October 10, 1999
Science vs. the Bible: Debate Moves to the
Mexico Bars Creationism From State Curriculum (Oct. 9, 1999)
By JAMES GLANZcientific lessons about the origins of life have long been
challenged in public schools, but some Bible literalists are now
adding the reigning theory about the origin of the universe to their
list of targets.
Nearly overlooked in the furor over the Kansas school board's vote
in August to remove evolution from its education standards was a
decision on the teaching of the science of the cosmos. Influenced by a
handful of scientists whose literal faith in the Bible has helped
convince them that the universe is only a few thousand years old, the
board deleted from its standards a description of the Big Bang theory
of cosmic origins, the central organizing principle of modern
astronomy and cosmology.
The Big Bang theory, based on decades of astronomical observations
and physics research, suggests that the universe originated in a
colossal explosion of matter and radiation some 15 billion years ago.
But "young Earth creationists," as they are generally known, have
come up with their own theories to explain how cosmic history could be
condensed into mere thousands of years. They are making this case in
books, pamphlets and lectures, as well as on a number of Web sites.
Mainstream scientists consider their theories to be wildly out of
line with reality, even though books describing them are often
liberally sprinkled with references to authorities like Albert
Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
As a result, physical scientists now find themselves in a fight in
which they have seldom played a public role. They have responded with
a mixture of disdain, disbelief and consternation, and the reactions
have not been limited to physicists and cosmologists in Kansas.
"It's the denial of what understanding we have of the origin of the
universe in terms of modern science," said Jerome Friedman, a
physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was awarded
a Nobel Prize in 1990 for collaborating in the discovery of the
subatomic particles called quarks and is the president of the American
Physical Society. "That's a terrible loss," Friedman said.
Hume A. Feldman, a cosmologist at the University of Kansas in
Lawrence who has worked at Princeton University and the Canadian
Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics, called the matter
"When I went into cosmology," Feldman said, "I never thought I
would get involved in anything like that."
Feldman said that developments in his state bore a distant
resemblance to the difficulties of political scientists under
Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and that he feared that such
pressures could impair the educational system.
But advocates of the creationist view say alarm over their theories
is overblown. Steve Abrams, a member of the Kansas board and a
veterinarian in Arkansas City who was among the leaders of the push to
make the changes, said there were legitimate scientific doubts about
whether the universe was more than several thousand years old.
"There is sufficient data to lend credibility to the idea that we
do not have all the answers for teaching the origin of our universe,"
That sentiment was echoed by John W. Bacon, a board member from
Olathe who also voted with a narrow 6-4 majority for the changes.
"I can't understand what they're squealing about," Bacon said of
scientists who oppose the board's action. Millions or billions of
years ago, Bacon said, "I wasn't here, and neither were they. Based on
that, whatever explanation they may arrive at is a theory and it
should be taught that way."
Those objections closely mirror criticisms leveled at evolution by
its opponents. Alabama biology textbooks, for example, must carry a
warning that reads in part: "No one was present when life first
appeared on earth. Therefore, any statement about life's origins
should be considered as theory, not fact."
The Kansas challenge to the teaching of the Big Bang is not the
first public objection to the theory on religious or political
grounds. Three years ago, the school superintendent of a conservative
county in western Kentucky ordered two pages that explained the Big
Bang in grade-school textbooks to be glued together. The
superintendent said that the Big Bang should not have been explained
without including the biblical version of creation as well.
The change in the Kansas standards does not preclude the teaching
of mainstream biology, physics or cosmology, allowing teachers to
present alternative viewpoints if they choose to do so. But because
the standards are used as the basis for state tests, the changes will
probably have a practical effect on what is taught, said Bill Wagnon,
a professor of history at Washburn University in Topeka and a board
member who voted in the minority. Students' scores on those tests help
determine whether a school receives accreditation from the state.
"The curriculum standards describe that process of what needs to be
covered," Wagnon said.
So radical were the Kansas board's recommendations that it has been
unable to publish its own standards, or even to display them on its
Web site. That is because the standards include long extracts from a
book on education standards that was published by the National
Research Council. Because of its disapproval of the board's revised
standards, the Council has refused permission for them to be
Beyond the expunging of evolution, the board also took out
references to the hundreds of millions of years of Earth's geologic
ages and modified sections on using the slow decay of radioactive
elements to measure the ages of fossils and other rocks.
Among the most striking changes was the removal of passages in the
original standards dealing with the Big Bang. Cosmologists see ample
evidence for that explosion in the present expansion of the universe,
in a diffuse afterglow in space called the cosmic background
radiation, and in the precise abundances of light elements like
hydrogen and helium that were left over from the cataclysm.
Cosmologists have also calculated the way in which stars, galaxies
and clusters of galaxies coalesced from slight ripples in the
primordial soup that emerged from the Big Bang. To date, the results
of those calculations match the precise observations of such
structures in the heavens. Of course, for all its success in
accounting for observations, the Big Bang is indeed just a theory,
although it is one with few scientific dissenters.
The biggest problem for the young Earth creationists is explaining
the time that has apparently passed since the light we see from
distant galaxies was emitted. Given the constancy of the speed of
light and estimates of the distance between Earth and faraway galaxies
it is difficult to explain how Earth and the cosmos could be young.
But D. Russell Humphreys, a nuclear weapons engineer at Sandia
National Laboratory who is also an adjunct professor at the Institute
for Creation Research near San Diego, thinks he has an answer. In an
interview, he said that Einstein's equations of relativity, the basis
of the Big Bang theory, could be used to construct a universe in which
the Earth is only a few thousand years old.
Abrams said that in thinking about the Kansas standards he had been
struck by Humphreys's book, "Starlight and Time: Solving the Puzzle of
Distant Starlight in a Young Universe" (Master Books, fifth printing
Humphreys's ideas "seem to be right there on the cutting edge, so
to speak," Abrams said.
But most cosmologists say they are simply out of left field.
The theory relies on a peculiar feature of Einstein's equations,
which predict that powerful gravitational fields can speed the
progress of time and, in effect, make clocks run at different rates in
different places. So Humphreys assumes that the Earth is close to the
center of a structure related to a black hole, in which gravity is
especially intense, so that billions of years could pass in deep space
while only a few thousand years went by on Earth.
Such a universe "has clocks clicking at drastically different rates
in different parts," Humphreys said in an interview.
Edward L. Wright, vice chairman for astronomy at the University of
California at Los Angeles, said that there is no evidence that the
Earth is at the center of the universe, or that such tremendous
gravitational fields exist outside of ordinary black holes.
Moreover, Wright said, the acceleration of time would alter the
vibrations of waves of light, shortening its wave length and turning
it into deadly gamma rays. Bombarded by such radiation, he said, "the
Earth would be sterilized."
Humphreys, whose research in cosmology is unrelated to his work at
the lab, said other features of his model would prevent the frequency
Abrams also cited a theory that the speed of light was almost
infinitely fast in the past, meaning that the light from extremely
distant galaxies could have reached Earth quickly and would not be
billions of years old.
He referred to writings on this subject by Danny Faulkner, a
professor of astronomy at the University of South Carolina's Lancaster
campus and an adjunct professor at the Institute for Creation Science.
In a telephone interview, Faulkner cautioned that he had merely been
describing ideas put forth by other scientists in the creationist
movement and was not certain that the changing speed of light was
correct. Indeed, high-precision measurements of the speed of light and
other crucial physical constants have revealed no detectable change in
their values over recent time.
The debate over the age of the universe has exposed intense
disagreements not just in schools but also among evangelical
"Often young-universe and old-universe creationists focus more
energy on defending their respective positions than on reaching out to
nonbelievers," wrote Hugh Ross, a former radioastronomer who is an
evangelical Christian, in "Creation and Time: A Biblical and
Scientific Perspective on the Creation-Date Controversy" (NavPress,
Ross thinks that a literal reading of the Bible can be reconciled
with the Big Bang, but says that his views are distinctly in the
minority among evangelical Christians. The six days of Genesis could
stand for "six consecutive long periods of time," Ross said.
The importance of the issue for many Bible literalists means that
cosmologists could face the pressures that biologists have dealt with
since John Scopes was convicted of violating a Tennessee law against
the teaching of evolution in 1925, said Eugenie C. Scott, executive
director of the National Center for Science Education Inc., in El
"I don't think physical scientists are going to be immune to this,"
Scott said. "It would be very unwise for them to brush this off."