Eugenie Scott and the NCSE: Who Will Follow In Her Footsteps?

STORY BY James Sullivan

Published: September 4, 2013

Earlier this year, Dr. Eugenie Scott announced her resignation from the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit watchdog organization that monitors the teaching of evolutionary theory and climate change throughout American public schools. Since 1987, Dr. Scott, a professor of physical anthropology at California State University, Hayward has chaired the NCSE, valiantly leading the crusade against both fundamentalist Creation Science and the subsequent Intelligent Design movement.

Throughout her tenure, she had something of a celebrity status, most notably she was interviewed by Penn & Teller for Showtime's Bullshit! in 2003. Two years later, she came to national prominence with the landmark case Dover v. Kitzmiller, in which she acted as a scientific consultant for the jurors and press, a lawsuit in which two board members with creationist views sought to incorporate the textbook Of Pandas and People (a notorious ID-manifesto proclaiming all life to be the work of an intelligent agent) into Dover, Pennsylvania biology classrooms. Reporters hearing the scientists' testimony described as the case as “the biology class they wish they had in school.” Although Judge Jones ruled teaching Intelligent Design to be unconstitutional, perhaps Dr. Scott wishes that the $1.3 million lawsuit did not have to happen in the first place.

Trials tear communities apart. Nobody wants to do this. You do it when you have to,” she recalls in the 2007 NOVA special “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.”

Dr. Scott is a member of the California Academy of Sciences and former president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Aside from lending her overt scientific knowledge, it was also due to the extensive archive that NCSE keeps of creationist literature and activity that the plaintiffs were successful in their lawsuit, uncovering early drafts of Pandas and a typographical error that clearly indicated an instance where the word “creationist” had been deleted and replaced with “design proponent.”

When Scott first took over as NCSE chair, the most popular argument put forth by creationists was that their side deserved equal time alongside teaching the theory of evolution, an opportunity, they argued would allow students to make up their own minds. While this appealed to the Young Earth crowd (and continues to do so), it also appealed to many people who accepted evolution, echoing of the American ideal of democracy and free speech. Unfortunately, science cannot function the same way as politics or forensics, nor do its tenets differ from person to person, as is the case with religion. Worse, the primary strategy of creationists is to merely disprove evolution, rendering it impossible to teach both subjects side by side. When ID came into being, it merely recycled the equal-time argument, this time using the backing of the Discovery Institute which proclaims ID to be a perfectly secular hypothesis.

With the banishment of both intelligent design and creationism from public school classrooms, it would seem as though the NCSE could simply disband and devote all their energy to scientific research. Unfortunately, whoever is appointed as Scott's replacement has an unenviable task ahead. Creationists still fight against how much information on evolutionary biology may be admitted into textbooks, and wield a great deal of power in Texas, one of the states with the greatest demographic for publishers, and ironically, where so many transitional fossils were found.

Although creationists no longer vie for equal time in the classroom, they continue to search for a wedge with the Discovery Institute's “teach the controversy” method, which entails teaching from the standpoint that evolution is a controversial issue among scientists (approximately 0.1% of all American scientists reject evolution – virtually none in the realm of paleontology or life sciences.) More threatening is the “academic freedom” bill that guarantees protection of individual teachers to teach classes however they see fit, regardless of curriculum requirements – and it's one that's showed up in unlikely places – these bills were proposed in Louisiana as well as Ohio and New York. So cleverly disguised are these bills that all mentions of religion, intelligent design, or creationism are omitted. Any instances of teachers teaching creationism are therefore much more difficult to keep track of.

Several months ago, I proposed to the Catholic Church, which has long accepted and integrated the theory of evolution into their schools, to condemn creationism as a form of heresy – and I feel many people are unaware of the harm in believing that the Earth is only 6,000 years old. The real goal that creationists have is to create an authoritarian society, religious only in the sense that they obey God's word as it is given to them by their superiors, and scientific only in the way that they question the latest findings of the scientific community only in the sense that they are told to do so – basing their conclusions off cherry picked facts and quotations. The greatest proponents of creationism are well aware that not everyone in the world is scientifically literate and also that people are instinctively dismissive of unflattering news. As long as these two traits persist, so will their attempts to win us over.

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