Reports of the National Center for Science Education

When Creationists Visit Your School

RNCSE frequently reports on local controversies over whether to include evolution in science curricula, give "equal time" for "creation science", or discipline teachers who do — or don't! — teach evolution. Another recurring problem is school-sponsored assemblies featuring guest speakers who present "creation science" outside of the classroom, but on school premises.

According to federal law, student-sponsored religious activities occurring on public school premises during non-instructional time and without faculty participation are legal, while school-sponsored religious activities are not. Also, while schools may teach about religion, they may not advocate religious views, whether such views are presented by a guest or a school employee. Teachers or administrators sometimes believe they are complying with the law if they request parents written permission. In fact, just as a permission slip wouldn't make it legal to teach a child in an unsafe classroom, parents can't give permission for public schools to violate the First Amendment.

In some districts, the result of a school's sending home a permission slip has been that parents had time to react. In Albuquerque, New Mexico a parent whose child came home with such a permission slip consulted NCSE member Mark Boslough. Boslough obtained legal information from NCSE and explained the issues to the school's principal. As a result the assembly was canceled (NCSE Reports 1995 Winter; 15[4]: 16-7). There have also been cases in which a "creation assembly" couldn't be prevented and cases in which parents heard about it only afterward, as happened in the Moon Area School District near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. At the Moon-Area assemblies, a district employee made unarguably religious statements — for example, that rainbows represent God's promise not to cause another Great Flood. A lawsuit resulted and eventually the district agreed in an out-of-court settlement to stop holding such assembties (NCSE Reports 1994 Winter; 14[4]: 9).

A different course of events unfolded in Elma, Washington in May 1998, when the well-known "creation scientist" Walter Brown was scheduled to present "evidence against evolution" at a high school assembly. Though they received letters from both NCSE and the American Civil Liberties Union explaining why the assembly was neither educational nor constitutional, the superintendent and school board decided to go ahead with the assembly on May 8, on the grounds that only "scientific" arguments would be presented.

Since the assembly couldn't be prevented, and any lawsuit that might follow wouldn't correct the misinformation students received, biologist David Milne, who teaches at nearby Evergreen State College, offered to speak at a follow-up assembly Milne's presentation had two goals — to present authoritative information about evolution, and to help students evaluate Brown's "arguments against evolution". The information below is adapted from a letter Milne wrote to NCSE about his experience.

How to Set the Record Straight

Preparation is all important. Milne told NCSE that he spent at least 20 hours preparing for the assembly. He explained, "I reviewed a videotape of Brown's presentation. I also ordered his book by priority mail and studied as much of it as I could during the... [time] available.... I felt that... [I] had to address something he talked about, otherwise I would be perceived as dodging the issue." He also consulted scientists in other disciplines about some of Brown's arguments.

Suit the presentation to your audience. "I planned on talking for only an hour," Milne wrote. "Brown spoke for two; that's too much for high school students. I offered to return and spend another hour doing nothing but answering questions...." If you are making such a presentation, you should ask the advice of a teacher experienced with students in the grades you are addressing.

Stick to a few main points. "The keys were: Know what the creationist said and address that. Attack (with an example of evolution and an example of how bad creation science is). Don't let what the crcationist said determine your whole agenda. Address something big claimed by the creationist speaker head on, and also give some details about the creation model the crcationist will always avoid."

Choose "one really good example of how the fossil record shows evolution". Milne also told the students, "There are many more where that came from. I also told them how the creationists deal with that example." Using several slides, Milne explained fossil connections between the fish Ichthyostega and the amphibian Eusthenopteron. He pointed out that a transitional fossil exactly intermediate between two major groups — fishes and amphibians — is something that creationists say doesn't exist. This example also demonstrates macroevolution in the fossil record. He gave examples of creationist treatments of this information and "asked the students to compare mentally the detail I'd given them to the creationist treatment and suggested that the creationists really didn't want them to know the facts of this case.... The students were fascinated by the story, even to repeating the names of the fossil critters during the ensuing question period."

Give an example of bad creationist science. Milne offered Henry Morris's calculation of the age of the earth from carefully selected human population growth data. He told NCSE, "I hit on something that really made that point. I told them that the tide was rising that morning at about 2 feet per hour. If the average ocean depth is 12 000 feet, then 6000 hours ago, there was no water in the ocean at all; therefore the ocean was created at that time. I then went through Morris's population calculation which shows that there must have only been two people in the world about 4000 years before 1800. Interesting, but the same [calculation] gives no more than 600 people in the entire world when the Great Pyramid was built."

"I mentioned that in general, creationist math showing a young earth starts with unwarranted assumptions... and that it always leads to a conclusion ridiculous when you try to square it with other things we know, like the pyramid example.... This example wasn't as powerful as the first. The main value was that it showed that I was willing to tackle creationist 'science' head on."

Take an example from the creationist speaker's presentation, and take it apart. "Repeat what he said, what he didn't say (the part that he's embarrassed to reveal), then show why he's wrong." Milne gave a detailed, profusely illustrated rebuttal of Brown's treatment of the formation of the Grand Canyon, culminating with a comparison of aerial photographs of flood formations on Earth and Mars to photographs of the Grand Canyon. He told NCSE, "The climax was truly stupendous. Everyone sat staring at the slides thinking how obvious the marks were of the passage of the Spokane Flood and of the flood on Mars—and realizing, I think, that Brown had shown them no such things near the Grand Canyon."

After concluding by, "Telling 'em what I told 'em" — that creationists will always tell them that mainstream science is wrong about everything, don't believe them, check it out for yourself," Milne added a special twist. "I actually gave the students an assignment — comparing the evidence given by me and the other speaker and judging which seemed to be more credible." Milne gave the students copies of scientific articles from which Brown had taken quotes out of context. He circled the quotes, told the students to read the circled quotes and think about what they implied about the writer's views, then read the entire article and reconsider their earlier conclusions. Not only did this "evidence against misrepresentation" speak for itself, but it brought home the points of Milne's earlier presentation and gave students more time to absorb them.

"In the First Place, Do No Harm"

The students of Elma were lucky, not only because there was someone willing to "clean up" after a speaker who presented pseudoscience, but also because that someone was willing to spend hours of time preparing and to take advice from others in order to do a good job. If you hear about "creation science" being taught in your school district, NCSE may be able to help locate a good scientist who is comfortable with high school students and to help with preparation. But prevention is still the best cure, and if you hear ahead of time about a proposed "creation science" presentation, be sure to contact NCSE for information on how to keep it from happening — in the first place, or ever again.

[David Milne especially thanks NCSE member Pierre Stromberg for helping him obtain detailed information from many veteran "creationist watchers" and "especially, especially" thanks Richard and Dorothy Norton at Science Graphics for providing a complete set of teaching slides at short notice. NCSE thanks Eric Schuster Howard Pellett, and Patrick Pringle for sending background information used in this story.]
By Molleen Matsumura
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.