from The Textbook Letter, July-August 1997

Combating Creationism
in a Louisiana School System

When creationists tried to push their religious doctrines into the public schools of Livingston Parish, they promoted a bogus "curriculum guide" and concocted pseudoscientific "lesson plans" tied to textbooks that students were using in science courses. When the creationists' deceptions were exposed, the parish's science curriculum committee got the message, but that was not the end of the matter.

Barbara Forrest

Livingston Parish lies in southeastern Louisiana, near Lake Ponchartrain. The parish seat is the town of Livingston, about 75 miles northwest of New Orleans.

In 1994 a religious organization called the Origins Resource Association, based in New Orleans, began a campaign to force creationist doctrines into science classes taught in the parish's public schools. I led the opposition to that campaign, and my strategy was to expose the falsity of the creationists' "scientific" claims. Here is my account of what happened.

In May 1994, three members of the Origins Resource Association -- including the organization's president, Edward Boudreaux -- attended a meeting of the Livingston Parish chapter of the Christian Coalition. According to an item on the agenda for that meeting, the Coalition chapter was contemplating an effort to force a change in the Livingston Parish School Board's "policy on the teaching of evolution." That policy said that science teachers would provide instruction about organic evolution, in accordance with the State of Louisiana's recommended curriculum.

The Christian Coalition and the ORA evidently collaborated during the ensuing months, and in March of 1995 they made two moves. The ORA sent to the School Board a document titled Models of Origins Curriculum Guide and began pressing the Board to adopt it. At about the same time, the head of the Christian Coalition chapter, John Gallman, delivered a 1,500-signature petition that urged the Board to put "intelligent design" into science classes as an alternative to the principle of organic evolution [see note 1, below]. (Significantly, Gallman did not tell the Board that he was working for the Christian Coalition.)

The Creationists' Charlatanism

The ORA Curriculum Guide hadn't been written for Livingston Parish. The ORA had compiled it, at least a year earlier, during a campaign to promote creationism in the schools of Tangipahoa Parish, which borders Livingston Parish on the east. The guide's "Acknowledgements" [sic] page expressed thanks "to the Tangipahoa Parish School Board for their interest and cooperation in the development of this document." Strangely, though, the guide had never been introduced into the Tangipahoa proceedings, and the ORA had apparently dropped out of those proceedings shortly after they began.

The Livingston Parish School Board turned the Curriculum Guide over to the Parish's science curriculum committee (which comprised 25 science teachers) and charged the committee with examining the guide and recommending whether it ought to be adopted. I soon got a copy of it for myself and began to analyze it. I was assisted in this effort by Nicole Berthelemy-Okazaki, a biologist who teaches in Southeastern Louisiana University's Department of Biological Sciences.

The cover of the Curriculum Guide showed the name of only one author, Edward A. Boudreaux, but the "Acknowledgements" page cited contributions by two other persons: Martha A. Hohensee and David A. Prentice. As I would learn later, Hohensee was a special-education teacher from Orleans Parish, and Prentice taught at a Bible college.

As far as content was concerned, the Curriculum Guide was a testament to creationist incompetence and charlatanism. Its only respectable passages had been plagiarized from curriculum documents issued by the State of Louisiana, such as the state's set of objectives for science education. All the material that hadn't been plagiarized was hogwash, evidently intended to create confusion and to introduce creationist slogans -- such as "intelligent design," "initial complexity" and "a young Earth" -- into science classes [note 2]. For example:

To illustrate what I mean by hogwash and the deliberate creation of confusion, here are some items from the "Competency Performance Objectives" in the Curriculum Guide:

  • Objective 1 said that "The Student will be able to: Define Origins in relation to science, history and belief." The first "Suggested Activity" for achieving this objective was to "Discuss belief as a consideration for which a scientific test can be devised" -- which falsely insinuated that any and all personal beliefs can be tested scientifically. In another "Suggested Activity," the student was to ponder a "case example" in which a paleontologist supposedly found a dinosaur bone and then published a report saying that the dinosaur "had bad breath and a nasty disposition"!

  • Objective 8 introduced "initial complexity," along with the meaningless, redundant phrase "initial primitiveness." The student was expected to "Define initial primitiveness and initial complexity in relation to expected direction of change," with the help of two activities. The first was to locate "Initial Primitiveness (I.P.) and Initial Complexity (I.C.)" on a "bar graph or continuum," with no explanation of how this might be done or why it would be relevant to anything. In the second activity, the student would have to "Research and report on (1) Prigogine's model of how order might arise in chaotic systems; (2) Second Law of Thermodynamics and circumstances needed to temporarily override it." This was plain chicanery. There are no circumstances that "temporarily override" the second law, so the students were to be sent on a wild-goose chase. And it was preposterous to ask young students to read the abstruse publications of Ilya Prigogine, whose scientific work had brought him a Nobel Prize in 1977. These two "activities" obviously had no purpose but to leave the student confused and bewildered.

  • In Objective 14, the student was expected to discuss mutations and DNA duplication, but there were two irrelevant activities that involved vestigial organs: "Discuss the concept of vestigial organs," and "Give students an equal number of Wedersheim's list of leftover organs. Students research and identify the function of organs on their list" [note 3]. There was no information about "Wedersheim" or where his list of organs could be found, and these matters are still mysterious today. Even with help from Berthelemy-Okazaki and from the National Center for Science Education, I have not been able to discover any reference to a "Wedersheim" in the biological literature.

  • Objective 20 included an extraneous phrase which the guide-writers had enclosed in brackets: "State reasons for the growing popularity of cladistics and Neo-Darwinism [should be Punctuated Equilibria]." What this meant was unclear. It might have meant that the ORA intended to replace the term "Neo-Darwinism" with "Punctuated Equilibria," believing that these two terms are equivalent. (They are not.) An activity accompanying this objective was to "Discuss Schindewolf's `Hopeful Monster' mechanism." This was another indication of the ORA's incompetence. The "hopeful monster" hypothesis was not the work of Otto Schindewolf (an early-20th-century paleontologist). It had been put forth by Richard Goldschmidt, a German-American zoologist, who mentioned it in his book The Material Basis of Evolution, published in 1941. It is not important today, and pretending that it represents any current scientific thinking about evolution would only cause students to become more confused.

  • In Objective 21 the ORA promoted the creationists' claim that Earth is only a few thousand years old. The student was expected to "List evidence for an old earth and a young earth," as if the age of Earth were an unresolved scientific issue. Where would "evidence" for a young earth come from? The answer was provided in an accompanying activity -- "View the filmstrip: `Geological Formations: Young Or Old?' " Turning to the list of "References and Resources" at the back of the Curriculum Guide, I found that this filmstrip was a creationist production, distributed by the Creation Filmstrip Center in Haviland, Kansas.

The "References and Resources" list was interesting in itself. To achieve a look of legitimacy, it showed some titles of scientific works (apparently lifted from state curriculum guides). Mixed with these were the titles of various creationist creations, including the books Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins and Evolution: A Theory in Crisis [note 4]. Another creationist book was listed as How to Teach Origins, although its full title is How To Teach Origins (Without Interference from the ACLU). The ORA's writers had altered the title, evidently hoping to downplay the legal ramifications of their proposal. .

The Curriculum Guide also contained bizarre activities that were irrelevant to any "objectives" or that seemed to have no purpose at all. In one case, students would "Pour HCl or vinegar over clam shells" and "Determine the pattern and direction of change." There was no explanation of what this meant or what value it might have. In another case, students would "Blow upward on a ping pong ball with a hair dryer, then blow downward" -- which was supposed to help the students achieve this objective: "Identify and relate I.P.'s Big Bang and I.C.'s natural laws of science to the development of the universe"!

I made the School Board aware of the fraudulence of the ORA Curriculum Guide, which I described at Board meetings, and I publicly challenged the credentials of the people who had put the Curriculum Guide together. (I also informed the Board that John Gallman was an agent of the Christian Coalition. I did this during a Board meeting at which Gallman refused even to tell his name until, at my urging, the Board required him to do so.) I hoped that if I called attention to the guide's duplicity and sloppiness, the Board would see that this document deserved to be consigned to the trash without further ado. I did not succeed in this.

In June the creationists' campaign got a boost. Raiford Leader, the curriculum supervisor for Livingston Parish's schools, invited the creationists to develop lesson plans for two science courses. The lesson plans were to be linked to two state-approved science textbooks: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich's General Science (1989), which was already in use in the parish's 9th-grade general-science course; and Holt, Rinehart and Winston's Modern Biology (1989), which was being used in the 10th-grade biology course.

Leader extended a similar invitation to me, but I refused to bite. I could see nothing to be gained by such an exercise, and I already had plenty to keep me busy. Nicole Berthelemy-Okazaki and I were beginning to work on a formal critique of the Curriculum Guide, and I also had a great many letters to write.

One of my letters went to Ilya Prigogine. I told him how the ORA had tried to connect him to the notion that "circumstances" could "temporarily override" the second law of thermodynamics.

In his reply Prigogine said, "Regarding the [Curriculum Guide] prepared by the Origins Resource Association, I would like to note in particular that my theories on the origin of order do not in any way find an exception to the second law of thermodynamics. The second law remains valid in all physical processes." (I mailed copies of his reply, along with articles identifying him as a Nobel laureate, to all the members of the School Board and all the members of the science curriculum committee.)

Some of my other letters went to scientific organizations, to individual scientists, or to national education organizations. I told them what was going on in Livingston Parish, and I asked for help in countering the creationists' campaign.

The education organizations were the School Science and Mathematics Association, the National Science Teachers Association, the National Association of Geology Teachers, and the American Association of Physics Teachers. Only the first one responded, advising me to seek help from the National Center for Science Education. The three other associations didn't reply at all, to my great disappointment.

However, I did get results from the scientific community, especially after one scientist to whom I had written alerted his colleagues by using the PaleoNet Pages on the Internet. Altogether, about two dozen scientific societies, individual scientists, and individual science teachers sent letters to the Board, urging that the ORA Curriculum Guide not be adopted.

An Old Creationist Trick

Early in August the creationists submitted the lesson plans that Raiford Leader had invited them to write. The author of the lesson plans was Charles Voss, who teaches electrical and computer engineering at Louisiana State University (in Baton Rouge). The School Board turned Voss's documents over to the same committee that was evaluating the Curriculum Guide.

Both the 9th-grade and the 10th-grade plans incorporated the same kinds of ridiculous, confusing material that had appeared in the Curriculum Guide. For example, in one of his lesson plans for 10th-grade biology Voss gave a highly misleading passage about mutations and chromosomal aberrations, then presented two activities that were based on glaring misrepresentations. Here is one of them, allegedly intended to "demonstrate what mutation probability means":

Needed: 1 die and a sheet of graph paper.

Goal: Try to get from a point at 1,1 (species A) at the lower left hand corner of the graph paper to the upper right hand corner (species B). Instead of using the 1 to 1000 probability evolutionists suggest use the die with a probability of 1 to 6. Let 1 represent a favorable mutation and advance one square towards species B along any path. Any other number represents an unfavorable mutation and means go back one square. Three successive unfavorable mutations means go back to A since the organism is probably dead.

QUESTIONS: Will we ever get species B?

If the odds were 1 to 1000, would this help us get species B?

Challenge the students to choose (a) macro evolution or (b) creation by design to explain the diversity in living organisms. . . .

Voss was using an old creationist trick, aimed at convincing children that there is virtually no chance that species can undergo evolution -- virtually no chance that one species can give rise to another. It is a trick because it presents a completely false model of evolution and a completely false picture of how biologists view the process of speciation. Students are led to believe that biologists regard evolution as a process in which a particular species (A) tries to turn itself into another particular species (B) -- but this model has no scientific basis, has no standing in biology, and is unrelated to anything that actually happens in nature. No biologist holds that evolution has a preordained goal, or that a species purposefully strives to become some other, predetermined species.

As expected, Voss's 10th-grade lesson plans included some references to the textbook Modern Biology. In one instance, Voss directly attacked the book's author, Albert Towle. Commenting on an activity given in Modern Biology, Voss wrote: "This investigation is not good science as presented. . . . The data seems [sic] manufactured. Any conclusions drawn from this investigation are in error." When I saw this, I called Towle and told him what the ORA was doing. Then I sent him a letter and some copies of pages from Voss's lesson plans.

Towle sent a long, strongly worded response, which I copied and distributed to the School Board and the science curriculum committee. He denounced Voss's material, rejected any attempt to associate Voss's lesson plans with Modern Biology, and cited a dozen cases in which Voss had made false or misleading statements.

In mid-August, Berthelemy-Okazaki and I finished our written critique of the Curriculum Guide. Again, I sent copies to all the members of the School Board and all the members of the science curriculum committee. The critique was 70 pages long. Most of it consisted of our own analytical work, demonstrating that the guide was loaded with false claims, scientific errors, and misleading language. However, we also included some observations from Anne Sinclair, a professor of science education in Southeastern Louisiana University's Department of Teacher Education. Sinclair's comments included these: "No teacher could teach by that guide. . . . The objectives are not cited specifically in an observable or measurable manner. . . . I would give the [Curriculum Guide] an F."

The Committee's Decision

On 26 September 1995 the science curriculum committee met to hear comments from the public and to write a recommendation concerning the Curriculum Guide. The people who addressed the committee included three scientists from Louisiana State University: Gary Byerly, chairman of the Department of Geology and Geophysics; Mark Hafner, a zoologist who is the curator of LSU's Museum of Natural Science; and Russ Chapman, a biologist who serves as an LSU vice-chancellor.

Byerly stressed the fact that Earth is several billion years old, cited some of the pertinent evidence, and made clear that there is no scientific question about whether Earth is "old" or "young." He also cited several misrepresentations in the Curriculum Guide. Hafner told the committee: "If the children of Livingston Parish are subjected to [the guide's] misinformation, we biologists at LSU, Southeastern and other universities are certainly going to have a mess to untangle when your children get to college." Chapman commented on the high quality of the education that Livingston Parish's schools have offered in recent years, and then he talked about the status of the theory of evolution in the scientific community. While there is debate about various aspects of evolutionary processes, Chapman said, the principle of evolution is a reality.

Boudreaux and Voss spoke too, with Boudreaux attempting to undermine the evidence that evolution occurs. Voss was woefully unprepared, and he was completely stumped when a member of the committee pressed him to explain how "intelligent design" could be tested scientifically.

After hearing from these and other speakers, the members of the science curriculum committee retired to consider their recommendation. They soundly rejected the Curriculum Guide, by a vote of 23 to 2, and said that the Livingston Parish schools should

Reject creationism in the science curriculum and reject all words and phrases that encompass creationism, intelligent design theory, abrupt appearance theory, model of origins, scientific creationism, initial complexity, and any other topics that confuse science and religion. . . .

The Board's Subterfuge

That should have marked the end of the creationists' campaign, but it didn't.

On 2 November, the Board's own curriculum committee, consisting of four Board members, met to decide whether the Board should accept or reject the science curriculum committee's recommendation. That process was derailed, however, when a creationist member of the committee, Ernest Carrier, moved instead that the recommendation should be referred to the full Board. His motion succeeded.

The next meeting of the full Board was due to be held on 16 November. As that day approached, I alerted the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana. The ACLU sent a letter to the Board, promising to seek litigants for a lawsuit if the Board adopted the ORA materials.

When the Board met on the 16th, Carrier again was able to prevent any decision on the science curriculum committee's recommendation. He introduced a substitute motion that called for a new policy to govern classroom discussions of "origins": Science classes could include "student initiated discussion" of "different theories surrounding the study of the origins of life," if the teacher considered this to be "a part of that day's teaching plan." This motion was approved by a vote of 5 to 4. The issue of the ORA materials was ignored, the science curriculum committee was snubbed, and the ORA materials themselves faded into oblivion.

The Board's "origins" policy was a subterfuge, similar to the policies by which some school districts have tried to inject prayers (or other religious devotions) into school activities, under the pretense that the prayers are "student-initiated." The "origins" policy was designed to enable fundamentalist students, prompted by fundamentalist parents, to bring biblical religion into science classes.

That policy still stands, but it does not seem to have had the effect that Ernest Carrier was hoping for. I have heard of only one incident in which a student attempted to start a discussion of creationism in a science class, and that attempt failed. The teacher cut it off and proceeded with a lesson about evolution.

In the final analysis, the outcome of our battle with the ORA creationists was mixed. We exposed the creationists as frauds, we prevented the adoption of the ORA's Curriculum Guide and lesson plans, and we thus prevented the formal establishment of religious instruction in the science classrooms of Livingston Parish. Yet we did not achieve the definitive victory that would have been ours if the Board had explicitly rejected the ORA materials, instead of dodging the issue and letting the ORA documents sink into limbo.

To the extent that we succeeded, we succeeded for two major reasons. First, we didn't just rail at the creationists and call them ignoramuses and charlatans. We showed that they were ignoramuses and charlatans, and we accomplished this by doing extensive homework, by producing written refutations of their "science," and by providing these refutations directly to the teachers on the science curriculum committee. Second, we sought help from scientists. One teacher later said to me that the letter from Prigogine had told him all that he needed to know about the creationists and their Curriculum Guide.

I hope that this account of our experiences will be helpful to others who must battle creationists to defend science education in local school systems.

Editor's notes

  1. The term intelligent design is one of the code-phrases that creationists have adopted to replace the word creation. Other such phrases include sudden appearance and abrupt appearance. The creationists have shunned creation ever since a federal court declared that the concept of creation is not science. To learn more about this, see TTL, November-December 1995, page 8. [return to text]

  2. The expression initial complexity reflects the creationists' assertion that the life appeared on Earth abruptly, in forms as complex as the organisms that exist today. The phrase a young Earth refers to the fundamentalist belief that Earth is only a few thousand years old. For information about the origin of this belief, see "Wrong Again" in the March-April issue of TTL, page 10. [return to text]

  3. Creationists reject and denounce the scientific view of vestigial organs, because that view doesn't square with religious beliefs about divine design. The creationists claim that no vestigial organs exist, and they promote that claim by using word-tricks. They pretend that "vestigial" means useless; then they try to find or imagine some function for each organ that scientists regard as vestigial; and then they assert that the organ isn't vestigial because it isn't useless. This is absurd. "Vestigial" does not mean useless, so the creationists' assertions don't make any sense. The theory of evolution recognizes that a vestigial organ may retain some function or may even assume a new function, distinct from the one that it originally performed. [return to text]

  4. Pandas, published in 1989, is a fake "biology" book that creationists have been plugging for use in high schools. (See TTL, March-April 1990, page 1, and TTL, July- August 1994, page 12.) Evolution: A Theory in Crisis is a pseudoscientific tract that creationists often cite to support their religious doctrines. It is a protracted essay in ignorance, and it has been resoundingly discredited by scientific reviewers. See, for example, Michael Ruse's review in New Scientist, 13 June 1985. [return to text]

Barbara Forrest is a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University (in Hammond), teaching in the Department of History and Government. She has served on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana.


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