Creationism Whistleblower: ‘Academic Freedom’ Is Sneak Attack on Evolution

The ‘intelligent design’ push in public classrooms failed a decade ago, but since then Darwin’s haters have returned with a new strategy disguised as science.

Photo Illustration by Emil Lendof/The Daily Beast

When a public school teacher walks into his or her biology classroom, he or she cannot legally teach creationism or intelligent design.

In late 2004, the local school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, adopted a policy requiring its teachers to present intelligent design as an alternative to evolution in ninth-grade biology classes. “It is inexcusable to have a book that says man descended from apes with nothing to counterbalance it,” said Dover school board member Bill Buckingham during a board meeting.

Dover parents sued the board and on Dec. 20, 2005, Judge John Jones III, a federal district court judge appointed by President George W. Bush, ruled that teaching intelligent design was a violation of the separation of church and state.

“An objective observer would know that [intelligent design] and teaching the ‘gaps’ and ‘problems’ in evolution are creationist religious strategies,” Jones wrote in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision. Intelligent design had “evolved from earlier forms of creationism,” Jones added.

Yet 10 years later, creationists are still sneaking God into public school science classes.

Led by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, creationists now promote “academic freedom” laws that allow teachers to supplement biology textbooks with materials that attack evolution. The first academic freedom legislation was sponsored in Alabama in 2004 and became a template for legislation distributed by Discovery Institute across the states.

Despite the scientific-sounding name, a former Discovery Institute employee says it’s anything but.

“DI is religiously motivated in all they do,” the person said, requesting anonymity. “One way to tell that the motivation is religion, and not science, is to compare DI work product to tech papers produced by working scientists in the field of biology or subfield of evolutionary biology. The two kinds of work product look very different, read very different, and were produced by very different means.”

The Discovery Institute, which also once named Neil deGrasse Tyson “Censor of the Year,” put out a textbook, Explore Evolution, to be used under academic freedom laws. The textbook includes scientifically inaccurate information like, “Critics maintain that transitional [fossil] sequences are rare, at best. For this reason, critics argue that Darwin’s theory has failed an important test.” According to an analysis by the National Center for Science Education, the textbook “uses familiar and long-refuted creationist anti-evolution arguments.”

Still, politicians and the Discovery Institute claim academic freedom laws are tools to inspire critical thinking, rather than to teach creationism.

“Critical thinking, critical analysis, teach the controversy, academic freedom—these are words that stand for legitimate pedagogical approaches and doctrines in the fields of public education and public education policy,” said the former Discovery Institute employee. “That is why DI co-opts them. DI hollows these words out and fills them with their own purposes; it then passes them off to the public and to government as secular, pedagogically appropriate, and religiously neutral.”

In 2008, Louisiana became the first state to pass an academic freedom law, the Louisiana Science Education Act, which is being used to teach creationism in public school districts like Bossier Parish.

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According to one email I obtained from Bossier Parish science teachers, students are learning the “Creation point of view” by reading the Book of Genesis and being given “supplemental material debunking various aspects of evolution.” In a different email bashing the ACLU and celebrating religious influence in Bossier schools, one Bossier teacher, Carolyn Goodwin, explained her support for creationism succinctly:

“My great granddaddy wasn’t a monkey.”

An August 2012 email sent to Louisiana’s state superintendent by a Department of Education deputy chief of staff said creationism was an “academic fact” in Louisiana schools.

The Louisiana Science Education Act’s roots can be traced back to Ouachita Parish and a creationist activist, retired Judge Darrell White. In 2006, the Ouachita school board passed a creationism policy drafted by White, who is a lifetime member of the Creation Museum and believes that teaching evolution is responsible for mass shootings. During a 2010 hearing of the Louisiana State Board of Education, I listened as Judge White blamed evolution for the Columbine massacre while waving a T-shirt that read “NATURAL SELECTION,” which murderer Eric Harris had worn. Documents obtained from Ouachita Parish show that the district is teaching creationism in its science classes, including that “snake leg nubbs” are proof of God’s work.

In an email conversation with White, Danny Pennington, a principal, and former science teacher from Ouachita, discussed creating supplemental videos to use under the Science Education Act.

“I will take out all references to creationism and just focus on the stupidity of evolutionary theory,” Pennington wrote. “I believe they can be shown in classrooms… I know what to say and what not to say.” Other supplemental materials Pennington created say, “Macroevolution has never occurred,” and promote the creationist theory of irreducible complexity, which was debunked by scientists during the Kitzmiller trial.

Frank Hoffman was the assistant superintendent of Ouachita Parish when the creationism policy was passed in 2006; the next year he was elected to the Louisiana State House of Representatives, where he co-sponsored the Louisiana Science Education Act.

The Louisiana Science Education Act is a model for creationism legislation across the country, according to a recent paper published in Science. Nick Matzke, the paper’s author, analyzed the language used in over 65 creationism bills introduced in 16 states, to construct a family tree that maps how this type of legislation has mutated since 2004. Matzke’s analysis “provide(s) strong evidence of bill-to-bill copying and ‘descent with modification,’” meaning current creationist legislation can be traced back to the original bills. They’re all modeled on either the Discovery Institute model or the Ouachita school board.

According to Matzke, creationism legislation “shows a major innovation” in the Ouachita policy, which doesn’t limit its attacks on science to evolution and the origin of life because it also challenges the science behind global warming and human cloning. When State Rep. Hoffmann took Ouachita’s policy statewide, he included the new changes, and in 2012, when Tennessee also passed a creationism law, it copied those changes too.

“The passage of [Science Education Acts] in Louisiana and Tennessee have spread language devised in Ouachita Parish, population ~150,000, to negatively affect science education in two states with ~11.2 million people,” wrote Matzke.

Real academic freedom is important, but creationists like the Discovery Institute have corrupted its meaning to miseducate children.