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Reining in creationists; South Lanarkshire, repenting past mistakes, leads the way

[Update: press reports here and here]

In 2013, the Scottish Secular Society were alerted by a member that a chaplaincy team at a school in East Kilbride had seemingly sent very young children home with Young Earth Creationism books, refuting evolution and disputing the age of the Earth. As complaints flooded in, it soon became clear that there was a serious problem in some Scottish schools. The sect implicated in Kirktonholme is an extreme American church called the Church of Christ; who believe amongst other things that there are only 700 Christians in Scotland and that we are desperately in need of saving. They sent a mission of young, enthusiastic volunteers to “educate” Scotland and show them the way.

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As more became known, further schools were implicated in the scandal and the outcry from concerned parents grew. Both the missionary team and the management team at the school were removed, and meetings were held to reassure parents that this could never happen again. However, without concrete provisions such assurances remained ethereal. Letters were written to MSPs and to the Education Authority to urge for real, concrete change which would rebuild the lost trust and reassure all parents in the LEA that this would never re-occur.

Today, we are pleased to announce that this situation has finally been properly rectified. South Lanarkshire Education Resources Committee met to consider a comprehensive report on the scandal, which recommended all the actions we had requested of the council to safeguard the rights, religious freedoms and indeed safety of the children in the local authority area. Every step and provision we requested has been accepted and implemented. So, what will change?

  • All members of the school chaplaincy team must have full PVG. This is the criminal records check which as a parent I had assumed that everyone in contact with my son would have cleared. This was not the case with chaplaincy in Kirktonholme and the South Lanarkshire region.
  • All religious groups must have a teacher present.Essentially this means that chaplaincy activities will not be unmonitored, and so those in school cannot deviate from the agreed agenda to promote their own views.
  • If there is something done under the auspices of the school and a teacher will not be present (extra-curricular activities) parental consent must be given. It is often assumed by schools that religious based activities are good and therefore parents will be happy to have their children included. This is one of the most frequent sources of complaints from parents that we receive.
  • All activities and resources used must be appropriate to the age and stage of the pupils and complement and endorse the school’s programmes of study, which will be based on Curriculum for Excellence guidance. This means no more allowing chaplains to teach Young Earth Creationism is correct and that science teachers are lying to them, or presenting other harmful beliefs like a Biblical view of homosexuality and marriage as truth.
  • School handbooks must contain a statement about the development of ‘Spiritual, social, moral and cultural values.’ Many parents think that non-denominational means non-religious. This is simply untrue in Britain where all schools are Protestant unless they explicitly state otherwise. Helping parents to understand this means they can then make informed choices about what their child is exposed to.
  • Annually schools must inform their parent council about the composition of the chaplaincy team. This information must be updated in the school handbook each year. The head teacher must engage in discussions with the chaplain(s) early in the school session about their role and the timing and subject of planned activities. Simply put, parents will know who is talking to their kids. Some churches are moderate, some less so. Parents will also be able to see if their own views are reflected on the team and whether it is representative of the make-up of the community.
  • Parents must be informed about the times and subject of planned activities which will be delivered by the chaplaincy team. This information must be shared through parent council meetings, news bulletins, school newsletters or the school website. An outline of religious observance events will be made available on request.Open-ness about what RO is taking place, when and with whom, means a parent knows exactly what their child is exposed to and finally is able to make an informed choice as per the law about whether they participate.
  • Under the terms of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, parents / carers have the right to ask for their children to be withdrawn from religious observance and / or religious and moral education. A statement to this effect must be included in the school handbook. In addition, parents must be reminded on an annual basis of their right to withdraw. This should be done through the school’s first newsletter. This very specific statement of how the right to withdraw must be communicated to parents means no more fudging the issue and sweeping their rights under the carpet. Parents will be annually informed, and given the full and proper information upon which to base their decision.
  • If a pupil is withdrawn the school must make suitable arrangements for the pupil to participate in a worthwhile activity, in consultation with parents. If parents have any concern about religious observance they should approach the head teacher to discuss their concerns.Another common complaint from parents who withdraw their kids is that they are either left in an office alone with nothing to do, or effectively punished for withdrawing from RO. Children doing worthwhile activities, and parents knowing what they are and having a say in it is a significant step forward.
  • Publications must not be sold to pupils by either individuals or groups. Head teachers must consider carefully the materials that they send home. If they think any materials are of a sensitive nature they must discuss them with their chaplaincy team and / or their parent council prior to issue and must seek advice from Education Resources staff. Presentations and any associated materials or publications which are used must be age and stage appropriate. The school must ensure that presentations and associated materials are at an appropriate level and should be interesting and stimulating. Handouts or other materials must be discussed with the head teacher in advance of events, to ensure their suitability and appropriateness. If the chaplaincy input is a team approach then fellow members of the team should view any materials prior to their issue. Clearly this addresses the nature of the materials sent home, and the possibility of groups such as the Challenger buses who tour schools selling Creationist materials direct to pupils.

 We are extremely pleased that South Lanarkshire has taken extensive and comprehensive steps to address our concerns and those of the parents in the authority. These steps ensure schools are able to have chaplaincy provision and to use it to support them in the delivery of the curriculum and the care of the pupils and staff, but effectively curtail the ability of rogue religious groups to abuse the trust they are given. They safeguard children and enable parents to understand what their children are exposed to, and that will greatly help to rebuild the relationship of trust.

The new guidelines from South Lanarkshire illustrate perfectly how secularism can balance the freedom of people to believe and follow their beliefs with the freedoms of those do not share that faith. However, these steps are not solving the issues in their entirety. They apply only to non-denominational schools, and only to those schools in the South Lanarkshire area. Parents in other areas remain un-informed of their rights and of the religious activities in the childrens’ schools. We would ask parents everywhere to question the school and find out who is having contact with their children, how often, and what views do they convey? Are they fully PVG checked, and are they supporting their childrens’ education or contradicting it?

As for denominational schools, children and parents within the denominational school system surely do not deserve to be less informed or protected? We accept it would not be possible to detail every provision of RO in a faith school, but neither is it acceptable for faith schools to assume that every parent and child under stands and accepts all the religious beliefs which the school represents. Faith schools must acknowledge that some parents send their children to such schools because of proximity, or the educational record of the school, and so educating them about what the school stands for is just as essential.

For one authority to take such extensive action while the government is saying there is no problem makes the government look naïve and ill-informed. We intend to ensure that the government does not remain ill-informed, and that they see the wisdom of implementing the measures above on a national level. We will be writing to each LEA to request they voluntarily follow suit, and to the government to suggest national uptake. It is honest communication with parents about religion in schools that will ensure religious representatives can be open participants in the school lives of those who want them, and these steps ensure parents can trust the school and authority to look after the safety and the best interests of their children with integrity.

STATEMENT FROM MARK GORDON ON SOUTH LANARKSHIRE CHANGES

Inverclyde parent, Mark Gordon, who initiated the Scottish Secular Society’s 2013 petition at the Scottish Parliament asking for Religious Observance to be made an Opt In rather than an Opt Out activity, had this to say.

“South Lanarkshire Council’s recent review of matters completely vindicates our position, highlighted in both the petition to change religious observance and the petition asking for head teachers to be given guidance on the presentation of separate creationism or so called intelligent design. The failure at Kirktonholme showed that head teachers need guidance in this regard. What South Lanarkshire Council have shown is a positive step and it is to be welcomed. It is a refreshing change of attitude.

Contrary to what our many well-funded and vociferous detractors have said, we have no desire to remove religion completely from the public space. We merely want parents and children to be given full information on what will be presented, for them to be given real choices and for their rights to be practical and effective rather than illusory. For many parents opting out is problematic because meaningful alternatives to religious observance are not available. Many parents are not even aware of their rights. South Lanarkshire Council’s approach, including a promise to remind parents annually of their right to opt out of religious observance, is a sensible one and I would hope that in the short term councils across Scotland see fit to determine a similar approach. More importantly it is clear that the educational professionals in South Lanarkshire have seen that the Scottish government’s so called safeguards are not sufficient as we have been saying all along. The Scottish government must now review their position on the provision of advice on creationism. Failure to do so will result in a confusing patchwork of standards across the country.

Until this is resolved across Scotland we would ask parents to check what is going on their child’s school and identify if it is suitable. Is the chaplain promoting one faith over another? Is the chaplain promoting religious ideas as fact? Is he promoting religious ideas that are detrimental to the teaching of accepted science? If so we would urge the

parent to question this. If the situation is not suitable we would ask the parent to consider opting out of religious  observance altogether”

Reviewed: Young Earth Creationist books handed out in Scottish primary school

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From Truth be Told, one of the books handed out to children at Kirktenholme Primary

My friends in Scotland will know about how a local Church of Christ sect, with the help of missionaries from the US,  successfully infiltrated a Scottish state non-denominational primary school, were only properly scrutinised (after 8 years of activity) when the school chaplain (a sect member) gave the children two fundamentalist Young earth creationist books to take home, and how the sect has now been barred from that school and the two head teachers who made the mistake of trusting them redeployed.

My American friends will be surprised that a school should have a chaplain, let alone at the rest of these extraordinary goings on, about which I shall have much more to say later. I have read the books given out, and prepared a full report on them, which I attach here.

I had previously, as a backgrounder, sent it to some of the parents, to the school itself, and to the local authority that controls the school, before the local authority education officer met parents to discuss the situation. The immediate problem has been dealt with, but I would like to know what steps the school and the Council plan to take to undo the educational damage inflicted by this.

The books are worse than I could have imagined. A mixture of Morris’s The Genesis Flood, Wells’s Icons of Evolution, and the most bizarre imaginings of Ken Ham‘s Creation Museum, all packaged to look like authoritative school books; the more advanced one even had chapter end review quizzes. I would like to know what steps the school, and the local authority that controls it, plan to take to undo the educational damage inflicted by this.

Anyway, It has occurred to me that I must be one of the few people in the world to have actually submitted himself to the tedium of reading these books from cove to cover, so I thought I’d append my report for those interested: http://www.apologeticspress.org/store/Product.aspx?pid=54  Truth be Told –  and http://www.apologeticspress.org/store/Product.aspx?pid=448 How do we Know God is Real? For these books to be handed out by a school was a betrayal of trust. Their content is contrary to the whole of present-day science, and to the principles and requirements of guidance from the Scottish Department of Education, and the Curriculum for Excellence. Their arguments are a re-hash of a long-refuted “creation science”, a 20th century heresy that has its roots in Henry Morris’s Genesis Flood, and in Seventh Day Adventism, rather than in mainstream Christianity. They are produced by Apologetics Press, the publishing arm of a group of exclusive US sects calling themselves “Churches of Christ”, who “shun” ex-members (http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/mum-tells-how-cult-organisation-2261326) and reject the whole of modern science in favour of their own kind of biblical literalism.

The books are professionally produced, and Truth be Told in particular is formatted in the same way as a real textbook, complete with chapter headings and subheadings, end-of-chapter reviews, quizzes and discussion topics. A diligent pupil receiving these books, as the children at Kirktonholme did, with the blessings of the school, will conclude that the whole of modern cosmology, geology, and biology is fundamentally mistaken, and that those who promulgate it, including their own science teachers, all university biology departments, and all the world’s leading scientific societies, are lying.One particularly nasty feature is that established science is repeatedly misrepresented so as to make it look absurd, and the evidence for it is repeatedly suppressed or, worse, incorrectly described so as to make it seem unconvincing. This is most obviously true in the chapters regarding the age of the earth, the fossil record, and evolution.

The authors have no scientific qualifications. Kyle Butt graduated from a private Churches of Christ university, and his degrees are in Bible and Communications. Eric Lyons’s degrees, from the same university, are in Bible, History, and Ministry.

How do we Know  misdescribes the Big Bang as disorderly (H 14) [1], asserts (H 18 – 39) that because organisms are complex, each species must have been individually designed, and claims (H 40 – 41) that if evolution is true, dogs could give birth to animals that are half-dog and half-cat.

There are also other claims, not strictly scientific, that are repugnant in a pluralist society, such as, that “Only a belief in God can help people understand what actions are truly right and truly wrong.” (H 51); that those who deny the existence of God are “like those people who deny that Americans have ever landed on the moon.” (H 54), that “when a person properly looks at all the evidence with an open mind and honest art, he cannot be an atheist.” (H 55; emphasis in original).

Truth be Told is the worst kind of creationist anti-science, made to look like a real textbook, with chapter end quizzes (sample: Briefly explain why the trilobite is evidence of Creation), claims of fossilised trilobites inside human footprints, that evolutionists are liars who try unsuccessfully to wriggle out of the Second Law, that radiometric dating depends on flawed assumptions, and other long-exploded lies. It says that evolutionists (that would include their own science teachers at school and university) are dishonestly refusing to admit the truth, that the earth is 6,000 years old, that Noah’s flood explains the Grand Canyon, and that people used dinosaurs as beasts of burden. All this presented as real science in a textbook-like format.

Within the first five pages of Truth be Told, I found nine major errors of scientific fact or logic. Even a brief summary of major errors runs to four pages, which I include here for those interested in the detailed arguments. Some of the highlights are:

Ch 1, Origin of the universe, claims that because Big Bangs are not taking place today, the idea is not amenable to scientific testing. False; the Big Bang is accepted because it quantitatively explains Hubble’s Law, the relative abundance of the light elements and their isotopes, the Cosmic Microwave Background and its fluctuations.

Ch 2, Origin of life, describes the unsolved problem of the origin of life as a weakness in the concept of biological evolution. Not so, any more than the unsolved problem of the origin of language is a weakness in the concept of language evolution.

Ch 5, Geology in the fossil record; geological strata are said to be the result of Noah’s flood, and the rapidity of change in special situations, specifically Mount St Helens, is said to argue against the gradualness of average change in general.

Ch 6, The age of the Earth; claims that radiometric decay rates could have been different in the past, although it has been known since 1928 that they could not have, since if they had been all the laws of physics and chemistry, responsible for the formation of rocks, would also have been different.

Ch 7, Dinosaurs and man, says that humans and dinosaurs coexisted, and that there were dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark. It also claims that assorted rock art represents dinosaurs, speculates that humans could have used dinosaurs as beasts of burden, and even has pictures of dinosaurs pulling carts.

Ch 8, Arguing against evolution, misrepresents the facts regarding embryo development, and, of course, the peppered moth story.

Ch 9, The origin of humans, concentrates on errors from many decades ago, and dismisses intermediate forms such as Homo habilis because they are not fully human (of course they are not. That’s the whole point)

Ch 10, Creation Scientists, is shameless. It lists Louis Pasteur (died 1895) and Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727), and confuses belief in God with belief in the kind of creationism described here. In addition, the book repeatedly accuses evolutionists (remember that this includes the science teachers they will be meeting later, as well as virtually all research scientists) of deliberate disregard and distortion of the evidence, and refusal to admit the truth.

In more tedious detail [you don’t really need to read this unless you want to]:

Ch 1: that the Big Bank was an explosion, sending lumps of matter shooting through space (false; it was a highly orderly event, and lumps of matter only condensed out much later), that acceptance of the Big Bang is of relevance to the acceptance of biological evolution (they are completely different topics), that because Big Bangs are not taking place today, the idea is not amenable to scientific testing(false; the Big Bang is accepted because it quantitatively explains Hubble’s Law, the relative abundance of the light elements and their isotopes, the Cosmic Microwave Background and its fluctuations), and that that a scientific law is “a principle in nature that is true in every observable case”, that (referring presumably the situation existing shortly after the Big Bang), “a tiny ball of matter is not an adequate cause” for our enormous universe (false; this claim neglects the effects of almost 14 billion years of expansion). The chapter also miss describes the use of the terms “law” and “theory” in science, and invokes an imaginary Law of Cause and Effect, which in reality is routinely violated by events at the quantum level, including according to some current thinking the Big Bang itself.

Ch 1 also incorrectly states that the Big Bang theory violates the First and Second Laws of thermodynamics. False; the First Law is not violated because the positive energy of the contents of the universe is exactly balanced by its negative gravitational energy, and the Big Bang was a highly orderly event, not disorderly as stated here. All of this is clearly laid out in many popular books on the subject. Most seriously, T 11 incorrectly invokes the Second Law as saying that the spontaneous pattern formation required by evolution could not occur. In reality, the spontaneous formation of new patterns in far from equilibrium systems, of which he Earth-Sun-Space system is an example, has been known for many decades, and was the subject of Ilya Prigogine’s 1977 Nobel Prize.

T13 on describes the suitability of the Earth to life as clear evidence of providence. False; examining two of the examples given, the ozone layer is the inevitable result of the Sun’s UV light, and the Earth’s magnetic field is the inevitable result of its molten core, which in turn is the inevitable result of its composition and mode of formation. Subsequent pages point out ways in which the World is just right for us; but of course it is, since it is the World that we have evolved in.

Ch 2 describes the unsolved problem of the origin of life as a weakness in the concept of biological evolution. Not so, any more than the unsolved problem of the origin of language is a weakness in the concept of language evolution. This chapter also completely misdescribes conditions on the early Earth, current thinking on the origins of life, and the very restricted role now claimed for the Urey-Miller experiment. The claim that the work of Redi and Pasteur, refuting 18th-century theories of spontaneous generation, has any relevance to what could have happened over tens of millions of years on the early Earth is ridiculous.

Ch 3 misdescribes evolution, chooses Darwin’s finches as an example but ignores extensive recent studies, and claims that mutations cannot generate new information on the grounds that they merely rearrange existing material (this is like saying that an author does not generate new information, because he is merely rearranging existing words). It ignores well established cases of adaptation, such as (within humans) lactose tolerance in pastoral peoples, and resistance to local diseases.

Ch 4 asserts that “Design demands a designer” (this is simply asserting what it claims to prove), and points to good design within the human body while completely neglecting the cases of bad design (such as hernias, choking, the blind spot in the eye, along with many others) that can only be understood as evolutionary relics.  Like so much of the creationist literature, the book at this point misquotes Darwin on the subject of the eye.

Ch 5, on the geological record, is a travesty. Geological strata are said to be the result of Noah’s flood. The fact that fossil tree trunks rise up through several layers of later sediment is said to refute the claim that these sediments accumulated over millions of years. The complexity of the trilobite eye is said to refute the plain fact that from the bottom up (i.e., according to three centuries of geology, but not according to this book, from older sediments onwards) the totality of life has become more complex and diverse. We have the usual (for the creationist literature) misdescription of uniformitarianism, and the claim that the rapidity of change in special situations, specifically Mount St Helens, argues against the gradualness of change on average.

Ch 6, the age of the earth, repeats the usual nonsense about radiometric dating depending on doubtful assumptions. In reality, the mineralogical assumptions made in the early work have been bypassed since the 1940s by the use of isochron dating techniques, while the “assumption” that decay rates have remained constant has been known, since George Gamow’s work in 1928, to be a necessary consequence of the fact that more fundamental quantities, such as the speed of light and the charge on the electron, have remained constant. If this were not so, we would not have had rocks laid down according to the laws of chemistry and physics in the first place.

At this point, the specific Young Earth agenda comes into its own. If tree ring dating places a piece of wood at 10,000 years old, this book claims that this is simply because it was created with 4000 years worth of tree rings inside it. Here we also meet the first flat-out piece of fiction. The book says that there are human footprints in coal layers dated at 250 million years old.

Next come the usual and long refuted creationist arguments for a young Earth. The Earth’s magnetic field is decaying. Indeed it is (and we know that it has decayed and even changed direction many times in the past). The book then says that therefore, the Earth a few thousand years ago would have been so hot it would have cracked. This is nonsense on so many levels that I hardly know where to start. It is claimed that if the universe were billions, or even millions, of years old, then all the hydrogen would long since have been changed into helium. Again this is nonsense. We know how fast hydrogen is being converted into helium in the Sun, from how bright it is, and this fits well with the established age for the solar system of a little over 4.5 billion years. There is a ludicrous argument from population statistics, which effectively assumes a rate of growth over evolutionary time comparable with that only made possible since the development of agriculture.

At this point, the lies become embarrassing. T 109 says that “archaeologists have documented time and again that the period between the time of Abraham and the time of Jesus was about 2000 years. Who do not believe in God… admit that this is true.” In reality, there is no archaeological evidence for Abraham.

Ch 7, Dinosaurs and man, says that it “simply is not true” that dinosaurs lived millions of years before humans, and that “there is much evidence which shows that humans, dinosaurs, and other extinct animals lived together only a few thousand years ago”. Abstract and fanciful monsters found in ancient art are described as evidence for dinosaurs. Herodotus’ description of remains of flying snakes resembling bats is taken as evidence for him having seen pterosaurs, even though pterosaurs are not in the least bit bat-like.  T 121 misdescribes collagen residues preserved in one tyrannosaur fossil by tight binding to bone as “soft issue”.

T 120 and T 121 accuse science textbooks of lying. T 120: “The reason you do not see it [the evidence that humans lived alongside dinosaurs] in your school science books is because it stands opposed to evolution…. When we look at the evidence, we can see the truth.” T 121: “Evolutionary scientists should admit… that dinosaur bones are not millions of years old…. An honest person who found soft issue in a dinosaur fossil would admit that the fossil could not be millions of years old.”

The rest of this chapter suggests that, by analogy with elephants and orcas, humans might have tamed dinosaurs, and shows (T 125, 132) humans interacting with dinosaurs and using them as beasts of burden. We are told that there were dinosaurs on the Ark, and there is discussion of how they could have been fitted in. Dinosaur graveyards are attributed to dinosaurs being drowned in Noah’s Flood.

Ch 8, Evolution is not a proven fact, starts off as is customary in the creationist literature with an attack on Haeckel’s drawings, ignoring everything that has been learnt about development since. It misdraws the human embryo as having the shape of a fully formed human, confuses gill slits with gill arches, and suppresses such well-known facts as the presence of fur and tails on human embryos at around six months. Next (T 138 – 139) we have the peppered moth story, complete with accusations that the camouflage story was false, and that “even though many of the writers and science have book publishers knew was false, they used it anyway” [emphasis in original].

By chance, I wrote at length about this a few weeks ago (http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2013/08/creationism-as-conspiracy-theory-the-case-of-the-peppered-moth.html). There was no fraud. There were inadequacies in the original experiments. These were repeated, and the results confirmed and placed on a sound footing. That is how science works.

The story of horse evolution is misrepresented on the basis of a quote mined from 1953, while that of whale evolution incorrectly asserts that the evolutionary account is based on only a few bones, and suppresses the fact that we have a complete sequence of over 18 separate stages connecting whales with their terrestrial ancestors. We have confusion between analogy and homology, and misdescription of the evidence from vestigial organs. The chapter ends with the claim that the ability of vestigial organs to perform a new function is evidence against evolution. On the contrary, it is evidence for what is known as exaptation, a powerful evolutionary mechanism.

Ch 9, Did humans evolve? Suppresses the evidence for some 20 species more or less intermediate between us and our common ancestor with chimpanzees, makes great play with frauds and errors long since disposed of, misdescribes Homo habilis as merely an ape and therefore irrelevant in human evolution (the opposite is the case; its position on the borderline between Australopithecus and Homo is evidence that the continuity that creationists deny).

Ch 10, Creation Scientists, is shameless. It lists Louis Pasteur (died 1895) and Sir Isaac Newton (died 1727), and confuses belief in God with belief in the kind of creationism described here.

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[1] References with page numbers; H, How do we Know, T, Truth be Told
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