RE: NABT flap

William W. Cobern (
Wed, 18 Feb 1998 11:59:30 -0700

The NABT flap has hit a number of listserves. Awhile back it surfaced on the
NARST-L (National Association for Research in Science Teaching) with the
posting of the Knoxville Open Letter. I responded with a few short comments
that included, "The ASA is an organization that fosters dialog on issues of
importance to both the scientific and religious communities but again any
one familiar with the ASA would never characterize it as fundamentalist or
right wing. (see for yourself:" I made
this very short comment because the influence on NABT had been
mischaracterized in my opinion. I mention this now to the ASA list bec/
likely will find it interesting to hear the response of one person, Dennis
Showers, on the NARST-L. I personally have responded briefly both to the
list and to this person. Others of you may, or may not, wish to contact
Dennis personally.

On Tue, 10 Feb 1998 William W. Cobern <> wrote:

"The ASA is an organization that fosters dialog on issues of importance to
both the scientific and religious communities but again any one familiar
with the ASA would never characterize it as fundamentalist or right wing.
(see for yourself:"

I am not sure what ASA's role was in the changing of the NABT
definition, but I consider Cobern's claim to be an overstatement of
monumental proportions. I am familiar with the ASA and consider it clearly
fundamentalist. I think the more accurate term that is implied in the
charge about ASA is that they are a "Christian fundamentalist"
organization. This charge can be supported. I hate people who go around
quoting the dictionary, but I want to be clear about why I say that the
label of Christian fundamentalism is appropriate for ASA. To that , The
American Heritage Electronic Dictionary defines fundamentalism as: n.
1.a. An organized, militant Evangelical movement originating in the United
States in 1920 in opposition to Liberalism and secularism. 2. A movement or
point of view characterized by rigid adherence to fundamental or basic
I do not think ASA fits the first definition, but it is with
definition #2 that I want to work. The ASA membership materials I received
identifies that Members and Associates of ASA "must give assent to the
following statement of Faith: 1. The Holy Scriptures are the inspired
Word of God, the only unerring guide of faith and conduct. 2. Jesus Christ
is the Son of God and through his atonement is the one and only Mediator
between God and man. 3. God is the Creator of the physical universe.
Certain laws are discernible in the manner in which God upholds the
universe. The scientific approach is capable of giving reliable
information about the natural world." There is a category of membership
called Friends of ASA which allows you to pay your money and get their
publications, but you cannot vote or hold office.
This statement of Faith is clearly Christian, implying strict,
literal interpretation of the Bible and fits the definition of "rigid
adherence to fundamental or basic principles"-- principles of Christian
Cobern's statement that ASA "fosters dialog on issues of importance
to both the scientific and religious communities" is at least careless and
possibly intentionally misleading. Part of ASA's description of itself is
"Explores relationships between science and Christian faith." I have never
seen anything in their materials that states or implies that they are
interested in any religion other than fundamental Christianity. At least
the Canadian Scientific and Christian Affiliation, a "direct affiliate" of
the ASA is more honest in naming themselves.
One of ASA's most significant publications has to be _Teaching
science in a climate of controversy: a view from the American Scientific
Affiliation._ (1986). My personal interpretation of the booklet is that
it is a gentle but firm pressure on educators to believe that science
doesn't have all the answers, so we have to keep our classrooms open to all
points of view. How can one argue that open discussion is a bad thing?
Well, I for one argue that while I always try to listen to all points of
view and learn from them, not all points of view belong in a public school
science classroom. Public schools are taxpayer supported instruments of
the secular society and government and come under the purview of the First
Amendment. ASA takes the view that if science can't answer all the
questions of origins through evolution, then you have to consider the
possibility that God did it. This is a nice little philosophical sleight
of hand, but it is nonsense in the pursuit of science.
In the first place, these "open minded" positions place the
responsibility of falsifying the "Creator" claim (I will not accord it the
title of a theory.) on the opponents of the idea. This fails on two
grounds. It is the responsibility of proponents of a claim to put forth
evidence FOR the claim, not the responsibility of opponents to disprove it.
Secondly (only if you accept Popper's position on falsifiability), the
proponents of a claim must lay out (or at least imply by their theory) what
evidence, if shown, would disprove the claim. ASA does neither.
The position that if science cannot answer all questions of origins
we have to keep classroom discussions open to the possibility that God did
it is particularly insidious. Try this one on your friends: In 1967 Jimmy
Hoffa disappeared. No evidence was ever produced that proved who caused
his disappearance. Since it can't be proven who took Jimmy Hoffa, God must
have done it. To be fair, I will give you equal time to prove that God did
not kidnap and kill Jimmy Hoffa. You have 16 seconds (That's the time it
takes me to read that statement aloud.).
This example reverses the desire to assume that all unanswered
questions must consider the possibility that "God did it" and also reverses
the "equal time fairness" fallacy. With complex scientific issues, it is
easier to throw up an elaborate set of arguments than it is to defend or
explain a concept. "Proof" of the Creator in matters of evolution is given
in the form of a collage of arguments against the completeness of the
evolutionary theories. Many if not most (some would say all) of the
attacks on evolution are specious, but their sheer numbers persuade many
non-scientists (and some professional scientists). "Equal time" is the cry
of the side that doesn't have the evidence they need. Objectivity is not
the midpoint between the truth and a lie.
The Greeks believed in the myth of Persephone. She was kidnapped
by Hades, and taken to the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, asked Zeus (who
happened to be Persephone's father) to return her. Zeus said that she
would be returned if she had not eaten anything while in Hades. They
discovered that she had eaten six pomegranate seeds while there. Zeus
ruled that she must spend six months of the year in with Hades and six
months in the world above. Demeter decreed that while her daughter was
away, the earth would not produce, that the trees would not bear, yadda,
yadda, yadda-- Winter. When Persephone returns, the earth brings forth,
flowers bloom, the sun shines, the tourists return. This is how the Greeks
explained the changing of the seasons.
By the 16th century Copernicus had proposed that the sun was the
center of the solar system and that the earth went around it. Suppose
someone had, say in 1520, said to Copernicus, "If the earth revolves around
the sun, then explain why there are seasons." Copernicus could not have
answered that question based on his scientific theory. The theory at that
point was incomplete to answer such a question. It was not until later
that the data of the tilt of the earth and its movement through space that
the heliocentric universe could answer the question of what caused the
The failure of a scientific theory to answer a particular question
about the natural world is not an argument for keeping our minds open that
maybe the Gods (or "the one true God") did it. That evolutionists admit
there are questions they cannot answer about origins only shows that they
understand the nature of science.
Additionally, in that 16th century, the Catholic Church considered
heliocentrism a heresy. Copernicus was careful about to whom he told his
ideas. Galileo was less diplomatic and paid for his behavior. But by the
time Kepler (and Tycho) finished, Ptolemaic astronomy and the idea that
animate beings moved the celestial bodies around was gone. Evolution is
really not that old as a theory. On the Origin of Species is little over
130 years. Extensive fossil records are less than a century. The
knowledge of DNA as a mechanism of heredity is less than a half-century.
(Watson and Crick are to Darwin what Kepler and Tycho were to Copernicus.)
Just as Galileo supposedly said as he left after recanting Copernicus to
the Church leaders, "And yet it moves" (meaning the Earth), evolutionists
can take heart that in the end, evolution will win out. NABT may change
their statement or not, and yet we evolved.
For what it's worth: I don't necessarily agree with all of
Pigliucci's arguments and I am certainly not sure what "right wing" means
except as an epithet for someone unreasonably bound to the status quo or
something like that. I don't know what the use of calling ASA right wing
contributes to the discussion and I would suggest leaving it out of future
I also have an opinion about why the deleted words belong in the
NABT definition, but I will leave that for another post. I also
understand the letter that brought all this on was posted to several lists.
I am posting this personally to Massimo Pigliucci, as the author of the
original letter to which Cobern replied, William Cobern, and to NARST-L as
that is where I got it. Anyone is free to forward it to other lists. I
hope it provides discussion that generates light rather than heat.

Dennis Showers, Associate Professor and Coordinator of Field Experiences
202 South Hall
One College Circle
Geneseo, NY 14454
716/245-5255 :: FAX: 716-245-5220 ::

I am not a teacher; only a fellow traveller of whom you asked the way. I
pointed ahead--ahead of myself as well as you. George Bernard Shaw


William W. Cobern, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Science Education

Education and Professional Development
Western Michigan University
2112 Sangren Hall
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5192

Voice: +616.387.2255
FAX: +616.387.2882

(Scientific Literacy and Cultural Studies Project)