Have Fun with Creationists by Adrian Melott (November 2000)

November 2000

(Or: Bashing the Kansas State Bored)

How We Threw the Bums Out

This talk was presented on Sept. 16 to the twenty-third national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Adrian Melott, a physicist, astronomer and cosmologist, is Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Kansas. He has also served as a Unitarian minister.

His research interests are large-scale structure in the universe and dark matter. In 1996 he was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society, for “groundbreaking studies of the origin and evolution of cosmic structure.”

He was a founding director of Kansas Citizens For Science in 1999.

By Adrian Melott

You people have an image problem!

When I checked in here I told the desk clerk why I was here and who I was with, and she said, “Oh yes, you’re with the church conference.” I have a conflicted relationship with religion–being here, being a minister–a church one weekend, an atheist meeting the next!

Physicists always have had that conflict. There’s a story about two of the prominent physicists of the mid-20th century, Neils Bohr and George Gamow. Bohr invited Gamow to his cottage in Denmark one weekend. He arrived. Gamow looked up and saw a horseshoe over the entrance to the cottage. This is supposed to be a good luck charm in Denmark.

Gamow allegedly said to Bohr, “Surely you don’t believe that stuff.”

Bohr then said, “Well, no, of course not, but they say it works even if you don’t believe it.”

I have a semi-autobiographical story to tell, hopefully with some lessons in it. It’s partly about the rebirth of my activism, which had stopped in the 1970s and has come alive again recently.

In Kansas, as you know, we’ve had this struggle over creationism and the state science standards. We could see this coming like a freight train long before the publicity started. Two things happened in the spring of 1999–one of them was that creationists began shadowing the hearings of the science committee of the state board, going around the state and objecting to their draft science standards.

Simultaneously with this, in Lawrence, Kansas, a group called POSH formed–Parents for Objective Science and History. POSH was nucleated by a minister’s wife when she found her child learning about long time-scales for dinosaurs in a first grade class, went nonlinear and organized POSH, lobbying our local school board in Lawrence for creationist changes.

Some people got together and decided how to respond to this. We decided to do an experiment in not really taking them seriously as we struggled against them. We had a brainstorming session about how to do this and someone had the idea of organizing FLAT–Families for Learning Accurate Theories.

As I thought about this, I thought we could call ourselves “flatheads.” This wasn’t such a good idea maybe because I looked up “flatheads” and we have these definitions: A type of large catfish found in southern rivers; Indians who bound their children’s heads producing a flattened skull; an Indian tribe in Montana that never did that; a lake and river in Montana named after the Indian tribe that never did that; and the first mass-produced V-8 engine introduced by Henry Ford in 1932.

So we didn’t use Flatheads but we did have a press conference. Two people, I and a religious studies professor named Paul Mirecki, who were judged to have nothing to lose, were the people who represented FLAT and its platform. We sent out press releases and read our statement. Here are some excerpts:

“We wish to stress that we are a secular organization. We respect good science and good scholarship and have confidence that when properly done, the results will always agree with the Bible. Thus, we are interested in promoting good standards.

“The ’round-earth’ theory is being taught in Lawrence, contrary to the Bible. Of course, having the four corners does not mean the earth is a square or rectangle. It could be a tetrahedron. Our group is divided on this matter. We agree that careful experimentation will determine the outcome. You might ask about the astronauts who have gone out into space and why they haven’t reported about the true shape of the earth. Or how about those space satellites that go all around the earth. (Notice the use of the word ’round.’ The subtle brainwashing.)

“Ask yourself, have you ever seen a satellite? Did you ever talk to an astronaut? Sure, they told you those moving lights were satellites right back to the atheistic Sputnik. Ask yourself: If young Americans did go out into space and reported the truth, what would happen to them at the hands of the scientific establishment?

“Scripture, 1 Kings 7:23, clearly declares that the value of pi is 3, not the secular humanist value of 3.14 taught in every school in Lawrence. FLAT supports the teaching of the Biblical value on an equal footing with the secular value. Are these abstract ideas about pi?

“No, they have economic implications. Think, for example, about all the potential savings on tires, ball bearings and anything else that rolls.

“Remember that at the Tower of Babel God punished the human race for its pride by creating many languages so that peoples could never cooperate in building such a structure again. FLAT believes that the study of foreign languages is therefore unBiblical and seeks the removal of such courses from the curriculum at all levels.”

We did this straightfaced. Along with our press release we bought radio time and we bought ads in the newspaper. The radio station we chose was an A.M. station, Lawrence’s only A.M. station. I only listen to it during tornado warnings. It’s referred to as “the radio station that the other kind of white people listen to.” We also ran a newspaper ad, shown here. 

Our efforts got international attention focused on Kansas. We had commentary in Nature, an international science journal. We had interviews from all around the country.

Of course we got hate mail–three kinds: we got hate mail from fundamentalists because they didn’t like the way we were portraying them; we got hate mail from liberal Christians who resented being lumped in with the fundamentalists; and the best hate mail we got came from parody-impaired irate atheists.

Here are some examples:

“You people are retarded. You are all stupid. Do you have televisions? Have you ever seen the pictures of space beyond the earth where the earth is a sphere? To think the earth is square is moronic. You people need to get your heads checked.”

From an atheist chat: “It’s just this kind of religious fanaticism that is so dangerous. How can anybody in their right mind think that kids should be taught the world is flat?”

The reply from someone else: “I believe we’re seeing something called parody. In any case, I’ll bet dollars to donuts this is someone’s idea of a joke and a pretty darn funny one, too.”

Lastly, “Since you are so convinced that the earth is flat why don’t you just march and jump off.”

You get the idea.

Meanwhile, all this happens and people send email bouncing around the world about all this, and simultaneously we have the state school board events. The state school board is having hearings and we can see what’s coming. There’s testimony going on. It’s like a freight train. We know it’s going to happen but we can’t wake people up.

(This freight train is now heading toward Nebraska. Those of you who are from Nebraska–right now: there are creationists running for the state school board in Nebraska. Kansas creationists are now touring Nebraska giving talks, trying to drum up support for this. People who are working on this issue in Nebraska can’t get anyone to pay attention to them. They can’t get it into the newspapers. So watch Nebraska, it’s next. If anyone wants to email me, I can put you in touch with people in Nebraska who are trying to begin to develop some opposition to this.)

We began to organize since we saw the freight train coming. The particular thing I did was to use the Internet to monitor newspapers all over the state of Kansas. I watched the letters to the editor in all the major newspapers and every time someone wrote a letter I approved of, I used a search engine to find them, get in touch with them, get their name, address, phone number, email, on a list. And after a couple of months I had a few dozen people on a list, all of whom had taken the time and who had the brains and ability to write a good letter. It was a very selective list. I recommend that form of electronic organizing. Especially in big decentralized states, it works well.

What the Kansas School Board passed, by the way, didn’t outlaw evolution, it merely deleted it from the standards. It also removed things to do with the Big Bang, with the environment, with changing the description of science. It also inserted hooks so that at certain times creationist classroom materials would be called upon. Deep behind it are the young earth creationists.

To get a flavor of their work, I recommend the website http://christiananswers.net/, especially their sections on dinosaurs. You can see things like smiley-faced T-Rex, whom we find out was a friendly vegetarian in the Garden of Eden.

Some pressure had been building and a number of teachers were anxious about possible pressure on their science teaching. After our press conference, newspaper ad campaign, and radio ad, the pressure went off. POSH was perceived pretty much as a joke.

On a Kansas statewide level, young earth creationists were behind the changes, although the extent of their involvement had never been made public. They were portrayed as being something for local choice, local control. All through this the creationists’ campaign was, “we didn’t forbid evolution, we simply put this in the hands of local school boards.”

This is a NCSE map of Kansas: we have old earth, young earth, intelligent design, survival of the fittest, germs cause disease, demons cause disease, storks bring babies, the moon is made of green cheese, you get the idea–local control of science education. Notice they don’t want local control of anything like English or math. They never discuss local control except for this sort of thing.

As a result of the State Board Science Standards, we had another media blitz. Why? Why did Kansas get all this attention? After all, the same thing had been done elsewhere. It happened in Illinois. If you’re from Illinois, go look at your state science standards in biology. I think the reason was that FLAT drew attention to Kansas and then the media were primed and ready and interested. Then there was this noisy group of people beginning to make opposition to what happened. Newspapers like conflict, so they became interested in Kansas.

A few months after this, Kansas Citizens For Science (KCFS) was born. We now have a couple of hundred paid members and another few hundred who monitor us for information, mostly via email. We kept going back to the state school board testifying. Every month we would go during public comment time. My favorite thing was to sign up late so that I would be the last person to speak, never plan a speech, and simply rebut something that some creationist would say. Believe me, there was plenty of butt to re-butt. We had a circus atmosphere at times. One month the Hare Krishnas showed up and profusely thanked the creationists for what they had done to put good science back, and gave Linda Holloway, the fundamentalist chair of our state school board, a consciousness-expanding brownie, which they claimed was completely legal.

Meanwhile outside, one of our friends was picketing in a gorilla suit. We had three or four organizations. So I really like previous speaker Woody Kaplan’s comment about having lots of alphabet soup–we have FLAT to do parodies and Save Our School for the gorilla suit thing, Kansas Citizens For Science for a very serious, studious approach–that worked well. We had a broad coalition. I can’t say how important that is. There are many Christians and others who support good science and this counters the wedge strategy that the fundamentalists have which is: you’re with us or you’re an atheist (or you’re with us or you’re supporting atheism implicitly).

People have done careful analyses of possible theological responses to the interplay between science and religion and identified at least seven different possible responses one can have to the relationship between religion and scientific understandings. One of the best people, one of the most effective members Kansas Citizens For Science has, is an evangelical Christian geologist who goes around to fundamentalist churches and talks about how silly the whole creationists’ program is, and he has exactly the credentials to deal with them. He knows their literature, he knows the scientific literature, he even knows the history of fundamentalism. The first fundamentalists even didn’t seem to have a problem with evolution, most of them–it’s a modern phenomenon.

Another thing we did was emphasize economic effects, effects on education in Kansas, effects on whether or not corporations would want to relocate to Kansas, effects on the Kansas schools which, after all, do typically have standardized test scores well above the national average and climbing. We appealed to the prospect that children from Kansas might have trouble getting into good universities, even the ones in their own state. We think that these pragmatic appeals to self-interest work better than abstract appeals to some kind of truth. We think they have a bigger effect on the electorate.

KCFS is also a 501(c)(3) organization, and the organization worked to educate the public about evolution and to let the public know what the positions of the various candidates were. KCFS never endorsed candidates. That’s the way it has been working and will continue to work in Kansas.

We have many kinds of people in the organization: many scientists but also ministers, advertising people, labor organizers.

Result: we have a primary and then an election. We already had the primary, and the election, as I speak, is yet to come. We had been losing 6-4 in the school board; we needed to knock out two of these people and we had two rounds to do it. Five of the ten are up for vote and we needed to knock out two. We knocked out three in the primary. There are two races left in the general election where a creationist is opposing another person.

If I could guess what will happen there, I’d say the incumbent will win both races and that means that one creationist and one noncreationist will win. My prediction is then we will have a school board that’s 7-3 against the creationists come November. The best they can have is four, no matter what happens, and in two more years we get a chance to go after the rest of them. By the time the you read this the answer will be known.

There are remarkable events here. First of all, in a couple of races the creationists outspent their opponents 3-1 and still lost by large margins. The second thing is that they lost by these large margins at the same time that other conservative Republicans were winning primaries by large margins in the very same district. This means that our wedge strategy worked–we managed to split off the religious radicals from the other rightwing conservative Republicans. At least a third to a half of the conservative Republicans realized these people are nuts. It’s the only way you can explain the victory.

We had some help. People for the American Way came in the state, did some things and left. There was a joint statement by the presidents of all six universities; that helped. But I think the grassroots efforts were what did it: many, many letters to editors all over the state, public speakers, people going and asking tough questions of candidates, emphasizing pragmatic issues.

I want to look briefly at their strategies and the strategies we used, and the ones that I think might win and might help. One, again, is their wedge strategy: you’re with us or you’re an atheist. We belie that by having a range of people making statements and explaining that science doesn’t have any position on religious issues. It’s very simple to say that, but it’s very hard to get it across to the public. The creationists have lots of ways of trying to make it appear that science makes judgments about religious things. They tried a double strategy of simultaneously broadening and narrowing their attack. They produced some documents that attacked all of science, believe it or not, even including gravity! One draft standard referred to Newton’s theory of gravity as something that had not been tested very well. At the same time they did that, they put forth other documents that only attack evolution or other things about origins, cosmology, etc.

The second group of documents then look like compromises. That’s one of the things that gave them their early victory. One person on the state school board took that to be a compromise and gave it his vote.

Part of this broadening and narrowing strategy is something called Intelligent Design Theory that I want to draw your attention to very strongly. The strategy here is for the creationists to shut up about things like the age of the earth and so on and make a big deal only about one thing–evolution. Intelligent Design Theory has a few people who write for it who have reasonable scientific credentials, in particular, one information theorist and one biochemist. Their arguments aren’t very good, but they know enough to dress them up and make them sound good. Michael Behe is a biochemist whose arguments are convincing to all but biochemists. Dembski does information theory and physics which seem very erudite to all but information theorists and physicists.

KU Natural History Museum director Leonard Krishtalka said, “Intelligent Design is creationism in a cheap tuxedo.” I agree. What they’re doing, what they’re having success with, is broadening their demographic base. Intelligent Design is attracting new kinds of people. Engineers and medical doctors are really susceptible to this stuff. I don’t know what it is about doctors and engineers, but ID gets lots of them. Maybe it’s because these people deal primarily with applied science; they generally don’t create new knowledge. At any rate, Intelligent Design Creationism is largely a middle-class phenomenon and to some extent an academic phenomenon. That makes it dangerous. The danger it has is that it will split off the biologists from the rest of science and then they’ll be able to attack only the biologists and the rest of us will let it go.

Philip Johnson is a Berkeley lawyer. He’s an Intelligent Design advocate from the point of view of philosophy as opposed to science. He’s a very good speaker, a very congenial person. He came to Lawrence to give a talk about Intelligent Design, so we went after him in a bi-pronged attack. Kansas Citizens For Science produced some very serious pamphlets that critiqued his positions, which are available to download on our website by the way, http://www.kcfs.org/. About 20 people hit all entrances to this auditorium, and we leafleted and reached about half the audience of about a thousand people. We let them know what he’d say (he’s very predictable) and then provided critical comments.

FLAT also leafleted from a particularly different point of view. This is the tract FLAT produced: “Philip Johnson doesn’t believe in the Bible. The Bible says the earth is flat but Philip Johnson thinks it’s round. The Bible says God made foreign languages so people couldn’t understand each other, but Philip Johnson supports foreign language teaching. The Bible says pi equals 3 but Philip Johnson thinks pi equals 3.1416. The Bible says the earth is about 6,000 years old but Philip Johnson won’t say that. Philip Johnson is a liberal.” That was a wedge strategy!

There are two kinds of Intelligent Design. One kind has come out of Physics. I call it type I ID. People like Paul Davies are representative of this. It’s about the fine-tuning of the universe. It’s a bunch of arguments about how the values of various physical constants are in a very narrow range which allows life to exist. These people typically think of the universe as something which was constructed so that we could evolve, could be here. I’m not a particular fan of this point of view, but I think it’s mostly harmless. That is, it may be a theological position that doesn’t appeal to me, but I have not yet seen any attempt to compromise science teaching from this.

Type II ID, on the other hand, is the kind associated with Dembski, Behe and Johnson, which seeks to undercut evolution and the whole naturalistic approach to science, the wedge strategy. The Discovery Institute, which you can find on its website and its sub-organization, the Center for Renewal of Science and Theology, has the avowed purpose of turning this country into a theocracy within 20 years. They’re upfront about it. There’s a document you can find on the web called The Wedge Strategy that basically describes this. Getting people to talk about Intelligent Design a lot in public is their first goal. Here I am doing it–I’m spreading the virus. See how insidious it is!

The second strategy is to get it into the public schools. Eventually the naturalistic methodology of science becomes compromised, and then on to the rest of the culture. It’s hard to combat this stuff. I think it’s really useful to watch their methods more than their content. This is very hard to do, because we’re intellectually oriented. We tend to pay attention to what people say. I think it can be more important to pay attention to how they operate.

Example: In a confrontation between a creationist and someone else, you may see claims and counterclaims about carbon dating, etc., but you might notice that the creationists will perhaps attack science without making any assertions of their own. So there’s a hidden assumption: If B is wrong, then A must be right. And he’ll just attack B, but that will never be explicit. It might help, for example, to ask for positive evidence for his point of view. Or perhaps to point out the hidden assumption.

In his attack on science, you may find that he’ll attack science and the person he’s dealing with may be able to respond to all his claims, but he’ll keep changing the subject until he finds an area that his opponents don’t know anything about. Then he’s home free–because he knows his opponent will shut up when he doesn’t know about things, but he doesn’t observe that constraint, so he’s won.

These are the kind of tactics that you have to be really aware of and watch closely; some of them have been written up in an essay in the Spring 2000 issue of Physics and Society.

For a great deal of other useful information on this and other topics related to combating creationism and supporting good science education, I commend the websites of the National Center for Science Education, (http://ncse.com/), and of Kansas Citizens for Science. By the way, if you buy books from Barnes and Noble via the link on the KCFS website, we receive a donation. Both the KCFS and NCSE websites are rich with links to useful resources. I like TalkOrigins, which examines creationist pseudoscience in detail.

Remember that it’s a political struggle and small numbers of people can have very large effects. I think that probably about 20 people taken together are responsible for about half of the political activity around this issue in Kansas, counting both sides. I would say that if you count 200 people, you’ve probably got 90% of the activity solely around the science standards issue. I’m urging you to get involved and saying you don’t have to be an expert to get involved. They’re not experts. They’re mostly just very slick liars.

I thought in passing I’d make a couple of comments about religion and about belief. One thing I’ve seen widely, and I think I’ve seen here, is the assumption that the definition of religion is believing things. That’s one way of thinking about religion; that’s a very western intellectual way of thinking about religion. And even in that there are different kinds of responses. The Dalai Lama is reported to have said something like, “If the Tibetan Buddhist religion is found to be in conflict with modern science, then the Tibetan Buddhist religion would have to change.” Whether you believe certain things is not central to many religions.

It’s not entirely accurate but there’s a grain of truth in saying that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. It’s not explicitly atheistic but it’s a religion in which psychological effects of behavior are much more important than any kind of mythological beliefs. Similarly with Islam and to a lesser extent Judaism, obedience to the law is the important thing, not intellectualizing beliefs, etc.

Whatever you think about that, if you want to win these battles you have to be willing to make broad coalitions with as many people as you can muster on whatever the issue may be. That worked extremely well for us in throwing out the creationists.

I worked with an early childhood education expert and we developed curricula aimed at first to fourth-grade level that deal with modern cosmology and to some extent with evolution, and this can be found on my website.

The curricula were field-tested with young children with a great deal of success in developing their interest in the origins of the universe and of life on this planet. The children have been enthusiastic about it. There are two versions: one’s a public school version, one’s a Sunday school version of the curriculum kit.

So, this is really a battle. Do we continue to learn new things about our Universe and the life on this planet? Does the United States become an enclave of narrow, ignorant people?

That’s how we kicked ass; go thou and do likewise.

Freedom From Religion Foundation