebrates that lived in the lower elevations ended up in the lower strata, etc.), differential escape (human fossils were found last because they ran uphill to escape the floodwaters, etc.), and ecological zonation. He went on to describe the various problems with this theory.

He went through the Arkansas “Balanced Treatment Act” of 1981 and the Louisiana Creatonism Act of 1981, both of which were struck down, and the latter appealed to the Supreme Court where it was ruled unconstitutional. He went on to summarize the history of Intelligent Design and the most prominent personalities in the movement (Johnson, Dembski, Behe) as well as Dr. Dean Kenyon and Dr. Chris Macosko, their biographies, their arguments, and the problems with their conclusions.

Curtsinger stated that the real battleground for adequate science instruction in the United States is in the public high schools for one really good reason—the parents of the children who attend these schools have real influence over the curriculum. Curtsinger noted with alarm that, by the time a student has reached the sophomore level in college, his or her beliefs about evolution have been solidified, so that it is imperative that evolution is taught, and taught properly, in our nation’s high schools. While Curtsinger is not opposed to students exploring their own beliefs and values, and asking questions about creationism in a social or historical context even in high school, he notes that 20% of Minnesota public high school biology teachers teach creationism as science, which is illegal.

His most controversial point, that “Evangelical atheists make the problem worse,” was heard with a great deal of openness and even sympathy from this group and from me. I was initially troubled when I read this statement in the online calendar, but came away willing to accede his position. Curtsinger expressed himself well on this point. He noted that this was a very personal concern for him. I do not have the expertise to agree or dispute his assertion that Richard Dawkins “was never a particularly important scientist,” but I cannot disagree that Dawkins is “an aggressive atheist” who does “hit people over the head” with his disgust for religious superstition (how should I deny this when I admire Dawkins for it?).

Curtsinger called Richard Lewontin “a friend of mine, and a very important scientist” who nevertheless has stated (according to Curtsinger) that, “The purpose of science is to eliminate God from human consciousness.” Well, yes—naturally I don’t agree that that is the purpose of science, no matter how much I wish it would happen. Science is not about “Truth” with a capital “t” as is so often proclaimed by troubled deists and other philosophical romantics, so therefore it is not about “disproving God” either, although I certainly think that the methodical accounting for phenomena renders supernaturalist claims more and more dubious. Of course such a statement by Lewontin would “provide ammunition for Johnson,” and for people like him and the Discovery Institute. The group in attendance were, naturally, most if not all atheists, and I do not agree that if atheists disappeared from the earth tomorrow the creationists would likewise go out of business (far from it!) but I took Curtsinger’s point to mean, “Don’t make enemies unnecessarily.” Point taken. There are theists out there who accept the reality of evolution.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a summary on why universities are not generally in a good position to help on the issue. Professors are rewarded for the research, for which they spend a good 50% of their time, and for their teaching, which accounts for 40%, leaving a whopping 10% left for outreach—however one wants to go about doing that. Most science faculty pay little or no attention to creationism, anyway, allowing the problem to fester. What is needed are scientists working together with high school educators and with concerned citizens—atheists and theists alike.

Curtsinger wrapped up with a dig at Pat Robertson’s “God will smite thee” quote, and encouraged everyone to check out H.L. Mencken’s obituary for William Jennings Bryan to see how well it fits Robertson. Curtsinger also stated that he was, with Ed Hessler of Hamline University and Judy Boudreau of Minnetonka, forming the Minnesota Citizens for Science Education. He received a lot of applause and there was a good Q-and-A afterward. I spoke with Curtsinger afterward about our volunteer programs at the museum, in which we partner with the Minneapolis Public Schools to have trained facilitators visit the classroom and lead discussions that employ and teach critical thinking. These programs are arts-based, but I asked Curtsinger if it would be beneficial for universities to have similar volunteers make high school classroom visits to facilitate discussions with the students about science, stereotypes, evolution, and other subjects. Curtsinger seemed very enthusiastic about the idea and I left my contact information with him.

I think the most important point there is that the problem sets in long before the students get to college, and where we need to take action is with public school teachers and parents. I’m glad to hear that there is a science education advocacy group forming, and those three will be excellent people to lead it.

Ha-Hah. Brits are just as stupid as we are!

A survey of British beliefs about the origin and development of life had the following results:

  • 22% chose creationism
  • 17% opted for intelligent design
  • 48% selected evolution theory
  • the rest did not know.

Or how about this result? Here’s what the people in the land of David Attenborough would like to see taught in school:

  • 44% said creationism should be included
  • 41% intelligent design
  • 69% wanted evolution as part of the science curriculum.

Depressing, isn’t it? I’ve got some Guinness in the refrigerator, maybe I should just knock off work early and go home and start drinking.

Chris has reservations about their methodology—but I don’t know. The fact that almost a quarter of the people admit to being creationists is damning in and of itself. Meanwhile, John thinks 30-40% “isn’t a large group opposing teaching evolution”. That makes me wonder if he’s been raiding my refrigerator and all my beer will be gone when I get home.

Then I read that 73% of American teenagers “engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity”, and I just want to throw up my hands and give up. I’m going to need something stronger than beer.

Isn’t it about time to admit that the strategies of the past, such as being deferential to the nonsense of religion or letting the kooks who dominate discourse off the hook because pointing out their fallacies would be rude, aren’t working? I predict that there will be much finger-pointing at Dawkins and tut-tutting about all those militant members of the high church of evolutionism being to blame, and that there will be further insistence on molly-coddling lunacy to make those willing believers in creationism more comfortable.