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One Day Wonders
Some of the local challenges with which NCSE assists last for months or even years; for example, the attempt to place the creationist textbook Of Pandas and People in the schools of Louisville, Ohio, began in mid-1993 and has been continuously opposed by local NCSE activists. Others are resolved more quickly. In February, 1996, NCSE received two similar requests for help within two days-one from Morgan Hill, California (not far from Silicon Valley), and one from Albuquerque, New Mexico. In each case, children had been sent home with forms notifying parents that the children would be attending creationist presentations. In each case, the assembly was scheduled to occur the day after NCSE was contacted. In each case, thanks to the work of local activists, the presentation was cancelled.
While this kind of swift effectiveness is heartening, the "story behind the story" is one of more work, before and after the pivotal incident. In Albuquerque, several scientists and concerned citizens had already formed an organization, New Mexicans for Science and Reason (NMSR), dedicated to promoting good science education and public understanding of science. While considering a number of ways to help local schools, NMSR anticipated the possibility that some attempt would be made to introduce creationism, and contacted NCSE months before the problem occurred. When a concerned parent told Mark Boslough of NMSR about the assembly, he visited the school and explained why the presentation was poor science, then contacted NCSE. NCSE faxed legal information to Boslough, who hand-delivered it to the school. When the principal had more complete information in hand, she cancelled the assembly.
This was not the first known instance of creationism in New Mexico's schools. In an incident publicized throughout the state in February, 1995, a substitute teacher showed a creationist videotape in a Santa Fe school. More incidents can be expected, and the NMSR know their job isn't over. They are continuing their plans to volunteer in local schools, and drafting a statement opposing creationism.
Dale Morejon, a science teacher in the neighboring community of Gilroy, California, called NCSE about the Morgan Hill assembly. He had heard about NCSE some months before from another teacher who had attended a workshop conducted by Dr. Scott. He had been approached in the past by parents who wanted him to teach "creation science" in his middle school science class, but this time, when he explained why teaching creationism is inappropriate, the parent replied, "But they teach it in Morgan Hill." Morejon learned that a local minister had given a "creation science" presentation to one science class last year, and this year an assembly was planned for all science students.
NCSE faxed information to Morejon explaining why the proposed assembly was illegal, and he, in turn, showed it to the teacher and principal at the neighboring school. Meanwhile, in the short time available, NCSE staff quickly notified some Morgan Hill members, and they, too, called the school to express their concern. The teacher decided to cancel the assembly but, as in Albuquerque, that's not the end of the story.
An article in the local newspaper reported that some parents were disappointed that the assembly had been cancelled, and that the school district's superintendent said that he would not have told the teacher to cancel the assembly. NCSE has written to the superintendent, explaining why the teacher's decision was right. One of NCSE's members in Morgan Hill is submitting an editorial to the local newspaper, and others are continuing to work on building a support network among area science teachers.
NCSE's staff and local activists make good teams: NCSE has the information people can use in a wide range of situations, but we are most effective when members tell us what's happening in their communities and do much of the work "on the front lines." Often, NCSE acts locally by identifying potential allies for those interested in resisting creationist assaults on the curriculum. In many cases, these allies were not aware of the interest and involvement of others in their community until after they have called NCSE. For example, when an administrator in a mid-western school district asked us for help because local creationists opposed a very good new biology curriculum, we gave him the name of a local scientist whom he already knew, but hadn't thought of asking for help.
These incidents also remind us that when it comes to creationism, "It can happen here." Albuquerque is a community with a university and "high tech" facilities like Sandia Labs; many residents of Morgan Hill commute to work the city of San Jose or in businesses in "Silicon Valley." But other factors are at work in these diverse communities, including the hope that "teaching both sides" will prevent controversy. Until scientific literacy is genuinely widespread, pseudoscience can crop up anywhere.
Special thanks to Mark Boslough in Albuquerque, and Ray Gipson and Jack Penketham in Morgan Hill.