This is the first in a two-part column on how the National Center for Science Education is targeting the nation’s schools to enforce a mythical consensus on global warming alarmism.
The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a nonprofit group described as a watchdog over the education of the nation’s children. Its core mission: to enforce a purported “scientific consensus” on hot-button issues, particularly evolutionary theory (NCSE’s focus since the 1980s) and global warming theory (NCSE’s focus since 2012).
NCSE’s supporters see it as an organization that protects science from the attack of ignorant, religious, countrified yahoos and bumpkins. Its detractors see it as a campaign to stifle the free and open debate that is critical to a free society and that is a necessary condition for scientific progress.
Critics believe that, by seeking to put a lid on scientific controversies, NCSE actually serves as an impediment to science education—such that many school systems and individual teachers refrain from teaching about the topics extensively, or avoid the topics entirely, in order to avoid the wrath of “consensus” enforcers. As a result, the nation’s schoolchildren learn neither the facts underlying the theories and counter-theories, nor the reasoning processes by which real science separates fact from fiction.
Unquestionably, many NCSE supporters believe it promotes the teaching of sound science. But in fact, over its history of more than three decades, in almost all of its battles at every level—the federal government, “Common Core,” the courts, state legislatures, school boards, and individual schools—NCSE has attempted not to promote good science education but to censor views with which it disagrees.
Indoctrination in the schools is nothing new. During the lead-up to Prohibition, supporters of a ban on alcoholic beverages planted propaganda in textbooks declaring that drinking alcohol could cause a person to combust spontaneously in blue flame. In the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925, the American Civil Liberties Union defended the use in a classroom of the book A Civic Biology, which taught evolution but also white supremacy and eugenics (the alleged need to eliminate “parasitic” people from the population). In 1957, at a key point in the Civil Rights movement, the textbook Alabama History for Schools declared that slavery had been beneficial, “the earliest form of social security.”
Today, across the country, the classroom is a battleground for controversies ranging from gun owners’ rights to the effect of tax cuts on the economy to the history of conflict between Christianity and Islam.
Today, the desire to use schools to shape the future of politics is reflected in such publications as Radical Teacher (which described itself as “socialist” and “feminist”) and Green Teacher. The latter magazine, according to its website, offers “great kid-tested ideas for fostering learning and inspiring action on environmental and other global issues! Written by and for educators, Green Teacher is a quarterly magazine for those working with young people, aged 6-19, inside and outside of schools.”
Origins in Creationism Debate
In the spring of 1980, biologist Wayne Moyer published editorials in BioScience and The American Biology Teacher urging the formation of local groups of activist scientists and educators to oppose the teaching of “creation science” in public schools. Fearful that creationist initiatives might lead to “an American equivalent of the Lysenko affair,” Moyer proposed to “organize Committees of Correspondence on Evolution, composed of people willing to communicate the meaning and wonder of evolution to the public.” (The “Lysenko affair” was the effort by Soviet director of biology Trofim Lysenko to impose a single, false view of genetics and hybridization on Soviet agriculture. Enforcement of his ideas led to the persecution of dissenting scientists and to poor farming practices and mass starvation.)
Under Moyer’s vision, these Committees of Correspondence on Evolution (CCEs) would be “joined into a national information network” which would “make available lists of biologists willing to speak on evolution; gather and disseminate information on creationist activities; write and publish critiques and rebuttals of creationist writings; and hold workshops” to challenge creationists.
In January 1981, Stanley Weinberg began publishing a national newsletter, the Memorandum to Liaisons for Committees of Correspondence, to coordinate CCE activities. Weinberg was a retired high school biology teacher, a prominent high school biology textbook author, and former president of the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT).
Moyer invited prospective CCE leaders to attend a meeting in Washington, DC to craft a proposal for this network for consideration by scientific and educational societies. In October 1981, some two dozen leaders of scientific societies and teachers’ organizations came together in Washington, DC to “form a united effort or coalition to combat creationism and support the Committees.” The meeting was hosted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the most prestigious scientific body in the United States.*
* Editor’s Note: The Natinal Academy of Sciences was created during the Lincoln administration to provide advice on science and, it was hoped, help solve the problems of a nation in the midst of the Civil War. Its most prominent founder was Louis Agassiz, famous for both real science (he was the first to scientifically propose the idea of an Ice Age) and bad science (he was a father of so-called “scientific racism,” the scientific consensus that wrongly supported white supremacy). Today, NAS members elect new members, for life terms, a selection process that fosters the politicization of science and, often, the involvement of scientists in policy matters about which they know little.
The National Association of Biology Teachers organized a follow-up meeting to help plan the CCE network. These efforts were successful. By December 1981, the number of states with CCEs grew to 42.
Posed as Grassroots Effort
Spokesmen for these groups denied they were orchestrated by a large consortium of scientific societies, universities, and government agencies; instead they described themselves as “local lobbying groups that are combating creationist efforts at the grass roots level.” The CCEs did operate locally, focused on monitoring and “fighting the creationists” in their respective states, but they had strong backing, support, and national coordination from some of the most prestigious scientific societies and educational groups in the country.
Moyer was director of the NABT, and he used his national position to seek funding for the CCEs from major biological and other scientific societies. The groups took on an aggressive, if not militaristic, ethos, as the name “Committees of Correspondence,” coined by Moyer, alluded to groups of that name organized by patriots during the Revolutionary War to share strategies for fighting the British. Of course, unlike the Revolutionary War committees, those organized during the 1980s to fight creationism had the establishment entirely on their side.
In January 1982, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) hosted the first official national meeting of CCE representatives. Participants discussed the creation of a national organization to coordinate committee efforts. That led to the NCSE, with Stanley Weinberg elected as the founding president. By 1986, NCSE was operating as an “umbrella organization” coordinating a network of CCEs in most U.S. states as well as five Canadian provinces.
For almost all of its existence, NCSE’s most prominent figure has been Dr. Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist who was present, as a representative of Kentucky’s CCE, at that critical meeting at AAAS in January 1982. The Carnegie Foundation and other private foundations provided a grant to the NCSE to open a national office and find an executive director, and Scott held that office from 1986 until her retirement in 2013.
According to a history of NCSE in the American Society for Cell Biology newsletter, by the time Scott was hired in 1986, “the activities of the Committees [of Correspondence] had substantially diminished, and Scott introduced a truly U.S.-wide agenda of education and action.” From that national vantage, NCSE focused on collecting and disseminating information about creationists’ educational activities to the NCSE’s activist-members, and on coordinating local efforts to ensure none of the 17,000 school districts in the United States taught creationism.
The Threat of ID
Creationism is the belief that the universe, life, and the various forms of life are the product of divine creation rather than natural, blind evolutionary processes. Creationists include (but are not limited to) those who believe in a literal Biblical account of creation and believe the earth is some 6,000 years old.
In the mid-1990s, increasing numbers of scientists and non-scientists began to express interest in Intelligent Design (ID), a different concept that does not depend on religious belief and does not challenge mainstream views about the age of the earth, but suggests an intelligent cause is the best explanation for many features of nature, such as the complexity of life.
NCSE’s supporters apparently found ID threatening, because from 1997 to 2007 the group’s annual budget rose from $250,000 to about $800,000, and its staff roster increased from four employees to fourteen. The organization was heavily involved in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover trial which, under pressure from a coalition of NCSE, the ACLU, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, banned ID from public schools in Dover, Pennsylvania.
In 2000, NCSE’s then-President Kevin Padian, a University of California, Berkeley paleontologist, and Eugenie Scott were awarded a $450,000 taxpayer-funded grant (on which NCSE was a subcontractor) from the National Science Foundation to create a website to guide teachers in teaching evolution.
Scott retired as NCSE executive director in 2013 (she now chairs its Advisory Council) and was succeeded by Ann Reid, a biologist who spent twenty years doing virus research at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Reid entered the policy arena in 2005, first working at the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Life Sciences and later serving as director at the American Academy of Microbiology.
When Reid’s hiring was announced, the journal Science reported she “hopes to attract support from private foundations and government agencies with interests that dovetail with [NCSE’s] mission.” The chair of the board of governors for the American Academy of Microbiology called her “an expert at navigating the science-policy-society interface.”
Today, NCSE has an annual budget of around $1 million and employs some 15 staff, including Ph.D. scientists, former teachers, and a theologian. The organization and its supporters poor-mouth themselves by claiming they must battle “lavishly funded right-wing” opponents, but the NCSE has enjoyed large amounts of government money that its opponents could only dream of obtaining.
NCSE is the beneficiary of grassroots activism on the part of scientists, educators, and others who support its mission. But much of its support comes from powerful groups that are pillars of the political establishment and the scientific-technological elite. (President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, warned of the danger “that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”)
Indeed, NCSE has been collaboratively envisioned, created, and supported financially by elite establishment groups, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Association of Biology Teachers, the National Science Teachers Association, the National Science Foundation, and many other national educational and scientific (or scientist-activist) organizations.
Concentrates on Climate Change, Evolution
NCSE is organized as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Oakland, California, and describes itself as “devoted to promoting and enhancing the teaching of science, especially the evolutionary sciences and the climate sciences, in formal and informal education, especially in K-12 public schools.” According to some of its most recent public tax filings, NCSE has two major programs:
• The Public Information Program provides “information and advice” to hundreds of teachers, parents, and members of the news media “about climate change and evolution education.” Through this project, the NCSE gives dozens of annual workshops and presentations to organizations, including national and state scientific and educational societies. Practically, this means that scientists, educators, and activists contact the NCSE for strategic and rhetorical advice on rebutting arguments—in the classroom, the boardroom, and the media—of those who doubt the “consensus” on evolution and global warming.
• Its Public & Internet Media program distributes material about current events regarding “the creation/evolution and climate change controversies.” That includes six issues per year of NCSE’s journal, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, which has a circulation of about 5,000. On the Internet, NCSE has a moderately impressive presence, with a weekly electronic newsletter that reaches about 4,000 people, a website that drew a reported 680,000 unique visitors in 2012, and a Facebook page that recently showed some 48,000 “likes.”
NCSE claims to have some 5,000 members who are “scientists, teachers, clergy, and citizens with diverse religious and political affiliations.” This description of NCSE members fits into the organization’s strategy—portraying itself as religiously and politically neutral and focused on defending only a supposed consensus. As part of this strategy, the NCSE showcases conservatives who accept the “consensus” on global warming or evolution.
Scott explained: “Finding the people who think ideologically but still accept the science is what we would like to do. Our job at NCSE, at least in global warming and evolution, has been . . . to find the people in intermediate positions who hold those ideological positions, find the conservative Christians who accept evolution, find the Republicans who accept global warming, find the libertarians who accept global warming and say, ‘See, you don’t need to let ideology get in the way to accept the science.'”
Scott has claimed “the most important group” she works with is “members of the faith community,” and she counsels public school teachers to send students to interview pro-Darwin clergy in order to stress “the compatibility of theology with the science of evolution.”
But NCSE’s leadership is far from objective and non-ideological. Scott is a public signer of the Third Humanist Manifesto, which aspires to create a world with “a progressive philosophy of life . . . without supernaturalism” and makes broad metaphysical claims that “Humans are . . . the result of unguided evolutionary change” and nature is “self-existing.” The manifesto praises “progressive cultures” and seeks “a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.”
Other NCSE officials have similar anti-religious affiliations. Barbara Forrest, a member of NCSE’s board of directors, is also on the board of directors of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association, which is affiliated with prominent national atheist groups, including the American Humanist Association (AHA), which published the Third Humanist Manifesto. The NCSE has direct ties to these humanist groups: Its primary newsletter, Reports of the National Center for Science Education, is directly descended from an earlier journal, Creation/Evolution, originally published by the AHA and later acquired by NCSE.
Casey Luskin ([email protected]) is an attorney with a graduate degree in earth sciences, and serves as research coordinator for the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Washington. This article was first published by the Capital Research Center, reprinted with permission.