Scientists rally to defend schools against creationists

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The American Geophysical Union (AGU) last week denounced the teaching of creationism and called for scientists to become politically involved in promoting the teaching of evolution.

The AGU council issued its ‘advocacy statement’ after a morning-long session at which scientists issued a call to arms to defend science teaching. More than 300 Earth scientists, including teachers, crowded into a session at the union's autumn meeting last week (see below), where they were urged to seek election to local school boards.

“The American Geophysical Union affirms the central importance of scientific theories of earth history and organic evolution in science education,” reads the statement. “Creationism is not science and does not have a legitimate place in any science curriculum.”

AGU president John Knauss said that creationists had become quite “clever” in distorting both science and the positions of scientific organizations. The union's previous statement was vulnerable in this regard, he added, because it was brief and did not sufficiently describe the AGU's opposition to creationism.

The AGU's new stance was prompted by the actions of two state school boards earlier this year. In Kansas, the board voted to cut the teaching of Earth science and evolution from the state curriculum, which local school districts look to for guidance (see Nature 400, 701; 1999). In New Mexico, however, scientists and their supporters managed to get Earth science and evolution reinstated after creationists had had them removed from the curriculum.

Speakers at last week's meeting cited Kansas as an example of the scientific community failing to be sufficiently involved in fighting creationists, while the New Mexico campaign was held up as a demonstration of the role scientists can play in the political process.

By talking to voters, researchers from institutions such as the University of New Mexico convinced them to elect nuclear physicist Marshall Berman of Sandia National Laboratories to the state school board. This voted in October to reinstate Earth science and evolution. “We can work in the trenches to improve the quality of science education,” said John Geissman, a geologist from the University of New Mexico. “It is being done; it can be done.”

Meanwhile, an organization called Kansas Citizens for Science is campaigning to replace three pro-creationism school board members who are coming up for re-election.

One teaching assistant at last week's meeting said she was trying to find out how to deal with students who had been imbued with creationist philosophy.

Also at the meeting were two pro-creationist AGU members. One of them, John Baumgardner, a geophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, asked for a dialogue within the union on creationism. He said that creationists had been represented as “simplistic characters”. But he offered no rebuttal when geophysicist Wilfred Elders, of the University of California at Riverside, criticized a creationist college text on the purported rapid formation of the Grand Canyon that cited some of Baumgardner's work.

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Dalton, R. Scientists rally to defend schools against creationists. Nature 402, 847–848 (1999) doi:10.1038/47159

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