Two weeks ago, I did a whirlwind 39-hour trip to the Bay Area to give two different talks (one to the Bay Area Skeptics in their Chilean restaurant hangout) and also to study some fossils at the University of California Museum of Paleontology for my ongoing peccary research. It was great hanging out in the People’s Republic of Berkeley again, enjoying the incredible ambiance of Telegraph Avenue, the colorful characters on Shattuck, the amazing array of ethnic restaurants block after block, the classic “woo” of all the Eastern mystic temples, and palmistry and naturopathy and New Age shops, the chirping cross-walk warnings, and PC reminders everywhere—and seeing all the homeless people rooting through the garbage. It’s like a time warp for me, reminding me of when I first visited as a student in the 1970s—except that the hippies are still here, a bit older and grayer, but now becoming psychedelic relics. Many parts of town still have the spirit of the “Summer of Love” while others are punk or goth or hip-hop. It’s eye-opening to see the sign at the city limits proclaiming Berkeley a “nuke-free zone”(not that it matters, since there are no nuclear reactors or military bases there, and the nuclear physics is done out at Lawrence-Livermore lab). Every time I go to one these college towns where the Sixties never ended and lots of hippies have gone to live (not only Berkeley, but also Eugene, Boulder, and Santa Cruz), I have an incredible rush of memories of that time, and the dreams my generation fought for. As a Boomer myself and child of the Sixties, it’s great to see that not every aspect of it has been forgotten or dismissed (especially not the music, of course, which has remarkable resilience).
After finishing my research on the fossils, I had a bit of spare time, so on invitation from Steve Newton and Josh Rosenau (who attended my Bay Area Skeptics talk), I decided to pay a visit to another cultural landmark: the headquarters of the National Center for Science Education. This is the chief non-profit organization in the U.S. that helps local school boards and scientists and teachers when creationism threatens their classrooms. If you read the creationists’ literature and the posts on the ID creationist Discovery Institute’s (DI) website, the NCSE is this monstrous organization which exerts mind-control over every scientist in the country, and forces them to robotically chant “I accept evolution.” According to the creationists, the NCSE is pure evil, suppressing the creationism message with its enormous staff and budget and power over all of U.S. science. In Ben Stein’s crappy little creationist propaganda film Expelled, Ben pays a visit to the gleaming headquarters of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which occupies a vast amount of floor space in a brand-new office building downtown, and has a huge staff. Over and over again the DI staffers complain about how they scientific establishment is against them, and how the NCSE has so much more power, money, and influence than they do.
So it’s surprising to actually visit the headquarters of the NCSE and get an abrupt reality check. This bête noire of creationism occupies a small, rundown, poorly ventilated commercial space in a rough part of Oakland, surrounded by fundamentalist churches. Their tiny staff is paid a pittance compared to most academic or business salaries, and they occupy cramped cubicles cluttered with piles of work. About the only way you could tell it was not any other kind of typical non-profit organization was the decoration: creationist and evolutionary posters and “timelines of creation”, casts of famous hominid fossils and prehistoric animal models, dolls and posters and bobble-heads of Charles Darwin, clever signs from many different school board protests, and over the staff calendar and status board, “You are not in Kansas any more.”
Their “archive” is the garage next door, where they have stored the records of nearly every creationist outbreak of the past 40 years, as well as thousands of cassettes and VHS tapes of debates and creationist propaganda films, and copies of many classic works of creationism. They have file drawer after file drawer of nearly every major “outbreak” of the creationism flu over the years, so when another one occurs, they have the old records and the local contact information of the activists who fought the battle last time. I even got to see a copy of “Dr. Dino” Kent Hovind’s legendary “doctoral dissertation” (bought from a diploma mill), which was written at barely high school level. The highlight of the whole place is the one tiny bathroom that they all share: its walls are lined with hilarious (mostly misspelled and incoherent) creationist hate mail and kooky and creepy things from creationist cranks that arrive by the boxload every year.
So this is the headquarters of the “Evil Empire,” the “Mordor” that creationists fear above all others? This tiny organization is allegedly brainwashing the entire scientific community, and is capable of suppression and censorship on a massive scale? This tiny office is the monster that the DI people in Ben Stein’s movie feared most? If so, then the NCSE is a David against a Goliath of creationist organizations. According to their tax forms, the budget of the DI in Seattle is nearly five times the budget of the NCSE. The DI is a huge organization which is one of the loudest and most powerful in the creationist community, along with Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis megachurch and “museum” in Kentucky—both are many times richer and more powerful than the threadbare NCSE. The budgets of most of the fundamentalist megachurches and schools like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University or the Seventh-Day Adventist schools dwarf even these. Yet all these mighty, rich organizations, with their TV shows on cable, and gigantic base of followers, fear the NCSE? The NCSE must be doing something right!
What the NCSE demonstrates so beautifully is how a little well-targeted effort to spread the truth goes a long way. They don’t have the giant staff or budget to tackle every single creationist infection themselves, so they serve as a coordination center and clearinghouse, contacting the local scientists and teachers and activists and helping them organize, providing them with important information about the political aspects of fighting each particular battle, and helping them with arguments or documents which they can distribute to school boards or to citizens who get up to speak at a board meeting. Their staff is familiar with every political and scientific aspect of the evolution-creation wars. Their coordinators, like Josh Rosenau, are expert at getting the the local community to organize effectively, recruit allies, and make sure that they use their resources strategically in keeping school boards from making big mistakes. And they are led by the indefatigable Road Warrior, Dr. Eugenie Scott, who makes hundreds of appearances each year talking about creationism and science, and testifying before many different groups, all with her unshakably friendly, non-threatening, grandmotherly manner that gets people to listen and drop their hostility.
Despite the polls showing that about 40% of Americans agree with the major tenets of creationism, and the fact that there are many creationist organizations which are larger and more powerful, the NCSE has two key weapons: the law and reality. Fundamentalist ministers may be able to bamboozle their flocks with lies about evolution, but in the marketplace of scientific ideas, there is no longer any doubt that evolution is the way the world actually works. Creationists may try to gussy up their ideas as “intelligent design” or hide behind the “teach the controversy” tactic, but the myths of illiterate Bronze Age shepherds are still a narrow religious dogma believed by only a minority of Americans. And that’s the ultimate line of defense: no matter what a local school board or state government does, if they leave ANY trail of their religious motivations for their acts (which is why the NCSE archive is crucial for detecting this), they run up against the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, and ultimately the law is (at least in this case) on the side of scientific reality.
But it’s a never-ending struggle in this country. Creationists may not do any real science, or never learn any new arguments, or never concede that their old arguments were long ago debunked, but they are dedicated and well-funded and never give up. So the job of the NCSE never seems to end, and these hardworking underpaid staffers will never see an empty “hot board map” showing no towns with current infections. Back in 1982, I was one of the original members of the Committees of Correspondence, Stanley Weinberg’s first effort to combat creationism in the Midwest, which evolved into the current NCSE. I’ve debated Gish and Meyer and Sternberg and a bunch of guys from ICR and DI, and written a book debunking their ideas about evolution and fossils. So I do what I can, but I don’t have the patience or time to do the job that the NCSE does. For that, I’m very grateful that they are there, fighting the good fight in the trenches, and manning the barricades that few scientists or teachers have time to deal with. We members of the skeptical and scientific community should all honor them for doing an essential job in trying to preserve the scientific integrity of our educational system, and fighting back against the untiring never-ending hordes of the forces of darkness, all while showing the patience of Job. And if you’re not already a member of NCSE, you should join, because they are doing this important job for all of us!