Group fights to keep creationism out of schools

Center faces powerful foe in U.S. fundamentalists


Drawing on the deep resources of "creation science" advocacy groups, American fundamentalists are arming themselves with the latest books challenging details of Darwinian theory, getting elected to majority positions on school boards and learning ways to word curricula so that creationism and evolution get equal respect.

While they have gotten very good at making a case for teaching alternative theories, a small group of scientists and educators stands in their way.

Most of America's children are not being taught that the world might have come into existence only 10,000 years ago, vs. the nearly 4.5 billion years advocated by scientists, and this is largely because of the SWAT-like efforts of the National Center for Science Education.

The center, based in Berkeley, Calif., has four full-time employees and 4,000 members. Within 24 hours of a call for help, Eugenie C. Scott, the executive director, jumps into action.

Operating on a "frayed, shoestring budget," the center can help mount a counterattack on creationism in public schools. The center supplies concise articles and pamphlets rebutting the claims of creation science, legal advice and summaries of court cases involving creationism, tips on writing letters to the editors of local newspapers, advice on how to explain issues to reporters, phone numbers of national experts on evolution, links to dozens of organizations that can offer help, and the phone numbers of other people in their state who are willing to get involved.

"They're the only group providing this kind of information for people who need it," said Ronald Numbers, a professor of medical history and ethics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and an expert on the creationist movement.

Since the center was founded in 1981, to provide a grass-roots response to creationist challenges, it has been active in all 50 states, Scott said. Most fights over creationism vs. evolution happen at the local level, in small towns in rural states where populations are fairly homogeneous. "You don't see it in large cities where people come from diverse backgrounds," she said.

`National fire department'

Ken Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University in Providence, R.I., likened the center to "a national fire department."

"Whenever the scientific integrity of biology teaching is under fire or compromised," he said, "the center goes there to provide support and lend resources to people who are actually fighting the fire."

Sometimes a creationist challenge can be "nipped in the bud" with just a few well-chosen maneuvers, Scott said.

For example, last year the school board in Post Falls, Idaho, at the behest of creationists in the community, wrote a policy statement that would have allowed creation scientists considerable latitude in making their views known in public schools. The Center for Science Education, contacted by a member of the community, reviewed the statement and discovered that the school district was opening itself to a violation of the laws of church and state. The suggestions made by the center kept the school district from running afoul of those laws, and the school curriculum did not change.

Lost battles

In other situations, creationists prevail. A year ago, a committee of educators in Kansas began a routine update of the state's science standards and called on the center for help on what it knew would be a delicate task. The statewide committee of 27 science teachers, which submitted the new standards to the Kansas Board of Education, was stunned two weeks ago when the board decided to drop evolution from the required state curriculum.

The battle to keep evolution in the classroom is a David vs. Goliath struggle. The Center for Science Education has an annual budget of $250,000, collected from members, compared with the $3 million of the Institute for Creation Research in Santee, Calif., one of several fundamentalist groups trying to discredit the teaching of evolution.

But Scott has a powerful slingshot in the form of clergy members who believe in evolution and scientists who believe in God. When a local resident steps up before the microphone at a public hearing, says he is a faithful Christian and also believes in evolution, people are mightily impressed. According to several polls, including one reported recently in Scientific American, about 40 percent of scientists believe in God. In local school board battles, members of the center will find such scientists in the community to testify.

Miller, for example, is both a scientist and Roman Catholic who has testified before numerous school boards on behalf of evolution. "The fact that I'm a practicing Christian takes away their unspoken fear that everyone in science is either an atheist or agnostic," he said. "I tell them why I believe evolution doesn't threaten the faith of young people."

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