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Interview with Barbara Forrest, Defender of Evolution and CSIcon 2011 Speaker

Barbara Forrest

August 29, 2011

Barbara Forrest photo

CSIcon 2011’s “Creation and Evolution” panel will feature Barbara Forrest, PhD, coauthor with Paul Gross of Creationism’s Trojan Horse and an expert witness for the plaintiff in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (2005), a trial that severely crippled the creationist movement’s efforts to sneak intelligent design into science classrooms. In 2008, the creationist Discovery Institute succeeded in passing the Louisiana Science Education Act, a stealth creationist bill in Forrest’s home state. Forrest will be discussing her current work in Louisiana at CSIcon; while visiting CFI–Transnational in Amherst for a recent “Evolution’s Public Defenders” institute, Forrest sat down to share a preview of her presentation on the bill, its implications for public education, and the response from the science education activist community.

What is the Louisiana Science Education Act, and what is its affiliation with the Discovery Institute and the creationist movement?

The Louisiana Science Education Act does not mention intelligent design, but it permits public schoolteachers to use “supplementary materials” that will undermine evolution in their science classes. The law doesn’t require anyone to do anything; what it essentially permits teachers to do is use anything they want, from any source they want, in addition to the mandated state textbook. John West, a Discovery Institute spokesman and associate director for the Center for Science and Culture (that’s [the Discovery Institute’s] creationist wing), said that the Discovery Institute hoped that some school district in Louisiana would adopt their textbook, Explore Evolution, which is one of these sanitized intelligent design code language books. The Discovery Institute worked hand in hand with Louisiana Family Forum, which is an arm of Focus on the Family, in Louisiana, and the Louisiana Family Forum has been promoting a series of PDF documents on the internet, all of which are creationist supplements to the state-mandated textbooks. So that’s the kind of “supplementary material” they’re talking about.

Was this law clandestinely passed? Was there an effort to stop it?

There was nothing clandestine about it. After the Dover trial in 2006 [the Discovery Institute] made this their big project, so in 2008 they worked with about half a dozen variants of their model bill that were introduced in states around the country. In Louisiana, we had no organizational framework to respond to it. One of the ways that Florida, for example, has kept this stuff out is they have a very active, well organized Florida Citizens for Science. At the time we didn’t have that. I and a couple of people, very, very quickly, had to get something together. [Although] there weren’t very many of us…we did put up some opposition, but Louisiana Family Forum had been planning such a move probably since their founding in 1998. All they had to do [was] get a governor to sign the bill, and once they got Bobby Jindal elected, it was the last piece in place they needed and it was smooth sailing. I mean, that bill sailed through in a matter of weeks.

They even attacked the textbook selection process last year, but we won that one. The state board has a purview of adopting a list of mandated state textbooks; the schools can choose off that list. But when the Louisiana Family Forum lost their effort to block the approval of new books, they got one of their people in the legislature to help them undermine the purview—giving local school boards unlimited state funds without any kind of oversight to buy any materials they want. By that time we had enough people who knew what was going on who could mount some opposition, and we got that stopped.

So if you’re a parent in Louisiana and you realize that teachers are using creationist material in your child’s school, you don’t have any recourse at this point?

It would be very difficult for a parent to challenge these materials. After the Louisiana Family Forum got that law passed, the next thing they did was to go to the state board of elementary and secondary education, because one of the board members is in their pocket, and get control of the policy that the board had to put in place to implement the law at the local level—a policy that would be distributed to all the local administrators. The Department of Education had written a very, very good policy that would essentially have prevented the teaching of creationism. The Louisiana Family Forum got all those prohibitions taken out of the policy. They gutted it. So now there’s no explicit prohibition against using creationist materials in public school science classes. The next thing they did, in September 2009, was to get control of the review procedure that would be in place in the event that a parent would file a complaint. If a parent were to file a complaint, the review committee would be stacked so the creationists have a majority. So the procedure is frontloaded in favor of creationists.

Parents might be able to get [creationist materials] removed, but it’s going to be an uphill fight considering the way the procedure is structured now. But believe me, they would have help. I can guarantee you that if a parent filed a complaint and we couldn’t get these materials withdrawn, there are organizations that would be right there to support [the parent]. They’d be from out of state, and unfortunately most of our support for what we’re doing comes from outside our own state. But that’s one of the things we would like people to know: you would have help.

The intelligent design creationist movement is hitting multiple levels of society, trying to promote this idea that creationism is an acceptable, mainstream idea. What is the best way to respond to that?

You can’t use science to solve this problem because Americans by and large don’t understand the science. We still can, and should, say to people from the Discovery Institute, show us your science. They don’t have squat and they know it.

One of the reasons we have such a hard time in Louisiana is public officials know their votes come from people who support creationism. Until they have as much to fear from voters who support good science as they do from creationist voters, they’re going to continue to do what they’re doing. No amount of rational appeal will work for them. Appeals to the well-being of the state and students have not worked. And it’s not that these are necessarily bad people, but they’re politicians and they are about as ignorant of the science as most Americans are, and when they see they can get support from very powerful political groups like the Louisiana Family Forum, that’s where their bread is buttered. Until voters who support good science get organized and get just as vocal as the Louisiana Family Forum, we’re going to be in the same position that we’re in.

There are still so many who believe that the United States is a “Christian nation” and that the government should sign their beliefs into law. What is the best way to react to this mindset?

We’ve always had these people in the United States. They existed when the Constitution was drafted and approved. They didn’t like the fact that the Founding Fathers deliberately left God out. They still don’t like it. There will always be a core group of people who are like that, and the level of historical literacy is about as low as the level of science literacy. They’re vocal; they’re aggressive; they’re well organized, but they’re just people, and you accord them the same respect that you give anybody else—but you fight their agenda. And eventually times change. Over the last hundred years, since the anti-evolution laws first went on the books, things have steadily gotten better. We’ve gotten good court decisions to back us up and now evolution is in virtually all of the science standards in all fifty states. It didn’t use to be that way just a few short years ago, so we’re getting ahead, but the public always lags behind the science. So we need more people who are willing to come out of their academic enclaves and talk to the public. But we need them to do it in such a way that we can show the other side: Look, we’re just like you. We’re nice folks but we’re not going to let you hijack the education of our children or our constitution. Start letting politicians know that we’ll hold them accountable when they lose their backbones. I’m not willing to live in a country that’s run by these people. There’s nothing special about me; where I come from you don’t roll over. You get up and fight.

Read more about Barbara Forrest’s work at www.lasciencecoalition.org. Register for CSIcon 2011 here.

Barbara Forrest

Barbara Forrest's photo

Barbara Forrest is the co-author with Paul R. Gross of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford University Press, 2004), which details the political and religious aims of the intelligent design creationist movement. She served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the first legal case involving intelligent design, Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District, which was decided in favor of the plaintiffs in December 2005. She is a member of the board of directors of the National Center for Science Education and the National Advisory Council of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She has appeared on Larry King Live, ABC's Nightline, and a documentary on intelligent design for the BBC Horizon series. Her radio interviews include NPR's Science Friday with Ira Flatow and Americans United's Culture Shocks with Barry Lynn. She is a Professor of Philosophy in the Department of History and Political Science at Southeastern Louisiana University.