February 1989 'BASIS', newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics Bay Area Skeptics Information S
February 1989 "BASIS", newsletter of the Bay Area Skeptics
Bay Area Skeptics Information Sheet
Vol. 8, No. 2
Editor: Kent Harker
DEGREES OF FOLLY: PART I
by William Bennetta
[On 8 December 1988, the "New York Times" told that the Institute
for Creation Research -- the most prominent center of creationist
pseudoscience in the United States -- had suffered a setback: The
California State Department of Education had barred the ICR from
issuing masters' degrees in science.
That news, by itself, might not have seemed remarkable, for the
ICR's charlatanry had been widely publicized for several years, and
the idea of the ICR's awarding degrees in science was absurd. But
the "Times" also told some things that surely WERE remarkable. The
ICR already had been approved once by the Department, some seven
years earlier, and actually had been passing out degrees. Moreover,
the ICR's new application for approval, submitted in 1987, had led
to some strange proceedings: The Department had sent a committee
of five men to examine the ICR's programs, and three had voted
favorably. The application had been denied only after one of the
three changed his vote.
How had all this happened?
Here is the first part of an article in which Bill Bennetta, one
of BAS's advisors, will answer that question. Bennetta has
collected the relevant documents and has interviewed the members
of the committee. In this installment, he tells how the committee's
visit to the ICR resulted in a misleading report that omitted or
distorted anything that might have conveyed the real nature of the
ICR, its aims and its programs. Next month, he will recount how two
members of the committee later told the real story, and he will
describe what occurred after that.]
When California's legislature adopted the Private Postsecondary
Education Act of 1977, its statement of legislative intent spoke
of "protecting the integrity of degrees and diplomas" issued by
The Act sought, among other things, to impose discipline on the
operation of unaccredited schools and to inhibit the distribution
of bogus degrees by diploma mills. It said that no school in
California could award degrees unless the school had been certified
by a recognized accreditation agency or had been approved by the
superintendent of public instruction -- the chief of the State
Department of Education. To gain the superintendent's approval, the
school would have to demonstrate, to a committee of examiners, that
its academic resources and programs were comparable to those at
accredited schools that offered their same degrees.
In 1981, when the superintendent was Wilson Riles, the Department
overtly scorned the legislature's vision: After what was evidently
a mock examination that would seem superficially to comply with the
Act, it approved the granting of advanced degrees in science and
in science education by the Institute for Creation Research (ICR).
The ICR (which then was in El Cajon, but now is in Santee) is the
creation of Henry Morris, a fundamentalist preacher and former
engineer who poses as an expert in geology, biology, paleontology
and various other fields in which he has no detectable credentials.
Like Morris himself, the ICR is avidly committed to "creation-
science," the fundamentalist enterprise that seeks technical
validation for the doctrine that the Holy Bible is an absolutely
accurate account of history and an infallible textbook of science.
The functionaries of the ICR spend a lot of their time in devising
quasi-scientific "evidences" that will seem to verify the Bible's
creation narratives, other biblical episodes, and the
fundamentalists' belief that the age of the universe is only 6,000
years -- a figure based on the sum of the lifespans of the
patriarchs listed in the Book of Genesis. They spend even moretime
in purporting to refute evolutionary views of the universe, of
Earth, and of living things. (Henry Morris has suggested that the
concept of evolution was devised by Satan himself and other "evil
spirits," while they were perched atop the Tower of Babel. (1)
At first glance, doing "creation-science" may seem to be a tough
job: Isn't it hard to peddle, as scientific, a book that says that
beetles have only four feet and that a newborn animal's color
pattern is determined by what the parent animals happened to see
when they were mating? In fact, the job is easy, because "creation-
science" has nothing to do with science; nor is it intended to win
the allegiance of scientists or of anybody else who might be
tempted to count a beetle's feet or to think about genetics.
Instead, it has been concocted for two extra-scientific audiences
and two extra-scientific purposes.
The first purpose is to bolster the religious faith and anti-
intellectualism of fundamentalists at large, most of whom know
nothing of science and very little of what the Bible really says;
rather than reading the Bible itself, they rely on preachers'
accounts e biblical beliefs seem scientific to public officials
-- who typically know as little as the fundamentalists know about
science or about the Bible -- so that such beliefs can be injected
into public-school science classrooms.
Given their naive audiences, the creation-scientists are free to
reject most of 20th-century science and to offer in its place a
stew of weird tales and fatuous assertions, spiced with distorted
quotations from legitimate scientific literature. They offer an
astronomy in which the asteroids seem to have originated during a
battle between good and evil angels, (2) and in which the sun is,
and always has been, continuously shrinking. (By extrapolating the
shrinkage backward through time, they find that the solar system
cannot be billions of years old, as scientists say it to be.) They
offer an astrophysics in which the speed of light is adjustable,
so that photons from remote galaxies, millions of light-years away,
have been able to reach Earth in the mere 6,000 years since the
They offer a geophysics in which rates of radioactive decay are
capricious, so that radiometric dating can indicate that a rock is
millions of years old although it really was formed only a few
thousand years ago. They offer a geology in which many of Earth's
features, including the fossil record of life, were formed during
Noah's Flood. And they offer a biology in which organisms occur as
immutable, separately created "kinds" -- a term that they have
borrowed from the King James version of Genesis and that they
cannot define or explain.
To promote the dignification and dissemination of "creation-
science," Henry Morris in 1981 set up something that he called the
ICR Graduate School. And he promptly sought approval from the
Department of Education to award masters' degrees -- not in Bible-
study or religion but in geology, biology, "astro/geophysics" and
The Department's record of what ensued is far from complete, but
it does retain the names of the people whom the Department picked
to evaluate the four degree programs that the ICRGS had proposed.
I have checked on those people, and I have found nothing to suggest
that they were qualified to assess programs in science or in
science education. There is, however, evidence that at least one
of them was connected with the ICR or with some of the ICR's
The result of their efforts was a signal event in the annals of
quackery: In June 1981, Wilson Riles gave his Department's
endorsement to the ICR and, in effect, lent the prestige of the
state of California to the whole nonsensical business of "creation-
science" -- talking serpent, shrinking sun, fantastic photons, and
Like all approvals granted under the Act of 1977, the ICRGS's
approval had a term of three years. If things had proceeded
normally, the school would have had to apply again, and would have
been examined again, in 1984. But in that year the legislature was
amending the Act, so all existing approvals were extended for three
years. The ICRGS did not have to re-apply, then, until the end of
1987. Its application, signed by Henry Morris, was submitted on 24
Consider the context in which that new application was received.
During the preceding few years, "creation-science" and the men who
purveyed it had been repeatedly exposed and publicly denounced by
scientists and jurists alike. One of the most potent analyses had
been issued in January 1982 by Judge William Overton, of the U. S.
District Court in Little Rock, when he ruled unconstitutional an
Arkansas statute that would have authorized the teaching of
"creation-science" in that state's public schools.
Overton wrote a highly readable, analytical opinion that considered
the nature of science and showed repeatedly that "creation-science"
was not science at all: It was biblical religion in disguise. His
text described tactics by which specific creation-scientists had
distorted science and had misrepresented their own enterprise; and
among the people whom he named were Henry Morris and two other
preachers who worked at the ICR -- Duane Gish and Richard Bliss.
(Bliss, who was and is the ICR's "professor of science education,"
thus became (as far as I know) the only such professor whose weird
writings about science have been excoriated by a federal court.
Creation-science soon suffered further debunking in a number of
trenchant books, most of which analyzed specific antics of Morris,
Gish and the ICR. These books included Niles Eldredge's "The Monkey
Business" (1982), Norman Newell's "Creation and Evolution" (1982),
Philip Kitcher's "Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism"
(1983) and Ashley Montagu's "Science and Creationism" (1984).
In 1987 an especially conspicuous blow was dealt to "creation-
science" by the Supreme Court, which upheld two lower courts in
finding that a Louisiana creationism law -- very similar to the
Arkansas statute that Overton had nullified -- was
unconstitutional. Again, "creation-science" was found not to be
science but to be an anti-scientific religious doctrine. (3)
The Court's ruling preceded, by some six months, the ICRGS's
application for renewed approval by California's Department of
The application was governed by section 94310.2 in Article 1.5 of
the state's education code. Article 1.5 incorporates the Act of
1977 and amendments to it. Section 94310.2 provides that the
superintendent of public instruction shall not approve the granting
of degrees by an unaccredited institution unless an assessment of
each degree program has shown that "The curriculum is consistent
in quality with curricula offered by appropriate established
accredited institutions" and that "The course for which the degree
is granted achieves its professed or claimed academic objective for
higher education, with verifiable evidence of academic achievement
comparable to that required of graduates of other recognized
schools accredited by an appropriate accrediting commission. . .
In the processing of the application, decisive roles were played
by three officers of the Department. Bill Honig, who succeeded
Wilson Riles in 1982, is the current superintendent of Public
instruction. Joseph Barankin works directly for Honig, in
Sacramento, as an assistant superintendent and as the director of
the Department's Private Postsecondary Education Division (PPED),
the branch that handles all applications from postsecondary schools
seeking state approval. Roy Steeves works for Barankin, at the
Department's Los Angeles office, as an assistant director of the
In March 1988, Barankin gave the ICRGS case to Steeves. Henry
Morris and his associates by then had begun to amend their
application to meet the PPED's standard requirements for
documentation. They resubmitted it, in final form, on 9 June.
During the next few weeks, Steeves recruited the committee that
would visit the ICR, examine its programs, and recommend
whether approval should be granted. By law, the actual decision
about approval would rest wholly with Bill Honig, notwithstanding
any finding or recommendation that the committee might report.
The members of the committee were: Robert L. Kovach, professor of
geophysics at Stanford; Stuart H. Hurlbert, professor of biology
at San Diego State; G. Edwin Miller, vice-president for
administration at United States International University (in San
Diego); James A. Woodhead, professor of geology at Occidental
College; and George F. Howe, professor of biology at The Master's
College, a religious school in Newhall.
The committee had no professor of education, even though one of the
ICRGS's programs was in "science education" and was aimed chiefly
at preparing teachers.
The five men of the committee, along with Steeves (who was their
coordinator), visited the ICR on 3, 4 and 5 August. Their report
was typed in final form, and was signed by all five and by Steeves,
on the 5th. It was spread over ten pages, but it had much blank
space and several unfilled sheets; if competently designed, it
would have fit onto six.
The text of the report was, in a word, baloney. It continually
omitted or obfuscated any information that might have told the real
nature or aims of the ICR, the ICR's graduate school or the men on
the schools's faculty, and it repeatedly promoted the pretense that
the ICR was doing scientific work. For example:
Since the spring of 1985, the ICR has published a quarterly booklet
of devotional readings called "Days of Praise". Each issue has had,
on its back cover, a some boiler-plate that calls the ICR "A UNIQUE
complex of evangelistic, missionary and educational ministries" and
lists the "ICR Graduate School of Creationist Science" as one of
the "Typical ICR Ministries." Yet the report never told that the
ICR itself calls the ICRGS a religious outlet.
On page 2, the report said: "The stated purposes of ICR are
twofold: to conduct research (and educational programs) with the
goal of validating the theory of creation science and to conduct
education programs primarily designed to train science teachers in
elementary and secondary schools. . . . (4) The three master's
degrees in science relate to the first stated objective and the
degree in science education relates to the other objective."
THAT THROW-AWAY LINE ABOUT "VALIDATING THE THEORY" WAS THE ONLY
REFERENCE TO "CREATION-SCIENCE" IN THE ENTIRE REPORT. THERE WAS NOT
A WORD ABOUT ITS CONTENT OR ITS SORDID, RICHLY DOCUMENTED HISTORY.
The report absolutely avoided a question that any alert reader must
ask: If the "three master's degrees in science" were related to the
objective of validating "creation-science," why were the degrees
to be awarded in biology and geology and astro/geophysics and not
Page 4 said: "We commend the institution for having recruited
faculty members who have demonstrated academic and research
capabilities." Yet the report did not cite any academic or research
achievement by any member of the ICRGS faculty, nor had any
such thing been claimed in the ICRGS's application. Indeed, one of
the striking features of the application was that its resumes of
faculty members FAILED TO SHOW ANY SCIENTIFIC PUBLICATION OR
Page 5 said that the ICR's courses tried "to present a two-model
evaluation addressed to the origin of life." There was nothing to
tell what that meant. There was no explanation that the "two-model"
system is the doctrine saying that every person must embrace
either godless, pernicious, evolutionary science or fundamentalist
Christianity. (No other religions merit consideration; this is why,
conveniently, the number of models is only two.) There was no
explanation that "two-model" nonsense had been soundly discredited
and that Judge Overton had called it "a contrived dualism which
has no scientific factual basis or legitimate educational purpose."
The report was baloney through and through. Was it intended for a
reader who knew nothing about the ICR and would rely on the report
for all his information? If so, it would thoroughly mislead him.
Was it intended for a reader who already knew much about the ICR?
If so, it could only lead him to conclude that it had been composed
by six rubes who had not done their homework and had been fully
fooled by the ICR -- or that it had been composed by the ICR's own
The report did include some comments that were critical of the ICR,
but they were uniformly cryptic and incomprehensible. They
mentioned for example, course titles that "did not accurately
define course content"; courses that were "unstructured, with
variable instructor contact time and inadequate or lacking
classical textbooks"; "a great need to strengthen laboratory
instruction and improve lab facilities"; and a failure to make an
even presentation of "conventional interpretations of scientific
evidence." But they never cited examples or told what they really
were talking about, and so they never told what really was going
on at the ICR.
The report ended with a one-sentence paragraph: "The committee
recommends to the superintendent by a vote of 3 to 2 that full
institutional approval be granted."
The superintendent, Bill Honig, was not misled. And professors
Hurlbert and Woodhead, the two committee members who had voted
against approval, soon submitted documents that furnished Honig
with real information -- not only about the ICR but also about the
fatuous proceedings of the committee itself.
End of Part I
1. See chapter 3 of his book "The Troubled Waters of Evolution
(second edition; 1982).
2. See Henry Morris's book "The Remarkable Birth of Planet Earth"
3. For a detailed account of the Louisiana case, see my two-part
piece in the July/August and September/October 1988 issues of
"Terra", the bimonthly of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
4. Notice how the report adopted creationist lingo in falsely
suggesting that the creationists have a "theory."
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank