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A visit to the creationists’ “Mordor”

by Donald Prothero, Sep 28 2011

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).

The terrifying fortress headquarters of the "Evil Empire"

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.”

The minions of the NCSE plot to overthrow creationism in these dungeon-like offices

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!

The stairway to the upper level of Mordor, um, the attic offices. It is decorated with an inflatable globe, a phylogeny poster, a geologic time scale running upstairs, and classic creationist posters.

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!

 

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22 Responses to “A visit to the creationists’ “Mordor””

  1. Trimegistus says:

    It’s funny how you focus on the Menace of Creationism but laugh off all the New Age crap infesting Berkeley as just quaint hippie chic. I’d argue that the Left’s technophobia is more harmful overall than a few anti-Darwin kooks on the right.

    Creationists haven’t prevented the construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. Creationists haven’t fought the use of genetically engineered food crops. Creationists weren’t at the forefront of the anti-vaccine movement. Creationists don’t trash biology labs the way animal rights people do. Creationists don’t burn logging camps and subdivisions to “protect the forests.”

    But by slagging Creationists you’re burnishing your credentials as a correct-thinking member of the mental elite, and that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?

    • A “Few anti-Darwin kooks on the right”? Have you been following the news lately? They are constantly assaulting our educational system, and all the polls show that about 40% of Americans agree with young-earth creationism. They are a majority of the GOP base now, and nearly all the GOP candidates (except Huntsman and Johnson) are openly favoring creationism. That, along with all their other anti-science positions (global warming denialism, anti-vaxxers, anti-stem cell research) makes the GOP the party of anti-science these days. And THAT’S a serious threat to US science education and policy, as was obvious during the horrors of the GWB years.
      By contrast, animal rights and anti-nukes extremists are so rare and ineffectual they rarely even make the news these days, let alone have significant influence on US policy or education.

      • Beelzebud says:

        Well said. It’s just a game of false equivalence. Fair and Balanced, if you will.

      • Somite says:

        Not to mention that you may disagree with an anti-nuke or animal rights position but at least they are logically possible or defensible opinions. Creationism and other conservative ideas are just completely wrong and indefensible.

      • Trimegistus says:

        “Logically possible” — reminds me of Criswell’s monologue in Plan 9 From Outer Space. “Can you prove it didn’t happen?”

        It’s not false equivalence, it’s outright irritation that apparently some pseudosciences get a pass from skeptics because of political alignments. That’s just wrong.

      • tmac57 says:

        How is opposing nuclear power pseudo-science? There are real concerns raised by the opponents that can be weighed against the benefits.

      • Somite says:

        Apparently it is pseudoscience if it happens to disagree with your political ideology.

    • Beelzebud says:

      Those things you list can not be simply lumped in to “The Left”. How about tackling each issue on it’s own merit, and be honest about it?

      Nuclear Power: Show me where “The Left” as a monolithic group, kept nuclear plants from being built in the U.S. Explain how it wasn’t economics.

      Anti-Vaccine: Show me where “The Left” are the ones who spread this dangerous misinformation. From everything I’ve seen, this is a phenomenon that shares no political ideology. I can find examples from the full political spectrum of anti-vaxxers.

      Trashing Biology Labs: Show me where “The Left” as a monolithic group, has made eco-terrorism a top priority. I guess it depends on your definition of “The Left”, but to pretend that this sort of thing is tolerated by “The Left” as a whole, is laughable.

      How about we just focus on the topics one at a time, and actually think about them, instead of trying to turn everything into a partisan pissing contest?

  2. Somite says:

    Except that creationism, cliamte change denial, anti-stem cell research and now anti-vaccionism is basically a platform of GOP presidential candidates.

    Being anti-science is a platform of the republican party. In preventing stem cell research republicans did incalculable damage and is probably the worse of all political science denials. You are just citing beliefs that some random democrats (and republicans, BTW) may have held at some point.

    • Trimegistus says:

      Note the double standard. When liberals block science and technology it’s just “some random democrats” but when some random Republicans do it, it’s a “platform.”

      Find me where in the Republican party platform it says they’re anti-science. Oh, wait, it’s not there. Which means you’re just making shit up.

  3. Max says:

    The NCSE focuses on keeping Creationism out of science class, but there’s certainly a lot of other crap taught in schools.
    The Textbook League’s textbook reviews exposed BS in every subject.
    http://www.textbookleague.org/ttlindex.htm

  4. Sheila says:

    Keep in mind that parents can still have their child opting out of evolution (biology) classes. Being excused from class when that part of the course is taught. But these same children learn all about evolution at recess, lol. There’s nothing like not allowing a child to hear something that makes them want to know all about it all the more.

  5. Prof. Bleen says:

    Technically, Hovind only bought his doctoral *degree* from that diploma mill. He composed that hack job he calls a dissertation all by himself!

  6. BillG says:

    Why not teach “intelligent design or “creationism”?

    I would advocate exposing all forms of pseudoscience, at least as an option, including religion A to Z: the greek and hindu gods up to the present such as the controvesy about “teaching the controvesy”.
    Perhaps pseudoscience 101, though certaintly not in a biology lab. Imagine the student interest and the effectiveness if you included magic, illusions and our delusions.

    As most who visit this site would attest, a good foundation in science includes exposing one to the bullshit.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Back when I taught at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, I actually had a class on “Evolution, Creation, and the Cosmos” where I covered comparative creation mythology, the roots of modern fundamentalism and creationism, as well as the nature of science, the scientific evidence for the Big Bang and evolution, and so on. By the time we got to modern fundamentalist creationism, none of the students could take it seriously any more.
      But that was the exception, born from the freedom of a liberal arts college where they encourage interdisciplinary mind-altering topics. Most K-12 teachers don’t have that option, and their curricula are tightly proscribed, and their time is very tight due to “teaching to the test”–so I don’t think they have the freedom to tackle it as you suggest. Not to mention the huge problem of creationist kids and their parents who will raise Holy Hell if you tried it (as they already do when evolution is taught in the most innocuous way).

  7. jude says:

    I’d like to respectfully suggest that everyone stop bashing “creationists” and “creationism”. These terms aren’t helping anyone. There are folks out there (maybe not many yet) who have absolutely no problem with evolution and science in general, who have faith in God and believe in the Bible — but who understand that the Genesis creation account is not meant to be interpreted literally.

    Your problem is with “creation science”, not creationism. “Creation science” in its many forms (YEC and OEC creation science, and intelligent design) is the real target. If you want a better label, then label them “evolution deniers” instead of creationists.

    You have to understand that probably 90% of the Christians out there who’ve bought into “creation science” have very little understanding of the history of Biblical interpretation, much less an understanding of science. Give them some runway to figure out how to make it work, rather than forcing them into a corner. The more you attack their faith, the harder they’re going to fight back, and it accomplishes nothing for anyone. *Even if you are not Christian*, when you encounter someone spewing Ken Ham and Michael Behe nonsense at you, encourage them to research the history of Christian views on science, as well as science itself. If you point them toward evolution resources, send them to Christian sites who accept evolution, such as biologos.org. They’ll come around a lot sooner this way, and it might help you as well.

    By not bashing “creationism” maybe you’ll finally start winning Christians over, instead of alienating them. Just a thought. I’m trying to help… check out my Web site.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      That’s EXACTLY what I did in my 2007 book on evolution, and I got a HUGE positive response from “fence sitters” who were confused about the issue. But in the context of this blog, the “creationists” and “creationism” are understood to be the same thing. Non-fundamentalist Christians that I know (most of my family, for that matter) DON’T want to be labeled “creationist” or say they believe in “creationism” because the fundamentalists have completely hijacked the usage of that word.

      • jude says:

        I see your point; they have indeed hijacked the word, as they are just as strongly against those of us Christians who accept evolution (theistic evolutionists) as they are against atheists or agnostics or people of other faiths. Perhaps more so. I’m probably the only person within my larger circle of friends and family who supports the NCSE.

        Unfortunately, I can’t really offer a solution. To describe those with fundamentalist interpretations, “creationist” is easier to write than “creationist who rejects theistic evolution”, so perhaps we just live with the definition.

  8. Michael says:

    When I was in school, which was pretty recently actually, we were taught about Vitalism and spontaneous generation.
    In that context, I don’t have much of an issue with creationism being taught.
    It’s just that’s not the contexts that’s being pushed for…

  9. Sam Salerno says:

    Well said Mr. Prothero. The NCSE is doing an incredible and seemingly endless job to keep religion out of schools. It’s sad that in the 21st century grown up human beings fall into this superstition trap. Which is why I am grateful to NCSE for being there. I second your motion. Please support NCSE.

  10. OverlappingMagisteria says:

    You say it was only a small office, but the truth is that office is only a front! If you had checked behind the portrait of Darwin, you would’ve found the secret door leading to a spiraling mine cart ride down into the depths of their vast subterranean lair. This is the location of the secret printing and distribution center used to spread Nazi and eugenics propaganda (also known as evolution textbooks) and also where they house the scientist mind control ray.

  11. BobGo says:

    I live 3 blocks from NCSE and I have long suspected that the parking problems are not just from the BART station nearby but from the hoards secretly employed in this vast underground operation. I sometimes see them walking thru the neighborhood with their pierced noses and lips. I can hear the mind control ray running underground at night when the street level “front” office appears closed and gated.