Bill Nye the Science Guy has somehow made headlines this week just by articulating the scientific consensus on the laughable hypothesis that the 6,000-year old Earth and all of the life on it was created in its present form by an invisible wizard in the sky. The tragicomic retorts coming from the creationist crowd, specifically the dunce-hatted Ken Ham, are not just scientifically inaccurate, they’re also contrary to the relentless barrage of legal precedent dealing with the teaching of nonsense in public schools. Here I will provide a primer on just why it is that creationism has lost virtually every legal battle it has ever fought. This primer will be brief, because the case against creationism is, at this point in the case law with the kinds of precedents that have been put in place over the last couple of decades, practically open and shut.
The National Center for Science Education, a think-tank and advocacy group dedicated to protecting standards of excellence in American science classrooms, has a helpful list of ten of the biggest cases in the field. The actual cases are fairly repetitive: laws against teaching evolution, laws targeting evolution for exaggerated criticism, and laws promoting the teaching of creationism share in a broad family of legal flaws. But the most interesting of the cases is the most recent on the list, the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover case, since it provides both a powerful summary of all of the past precedent against creationism, and most clearly articulates into precedent the relatively recent stricture that, legally speaking, creationism is not science.
This point may seem obvious to anyone with even a pedestrian understanding of science, but as a matter of law, it’s an essential part of the following chain of argumentation:
- A law must have a secular purpose, must not needlessly advance one religion or religious perspective over another, and it must not excessively entangle the government with religion. (The “Lemon Test,” a controversial but time-tested First Amendment rubric for matters of religion.)
- If a law targeting science education has no merits whatsoever for the advancement of science education, it has no secular purpose. (This was the Dover court’s contribution to precedent.)
- If a law targeting science education promotes a single interpretation of Christian theology to the exclusion of all other perspectives for no scientific reason, it needlessly advances one religion over another.
- If a law requires the government to define creationism and then install monitoring controls to make sure that teachers are teaching the “correct” kind of creationism, then the state is entangled deeply with religion since it must define and then enforce a “correct” interpretation of creationism.
All of this falls apart if creationism is found to be legally scientific. Assuming for argument’s sake that creationism is treated as good science, a law promoting its teaching would have the secular purpose of making science lessons just more scientific by including one more scientific factoid, namely creationism. The advancement of Christian creationism over all other religious hypotheses wouldn’t be needless, because the Christian version would be the only one to date found to be scientific. And the monitoring controls installed to enforce the teaching of creationism wouldn’t be “excessively” entangling because they would be of the same sort we have to use in any science standards, were creationism added to the canon of standard science.
That is why, in my estimation, the linchpin of the legal case against creationism is that creationism is unscientific. None of its religious implications are as Constitutionally troubling if it turns out that creationism is scientifically valid because teaching scientifically valid things in science class, regardless of their peripheral implications, is the core function of science classes.
But thanks to the Dover precedent, the nail is in the coffin: creationism has been beaten back in its every assault on standards for science education. So why does it persist? The reasons are almost certainly cynical politics: evangelical voters eat that stuff right up, and the voter gets what the voter wants. To that end, I’d like to advertise the following warning to every single school board in America considering revising its science standards down to the lowest common denominator:
Dear school board member, state senator, or school administrator planning to sneak creationism into a science classroom,
It has come to my attention that you are about to blunder your way into another major legal defeat for your medieval worldview. As a gesture of good faith, I would like to tell you what will happen if your bill gets passed:
- Your school system will become an international laughingstock overnight.
- You will get sued.
- You will flush away six figures fighting a legal battle, even if the insincere buffoons defending you promise to do it on a volunteer basis.
- You will lose.
I urge you to keep all these points in mind. I urge you to introspect deeply on how much you value your job, the jobs of the teachers you employ, and the academic and employment futures of the students who will be victims of your cruel imposition of nonsense.