Sunday, February 20, 2011

Forrest in Sacramento

Darwin Day 2011

California's state capital observed Darwin Day on Sunday, February 13, 2011, at the La Sierra Community Center in Carmichael. The event was co-sponsored by several Sacramento-area organizations, including Sacramento Area Skeptics (the sponsors of last year's California tour by PZ Myers), the departments of biology and anthropology at Sacramento State University, the departments of astronomy and physics at Sacramento City College, Atheists and other Freethinkers, and local chapters of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

There were about two to three hundred people in attendance. They were welcomed by Mynga Futrell, co-chair of the organizing committee, who made a special point of emphasizing that the event was in honor of Charles Darwin and not a celebration of atheism. It was apparent that the organizers were at pains to make religious people feel welcome at the event, even at the cost of making them uncomfortable by stressing so earnestly that they were among friends. The Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento had a display table in the back of the hall, but no other religious organizations were visible. Perhaps the outreach to theistic evolutionists will succeed in drawing other sects to next year's Darwin Day, but it's not an easy task to construct a big-tent approach to Darwin Day when so many of Darwin's admirers consider him the man who made God an unnecessary hypothesis in biology. I expect that Darwin Day will continue to be dominated by people for whom religion is at best a cultural artifact and at worst the mortal enemy.

The master of ceremonies was Liam McDaid, the astronomy coordinator at Sacramento City College. McDaid made for a high-spirited emcee, lapsing occasionally into an Irish brogue when he deemed that the occasion warranted. He gave a laudatory introduction to the afternoon's featured speaker, Dr. Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University, professor of philosophy in the department of history and political science, and co-author (with Paul Gross) of Creationism's Trojan Horse.

Back to the Future: Or, What Can We Learn from Louisiana's 2008 Science Education Act?

Dr. Forrest had a front-row seat in her home state of Louisiana as right-wing forces converged on Baton Rouge to push a creationist agenda through the state legislature and onto the desk of the Bayou State's new creation-friendly governor. Her Darwin Day presentation outlined the events and players that produced the nation's first anything-goes science curriculum for public schools.

The Louisiana Science Education Act is one of those legislative measures that supposedly promotes “critical thinking,” but only in the case of evolution or climate change or some other topic disfavored by the Christian right. It never seems important to fret about the lack of statutory critical-thinking guidelines in matters such as the roundness of the earth or the heliocentric nature of the solar system (but perhaps we just need to wait a little longer). It's evolution that must always be called into question and treated with arch-skepticism.

As Forrest pointed out, creationism has evolved over the decades under the pressure of natural selection. As one ploy after another fails, creationism adapts to the new circumstances and changes in response. The foes of evolution, however, never seem to notice the irony of their adherence to Darwin's model. Forrest chose her “Back to the Future” title because Louisiana had enacted an overtly pro-creationist measure in 1981. The U.S. Supreme Court famously declared the bill unconstitutional in Edwards v. Aguillard as a violation of the separation between church and state. Having learned at least part of the lesson of the Edwards decision, creationists had redirected their efforts in the 2008 bill. Under the banner of “academic freedom,” they abandoned the mandating of creationism and focused on permitting it.

In the case of the Louisiana Science Education Act, the strategic retreat worked. The creationists crafted a permissive approach that empowered public school teachers to supplement state-approved science texts and instructional materials with whatever outside materials the teachers might choose. This opened the door wide for an influx of creationist literature that creation-minded science teachers (an unfortunately large minority among public-school faculty) could distribute to their students and use as the basis of anti-science instruction. As Forrest phrased it, under the Louisiana Science Education Act, a creationist teacher “can use whatever she wants until she gets caught.” To make matters even worse, the anti-evolutionists managed to co-opt the complaint process provided by the new legislation. Under the regulations approved by the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), parents who complain about inappropriate classroom materials will find themselves dealing with a review process stacked in favor of the creationists.

The Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008 was not made out of whole cloth. It had its origins in model legislation promoted by the Discovery Institute. The DI's Casey Luskin was much in evidence during the progress of Senate Bill 733 through the enactment process (the vote was unanimous in its favor in the state senate and 94 to 3 in the state house of representatives) and its arrival on the governor's desk. When Gov. Jindal was supposedly pondering the measure, science organizations across the nation sent him messages exhorting him to veto it. Even his former biology professor, Dr. Arthur Landy, issued an earnest request that Jindal not make it more difficult for Louisiana students to become doctors by debasing their science education (Jindal once planned to go to medical school). The governor ignored them all and did not bother to respond to their arguments.

Although Gov. Jindal signed the bill without any publicity on June 25, 2008, someone apparently tipped off the Discovery Institute that he was about to approve SB 733. The DI posted a victory declaration on its website within minutes of the announcement from the governor's office that SB 733 was now state law. (It now resides on the Louisiana books as Act 473.)

In an appearance on Face the Nation shortly before signing SB 733, Jindal offered TV viewers a word-salad mash-up of nouveau-creationist talking points:
I don’t think students learn by us withholding information from them.… I want them to see the best data. I personally think human life and the world we live in wasn’t created accidentally. I do think that there’s a creator.… Now the way that he did it, I’d certainly want my kids to be exposed to the very best science. I don’t want any facts or theories or explanations to be withheld from them because of political correctness.
“Withholding information”? “Political correctness”? These phrases are mere screens for smuggling creationism into the public school classroom under the guise of promoting “the very best science.” Jindal was flying the combined banners of “teach the controversy” and “academic freedom.” Scientists told him very clearly that these framing devices were a distortion, but he chose not to listen to them. Jindal is, after all, the anointed one. Literally. As Dr. Forrest pointed out, Jindal went through a formal laying-on-of-hands ceremony in 2007 at a Christmas gathering of the Louisiana Family Forum, a group that vigorously lobbied for SB 733 the following year.

Despite the enactment of the Louisiana Science Education Act, creationism has suffered a few recent setbacks. First of all, and perhaps most significantly, BESE approved mainstream scientific textbooks for use in public school classrooms, beating back an attempt by creationists to forestall the adoption of evolution-based biology texts. In addition, creationists posing as science experts have been unmasked as frauds and exponents of discredited and outlandish theories. (Of course, this has seldom discouraged them in the past.)

Forrest stated that she and her colleagues at the Louisiana Coalition for Science will be alert to future attempts by creationists to exploit Act 473 and in particular will assist parents who complain about anti-scientific materials being used in science classes. The deck has been stacked against science in Louisiana, but pro-science forces are vigilant and fighting back. Forrest cited the example of Zachary Kopplin, a high school senior in Baton Rouge who has taken on the ambitious project of repealing the Louisiana Science Education Act. Zachary has his work cut out for him, but he is working in earnest to restore science education's credibility in his home state. Forrest referred interested parties to Zachary's website.

Dr. Forrest's talk was followed by a Q&A session and a birthday party for Charles Darwin, complete with birthday cake. Longtime participants in Sacramento's Darwin Day observations seemed to agree that the fourteenth annual event in the state capital was one of the most successful. It was Dr. Forrest's first visit to Sacramento and her reception was both friendly and enthusiastic. At least one fan was seen getting her autograph on his hardback copy of Creationism's Trojan Horse.


The National Center for Science Education has posted a video of Barbara Forrest's talk as she delivered it on April 24, 2010. The video is marginal and the audio is poor, but the content closely parallels Forrest's presentation at Sacramento's Darwin Day.

Update: Dr. Forrest's presentation in Sacramento is now posted on the NCSE's YouTube account: Darwin Day 2011.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Jindal has a problem. Since he's a Republican, no one's wondering about his birth certificate, but there's no denying that he's the son of non-Christian and non-European immigrants. And Piyush Amrit (though not as inflammatory as Barack Hussein) isn't exactly "Amurrican".

So he's got to be redder-necked and more evangelical than thou (though he's a Catholic, which might not play well in states more Protestant than Louisiana). At any rate, he's desperate to blend in, which - given his choice to be Republican - means he's got to be more anti-science than thou, too.

Glenn Branch said...

Forrest's talk in Sacramento was taped, and we hope to have the video on the NCSE YouTube channel shortly.

Glenn Branch said...

As promised: