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NCSE’s Steve Newton and the “Creationism” Gambit

Last December, I wrote an op-ed in Christian Science Monitor arguing that Darwin lobbyists abuse the First Amendment by relabeling scientific critique of evolution as “creationism”:

Courts have uniformly found that creationism is a religious viewpoint and thus illegal to teach in public school science classes. By branding scientific views they dislike as “religion” or “creationism,” the Darwin lobby scares educators from presenting contrary evidence or posing critical questions – a subtle but effective form of censorship.

The media fall prey to this tactic, resulting in articles that confuse those asking for scientific debate with those asking for the teaching of religion. And Darwin’s defenders come off looking like heroes, not censors.

Those who love the First Amendment should be outraged. In essence, the Darwin lobby is taking the separation of church and state – a good thing – and abusing it to promote censorship.

One Darwin lobbyist who (especially of late) makes strong use of this tactic is Steve Newton of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Newton isn’t shy about tossing out the “creationist” label over and over and over again in hopes it will stick. He consistently uses what Paul Nelson calls “the creationism gambit.” According to Dr. Nelson, the creationism gambit goes something like this:

Probably the most effective strategy for quenching such dissent is to label it as “creationism.” Since the teaching of creationism in public school science classrooms has been ruled unconstitutional, one can effectively foreclose awkward but perfectly reasonable questions about evolution simply by saying, “Well, that’s the sort of question a creationist would ask — and creationism is out of bounds in this classroom.”

Let’s call this the creationism gambit. The creationism gambit silences questioning and dissent not only by removing a wide array of important topics from scientific discussion, but more subtly by conveying the implicit value that good scientists don’t ask certain kinds of questions. … The argument is familiar:

  • Creationist X wrote about topic Y.
  • EE discusses topic Y.
  • Therefore, EE recycles a creationist argument (topic Y), which does not belong in public school science classrooms.

When seen in clear daylight, however, the creationism gambit is nothing more than the logical fallacy of the undistributed middle. Compare:

  • Karl Marx wrote about capitalism.
  • Milton Friedman discussed capitalism;
  • Therefore, Milton Friedman had Marxist sympathies.

But the creationism gambit is far more than a logical fallacy. Pervasively illiberal and censorious, the creationism gambit steals from teachers and students their freedom to ask legitimate scientific questions–because of what someone else wrote, in another context, at another time.

If this guilt-by-association principle were applied broadly in educational practice, it would spell the end of knowledge and open inquiry. In particular, within biology teaching itself, influential and widely-cited texts in evolutionary theory–including Darwin’s Origin of Species or Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb–would fall under the same ban, along with many publications in the current scientific literature. Start with a fallacy, and its destructive illogic is impossible to control.

Let’s look at just a few examples of Mr. Newton’s use of the creationism gambit.

In January, 2011, Newton wrote a response to my 2010 Christian Science Monitor op-ed which, not counting the title, used the word “creationist” no fewer than 16 times. (For a more-detailed response to Newton’s op-ed, see here.)

Similarly, in a recent article in the Oklahoma Gazette, Newton holds nothing back and puts all his money on the creationism gambit, claiming: “Discovery Institute is trying to get creationism into public schools.”

Despite the utter falsity of his claim, I will show civility in response to Mr. Newton. Discovery Institute does not support teaching creationism in public schools. In fact, we don’t even support pushing intelligent design into public schools, which is different than creationism. Rather, we think public schools should simply teach the scientific evidence for and against neo-Darwinian evolution.

Newton further claims that “academic freedom” is a euphemism for “creationism,” which is odd because the Oklahoma Academic Freedom bill he was attacking contained a provision that expressly barred the teaching of religion and creationism:

The provisions of the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act shall only protect the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or nonbeliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion. The intent of the provisions of the act is to create an environment in which both the teacher and students can openly and objectively discuss the facts and observations of science, and the assumptions that underlie their interpretation.

So while Oklahoma’s academic freedom bill only allowed the teaching of science and did not allow the teaching of religion, Newton would relabel legitimate scientific content allowed under the bill as “creationism.” His purpose is simple: he wants to use the First Amendment in order to censor from students legitimate science that might challenge neo-Darwinian evolution.

Newton most recently made the creationism gambit when speaking to Science about the Louisiana Academic Freedom Law and the current Tennessee Academic Freedom bill:

If the bill passes, Tennessee would join Louisiana as the second state to have specific “protection” for the teaching of evolution in the classroom. The effects of the Louisiana law, which passed in 2008, are still unclear. “Some teachers there are teaching creationism, were before, and now will be even more encouraged to bring out antievolution rhetoric,” says Newton.

But just like the Oklahoma bill, both the Louisiana law and the Tennessee bill contain express provisions that prohibit teaching religion, including creationism.

Indeed, in other venues Newton hasn’t been so shy about trying to censor non-Darwinian views by labeling them “religion” or “creationism.”

In 2009, Newton released talking points on behalf of the NCSE for activists in Texas where he tried to relabel scientific critiques of evolution as both religion and creationism. Using typical NCSE rhetoric, he told activists to testify that “creationist ‘weaknesses’ of evolution are inherently religious,” apparently unable to not repeatedly use the phrase “creationist Discovery Institute.” All told, his Texas talking points used the word “creationist” and its cognates no fewer than 50 times!

Newton’s Texas talking points are a study in the creationism gambit at its best, but they can also teach us other things about why he makes heavy use of this tactic.

Scientism and Busting the Ghost of Creationism
Why is Newton so focused on labeling people, specifically those he brands “creationists”? As we’ve already discussed, it’s a convenient argument to ban views you disagree with from public education. But perhaps we may find a deeper answer in Newton’s own personal views which are revealed in the Texas talking points document:

Not only do Newton’s Texas talking points assert that “rational thinking” denies the supernatural, but they unambiguously state that “[s]cience posits that there are no forces outside of nature. Science cannot be neutral on this issue. The history of science is a long comment denying that forces outside of nature exist, and proving that this is the case again and again.”

The talking points even encouraged activists to condescendingly demean those who believe in the supernatural by stating: “All educated people understand there are no forces outside of nature.” (emphasis added)

To be clear, Newton isn’t merely adopting methodological naturalism by saying that science cannot study the supernatural. He clearly tries to say that science denies “that forces outside of nature exist.” Such arguments don’t just say that science is merely a way of knowing–it asserts that science is the only way of knowing. There’s a name for this position: it’s called scientism.

Mr. Newton is fully welcome to believe in scientism if that’s what he wishes. But perhaps what he fears most is someone who would suggest that forces outside of nature may have influenced the natural world. Perhaps he’s constantly afraid that critiquing neo-Darwinian evolution really will lead to “creationism”–even if such critiques are different from creationism. Perhaps this explains Mr. Newton’s extremely strong tendency to make the creationism gambit, relabeling legitimate science that challenges neo-Darwinian evolution by misrepresenting it as “creationism.”

What Newton is actually fighting of course isn’t creationism–it’s science that he disagrees with. But since the courts have found creationism is religion, he clearly finds it convenient to call whatever scientific views he doesn’t like “creationism” for the purpose of censoring them from public school students. To reiterate:

By branding scientific views they dislike as “religion” or “creationism,” the Darwin lobby scares educators from presenting contrary evidence or posing critical questions – a subtle but effective form of censorship.

While Darwin lobbyists like Newton constantly charge that “creationism” has been relabeled as “academic freedom,” the only party who is doing any relabeling is the Darwin lobby itself, which constantly claims–wrongly–that academic freedom to scientifically critique evolution is the equivalent of teaching “creationism.”

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



academic freedom billsNational Center for Science EducationncseSteven NewtonTennessee