RNCSE 24 (2)

Articles available online are listed below.

"Intelligent Design" in the Bitterroot Valley

Darby, Montana, located in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana near the Idaho border, is a modest town of about 1000 people, where "everybody knows everybody" is not just a cliché. But Darby recently became a flashpoint in the perennial creationism/evolution controversy, when a local minister attempted to have the school board add "intelligent design" to the biology curriculum of the town's public schools. The ensuing acrimonious debate received national attention, including pieces in The New York Times and on National Public Radio. With the results of the May 4, 2004, school board election, however, the debate is over - for now.

The campaign began with a public presentation held on December 10, 2003, in the junior high school gymnasium. The Reverend Curtis Brickley conducted what was described as "a two-hour, high-tech presentation on "intelligent design'," and called on the Darby School Board to include "intelligent design" in the science curriculum. Two members of the school board, Gina Schallenberger and Doug Banks, were receptive to the proposal. But not all of those attending the meeting were impressed. John Schneeberger, the coordinator of the Bitterroot Human Rights Alliance, commented, "It's fairly apparent that 'intelligent design' points directly to God as a creator and that doesn't have any place in a science class" (Ravalli Republic 2003 Dec 12).

Brickley hoped to present his "intelligent design" proposal to the school board at its next regular meeting on January 5, 2004. Speaking to the weekly Missoula Independent (2003 Dec 25), Brickley was unwilling to provide details, although he was careful to say that he was not calling for evolution to be omitted from the curriculum. "They need to teach evolution more critically," he said, "and teach evidence that challenges the neo-Darwinian theory." By teaching "intelligent design" alongside evolution, he said, the Darby schools would thereby "teach origin science more objectively."

Meanwhile, a group of residents in Darby and surrounding communities who opposed Brickley's proposal organized Ravalli County Citizens for Science. Rod Miner of RCCS told the weekly Missoula Independent (2003 Dec 25) that the proposal "is a politically and religiously motivated action that seeks to place a religious agenda ahead of the interests of students" and warned of the possibility of a lawsuit if the Darby School Board adopted it. The school board accordingly deferred considering Brickley's proposal until it heard from "the other side" (Ravalli Republic 2004 Jan 7).

On January 21, 2004, in the junior high school gymnasium, Ravalli County Citizens for Science conducted its own presentation, attended by over 200 people. Speaking were Jay Evans, a local molecular and cellular biologist, NCSE's post-doctoral scholar Alan Gishlick, and Karen Hedges, a Darby science teacher. Hedges explained, "If we are not teaching evolution as the best explanation of what we see here, we are shortchanging our students when it comes to moving on to higher education and standardized testing" (Ravalli Republic 2004 Jan 23). Another teacher, Trevor Laboski from nearby Corvallis, added that science teachers already discuss the social controversy surrounding evolution when students broach the topic, assuring the audience, "We're sensitive to the community that we teach in and the religious culture that exists."

School board actions

The school board met to consider the policy on January 26. The meeting was attended not only by Darby residents but also by people from Hamilton, Victor, and even Missoula, about 60 miles away. Speaking first was Brickley, whose proposed "objective origins policy" would encourage teachers in Darby's schools to "help students assess evidence for and against theories, to analyze scientific strengths and weaknesses of existing scientific theories, including the theory of evolution, by giving examples of scientific innovation or discovery challenging commonly held perceptions." The purpose of the policy was not, he said, to add creationism to the curriculum; what he sought, he said, was "a qualified and responsible criticism of Darwinian evolution" (The Missoulian 2004 Jan 27). Responding, Rod Miner of RCCS described "intelligent design" as having "no legitimacy in scientific theory" and argued that Darby's schoolchildren "need more science, not less".

Judging from the public comment period of the meeting, the "objective origins" policy was popular: a reporter from the Ravalli Republic (2004 Jan 28) estimated that its supporters outnumbered its opponents by two to one. (According to Dixie Stark of RCCS, however, the numbers were about equal if nonlocal speakers were not counted.) But it was not so popular among the school board's legal advisors. Letters from Deputy Ravalli County Attorney James McCubbin and Montana School Boards Association attorney Elizabeth Kaleva strongly cautioned the district not to change the curriculum in a way unapproved by the state. "Failure to meet state standards for your curriculum could result in loss of accreditation for the Darby schools," McCubbin wrote. "This, in turn, could result in litigation and/or make the Darby schools ineligible to receive state and/or federal funding. Thus, it is absolutely imperative that your curriculum continue to meet those state standards" (The Missoulian 2004 Jan 27).

The meeting adjourned until January 28. Michael Moore, a reporter from The Missoulian, managed to interview Brickley on the intervening day. "In hindsight," Moore wrote (2004 Jan 28), "Curtis Brickley thinks he shouldn't have presented the case for teaching 'intelligent-design' theory at Darby High School when he argued for changing the school's science curriculum in early December." Brickley told Moore, "I don't think that 'objective origins' and 'intelligent design' are one [and] the same," adding, "I just want us to look at evolution critically, at the evidence for it and the evidence against it. I think the policy is quite modest."

In his article, Moore also discussed the Discovery Institute, whose Center for Science and Culture serves as the institutional home of "intelligent design". Like Brickley, the Discovery Institute is increasingly disavowing any desire to have "intelligent design" taught in the public schools and concentrating instead on "teaching the controversy" (for a critical discussion of the slogan, see Eugenie C Scott and Glenn Branch, "Evolution: What's wrong with 'teaching the controversy'" Trends in Ecology and Evolution 2003; 18 [10]: 499-502). Although Brickley emphasized that he was not speaking for the Discovery Institute, he acknowledged that he requested its assistance while he was preparing his presentation to the school board.

When the meeting resumed on January 28, dozens of speakers commented on the policy, as in the previous session of the meeting. David DeWolf, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture and Professor of Law at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, told the board, "I believe that a careful review of the legal implications of this policy would reveal that it is fully consistent with state educational requirements, and that there is no reason to fear that it would violate any constitutional restrictions." He added that even if a lawsuit were to be filed, "there are a variety of organizations who are committed to open discussion in this area and who I believe would agree to defend the board's position if it were to adopt this policy. I personally would volunteer to assist the board in identifying such counsel." (DeWolf's testimony is available on-line at http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?program=CSC&command=view&id=1750.)

Speaking against the policy, Dixie Stark of RCCS wryly told the board that the grassroots pro-science organization needed no attorneys to help it to make its case: "We are not the ones who are about to break the law," she said. "The school board is" (The Missoulian 2004 Jan 29). While not describing the policy as illegal, Montana School Boards Association attorney Elizabeth Kaleva told the board that it was unwise to enact such a policy as Brickley's "objective origins policy" without describing how it is to be implemented. The policy encourages teachers to help their students to analyze the scientific strengths and weaknesses of evolution, she noted, but fails to specify how they are supposed to do so or whether they are required to do so.

No decision was reached at the January 28 meeting. Discussion resumed on February 2, with comments from supporters and opponents of the policy continuing. Particularly telling were comments from the principals of the Darby schools, who expressed their worries about adopting a policy in the absence of any plan for implementing it, and from high school student Zach Honey, who reported that the "vast majority" of his schoolmates were opposed. Nevertheless, the board finally voted 3-2 to adopt the "objective origins" policy, with Gina Schallenberger, Doug Banks, and Elisabeth Bender voting for it and Mary Lovejoy and Bob Wetzsteon voting against it. Both Lovejoy and Wetzsteon expressed concern that the board was flouting the advice of its own attorney; indeed, according to The Missoulian (2004 Feb 3), "Wetzsteon repeatedly asked the majority why they were disregarding Kaleva's advice, but he got no answer."

Political and legal entanglements

The vote on February 2 was not the final word, since in Darby, such a policy change requires approval (by a simple majority) in two separate meetings. The flurry of letters to the editors and op-eds in the local newspapers increased in intensity, as both sides sought to bolster their positions and support in anticipation of a second vote. Also significant was the upcoming election on May 4, in which one supporter of the "objective origins" policy (Schallenberger) and one opponent (Wetzsteon) were up for re-election; the views of the candidates would prove to be crucial in their campaigns.

Those opposed to the "objective origins" policy welcomed the intervention of Montana's Superintendent of Public Instruction, Linda McCulloch, who characterized the policy as a way to smuggle creationism into the science curriculum. "It is not science," she told The Missoulian (2004 Feb 4). "You won't find any credible group of scientists or science teachers who advocate these philosophies as science." She also described "intelligent design" as creation science retooled to survive constitutional scrutiny. Her stance was subsequently attacked by John Fuller, hoping to be the Republican candidate for McCulloch's post, who complained, "Given the reverence of local control of schools in Montana, if Darby wishes to investigate such a curriculum, shouldn't they be permitted to do so without the self-righteous threats of the superintendent?" McCulloch responded, "Mr Fuller is fooling himself if he thinks 'objective origins' and 'intelligent design', or whatever you want to call them, is anything more than an attempt to put religion in our classrooms" (Billings Gazette 2004 Feb 5).

Also inveighing against the policy was Eric Feaver, the president of the Montana Education Association and Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT), the organization that represents Darby's teachers. Echoing McCulloch's remarks, he said, "no matter what the proponents of this 'objective origins' policy say, this is all about religion. The Montana Constitution just forbids this" (The Missoulian 2004 Feb 4). He also said that MEA-MFT was concerned about the lack of a curriculum corresponding to the "objective origins" policy and would insist that teachers be involved in the development of any such curriculum. Additionally, Ravalli County Attorney George Corn went on record as endorsing the opinion of James McCubbin and Elizabeth Kaleva that the policy was problematic (The Missoulian 2004 Feb 5).

But proponents of the "objective origins" policy were not idle in securing legal advisors of their own. During the school board's debate over the policy, Harris Himes, a pastor at the Big Sky Christian Center in nearby Hamilton (and unsuccessful candidate for the school board there; see Updates, p 16), produced a letter from the Alliance Defense Fund offering its legal assistance to the board. Then, on February 2, the ADF formally offered its services directly to the board in case it were to be sued over adopting the policy. Bridgette Erickson, a lawyer from Lincoln, Montana (a town about 140 miles away), subsequently emerged as the ADF's de facto representative, addressing the Darby school board at a meeting on February 24 to explore the possibility of the ADF's representing the board if necessary (The Missoulian 2004 Feb 16).

The ADF, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, describes itself as "a servant organization that provides the resources that will keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel through the legal defense and advocacy of religious freedom, the sanctity of human life, and traditional family values" (http://www.alliancedefensefund.org/about/). Among those listed as its founders are Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, D James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Ministries, and James Dobson of Focus on the Family. It was also involved in the controversy over the presence of a creationist book in the bookstores at Grand Canyon National Park (see RNCSE 2004 Jan/Feb; 24 [1]: 4-5).

At the school board meeting on February 24, Erickson offered her services to the board pro bono, supplementing the ADF's offer to pay her fees to defend the board in the event of a lawsuit. Describing the "objective origins" policy as "on the cutting edge of modern education" (Ravalli Republic 2004 Feb 26), she also offered to help the district to develop a corresponding curriculum. Elizabeth Kaleva again warned the board about the perils of adopting the policy, noting that Erickson's affiliation with the ADF was problematic: "If you're challenged in state or federal court, you'll be asked to defend your motives as completely free of religious motives," she said. "And that's hard to do with an organization like ADF defending you." Kaleva also said that the Montana School Boards Association was unwilling to defend the school board against a lawsuit over the policy. Nevertheless, the board voted 3-2 to retain Erickson as counsel; the three in favor of retaining her were the same as those who voted in favor of adopting the "objective origins" policy.

Real grassroots reactions

The decision of the board to retain Erickson was greeted with displeasure by students at Darby's high school. On February 25, about one-third of the school's 170 students - as well as one teacher - walked out of school to demonstrate against the "objective origins" policy. Slogans on their signs included "Creationism in a cheap tuxedo" and "Objective origins: Just say Noah" (Ravalli Republic 2004 Feb 26; The Missoulian 2004 Feb 26). Aaron Lebowitz, the senior who organized the demonstration, explained, "I just thought that we needed a way to get the community and the board to listen to us. We're important. We're what this is all about."

As the controversy continued to rage, rumors about a boycott of the Darby schools circulated. Writing in the weekly Missoula Independent (2004 Feb 26), Josh Mahan reported "that as many as 30 families may want to yank their children from the Darby school system if the proposal passes." Since the school system receives about $5000 per student, such a mass withdrawal would be financially disastrous. Science teacher Karen Hedges lamented, "That breaks my heart. We have a good school. On top of losing good kids, that's a lot of money. Then we'll lose staff."

In the course of noting that the "objective origins" policy was on everyone's lips in Darby, Mahan also remarked, "There's even a curious New York Times reporter holed up in Bud & Shirley's Motel." Emerging from his quarters there and returning to New York, James Glanz subsequently published a long piece on the situation in Darby. Glanz is a respected science reporter for the Times, with a PhD in physics from Princeton University; his previous articles include "Darwin vs design: Evolutionists' new battle" (The New York Times 2001 Apr 8), which proponents of "intelligent design" are fond of citing as evidence that their view is taken seriously.

"Montana creationism bid evolves into unusual fight" (The New York Times 2004 Feb 29), however, focused not on anti-evolutionists but on grassroots resistance to their efforts, as exemplified in Darby. Glanz was evidently impressed by the quick formation and effective advocacy of RCCS. NCSE's role in advising and supporting groups such as RCCS was also noted: "Some of the groups take their leads from umbrella organizations like the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which tracks the disputes and supports the teaching of mainstream evolution." Additionally, the article quoted NCSE's executive director Eugenie C Scott and mentioned NCSE's postdoctoral scholar Alan Gishlick's appearance in Darby.

On March 2, Rod Miner and Martha Stromberg, whose two children are in the Darby school system, increased the pressure on the board by sending a letter announcing their intention to sue the board if the "objective origins" policy were adopted. In their letter, published in the Ravalli Republic (2004 Mar 3) and reprinted on p 6, they remarked, "The objective origins policy [currently] before you, if approved, will direct Darby science teachers to present to our children as scientific what are in fact religious teachings, thus establishing government sponsored religion in our school. This policy is illegal, and we will challenge it." "We want the board to listen to us seriously, and we want them to talk about why they're doing this," Miner told The Missoulian (2004 Mar 3). "Ravalli County Citizens for Science is very willing to sit down with the board and the proponents without a judge and without a lawyer and explain to them how they're being misled."

Mary Lovejoy and Bob Wetzsteon, the two members of the board who opposed the policy, welcomed the letter and the invitation to discuss the issue with RCCS, but they expressed skepticism about their fellow board members' willingness to do so. "I don't think, based on the action of the majority of the board, that the meeting will ever take place," Wetzsteon said (The Missoulian 2004 Mar 4). Although Bridgette Erickson also welcomed the letter, saying, "I would like us to sit down and talk about the specifics to see if we really have any substantive disagreements," board chair Gina Schallenberger refused to comment on the letter, and no such meeting ever took place.

If the letter from Miner and Stromberg was a new weapon for the opponents of the "objective origins" policy, a different letter served as a new weapon for its supporters. In early February, Montana's Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch wrote to the Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, to seek clarification about the so-called Santorum Amendment. "We had been getting questions from people who said that Rev Brickley was claiming that No Child Left Behind required schools to teach 'intelligent design'," McCulloch told The Missoulian (2004 Mar 11). "So I wanted to make clear with the secretary that that wasn't true."

She received a reply from Eugene Hickok, Acting Deputy Secretary, dated March 8. After explaining at length that the Department of Education is largely prohibited from influencing curriculum, Hickok wrote, "The NCLB Act does not contain any language that requires or prohibits any particular scientific views or theories either as part of a state's science curriculum or otherwise." He then quoted the Santorum language from the conference report (for details, see RNCSE 2002 May/Jun; 22 [3]: 4-5 or Glenn Branch and Eugenie C Scott's "The anti-evolution law that wasn't", The American Biology Teacher 2003 March; 65 [30]: 165-6), adding, "The Department, of course, embraces the general principles ... of academic freedom and inquiry into scientific views or theories." (Hickok was Pennsylvania's Secretary of Education when creationism was allowed into the draft standards for science and technology education; see "Creeping creationism in Pennsylvania's science standards", RNCSE 2000 Jul/Aug; 20 [4]: 13-5.)

In a press release dated March 9 (available on-line at http://www.discovery.org/scripts/viewDB/index.php?command=view&id=1897&program=News-CSC), the Discovery Institute's Stephen C Meyer tendentiously construed Hickok's letter thus: "[T]he executive branch of the federal government has just joined the Congress in making clear that states and local school boards have the right to teach students the scientific controversy that exists about Darwinian evolution and to determine their own science curriculum content." Unimpressed with Meyer's attempt at spin, McCulloch told The Missoulian that Hickok's letter would have little or no effect on Montana's science instruction.

Meanwhile, back in Darby, the prospect of a lawsuit was raising eyebrows. In a March 11 op-ed in the Ravalli Republic, Kathleen Duggan - founder of Darby Taxpayers Against Court Costs - explained that the cost of a trial would be incurred by property owners, whether they supported the "objective origins" policy or not. "While most of us don't mind paying for what is necessary for our schools, or voting on what we think is not," she wrote, "we should be outraged to pay for something so completely irrelevant to our kids and the good of our school." Before the board meeting on April 5, a group of protesters led by Duggan chanted, "We can't afford this Darby board!" "We've been giving the board the benefit of the doubt," Duggan told the Ravalli Republic (2004 Apr 7), "and unfortunately, we've been stepped on along the way."

Attracting attention

Probably because of the unprecedented publicity due to Glanz's story in The New York Times, the controversy in Darby continued to attract national attention. Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a freedom-of-information request with education officials in Montana to obtain "all documents referring to or relating to any potential decision of the Darby School Board to teach theories of the origins of human life, including evolution, creationism, 'intelligent design' or other 'objective origins' theories", according to its press release issued on April 6 (available on-line at http://www.au.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=6564&news_iv_ctrl=0&abbr=pr). The request was covered in several Montana newspapers, including The Missoulian (2004 Apr 7). In Montana, all eyes were on Darby. The Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives, Doug Mood, expressed his support for the "objective origins" policy, writing, "Darby School Board's proposed 'objective origins' policy is encouraging exactly the kind of critical discipline that should be a part of any teaching of science" (Ravalli Republic 2004 Apr 14). But at its April meeting in Missoula, the MEA-MFT, the organization representing Montana's teachers, unanimously passed a motion urging Darby to "cease all efforts to incorporate objective origins in Darby schools' science curriculum" (Ravalli Republic 2004 Apr 21). Evolution was suddenly a hot issue throughout the state - in Hamilton, Havre, and Helena, as well as in the preliminaries to the gubernatorial primary election (see Updates, p 16).

In the meantime, the Darby School Board was becoming embroiled in a different controversy. Throughout March, the board held several meetings to discuss candidates for the position of superintendent. These meetings were closed to the public, which the Ravalli Republic regarded as a violation of Montana's open meeting law. The newspaper asked the board to release the minutes of the closed meetings and to undertake not to violate the law in the future (Ravalli Republic 2004 Mar 26). After the board refused, the newspaper sued, asking for the minutes and any recordings of the closed meetings, as well as all documentation relating to the superintendent search (Ravalli Republic 2004 Apr 12). In a subsequent board meeting, the board altered the minutes of meetings, impelling the newspaper to obtain a restraining order to prevent the original minutes from being destroyed (Ravalli Republic 2004 Apr 21, Apr 27).

There were hints in the press that the meetings were closed because the majority of the board who supported the "objective origins" policy sought to ensure that the new superintendent would favor it as well. According to the weekly Missoula Independent (2004 Apr 15), "The meetings stem from a superintendent search that went awry when the same three members of the school board who are pushing for 'intelligent design' also became interested in recruiting a superintendent candidate with faith, though the board had already offered the job to someone else. Current superintendent, 13-year Darby veteran Jack Eggensperger, is leaving because he has 'a different philosophy' on 'intelligent design' than the board."

Between the "objective origins" policy and the closed meetings, there was plenty of fuel for the campaign before the May 4 election. Favoring the policy were incumbent Gina Schallenberger and hopeful Robert House; opposing it were incumbent Bob Wetzsteon and hopeful Erik Abrahamsen. The candidates teamed up in pairs, with Schallenberger and House running under the banners of "Local control" and "Fair and balanced" while Wetzsteon and Abrahamsen exhorted the electorate to "Fix this mess!" The Ravalli Republic (2004 Apr 27) reported, "Of the six school board trustee elections in Ravalli County, Darby's is the most heated, with candidates and their supporters spending more dollars to sway votes than in any other district." Campaign signs, political mail, and newspaper advertisements were rife. In a notable gaffe, signs supporting Schallenberger and House violated campaign regulations by not indicating their source, the newly formed political action committee Montana Advocates for True Science; the signs were quickly amended.

A further campaign irregularity surfaced just before the election. From April 29 to May 1, visitors to the Darby School District's web site were greeted by a pop-up window with the text of 5 advertisements published in the Ravalli Republic that defended the "objective origins" policy and urged citizens to vote for Schallenberger and House (Ravalli Republic 2004 May 3). It also contained Ohio's controversial "Critical analysis of evolution" lesson plan (see RNCSE 2004 Jan/Feb; 24 [1]: 5-6). The window was placed without authorization by the Darby High School computer teacher. Superintendent Jack Eggensperger said that he expected a complaint to be filed with the Montana Commission for Political Practices, which forbids school districts to be involved in political campaigns.

On April 29, the Ravalli Republic expressed its editorial opinion: "We believe the Darby School Board's passage of their 'objective origins' policy is an unnecessary solution to a non-existent problem," adding, "We have serious concerns when the Darby School Board steps away from their supervisory role and begins dictating what scientific theories are presented in the classroom." Although the newspaper stopped short of endorsing any candidates, it remarked, "Voters in Darby have a unique opportunity May 4 to make their feelings known on objective origins. Gina Schallenberger and Robert House are on record supporting the controversial theory; Bob Wetzsteon and Erik Abrahamsen are opposed. It's a clear choice voters can make."

The controversy in Darby appeared again on the national stage, with a story on "intelligent design" aired on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition on May 2. Opening with a discussion of Brickley and his initial attempt to have "intelligent design" added to the science curriculum, it segued to a discussion of the "objective origins" policy and the RCCS's resistance to it. Darby teacher Karen Hedges said that the lack of a curriculum was particularly troublesome: "When I try to do research on it, everything takes me to 'intelligent design'. All the Web sites take me back to the Discovery Institute, which has some scary goals in mind - to do away with science. And it scares me to think that we might be headed in that direction." The story then turned to the Discovery Institute, defended by John West and criticized by Barbara Forrest (the coauthor of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design [New York: Oxford University Press, 2004] and a member of NCSE's board of directors).

Then, on May 3, the night before the election, the board voted 3-2 to hire James McLaughlin as the new superintendent; the three in favor of the offer were Schallenberger, Banks, and Bender, the supporters of the "objective origins" policy. Although the policy was not discussed during McLaughlin's interview, according to members of the board, some teachers said that he expressed support for it while touring their schools, and one teacher reported that "McLaughlin didn't believe in the scientific measurement of carbon dating" (Ravalli Republic 2004 May 5). There were other concerns expressed about McLaughlin's qualifications and background, leading one parent to question the timing of the decision to hire him just before the election. At the same meeting, the board decided to develop a policy governing the content of the district's web site; no disciplinary action was taken at the time against the teacher who placed the pop-up window there.

Finally, in the May 4 election, Bob Wetzsteon won re-election and Erik Abrahamsen won election (defeating Gina Schallenberger); both men won by almost a 2-to-1 margin, the weekly Missoula Independent (2004 May 13) reported: "Wetzsteon received 757 votes and Abrahamsen (whose daughter took part in the February 25 student protest against the 'objective origins' policy) received 737; Schallenberger and House received 352 and 351 votes, respectively. Turnout in the election was unprecedentedly high, at over 50%". Both Wetzsteon and Abrahamsen oppose the "objective origins" policy, meaning that it is unlikely that the newly constituted board will adopt it after all. It was unclear whether the board would consider the policy a second time and reject it - as Abrahamsen hopes, according to the Independent - or simply let it drop. (In the event, the board considered it and rejected it; details in the next issue of RNCSE.)

Rod Miner of RCCS was thrilled by the results of the election: "I am delighted and it will be really nice to see a spirit of team playing return to the Darby school board," Miner said. "We worked so hard to stop this thing short of a lawsuit. I am just very, very pleased" (The Missoulian 2004 May 5). And the people at the educational frontlines - the teachers in Darby's schools - were pleased, too: "The school is glowing," a school employee told the Ravalli Republic (2004 May 7). "Everybody is just psyched."


We wish to thank Victoria Clark, Kathleen Duggan, Eric Meikle, and John Schneeberger for their comments and assistance.

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
"Intelligent Design" in the Bitterroot Valley
Skip Evans and Glenn Branch, NCSE
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Shall We Let Our Children Think?

This was the message posted on the marquee at the Lewis and Clark Trading Post for over two weeks as the Darby school board conducted public hearings concerning the adoption of an “objective origins” policy.

The uninitiated might assume that the question was posed as a rallying point for those against the policy, but to illustrate the complexity and divisiveness surrounding this issue, the author of the marquee script proved a most vocal supporter for the policy. To complicate matters further, the author was none other than Larry Rose, our town marshal, a prominent and visible local personage.

What has happened to Darby, Montana, since Curtis Brickley, an ordained minister, gave a polished presentation to a packed gymnasium expounding on the scientific virtues of “intelligent design” and the need for an “objective origins” policy in our schools to combat the “one-sided” teaching of evolutionary theory? What was Brickley’s intent when he equated evolution with atheism to the assembled crowd? Whom was Brickley trying to awaken and alarm with his spurious scientific and religious rhetoric? Why would someone bring a nationally controversial agenda to our small, rural community? Was Brickley acting alone? Or was Darby considered potentially easy prey by someone beyond the local boundaries, someone willing to sponsor, or at least, encourage Brickley’s meeting? If so, how would our town deal with such possible machinations?

For whatever small part that Darby plays in the anti-evolutionists' place to "wedge" "intelligent design" into curriculum, the local impact has been huge. Some of the comments I heard in the in the last month show this:

“I don’t grocery shop in Darby anymore.” “The florist didn’t deliver when she saw my name on the bill.” “My daughter stormed out of the classroom to avoid more trouble.” I even had a friend stop by the house and tell me that a fellow parishioner had asked her why I was leading up the religious education program at our church “if I didn’t believe in God.”

Darby is not a big place. The main north–south thoroughfare for far-western Montana, two-lane US Highway 93, runs straight through town and comprises our commercial district, less than a mile of businesses: several gift/gallery shops, a few restaurants, a few bars, a few auto repair places, a few hair salons, a few realtors, a couple of spots to pump gas, two banks, a grocery store, a gym, a post office, a volunteer fire hall, a community clubhouse, a one-doctor clinic, a one-room public library, 3 modest motels, and, oh yes, 6 churches. There is no strip mall architecture. There are no fast food franchises. Some of the older buildings are fixed up, but not all. Darby has a sleepy, old west look, inviting to some who stop for lunch and a stroll down Main Street. The next town north is Hamilton, nearly 20 miles down river. The next town south is Gibbonsville, Idaho, about 45 miles up river and over the pass. The surrounding communities refer to us as Darbarians. You get the picture.

What has the objective origins debate brought to our town? Externally, a bit of publicity (or perhaps notoriety) as various Montana — and even national — media organizations pick up and run with the story, allowing folks across the country either to applaud us or to laugh at us. Internally, however, the proposed “objective origins” policy has brought Darby nothing but grief and discord. Although events to date (to my knowledge) have been generally civil — no punches thrown, no bodily threats — and while participants in the public meetings have been noted for their composed demeanor, engaging in minimal heckling and hissing, underneath this controlled veneer there is a palpable sense of unease.

A person is known as either “for” or “against”. The fence sitters are now few. The blissfully ignorant can no longer hide. One local summarized with a grimace, “apathy won’t be an issue in the next election.” Everyone has a heightened sense of awareness to the issue. There is an awkwardness when you run into someone and do not yet know where they stand on the policy. Should you say something? Should you engage in idle pleasantries? What are they thinking? Can you escape before questions are asked? As to encounters with people you know to be on the opposing side, there is a strangeness and bristling up the back, sometimes mixed with hostility, sometimes tempered by weariness. Judgments are passed on both sides, even among residents who have been acquainted for years. There is a tendency to avoid public conversation.

Why do feelings run so deep and so strong? Those favoring objective origins in Darby have centered their arguments on two tenets: first, that there exists valid scientific criticism of evolution, and second, that evolution and God are mutually exclusive. The proponents have furthered their cause by claiming that their children have been “persecuted” and “ridiculed” in school for their stance against evolution. One individual testified that evolution was being “shoved down the throats” of the children. (Notably, these accusations remain unsubstantiated and have been fervently denied by all school staff.) The proponents present themselves as defenders of critical thinking, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. They see the schools as preaching a gospel of godlessness. They worry about the government’s proselytizing in our science classes in support of the “Church of Darwin”. Also in this camp are those that reject the current interpretation of the Establishment Clause. Some explicitly testified that they wanted to see “religion put back in the schools.” This group includes a number of home-schooled families whose interest in the debate implies that if things were otherwise they would enroll their children in our public schools, adding to needy school coffers. Perhaps the most unnerving commonality among the proponents of the policy is that they present themselves as the guardians and holders of the moral high ground, making them particularly invulnerable to (and intolerant of) the reasoning and considerations of the opposing side.

The group against the policy has a more diverse and, consequently, less cohesive following. There are the scientists who worry about the quality and veracity of the science curriculum. There are the First Amendment folk who recognize that, in the United States, religion and science instruction are not compatible in the public schools. There are the parents who fear the loss of accreditation and funding as implementation of the policy strays from state teaching standards. There are the property owners who fear lawsuits and subsequent tax hikes as constitutionality is challenged in the legal arena. Others are simply insulted by the religious presumptions of their opponents and assert that “religion should be taught at home.” Finally, there appears to be a growing number that are plainly tired of the whole debacle and just want to table the policy and get on with their lives. This group includes business owners who appreciate that strife is not good for capitalism and that not all publicity is good publicity. Regardless of specific motive, it was rumored that at least 30 families petitioned to remove their children from the Darby public schools if the policy is adopted. This would have been a significant blow to the school’s finances.

Where has all this controversy taken us? Well, after a protracted and heated school trustee election this past spring, the two candidates opposing the “objective origins” policy won handedly. Public awareness of the issues was at an all time high. Voter turnout was record-breaking, with over 50% of the electorate casting ballots. Moreover, the two victorious candidates both won by nearly a 2 to 1 margin. There can be no doubt that the people have spoken. Given such an outcome, many of us thought the tensions of the past six months would quickly and quietly dissipate into the background, with life in Darby returning to its usual pattern of petty ups and downs. Unfortunately, this appears not to be the case. The “objective origins” supporters continue to submit agitating editorials to the local newspaper. They attended the latest school board meeting in force. They seem undaunted and undeterred by the mandate of the voters. For the foreseeable future, those of us against the policy will have to remain vigilant. One victory at the polls does not translate into an end to the hostilities.

Advice to others: pay attention to local trustee elections, follow school board proceedings carefully, be aware of underlying agendas. Save your community from this malignancy.

About the Author(s): 
Victoria Clark
PO Box 1014
Darby Mt 59829
Shall We Let Our Children Think?
Victoria Clark
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

The Coso Artifact


Creationists have often been criticized for failing to present original research and evidence that would overthrow our contemporary scientific view of human origins. However, this is not entirely fair. The creation "science" field known as OOPARTS, or "Out Of Place ARTifactS", is a lively area of study that relies on "anomalous" finds in the archaeological record to challenge scientific chronologies and models of human evolution. In this paper, we will examine one of the most popular and least understood OOPARTS specimen, the Coso Artifact.

The story of the Coso Artifact has been embellished over the years, but nearly all accounts of the actual discovery are basically the same. On February 13, 1961, Wallace Lane, Virginia Maxey, and Mike Mikesell were seeking interesting mineral specimens, particularly geodes, for their LM&V Rockhounds Gem and Gift Shop in Olancha, California. The trio was about 6 miles northeast of Olancha, near the top of a peak about 4300 feet in elevation and about 340 feet above the dry bed of Owens Lake. At lunchtime, after collecting rocks most of the morning, all three placed their specimens in the rock sack Mikesell was carrying (Steiger 1974: 49).

The next day in the gift shop's workroom, Mikesell ruined a nearly new diamond saw blade while cutting what he thought was a geode. Inside the cut nodule, Mikesell did not find the cavity that is typical of geodes, but a perfectly circular section of very hard, white material that appeared to be porcelain. In the center of the porcelain cylinder was a 2-millimeter shaft of bright metal. The metal shaft responded to a magnet. There were other odd qualities about the specimen. The outer layer of the specimen was encrusted with fossil shells and their fragments. In addition to shells, the discoverers noticed two nonmagnetic metallic objects in the crust, resembling a nail and a washer. Stranger still, the inner layer was hexagonal and seemed to form a casing around the hard porcelain cylinder. Within the inner layer, a layer of decomposing copper surrounded the porcelain cylinder.

The Initial Investigations

Very little is known about the initial physical inspections of the artifact. According to Maxey, a geologist she consulted who examined the fossil shells encrusting the specimen said that the nodule had taken at least 500 000 years to attain its present form. However, the identity of the first geologist is still a mystery, and his findings were never published. Another investigation was conducted by creationist Ron Calais. Calais is the only other individual known to have physically inspected the artifact, and he was allowed to record images of the nodule using both X-ray and natural-light photography. Calais's X-rays brought interest in the artifact to a new level. The X-ray of the upper end of the object seemed to reveal some sort of tiny spring or helix. INFO Journal editor Ronald J Willis (1969) speculated that it could actually be "the remains of a corroded piece of metal with threads." The other half of the artifact revealed a sheath of metal, presumably copper, covering the porcelain cylinder.

The last individual known to possess the Coso Artifact was one of the original discoverers, Wallace Lane. Lane had the object on display in his home, but he adamantly refused to allow anyone to examine it (Willis 1969). However, he had a standing offer to sell it for $25 000. In September 1999, a national search to locate any of the original discoverers proved fruitless. We suspect that Lane is dead. Maxey is alive, but is avoiding any public comment, and the whereabouts of Mikesell remain unknown. The location and disposition of the artifact are also unknown. Willis's 1969 article is the primary source for information on this object to date.

Fantastic Speculations

Ever since the artifact was first discovered, numerous individuals have speculated about its mysterious origin and possible use. Maxey speculated that the specimen may have been no more than 100 years old after being deposited in a mud bed and sun-baked. However, she also apparently claimed that the artifact could be at least 500 000 years old, "an instrument as old as Mu or Atlantis. Perhaps it is a communications device or some sort of directional finder or some sort of instrument made to utilize power principles we know nothing about" (Steiger 1974).

INFO Journal editor Willis speculated that the artifact was some sort of spark plug. His brother found the suggestion extraordinary: "I was thunderstruck," he wrote, "for suddenly all the parts seemed to fit. The object sliced in two shows a hexagonal part, a porcelain or ceramic insulator with a central metallic shaft - the basic components of any spark plug" (Willis 1969). However, they could not reconcile the upper end featuring a "spring", "helix", or "metal threads" with any contemporary spark plug. So the mystery continued. The artifact even appeared briefly at the end of an In Search Of ... episode hosted by Leonard Nimoy.

The internet offers a plethora of other opinions on the subject. While most writers simply report the mystery as described earlier, some have taken to speculating on the purpose and origin of such a device. Brian Wood, describing himself as "Co-Producer, ParaNet UFO Continuum [and] International Director of MICAP [Multinational Investigations Cooperative on Aerial Phenomena]", suggested that if it is not simply a spark plug, "My guess would be some sort of antenna. The construction reminds me of modern attempts at superconductors" (Wood 1999).

Joe Held of "Joe's UFOs and Space Mysteries" thinks that the device "looks similar to a small capacitor with several different materials. The object is roughly the size of an auto spark plug. Since the formation of geodes can take millions of years this was a very curious find indeed" (Held 1999).

The Creationists and the Artifact

With such outrageous speculation, individuals familiar with the creationism/evolution controversy might assume that fundamentalist Christians would stay far away from such artifacts and stories. But this is far from the case. Numerous creationists have been involved with this artifact since its discovery. Calais, who was involved with the Coso Artifact since its initial discovery, is an active contributor to creationist literature (see, for example, Calais and Mehlert 1996). He brought the artifact to the attention of the Charles Fort Society, publisher of INFO Journal. Creation Outreach, a Spokane, Washington-based creationism ministry promotes the artifact on its website by reprinting an article by JR Jochmans which concludes:
As a whole, the "Coso artifact" is now believed to be something more than a piece of machinery: The carefully shaped ceramic, metallic shaft and copper components hint at some form of electrical instrument. The closest modern apparatus that researchers have been able to equate it with is a spark plug. However, there are certain features - particularly the spring or helix terminal - that does [sic] not correspond to any known spark plug today (Jochmans 1979).
It should also be noted that according to a letter printed in Atlantis Rising, Jochmans claims to have ghost-written three-quarters of the book Secrets of the Lost Races by Rene Noorbergen (1977), which has often been cited as a reference for the Coso Artifact by young-earth creationists (Jochmans 1999). For example, Carl Baugh, a young-earth creationist whose claim to fame is the promotion of the Paluxy River tracks, relies on Noorbergen (1977) in his discussion of the Coso Artifact in his dissertation (Baugh 1989).

Elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, Institute for Creation Research (ICR) adjunct faculty member Donald Chittick has been heavily promoting the Coso Artifact. In The Puzzle of Ancient Man, Chittick (1997) presents the Coso Artifact as evidence that ancient civilizations were extremely advanced. Presuming that it is an ancient spark plug, Chittick explains his inference that this find indicates technological sophistication. He admits that reliable dates are unlikely, but then goes on to argue that the plug is old because geodes take too long to form. Chittick's discussion assumes that the plug was found inside a naturally occurring geode, which would indicate great age and therefore an "out-of-place" artifact. This, he argues, refutes evolution, since evolutionary models fail to explain the existence of such sophisticated technology so long ago.

The Geologic Evidence: Is the Coso Artifact Encased in a Geode?

When it comes to the geologic evidence, the most stunning claim is that the artifact was discovered in a geode. As Chittick has noted, formation of a geode requires significant amounts of time. But what is often overlooked is that the Coso Artifact possesses no characteristics that would classify it as a geode. The fact that the original discoverers were looking for geodes on the day the artifact was found is not sufficient evidence that the artifact is a geode.

Geodes consist of a thin outer shell composed of dense chalcedonic silica and filled with a layer of quartz crystals. The Coso Artifact does not possess either feature. Maxey referred to the material covering the artifact as "hardened clay" and noted that it had picked up a miscellaneous collection of pebbles, including a "nail and washer". Analysis of the surface material using the standard Mohs scale suggests a hardness of Mohs 3, which is much softer than chalcedony.

Other arguments regarding the ancient source of the Coso Artifact focus on the alleged fossil shells encrusted on the surface. If, as noted earlier, a nail and washer were also found on the same surface as the fossil shells, then the power of the inference of an ancient age for the artifact is seriously diminished. Even creationist literature notes how transport, erosion, or other geological changes in surface materials can lead to mistaken assumptions about the true age of individual objects. For example, Creation Ex Nihilo's June-August 1998 issue features fence wire that had become encased by surface materials including "fossil" seashells ([Anonymous] 1998b, quotation marks in the original; see also [Anonymous] 1991, 1998a, 1999).

The Artifact Itself: What Is It?

As noted earlier, numerous individuals have speculated about the identity of the Coso Artifact. The most common suggestion is that it is some sort of spark plug, designed and manufactured by an advanced civilization eons ago for technological devices equal to or surpassing our own. But there is no reason to conclude that the artifact was manufactured thousands of years ago. Some have half-heartedly suggested that the device could have been a contemporary spark plug circa 1961. But ancient artifact proponents point to the X-ray of the top half, which indicates some type of tiny spring or helix mechanism. The content of this X-ray, they argue, runs contrary to what we know about contemporary spark plugs.

A clue to what is revealed in the X-ray lies in one of the earliest articles about the artifact. Willis (1969) suggested that the upper end of the object "is actually the remains of a corroded piece of metal with threads." The Willis brothers seriously suspected the object was a contemporary spark plug, but were still unable to explain what was in the X-ray. Spark plugs of the 1960s typically terminated with no visible threading and tapered to a dull point. Though many of the interested parties agreed that the artifact bore a striking resemblance to a 20th-century spark plug, no one seems to have considered the idea of evolution - specifically, spark plug evolution.

Investigating the origins of the Coso Artifact revealed that mining operations were conducted in the area of discovery early in the 20th century. If internal combustion engines were used in these operations in the Coso mountain range, they would have been a very new technology at the time. So we extrapolated that spark plug technology would also have been in its infancy. To help us to learn more about spark-plug technology of a century ago, we enlisted the help of the Spark Plug Collectors of America (SPCA). We sent letters to four different spark plug collectors describing the Coso Artifact, including Calais's X-rays of the object in question. We expected the SPCA to provide some vague hints or no information at all about the artifact. The actual answers were stunning.

On September 9, 1999, Chad Windham, President of the SPCA, called Pierre Stromberg. Windham initially suspected that Stromberg was a fellow spark plug collector, writing incognito, with the motive of hoaxing him. His fears were compounded by the fact that there is an actual line of spark plugs named "Stromberg". Though Stromberg repeatedly assured Windham that his intentions were purely for research, he was puzzled why Windham was so suspicious and asked him to explain. Windham replied that it was so obvious to him that the artifact was a contemporary spark plug, the letter had to be a hoax. "I knew what it was the moment I saw the X-rays," Windham wrote.

Stromberg asked Windham if he could identify the particular make of the spark plug. Windham replied he was certain that it was a 1920s-era Champion spark plug. Later, Windham sent 2 identical spark plugs for comparison. Ten days after Windham's telephone call, Bill Bond, founder of the SPCA and curator of a private museum of spark plugs containing more than 2000 specimens, called Stromberg. Bond said he thought he knew the identity of the Coso Artifact: "A 1920s Champion spark plug." Spark plug collectors Mike Healy and Jeff Bartheld (Vice President of the SPCA) also concurred with Bond's and Windham's assessment about the spark plug. To date, there has been no dissent among the spark plug collectors as to the identity of the Coso Artifact.

Since Windham mentioned that spark plug collectors enjoy pulling pranks on one another, the question of deliberate fraud inevitably crops up in relation to the Coso Artifact. However, there is little hard evidence that the original discoverers intended to deceive anyone from the start. Furthermore, the Spark Plug Collectors of America was formed in 1975, well after the discovery of the artifact, and none of the 3 discoverers was ever affiliated with the organization.

Comparisons and Analysis

On September 14, 1999, Stromberg received a package from Windham containing 2 spark plugs and an analysis of the specimens. Windham wrote:
I am enclosing two spark plugs made by Champion Spark Plug company circa 1920s. Plug #1 is 7/8" #18 thread. I have loosely assembled the plug, and chipped the "brass hat" off to show the configuration of it and the porcelain under it. Plug #2 is 1/2" NPT of same design.

The diameter of the porcelain on Plug #1 is slightly less than 3/4" - close to the dimension in your letter. As you can see[,] the base and packing nut[,] which hold the porcelain, are sealed with a copper and asbestos gasket. This corresponds with the article. The center electrode of plugs were made of special alloys which were "... cut in two in 1961 but five years afterwards had no tarnishing visible." The sketches included clearly show one rib on the upper end of the porcelain, although Champion used two ribs in this era - probably just an artist's error. The "top hat["] matches those of "plug 1 and 2".

As for the outer shell, it obviously decayed - probably from salt water (or other corrosive substance) [-] and the outer crust is merely some sort of deposit like sea shells or other deposits collected on the deteriorating surfaces of the spark plug base.

There is no doubt that this is merely an old spark plug. Most probably, it is a Champion spark plug, similar to the two enclosed.
The most striking aspect of Windham's description is the brass "top hat" that has so vexed previous attempts to provide a rational explanation for the artifact. But other similarities are even more significant. Because Windham had chipped the brass top hat off specimen #1, the spark plug revealed a metal shaft terminating in a flared end, presumably to help to secure the top hat to the plug's porcelain cylinder. The same sort of flared end also appears in the metal shaft of the Coso Artifact. The shaft in the X-ray, just below the flare, also reveals deterioration where it was exposed to the elements above where it meets the porcelain cylinder. This, too, is exactly what we would expect from a 1920s-era Champion spark plug. An X-ray of the specimen that Windham sent us reveals a picture very similar to the original X-ray of the Coso Artifact. As with the original artifact, the central metal shaft of both specimens responds to a magnet.

Proponents of fantastic stories regarding the artifact have made mention of mysterious copper rings that encase the porcelain. But this too can be easily explained. Windham provided one completely disassembled plug (specimen #1). It revealed a pair of copper rings sandwiching an asbestos lining. According to Windham, this design was necessary because porcelain and steel have vastly differing expansion rates, so the copper was used to compensate for some of the problems this difference caused.

Specimen #2 was not disassembled by Windham, but also presented a feature that could explain why the artifact had not been identified decades ago. Specimen #2, though suffering from severe tarnish, came with a top nut screwed into its top hat. Almost all Champion spark plug advertisements of the first half of the 20th century showed pictures of their spark plugs including the top nut already screwed into place. In some cases, the top nut comes in two forms, one of which closely mimics the tip of today's contemporary spark plugs, which have no threading whatsoever. So it becomes rather easy to understand why the appearance of threads in the Coso Artifact seemed so puzzling to the original investigators.

It should be noted that the corrosion of the Coso Artifact almost completely destroyed any of the iron-alloy-based components, with the exception of the metal shaft encased in the porcelain cylinder. The samples received from Windham also revealed corrosion of the iron-based components, but the brass top hats were unscathed, except for some tarnishing. If the Coso Artifact is indeed a 1920s-era Champion spark plug, the X-ray of an almost perfectly preserved top hat is exactly what one would expect. Brass, a copper-zinc alloy, is commonly engineered to resist corrosion far better than iron-based alloys. In harsh environments, copper tends to outlast iron, but still succumbs fairly quickly. The rates of decay in the Coso Artifact match the rates of decay one would see in a 1920s-era Champion spark plug. An excellent review (Cronyn 1990) of how ferrous and non-ferrous alloys decay over time includes numerous photographs, including X-rays, of contemporary objects that have completely decayed into oxide nodules. Like the Coso Artifact, these examples also feature empty cavities where the original materials once resided.

The formation of the iron oxide nodule probably was hastened by the fact that corrosive "mineral dust" is blown off the dry lake bed of Lake Owen and onto the surrounding uplands where the artifact was discovered. This dust contains salts created by the evaporation of the lake water that are regularly blown off the lake bed by local windstorms. The US Geological Survey has conducted extensive investigations of this phenomena (Reheis 1997).

Reaction from the Paranormal Community

The embrace of the Coso Artifact by young-earth creationists is truly puzzling. We asked the ICR's Donald Chittick why he felt the Coso Artifact was an object worthy of presentation to the public, and specifically how he reconciled a previous age estimate of 500 000 years with his young-earth creationist beliefs. On September 29, 1999, Chittick responded:
The article's speculation that it had taken at least 500 000 years to attain the present form is just that: speculation. Actual petrifaction of such objects proceeds normally quite rapidly, as is illustrated by several other similar formations. See for instance, the note about the petrified miner's hat on the back cover of Creation Ex Nihilo (Vol 17, Nr 3) for June-August, 1995. See also an article about another "fossil" spark plug in Creation Ex Nihilo (Vol 21, Nr 4) for September- November, 1999 on page 6.

You asked what I thought about its age. My best guess is that it is probably early post-Flood. I have not yet been able to obtain sufficient documentation, so I don't say much publicly. However, there is evidence that they did in fact perhaps have internal combustion engines or even jet engines way back then.
Chittick's revelation that he was already aware of "fossil" spark plugs was startling. We asked in a follow-up letter how he can positively date the Coso Artifact to the Great Flood since he was already aware of contemporary spark plugs that appear to be fossilized. In his response on October 23, 1999, he commented:
It has not been my privilege to personally examine the Coso Artifact or location and strata where it was found. There are two reasons I considered the Artifact significant.

1. It obviously is a man-made item.

2. Those who evaluated the strata said that it appeared to be old, not modern strata. Those two items are the principle basis for my conclusion that it was worth study. Certainly it does merit further study in my judgment. Numerous items like that abound, but I haven't been able to document them as thoroughly as I would like, and so I don't say too much about them.
As noted earlier, the alleged stratum where the Coso Artifact was found is unknown since all 3 discoverers had separately searched for geodes all morning before consolidating their collections in a single sack. Even if the exact location were discovered, the artifact was an oxide nodule freely lying on the surface, so the stratum where the item was discovered is irrelevant, because surface deposits are an inconsistent mix of eroded, transported, and generally jumbled-up materials that are out of any meaningful geologic or archaeologic contexts.

Once the investigation revealed beyond a reasonable doubt the true nature of the artifact, Stromberg notified Chittick via postal mail, warning him about the publication of this paper and urging him to issue a retraction and to paste a disclaimer in his book that the Coso Artifact story is fallacious. Chittick never responded, and the second edition of The Puzzle of Ancient Man promotes the Artifact with no disclaimer, but Chittick seems to have stopped mentioning the artifact in his public lectures. When Ken Clark of Spokane's Creation Outreach learned that the Artifact was a 1920s-era Champion spark plug and was offered detailed proof, he ceased to communicate with us. Although Creation Outreach continues to promote the spark plug on its web site by reproducing Jochmans (1979), it adds the editorial note: "Several readers have stated the artifact is indeed a sparkplug from the 1920s" (see http://home.att.net/~creationoutreach/pages/strange.htm).


The Coso Artifact is a remarkable example of how pseudosciences such as "creation science" fail when their analyses and conclusions are investigated in a real-life archaeological situation. Perhaps the most surprising revelation is the stunningly poor research Chittick conducted regarding the Artifact. He persisted in portraying of the Artifact as "ancient" evidence for advanced technology. (RNCSE readers may recall an earlier incident in which Chittick was confronted about his erroneous statements regarding Lucy's knee joint [Stromberg 1998]; his reaction was similar, ignoring warnings and continuing to mislead his audiences.)

The Coso Artifact was indeed a remarkable device. It was a 1920s-era Champion spark plug that probably powered a Ford engine, possibly modified to serve mining operations in the Coso mountain range of California. To suggest that it was a device belonging to an advanced civilization of the ancient past could be interpreted as true, but only if we redefine "ancient" to mean "the early 20th century".


This article is adapted from a longer, more detailed account of the Coso Artifact that appears on the Talk.Origins Archive web site (http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/coso.html). This paper would not have been possible without the gracious help from the following individuals: Chad Windham, Bill Bond, Mike Healy, Jeff Bartheld, Arnie Voigt, David Q King, Ken Atkins, Gary L Bennett, Alan Bowes, Linda Safarli, Casey Doyle, Paul Cook, and Ross Langerak.


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Anonymous. 1998b. Fascinating fossil fence-wire. Creation Ex Nihilo 20 (3): 6.

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Jochmans JR. 1999. Comments on participation in Mr Noorbergen's work [letter]. http://atlantisrising.com/issue7/letters. html. Last accessed September 22, 1999.

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Reheis MJ. 1997. Dust deposition downwind of Owens (dry) Lake, 1991-1994: Preliminary findings. Journal of Geophysical Research 102 (D22): 25 999-26 008.

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About the Author(s): 
Pierre Stromberg
The Coso Artifact: Mystery From the Depths of Time?
Pierre Stromberg and Paul V Heinrich
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.