Creationists bid for status on campus

March 22, 2002

Creationists are attempting to make inroads into the United Kingdom's universities.

Thousands of academics are being contacted in a nationwide survey on the origins of life. The organisers hope this will be followed by campus debates and a conference for interested individuals.

The initiative is led by Andrew Forbes, a supporter of fundamentalist Christian organisations that believe scientific evidence shows the theory of evolution is wrong and that the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago.

Scientists in the United States and Australia who have clashed with creationists warned their British colleagues to take the threat seriously. They said that taking part in debates could boost the creationists'

credibility and lend weight to future demands that their religious doctrine be taught alongside scientific theories in schools.

The survey also asks whether the academic would sponsor a debate in their institution or attend a conference, and whether alternatives to Darwinian theory should be part of the national curriculum.

Mr Forbes told The THES that researchers in the life and earth sciences were being targeted to provide information for scientists, "many of whom used to accept evolution as a tenable theory but now have grave doubts".

Mr Forbes, who is director of London-based educational company Affinity Membership Services, said responses included some against evolution. "People are so dogmatic in their views over Darwin that there's almost a conspiracy to stop open debate. If we're honest scientists, we have to look at all the possibilities."

John Farrar, director of the Institute of Environmental Science at the University of Wales, Bangor. He received the survey last week, said the questions were poor, but he intended to reply outlining his support for evolution. "I think it is vital that scientists make their position clear, which is that creationism isn't a tenable belief," he said.

Trevor Emmett, senior lecturer in forensic science at Anglia Polytechnic University, believes this will not be easy. He took part in a debate with John Mackay, the international director of the Creation Research organisation, in October. It was part of a tour, organised by Mr Forbes and two colleagues, that included meetings held by university Christian unions.

Dr Emmett argued against creationism but subsequently learnt that Creation Research's website proclaims: "Cambridge geologist Dr T. Emmett concedes 'evolution really gives us no answers'". He said this misrepresented his views.

"Whereas a reasonable-minded scientist will always admit where there is ambiguity or a lack of evidence, they are interested only in a fundamentalist Christian worldview and claim it is absolute truth," Dr Emmett added.

Tim Astin, lecturer in geology at Reading University and an ordained Church of England priest, said Mr Mackay evaded questions during a similar debate in November, but he felt it was worse to ignore the creationists'

anti-science message.

"They are propagandists - but the more often they're put in public and debated with, the more likely the truth will emerge," he said.

Creation Research's web page referred to the debates as "vital inroads in reaching the next generation of world leaders from these influential centres of learning and research".

Marshall Berman, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories who helped overturn anti-evolution school curriculum policies in New Mexico in the US, said that by making presentations at top universities the creationists could claim they were propounding a scientifically legitimate alternative to evolution. Only skilled orators could hope to hold their own against well-practised speakers in such a public forum, he said.

"The academic community should take this seriously. It may be evolution today, geology tomorrow and astronomy next week - there's a great deal of science not aligned to fundamentalist Christianity," he said.

Ian Plimer, professor of geology at Melbourne University, Australia, has fought a long-running battle against creationists. He said rational debate was not possible and would add to creationists' "propaganda, sales, egos and power". He added that any scientist who did take them on "must be prepared to be somewhat impolite. They must also be prepared to enjoy reams of vexation mail after a debate, as I have." He said he had received death threats from people believed to be on the fringe of the movement.

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