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Literal Genesis Trial: Creationist Gimmicks Versus the Optimism of Education

03/27/2013 11:40 am ET | Updated May 27, 2013

At the core of every successful teacher is a sense of optimism. That optimism is absolutely essential because every day, every teacher participates in the hard work of helping students peel back the veil of ignorance. Without that optimism there's no hope that the work being done is of any use.

There are constant challenges, though, that make it difficult to maintain unbridled optimism. Students often aren't excited by subjects in the same way that the teacher is. Too often opinions substitute for facts and bias replaces knowledge. Lessons learned one day are often forgotten the next. But good teachers know that over time progress can be made, learning can occur and the world can become a better place.

Personally, I have faced days when the process of education seems entirely hopeless. Invariably when this occurs it's for the simple reason that I feel I'm living a Groundhog Day existence. My "discussions" with creationists often repeat themselves to such an extent that it seems futile to continue.

Today was one such day.

The Guardian, for reasons I cannot begin to imagine, published an article summarizing the so-called Literal Genesis Trial being promoted by Joseph Mastropaolo. As reported, "A California creationist is offering a $10,000 challenge to anyone who can prove in front of a judge that science contradicts the literal interpretation of the book of Genesis."

What makes this charade so frustrating is that the Literal Genesis Trial is nothing more than a recycling of Mastropaolo's previous foray into publicity-hunting, anti-intellectual demagoguery. The Literal Genesis Trial used to be called The Life Science Prize and Mastropaolo regularly tried to bait evolutionary scientists into engaging in a similar contest.

Almost a decade ago, on Valentine's Day of 2004, I was invited to participate. The rules were very similar to what The Guardian presented. In both cases, $10,000 would be put in escrow by the participants and the outcome would be determined by a judge. Rather than proving that science contradicts the literal interpretation of the Bible, the Life Science Prize challenge focused on the nature of science and creationism. Here's how the challenge was framed back then: "If the evolutionist proves evolution is science and creation is religion, he wins the $20 000. If the creation scientist proves that creation is science and evolution is religion, then the creationist collects the $20 000."

As I explained in an article I published in 2006, I engaged with Mastropaolo for about two months attempting to come to an agreement on terms for the contest. (If you read the article I wrote, you'll see that from the outset I had no belief that my interactions would be productive but I thought they would be both interesting and edifying, and they most certainly were.) Rather than making any progress, I was berated, abused and had complaints filed with the person I reported to at the university at which I worked at the time.

Let me share just a couple of examples. When I proposed that we agree on definitions of evolution and creationism as a starting point, things went awry pretty quickly. In response to my suggestion that we use the classic textbook definition for evolution (a change in allele frequencies in a population over time), Mastropaolo's second argued that "change in allele frequency is about as meaningless a definition of evolution as can be offered." Mastropaolo himself countered with the following: "evolution is the development of an organism from its chemicals to its primitive state to its present state." My Ph.D. in evolutionary biology didn't help me make any sense out of that definition. Mastropaolo went further and said that I "may not be competent to contend for the Life Science Prize."

He very much liked the phrase "competent to contend for the Life Science Prize, also warning me that "Evolutionist hallucinators so out of touch with reality are psychotic by medical dictionary definition, and therefore not mentally competent to contend for the Life Science Prize."

So Joseph Mastropaolo is back generating publicity, promoting ignorance and spewing misinformation. I can't tell you how incredibly depressing it is to see a reputable media outlet like The Guardian take him seriously.

Beyond the ridiculous things he said to me, he is, after all, the author of a 2001 piece entitled "Evolution is Lethal Antiscience," published in the Creation Research Society Quarterly. The first sentence of that article is as clear as it is wrong: "The foundation of evolution is abiogenesis, life spontaneously generated from nonlife." In fact, evolution and the origin of life are completely separate disciplines, asking different questions and using different methodologies. This is a point clearly made in high school and middle school biology classes.

And the next to last sentence in the abstract of that piece is as unclear as it is wrong: "Therefore, evolution is identified here as the wantonly lethal antiscience ruling the summit of criminality." I can't begin to offer a meaningful critique of that sentence.

Nothing of significance has changed over the last nine years in Mastropaolo's rhetoric or in his understanding of science. And as the thousands of clergy members who have joined The Clergy Letter Project to promote both religion and evolution have shown, Mastropaolo's theology is also far from the mainstream.

But the press likes gimmicks and rewards them with coverage.

As depressing as all of this is, two things about this story ease my concern. First, I really do believe in the power of education and I am confident that most people reading about Mastropaolo's latest stunt will see it for what it is.

Second, I was unable to stop laughing when I found The Guardian story reported on a USA Today webpage. At the bottom of that page was a link to another story by the same "reporter." That story's headline was "another state is calling for Punxsutawney Phil's head."

Groundhog Day indeed! The universe obviously has a sense of humor.