Americans seem to have a love-hate relation with science and technology. They desire the results but are often hostile to the source - the constraints, methods,, and conceptual frameworks at the foundations of the science and technology. They refuse to accept, or encourage the teaching of, the prevalent scientific paradigms They wish to cure, or avoid, their lung cancer, while continuing to smoke, by demanding the scientific production of a "pill". They use the pseudo-science of "magnetic cures while studiously avoiding electromagnetic science. They wish to sell high technology to all, but demand to be protected from the possible ill effects - biological, chemical, economic, physical, psychological, weapons, et al - of high, low, and no technology by even higher technology. "Protect us from ourselves, and the rest of the world, in spite of the laws of science!". So far, we physicists have been able to accept public funds without public opprobrium, distrust, and disbelief - that was reserved for the biologists. The linking of biological evolution to cosmogony, and the condemnation of "theory" in Kansas, may indicate that our luck may be running out - we had better try to do something about combating scientific illiteracy in the American public: degrees do not signify understanding. These points are elaborated in the articles which follow: on our desire for physical rather than diplomatic shields from missile attack; on our desire to continue developing weapons while hoping that others wont; on " creationism" in the schools.
National Missile Defense: The Technological Fix
With overwhelming bipartisan support, both houses of Congress have passed resolutions supporting the deployment of a national missile defense system against nuclear warheads. True, there are catch-phrases about "when technologically feasible," since tests to date have not been encouraging, but we can expect ever more money to be thrown at this glittering technology. Only two Ph.D. physicists are seated in Congress, Republican Vern Ehlers and Democrat Rush Holt; both voted against the legislation, an action that should have given their colleagues more pause. Conceivably, only "rogue" states might attack us with intercontinental ballistic missiles in the foreseeable future (and they are more likely to use biological toxins or chemical poisons, delivered by other means), so we may well wonder why we choose such a high-tech response. Alas, if not in our genes, technological solutions are in our culture.
America has long had a love affair with technology, in part for good reason, and in part through ignorance. Without doubt, technology has played a large role in this nation's rise to riches and power. From the manufacture of firearms with interchangeable parts in the early 19th century, through the industrialization of the country later that century, to the marvels of transportation, communication, entertainment, and medicine during the recent close of the century, technology has improved our wealth, health, and comfort.
The dark side of technology occurs when we rely upon it inappropriately. Too often we think that there is a technological solution to every problem, an attitude sometimes called the "technological fix." We see it operating when opponents of population control or environmental protection or resource preservation argue that science and technology will provide solutions to such current problems. While it is true that agriculture has become more efficient, that we can mitigate some pollution, and that substitutes can be found for some materials, the "what me worry?" philosophy surely is doomed to failure. Too often we try for the unlikely, if not the impossible.
The nation's continuing fascination with space technology, from Buck Rogers to contemporary "Star Wars" films and "Star Trek" TV adventures, suggests more than an appreciation for a good yarn; these stories seem to set gadgetry goals as well. Such high tech solutions, with their awesome dazzle, are favored over low-tech devices, and both are clearly preferred to no-tech. Yet the problems often addressed are dilemmas of society-political, economic, or social difficulties-and we delude ourselves to think that a technological fix is possible in the long term.
Nowhere is the technological fix mentality more visible than in the armsrace of the past half century. Trying to outwit the Soviet Union, the United States relied far more on technological innovation than diplomacy. While we have emerged from the Cold War in better shape than Russia, the past is littered with missed opportunities and enormous costs. Most discussions of weapons focus on their offensive nature; aircraft, ships, guns, and missiles impart visions of what they can do to an enemy. Yet self-protection is also a natural human reaction, and there has been a small but significant thread of defensive efforts in the nuclear age. The problem, of course, is formidable, because nuclear explosions release incredibly more concentrated energy than previous tools. Defensive solutions that were proposed generally fell into the categories of insulating oneself against the consequences of explosions, vacating ground zero, and disarming the incoming weapons.
Insulation by blast shelter against a nuclear explosion was recognized as unrealistic. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at a time both superpowers frequently tested new weapons in the atmosphere, the US government encouraged a reluctant citizenry to build shelters against radioactive fallout. Whether it was an excavated underground room or a buried section of large-diameter concrete pipe, there were suggestions that these bunkers could serve as wine cellars or family rooms in the off season. Other forms of "personal" fallout shelters were advertised at incredibly low prices by unscrupulous businessmen; these turned out to be plastic body bags or crowbars to lift manhole covers in the street. Even the government's own program of labeling the basements of large urban buildings as shelters and stockpiling them with provisions was inadequate. Thanks to a widespread sense of futility should nuclear war occur, shelters never gained a constituency to promote their benefits. Nor were powerful sections of the business community enthusiastic about this form of defense. Folding cots, crackers, chocolate bars, and bottled water to stock the shelters lacked both glitz and high profits for the providers.
Vacating ground zero, in the guise of the Interstate Highway system, fared better. Conceived by the Eisenhower administration as a means of emptying the cities upon threat of a nuclear attack, these ribbons of concrete were finer than existing roadways, but certainly not high-tech. Still, they provided handsome returns to the construction industry for a few decades. This constituency, along with a grateful motoring public, would probably have sufficed alone to convince Congress to fund the project, but patriotic homage to civil defense did not hurt. Evacuation of cities in the short time available would, it was soon generally conceded, lead to massive traffic jams; missiles could also be retargeted to the new population clusters, if that is what the attacker wished. So, in principle, our favored highways must be considered a strategic failure, even if the Reagan administration again promoted evacuation in the early 1980s.
Disarming the incoming weapons, the goal of the Anti-Ballistic Missile(ABM) system of the late 1960s, was at last an opportunity for the military-industrial complex to focus on high-tech defensive projects. With the goal of shooting a "bullet" at another "bullet," exotic missiles, radars, and computers were designed and built, and defense contractors looked to a bright economic future. Scientists, however, saw the system as easily and inexpensively overcome, by the mere stratagem of overloading the defenses with many more warheads and decoys. Moreover, no system was expected to be a perfect barrier, and "leakage" of only a few warheads could cause damage to American cities considered unacceptable. This "Maginot Line in the sky" could also be circumvented by forsaking missiles and delivering warheads on freighters. Congress, accepting the scientists' argument that the ABM would not work, lost its enthusiasm for the system. Only one site was completed in the US, at the Grand Forks (North Dakota) Air Force Base, and it was mothballed a few years after Richard Nixon signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1) in 1972, which included what we commonly call the ABM Treaty.
About a decade later, Ronald Reagan resurrected the illusion of an astrodome-like shield over the nation with his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). A variety of high-tech defenses, including space-station laser platforms, pop-up weapons, and "brilliant pebbles"(kinetic energy devices), would destroy incoming warheads. So alluring was this concept that, despite few technical successes, Congress has appropriated many tens of billions of dollars to fund its development. No matter that certain aspects threaten to violate the ABM Treaty that the US signed with the former Soviet Union; Senator Jesse Helms is intent on jettisoning that treaty. No matter that a shorter-range version for theater defense failed its several tests; Congress expressed its desire to buy such defense. No matter that our likely enemies are unlikely to attack us in this fashion; high-tech is "macho," it is doing something, and there are high profits to be made.
In the same year (1983) that Reagan revealed his plans for SDI, astrophysicist Carl Sagan and his colleagues made public their computer predictions of a phenomenon known as "nuclear winter." Nuclear war, they argued, would, by design or chance, target urban areas, stuffed with combustibles of wood, coal, gas, oil, and plastics. Dense clouds of smoke and soot would rise high in the troposphere, blocking sunlight from the earth's surface for weeks or months. Later research pointed to the demise of agriculture as the principal cause of widespread death in these cold and dark climatic conditions. The solution to this problem offered by Sagan was reduction of the nuclear arsenals to such a small size that the climatic catastrophe could not occur. This cry fell upon deaf ears in the Reagan administration. They could not dismiss the likelihood of the nuclear winter phenomenon, for it was a credible, if controversial, prediction. Instead, they organized an expensive program of investigations, which largely evaporated in the following years and, most significantly, they co-opted nuclear winter. The Reagan SDI and arms modernization efforts, they argued, would deter the outbreak of nuclear war and thus prevent the nuclear winter phenomenon from ever occurring.
At a time when Reagan negotiated the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviets, the first treaty to abolish an entire class of nuclear weapons, and when he began a process of reducing the number of strategic weapons through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), he missed the greater opportunity to eliminate the majority of these weapons. Explosives deemed excessive (even by the Reaganauts) could be abandoned, but expensive hardware--the technological fix--would remain at the center of the US defensive posture. Less expensive arms control measures, which are more likely to resolve problems by removing threats, appear to succeed only when we retain enough high-tech gadgets. Maybe it is in our genes after all.
Professor of History of Science, Department of History
University of California, Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
Warhead Safety and Reliability and the Science Based Stockpile Stewardship Program
Hisham Zerriffi and Arjun Makhijani, Ph.D.
One central fact was obscured during the 1999 US Senate debate between the proponents and opponents of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Neither side seriously discussed the necessity for the United States to fulfill its disarmament commitments under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which went into force in 1970, and was indefinitely extended, with strong US pressure in favor of it, in 1995. The CTBTs opponents, who prevailed in the ratification vote, claimed that testing was needed to ensure the safety and reliability of the US nuclear weapons stockpile for the indefinite future. Ironically, some of them also pointed to the goal of the CTBT of promoting disarmament as a further reason for their opposition.
The Clinton administrations view was that the US Department of Energys suite of new experimental and computational facilities, as well as existing and new production facilities, which go under the rubric of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, could effectively replace nuclear testing. A principal argument was, therefore, not over the goals of the US nuclear weapons program, but whether the Stockpile Stewardship program would be an effective tool to achieve them. It is worthwhile, therefore, to take a close look at this program and its functions, which was not done in the heat of the CTBT debate.
The U.S. Department of Energy's Science Based Stockpile Stewardship (SBSS) program would build new experimental facilities to study the nuclear components of the United States nuclear arsenal, as well as a large scale computing initiative in order to more accurately model nuclear weapons. The Department of Energy (DOE) has argued that, as the nuclear arsenal ages, it will be an increasingly complex task to maintain the level of safety and reliability necessary without nuclear testing. The SBSS program is supposed to aid in this endeavor by providing information on the basic physical processes of nuclear weapons in order to create more accurate computer models, in essence to be able to conduct "virtual tests." Our analysis of historical data regarding problems with nuclear warheads leads us to conclude that the SBSS program would provide little aid in maintaining the safety of the existing arsenal. Indeed, DOE's own data show that there have been no aging-related nuclear safety problems in warheads.
The Department of Energy's analysis of the need for an SBSS program mixes up safety and reliability issues in a misleading way. These issues are technically distinct and have vastly different political, military, and environmental implications.
Table 1: Causes of Warhead Safety Problems
These principal findings are based on our detailed analysis of DOE data on safety and reliability problem types that is presented in the full report. The main technical points in our analysis are as follows:
Discussion of Principal Findings:
Maintaining the safety of nuclear weapons should be one of the top priorities of the DOE's nuclear weapons complex as long as intact nuclear weapons remain in the arsenal. Accidental nuclear detonation or plutonium dispersal could have huge health and environmental consequences. However, the DOE has not demonstrated the need for the SBSS program to maintain nuclear safety. Nuclear weapons are currently safe, according to the DOE. Safety problems with primaries have never been linked to aging. Furthermore, 76 percent of the safety-related problem types in primaries were found in warheads produced around the time of the 1958-1961 U.S.-Soviet nuclear testing moratorium, a time of rushed design work as the United States scrambled to get designs into production.
While the SBSS program's claims in regard to improving safety of the arsenal appear dubious at best, it has a clear relationship to increasing U.S. capability to design new warheads and to design major modifications to existing ones. The new SBSS facilities are of the types used previously as part of the weapons design program. One of the main goals of the program is to retain and attract new weapons designers. Furthermore, various official documents indicate that the ability to maintain weapons design capabilities is a priority of the DOE. Another purpose appears to be to maintain the reliability of the nuclear arsenal at extremely high levels. Such high levels of reliability may be necessary only if the United States pursues a strategy of first strike against opponents with large nuclear arsenals rather than retaliatory nuclear deterrence. However, the data that we have are too limited to enable us to arrive at a definitive conclusion in this regard.
Nuclear weapons are currently reliable, according to the DOE. The majority of reliability problem types affect non-nuclear components and the majority of reliability problem types have a minimal effect on the warhead. In light of these facts, the DOE has failed to state how the SBSS program would maintain the reliability of an arsenal for a policy of retaliatory nuclear deterrence -- that is, a policy of nuclear retaliation in response to first use of nuclear weapons by an adversary. However, if the purpose of the arsenal is a first strike, a higher degree of reliability may be necessary, because achieving precision and rated yield could be technical factors affecting the "success" of a first strike aimed at destroying an adversary's nuclear missiles.
Maintaining and exercising design and production capability for the indefinite future appears to be a principal, if not the central, goal of the Stockpile Stewardship program. The primary planning document for the program stated in 1997 that its goal is to "provide and demonstrate the capability to design and develop replacement nuclear weapons and associated components." This goal is being realized in current programs such as design activities to develop a new submarine warhead, including a replacement warhead, which can be certified and produced without nuclear testing.
The SBSS program is coupled with other problematic provisions in the U.S. position on the CTBT. Specifically, the U.S. government wants to:
The design capabilities inherent in existing and new SBSS facilities will provide the opportunity for the DOE to bring new weapons or modifications to existing weapons to a stage of near completion, in the same manner that a complex machine such as the Boeing 777 was largely designed using computers and wind tunnels. The enormous financial advantages that the U.S. enjoys over Russia and China in the matter of military expenditures, despite recent reductions in the U.S. military budget, could contribute to reluctance on the part of other powers to engage in nuclear arms reductions.
This analysis leads us to the conclusion that a large SBSS program, which includes expensive new experimental facilities with weapons design capabilities, could lead to dangerous international instabilities. It could have profound negative repercussions on the functioning of both the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
By conflating safety and reliability and different weapon components, the DOE has obscured the reality that the existing arsenal can be maintained better and more cheaply by other means.
The showpiece of the program, the National Ignition Facility is, in our view, not in compliance with the CTBT, nor with President Clintons promise to respect it pending a second ratification vote. The chief of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency at the time the CTBT was negotiated, John Holum, has finally admitted that, though he believes it to be legal, the legality of NIF under the CTBT is a "fair question."
The entrenchment of nuclear weapons design capabilities, coupled with the express intent to maintain nuclear weapons indefinitely, has called into question the commitment of the United States to disarmament. Under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States and the other nuclear weapons states committed themselves to negotiating nuclear disarmament in return for a limit to the spread of nuclear weapons. In 1996 the International Court of Justice upheld that commitment in an Advisory Opinion that found that the nuclear weapons states have to negotiate and achieve nuclear disarmament. It is ironic that the CTBT, whose proponents were moved, first and foremost by the goal of disarmament, has become the vehicle for entrenching large budgets and design capabilities via the Stockpile Stewardship Program.
Hisham Zerriffi and Arjun Makhijan
Institute for Energy and Environmental Research
Takoma Park, MD
A great deal has been written about the interaction between creationists and the rest of American society, especially the educational system. Ill try to avoid adding to the noise by being as brief as possible, and by confining myself to remarks that may provide new information.In 1999, Kansas was the center of a media storm after the August vote of the Kansas Board of Education (KBOE) to remove certain scientific theories from the state standards. In fact, essentially similar events had happened in other states, but in our case the media were primed. We had a noisy, active, group of scientists and educators focusing attention on Kansas at least six months before that vote.Having been involved through all of this, I would like to recount some of the things that happened, describe the kinds of tactics creationists use, speculate about why the US has had this problem to such a great degree, and discuss the kind of influence it is possible for scientists to have.
B. What Happened in Kansas
In Kansas, the Radical Religious Right (RRR) captured five of the ten seats on the KBOE. All public campaigns were low-key and evolution (or other science issues) were not visibly important. In 1999, the question of new science standards arose. A 27-member KBOE- appointed committee of mostly science educators wrote and refined by successive comment and review a draft document which followed the lead of related national documents. Creationists began to follow the committee and testify during open public comment time against the inclusion of biological evolution, using recycled material from such as the Institute for Creation Research. A counter-group quickly formed, and matched or exceeded the participation level of the RRR group. In the end, the KBOE voted 6-4 to reject the committee draft, instead adapting a version that had been worked over by a few board members in collusion with a creationist group. The adopted document did not include the origin of species by biological evolution. It deleted mention of the Big Bang model, removed material on the age of the Earth and dropped global warming as a prime example of possible outcomes of human activity. The accepted draft adopted a view that "real science" is only that which can satisfy a heavy handed here-and-now falsifiability creation based on benchtop experiments.They quietly inserted a number of exercises, which look strange, but superficially harmless, unless one can recognize that they are specific "setups" for the introduction of RRR ideas. They can give students the idea (for example) that dinosaurs may have co-existed with human beings, or that trees may be as environmentally damaging as automobiles.
As I write, the battle continues. The public (most of whom oppose what the KBOE did) has become galvanized, and the KBOE has produced a new version to evade copyright problems with its standards. Four of the six seats of people who voted with the RRR are up for election in the year 2000.
C. What to Expect When They Visit You (They Will)
Dont expect to be protected by geography. This is a national problem. Many of their techniques are tried and true, and continue. They may be unfamiliar, so it is worth pointing them out.
Outright lying and severe distortions by selective quotation out of context are rampant. A prominent analysis lab was reported to have put disclaimers on its 14C dating-they never have. S.J. Gould is made to appear to reject Darwinian evolution as lacking supporting data.
Creationists will use material that has been disproven. They will cite flawed experiments that were overturned by later work. They will repeat discredited ideas. They understand very well that ideas acquire power and become believable merely by repetition. In many ways they are more skilled in manipulating public opinion than the scientific community, who tend to operate within a much smaller toolbag of techniques. In fact, most scientists mistakenly discuss these things in public arenas using the methods and ideas of scientific dialog, which are almost useless in this context.
They have been successful in taking hostage the image of Christianity. One example of their technique is the statement "Christian geologists believe the Grand Canyon was formed in Noahs flood." The situation is aggravated by the relative passivity of the mainstream churches. Many of the clergy are anxious about arousing a creationist minority in their own groups - fragmentation is a constant danger for churches. The flip side of this is that when clergy become active in support of good science they are extraordinarily powerful.
They (RRR) will mobilize a large fraction of their supporters, and will be very effective in producing letters to the editor - many of which may have identical content appearing under different name in different newspapers.
More and more, they are pushing a role reversal:they portray themselves as pushing "good science" against an intransigent "religion of atheistic naturalism." They have people believing that biological evolution and the Hot Big Bang model are actually under serious attack within the scientific community, and that supporting evidence is weak or missing. Their ideas are based on reading slick popularizations.
In September 1999, we were informed in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette: "Evolution violates at least four natural laws: the 1st. and 2nd. Laws of thermodynamics, the law of cause and effect, and the law of biogenesis."(R. Bixler) This sounds impressive, and will be repeated like a mantra in spite of pointing out the existence of the Sun or the real content of physical laws.
Its very easy and a common reaction to be amused by this kind of thing and not regard it as a serious problem. After all, it is very silly. Nearly all, if not all, their claims fall apart when examined. The academic community needs to realize that this is a political conflict, and will be settled based on skill and numbers of people involved, not on scientific accuracy. No region of the country is immune. Furthermore, the creationist thrust is changing. It has become much more creative, which I will discuss next.
D. A New Look for the new Millenium
There has been been a major shift in style among the creationists recently. Theyve become more diverse, more creative, and more upscale. They use a variety of approaches, some inconsistent with others.
A variety of court decisions have held that "creation science" is a thinly disguised form of religion, and has no place in public school science classes. So, while the direct push for this has continued, it is no longer the sole emphasis of their efforts.
A variety of creative tactics not seen before have emerged recently. These are likely to succeed in making it harder to deal with challenges to real science, as is their intent.
For example the KBOE simply removed the normal understanding of evolution from the newest edition of the state science standards. In its place "creation science" was not introduced explicitly. However a large number of "hooks" were put in as secondary exercises. For example, some discussions were set up to look for evidence that dinosaurs lived in historic times, or that there were problems that make isotope dating wholly unreliable, or that anything not based on benchtop experiments is not science. Source material on these areas is readily available from creationist sources.
This is often described as local control of curriculum. Strangely, the RRR only wants local control in issues like this, otherwise they tend to favor rigid standards. In this case local control gives them the option of harassing each school district individually
In Pittsburgh, PA, WQED, needing an infusion of funds, had a complicated deal arranged with a religious channel, which regularly runs programs discussing (for example) the stopping of the Earths rotation at the Battle of Jericho. This could be considered as an educational program,unless legislation being pushed in Congress isa stopped. This legislation would allow religeous broadcasters to use reserved educational channels without meeting any standard for the educational content of their programming.
The philosophy of science has been introduced in ways not seen in this context before. What we tend to see as a basically empirical process in which answers come from data is transformed into a culture war of competing -isms. Although scientists are a diverse group and include many religious people, the RRR portray the situation as Christians versus atheistic secular humanists. Results such as a 4.5 billion-year-old Earth may be viewed as ideologically based. A heavy-handed falsifiability criterion is applied in a simpleminded way: was anyone around 4.5 billion years ago to see the Earth form? Consequently, any historical science is inferior.
Classical creationists went after evolution (of course) and geology (age of the earth) and not much else, with a fairly narrow focus on a 6-day creation in the last 10,000 years. There are two major changes in scope being tried out:
(1) The KBOE documents attacked not only these, but Big Bang cosmology, global warming, resource depletion, nuclear physics, and any research which either has no applied component or cannot be treated solely by benchtop experiments. This partly arose as a wish for self-consistency: one cant dismiss isotope dating without running afoul of the nucleus.
This strategy provided a great deal of ammunition (we have bumper stickers that say, "Gravity is Next") and motivated many outside of biology and geology to get involved.
(2)There is another major movement called Intelligent Design (ID) which has become fashionable recently. This movement comes in two very different forms. Type 1 ID has emerged from earlier anthropic fine tuning arguments made by interpreters of physics. It is mostly concerned with what are claimed to be narrow ranges of values for physical constants such that the Universe can support life. This is used as evidence the Universe was crafted to allow creatures like us to develop. This point of view is certainly debatable. However, so far as I know,it has shown no tendency to threaten science or science education.
Type 2 ID, popularized by Michael Behe, constitutes a new, superficially intellectualized variant of traditional creationism. This concentrates narrowly on life forms, arguing that they have irreducible complexity-- structures or biochemical pathways for which no natural evolutionary path is possible (along which selection pressure drives the species towards its present state). Therefore they claim such attributes show the hand of design. They are careful not to name the Designer, so that they can label this a scientific theory. (An extensive literature search by one of my colleagues has revealed no papers in scientific journals which used intelligent design.) Type 2 ID advocates do not deny the geologic or cosmological time scales. They even do not deny the existence of some evolution, usually enough to account for small variations within species, but not major changes.
By doing this, they have added a veneer of respectability that has attracted such people as engineers and physicians to their movement. They have a great deal of overlap with the more traditional creationists, and many people move back and forth between the groups. However, often Young-Earth Creationists (YEC) will condemn them for not adhering more rigidly to Biblical literalism.
I expect that in the future this ID variant will grow, guided by the Discovery Institute, an organization with theocratic leanings. These group views Type 2 ID as a wedge for the change of our culture. They regard it as the first opening for the insertion of supernatural elements into physics, with others to follow. Type 2 ID is much more acceptable to many people, because of the poor public understanding of evolution. Most scientists, even many in biology-related areas, have studied evolution as only a fragment of a general-survey course. There is little attention to the origins of our understanding.
Fueled by weak public understanding; by its perplexing nature as islands of self-organization appearing in nonequilibrium; and by decades of effective creationist propaganda, evolution is a suspect idea. It appears that natural selection will cause ID to grow and possibly replace YEC. For example, a recent TV panel discussion in Kansas City pitted about ten supporters of science against an equal number of ID proponents and with no YECs included. Public comment in newspaper letters has shifted to ID in a way that indicates some top- down shift in strategy.
There is a considerable danger in this. As Type 2 ID does not attack the traditional turf of the physicist we are less likely to clearly understand its problems and less likely to take action to as a direct threat. This may leave biologists isolated, and give creationists an easy victory - the wedge they are seeking.
This slick, new movement is likely to grow rapidly, accreting large numbers of middle-class, educated persons. I regard it as the biggest threat to the integrity of science education in the near future. The writers are slick, and well-spoken, and reasonable replies to their claims require an understanding of complex phenomenae, which cannot be delivered in sound bytes.
E. Why the USA?
This sort of attack on science seems at odds with the highly developed US technical culture, and is a source of puzzlement to people around the world. To be sure, there are isolated instances related to Islamic and Hindu fundamentalism. For example, there was a major attack on biology under Stalin which was a contributing factor to Soviet crop failures. However this kind of attack has reached epidemic proportions now only in the United States.
This may be related to Americans anti-elitist tendencies. They make us unlikely to accept the word of experts just because they are experts. What began as a rejection of hereditary aristocracy now causes the public to think the opinion of someone who has spent a large fraction of a lifetime studying something is no more worthwhile than the opinion of anyone else.
In fact, creationists often directly compare their ideas to those of Galileo and others. The implication is that since they, too are at odds with the establishment, their ideas will actually win out. There is no evidence of any comprehension that (1) most new ideas are wrong and (2) those that survive do so by experimental vindication and a great deal of developmental work.
The US religious heritage is a contributing factor. We were, after all, a refuge for people who did not fit in back home. The secular nature of our government is a device not arrived at by any great principle, but rather as a way to keep people off each others throats.
Confusion over what constitutes creationism is widespread. In terms of timescales there are at least three kinds:
YEC: Everything was created in six days, about 6,000-10,000 years ago.
OldEarth (Type 2 ID): The Universe and Earth are old, as the evidence indicates, but intervention by God was required to (1) start life (2) move life along at crucial intervals or (3) create humans or modify them in some way.
OldEarth/Evolutionary (Type 1 ID): The development of the Universe and the life in it is portrayed more or less according to the results of scientific investigation. The creation element is present because of belief that God created the Universe.
I have observed a particular confusion in public reaction which assists the creationists and Type 2 ID ers. Many people are religious, and in Western religious traditions equate this with belief in a Creator-God. They know they believe in this Creator, so they think they are the same as the creationists they read about. They are victims as are scientists of the YEC tactic of portraying this as a black and white issue. They probably dont realize they are falling in with people who claim T. Rex was a harmless vegetarian in the Garden of Eden. We need new words other than "creationist" to describe these people.
The reaction of the large numbers of Americans who are scientifically illiterate but sympathetic to science and who are religious but are not fundamentalist fanatics will determine the outcome. Many of them have been seriously misled. Theyve been misled into thinking there are substantial scientific controversies here- about whether they Universe is old or evolution can account for the development of life.
I have to cast journalists as major villains here. With regard to newspaper or TV stories about scientific issues, my personal experience has been that more than half have one or more substantive errors. Whats your estimate? (Please base your estimate only on those stories in which you have detailed knowledge of the content area).
Even more serious than the disregard for accuracy is the need to cast every story as a conflict. New, usually incremental discoveries are painted as sources of great conflict. The views of dissenters, which should be included, are magnified until there is no indication that a consensus exists. This makes a story about competing views which is much more exciting. So, a 90-10 or a 99-1 proposition in the scientific community becomes a 50-50 news story. No wonder we have problems formulating public policy based on scientific recommendations!
This is made worse by the cult of fairness. In terms of evolution: this emerges as fine, lets teach the children all the theories and let them decide what to believe.
I was involved in an organization call FLAT whose goal was to exploit and expose this attempt to conflate science with religion. We pointed out that previous efforts did not go far enough. FLAT advocated the FLATness of the Earth, and a ban on foreign language teaching, all based on Biblical verse. We held a press conference announcing our stand. This was picked up by the media-about half the stories, including the largest local radio station took it seriously and for about 36 hours, it was a powerful message.We succeeded locally in that creationist pressure on our local school board came to be seen as a joke. On the other hand, many people (Americans are parody-impaired) thought we were mocking the Bible, rather than the YECers. Still, fairness is a serious problem, rampant in a society with freedom of expression as a fundamental value, in which people are poorly trained to discriminate whats worth listening to.
F. What to Do?
The first thing is to do something. One thing few people realize is the small numbers of people needed to accomplish a great deal. In Kansas, a national focus, the majority of the action has come from about 20 people (including both sides). I would estimate that 200 people would account for 90% of the public debate and pressure.
Do not assume that your contribution will have a small effect.Do not assume your community is safe due to geography or tradition. At the last count, there is significant creationist activity in 45 states of the US. They are well-organized, well-funded, have learned to use contemporary communications technology, and have ready franchise outlets in nearly every town. While the leaders seek power, their followers believe they are saving souls. This is a powerful combination.
Join and support organizations supporting and defending good science education (cf., the list at the end of this essay).
Do not assume that your academic area is safe because it is not biology. The YECers have an explicit agenda, and the Type 2 IDers a hidden, long-term agenda, to theocratize all of science. Evolution is simply the easiest target, which draws press attention.
Watch for local quirky news items. They may lead to unusual surprises.
Dont think your influence cannot be large if you are not an expert on specific scientific issues being discussed. They arent experts either!
This is a political struggle, not an academic one. It is important to realize that the techniques of propaganda can be very useful. I use the word propaganda without value judgement, merely to mean techniques for convincing people of things, regardless of content. Thus, for example repetition is valuable. Appeal to self-interest ("look at all the advantages weve gotten from biotechnology, most of which relies on evolutionary science.") is more useful than abstract appeals to "truth."
Because it is a political struggle, statements by parents, students, etc. are of great value. Although we were defeated in the Board vote of August 1999 in Kansas, the clergy were of great assistance. Few of them became involved, but in fact the overwhelming majority who did were on our side. The public impact is strong, and gives the lie to the self-identification of YEC as Christianity. It is a little-known fact that large numbers of mainstream denominations adopted statements supportive of evolution and of science generally in the early 1980s. This is unknown because, unfortunately, most of them have done little or nothing to implement those resolutions.
When engaging in any public forum, it is important to avoid the debate format. This format rewards sound bytes and does not leave adequate time for the kind of detailed explanation that real science usually requires. It also elevates creationists to serious contenders in the eye of the public. The rules are set up not to determine the truth, but to reward the most persuasive. They have few scientists well trained in the areas they dispute, but they have many hired guns skilled in debate tactics.
Whatever the context, it is important to ignore some of your usual instincts, and pay attention to their methods and tactics as much or more than the content. This can be difficult but valuable. Usually if you find a weakness, the creationist will simply change the subject. It can be useful to point out what just happened to any audience present.
Notice that they will often not make claims of their own, but will merely attack science. They set up an unspoken assumption that if not A then B which many people unconsciously accept. Thus, if they score points against the Big Bang, it must mean their alternative is right. You can point out this tactic. You can ask them for the evidence supporting their claims.
More generally, in a public confrontation, a creationist will continue to attack areas of science. If challenged, he will keep moving on until he finds an area his opponent doesnt know. Then hes home free. It doesnt matter that he really knows none of these areas - hes now free to use the Big Lie, having successfully probed the boundaries of his opponentsknowledge.
G. Further Information
I urge you to pay attention to what is happening in you community, and act. It would not hurt to investigate actual course content. Many teachers are now silently intimidated and skip or skim over topics like evolution.I can recommend several URLs for further information (the first two are rich with useful links; on line book purchases made through these two URLs will generate income for these non-profit organizations):
http://www.natcenscied.org (National Center for Science Education) http://www.kcfs.org (Kansas Citizens for Science)
http://www.connect.to/flat (FLAT (Families for Learning Accurate Theories))
http://www.cipbonline.org (Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting)
[Also, my own home page has a link to an elementary-school level curriculum on origins: http://kusmos.phsx.ukans.edu/~melott/Melott.cfm]
Adrian L. Melott
Department of Physics and Astronomy,
University of Kansas
Lawrence, Kansas 66045 U.S.A.