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Evolving as a Leader
A High Schooler Takes on the State in the Name of Science
As the state legislature opens its annual session, the man behind the Louisiana politics Web site CenLamar catches up with Zack Kopplin, a Baton Rogue teenager who has gained international attention - and support - for his efforts to repeal a law many opponents think would sneak creationism into science classes.
Make no mistake: Zack Kopplin, a 17-year-old high school senior from Baton Rouge Magnet who is leading the efforts to repeal the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act, is not your stereotypical science geek. Last November, when he spoke before the LA Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE)’s Textbook Advisory Council about the need to maintain science textbooks that teach actual science, Kopplin wore an orange hoodie and a pair of blue jeans, while he addressed a group of serious-looking adults in serious-looking suits. However, it would have been a mistake to judge the skinny, fresh-faced teenage kid in the blue jeans as anything less than serious. Kopplin, as it turns out, is preternaturally smart and knows a thing or two about doing his homework.
When he addressed the council, the soft-spoken student suddenly became the teacher. “Please stand tall and endorse life science textbooks that teach real science rather than undermine it,” he urged.The council, and eventually the entire BESE Board, took Zack’s advice. The council voted 8-4 to keep science in science textbooks, and the BESE Board proceded to vote 6-1 and 8-2 in support of science in subsequent meetings. Zack describes this as “the largest victory for science that Louisiana has had in eight years. "Although Kopplin’s victory at the BESE Board generated state and national news, including a strong endorsement from his hometown newspaper, The Baton Rouge Advocate, which suggested he could be "the newest giant-killer in state education policy," he’s always had his sights on something much bigger: the repeal of the Science Education Act. He will have a shot at achieving that goal during the current legislative session. Sen. Karen Carter-Peterson (D-New Orleans) has introduced a bill to repeal the Act.
Kopplin launched his campaign on his own last summer. He explained that he always wanted to take on this law because it “hurts Louisiana student’s chances of getting good science-based jobs.” This year was his last chance as a high school student. He began by e-mailing Dr. Barbara Forrest, the nationally-renowned professor at Southeastern Louisiana University, who may be best known for her expert testimony during Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, a landmark case about the scientific merits of intelligent design education. The judge ruled that the textbook, Of Pandas and People, violated the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, and during her testimony, Dr. Forrest exhaustively demonstrated the ways in which the intelligent design “movement” was merely creationism repackaged and repurposed. Again, Kopplin knows how to do his homework. Since e-mailing Dr. Forrest, Kopplin has sent out hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mails to scientists, educators, clergy members, and world-renowned academics.
In a letter sent to Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Louisiana legislature, 42 Nobel Prize laureates have strongly endorsed Kopplin’s efforts at repeal. So have the National Association of Biology Teachers, the Louisiana Association of Biology Educators, the Clergy Letter Project, the evolution proponent Dr. Ken Miller, The God Delusion author Dr. Richard Dawkins and the biologist-philosopher Dr. Francisco Ayala, to name a few. The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty has commended Kopplin’s efforts as remarkable, and the Baptist minister and President of the national organization, Interfaith Alliance, Welton Gaddy of Monroe recently said, “(Kopplin’s repeal effort) represents the the best thinking in American science, the best thinking in American religion, and it also reflects the United States constitution.” Even Gov. Jindal’s own college genetics professor, Dr. Arthur Landry, has spoken out against the LA Science Education Act, begging Jindal not to do “anything that would hold back the next generation of LA’s doctors.” Kopplin has been called a "profile in (evolutionary) courage" by The Huffington Post. Last weekend, Zack was featured in The Washington Post.
The Louisiana Science Education Act has very little to do with science. As Dr. Forrest and others have forcefully demonstrated, the Act was actually the brainchild of the small but well-financed LA Family Forum, a blatantly religious non-profit organization (which behaves more like a lobbying firm) that The Baton Rouge Advocate calls “one of the most powerful influences in the State capitol.” That may be an understatement. In 2008, the year the Act was passed into law, the LA Family Forum spent nearly $125,000 on newsletters, unabashedly promoting and pushing its legislative agenda. Kopplin and his supporters, including the LA Coalition for Science, have not raised a dime, and they are not looking to. When asked about the LA Family Forum, Kopplin says, “While the LA Family Forum can outspend us by hundreds of thousands of dollars, they don’t own the legislature. I trust the legislature will take a stand in support of Louisiana students and science and repeal this law.”
During his testimony at the Textbook Selection Council meeting, Darryl White, the co-founder of the LA Family Forum, suggested a link between the teaching of evolution and the massacre at Columbine High School. Why? Because on that particular day, April 20, 1999, Eric Harris was wearing a T-shirt that read “Natural Selection.” It's the kind of specious argument upon which Mr. White, the LA Family Forum, and the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, have attempted to build their case against evolution: Charles Darwin somehow inspires and provokes school shootings.
When White appeared on the Jim Engster radio show last December, he implied a connection between scientists who promote science education in science textbooks and Adolph Hitler. Hitler, White reminded the audience, once said, “Let me control the textbooks, and I will control the state.” Ironically, White failed to acknowledge or realize that he and his cohorts at the LA Family Forum were, in fact, “attempting to control the textbooks” or that the LA Family Forum recently announced their goal was to “transform the culture.” “I was disappointed that such tragic events were misused in an attempt to discredit a valid scientific theory," Kopplin says. "The BESE Board saw through the fear-mongering and voted overwhelmingly to adopt accurate science textbooks, and for that, the students of Louisiana cannot thank them enough.” Although Kopplin originally branded his efforts with the catchy phrase “Repeal Creationism,” he is constantly reminding people that the efforts have nothing to do with anyone’s personal religious beliefs; it’s about saving science education from the well-connected and the well-funded influence peddlers who seek to legislate their own personal religious agenda.
In Louisiana, religion is not being persecuted; science is. As Kopplin told Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project in a recent article on Huffington Post, a key facet of his repeal has been “clergy.” Tomorrow, Kopplin and others will hold a rally at the steps of the State Capitol to support the repeal, which, thanks to the efforts of Senator Karen Carter Peterson, is headed toward a vote soon. The rally will take place at 11 am. Along with Kopplin, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, Rep. Walt Leger, Professor Ian Binns of the LA Science Coalition, and Kevin Carman, the LSU Dean of Science, will speak.
Last week, I asked Kopplin a series of questions about his efforts.
Lamar White, Jr.: What initially inspired you to take on this cause? Was it any particular news story? Can you pinpoint it to something specific?
Zack Kopplin: As a high school student, I had learned how science is supposed to be taught and how important the theory of evolution is to biology and many other subjects. So it just offended me to hear our elected officials undermining the teaching of science. The more I thought about it the more I also saw the Louisiana Science Education Act as a threat to the future of kids like me who want to get good jobs in Louisiana. This law hurts Louisiana the chances of Louisiana students getting good jobs and good internships after we graduate. Cutting edge research institutions like Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge will not want to hire students from their own state, because they cannot trust our science education. We need to be taught accurate and evidence that will give us the skills to get high tech science based jobs. For example, if you look up creationism on a job finding site like Career Builder, you will find zero creationist jobs. Zero. That’s why I’ve been calling this law the ‘job killing’ creationism law. With this law on the books, Louisiana students won’t have the science background we need to get the jobs we want.
LW: Defenders of the law suggest that this only allows educators greater flexibility and the ability to offer students challenging or competing viewpoints. They imply this actually enables educators greater academic freedom and strengthens the free and open exchange of ideas. How do you respond to these allegations?
ZK: The best answer I can give comes from a recent interview I did for the Huffington Post. “Because the Edwards decision established that creationists cannot legally foist their religious views on public school students directly, the creationist zealots are now trying misdirection. Their new legislation employs code language like "critical thinking" and "teaching the alternatives" in order to pretend to be promoting something noble. But creative language doesn't change the fact that they are simply pushing their religious agenda into the science classroom. And LSEA doesn't change educational and scientific realities.
-Teachers are already supposed to teach critical thinking.
-There are no scientific alternatives to evolution.
-The sole purpose for the Louisiana Science Education Act is to insert creationism into a public school science classroom.”
LW: What is the difference between creationism and intelligent design?
ZK: According to the National Academy of Science, “Most broadly, a ‘creationist’ is someone who rejects natural scientific explanations of the known universe in favor of a special creation by a supernatural entity.” While people have every right to believe in creationism, creationism has no place in a public school science classroom because it is not science. Intelligent design is just creationism that has been dressed up to seem more like science. It was created by the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank based in Seattle, after the Supreme Court case Edwards v Aguillard, which invalidated the teaching of creationism in public school science classes. Intelligent design is simply another way to try to unconstitutionally sneak creationism into public school science class. Fortunately it was also declared unconstitutional in the Dover v. Kitzmiller case. Teaching creationism in a public school science class is unconstitutional. Creationism and intelligent design belong in philosophy or comparative religions class, not in a public school science class.
LW: Let's discuss the role of the Louisiana Family Forum. For some, it seems a little strange how much they have championed this "science education" act. Why do you think the LFF has taken such an interest? And why do you think the LFF can exert such tremendous influence over our legislators? Is it as simple as a pay to play situation or are there other considerations?
ZK: The Louisiana Family Forum wants to sneak creationism into public school science classes. That is why they are involved in this. Senator Ben Nevers said publicly: “The Louisiana Family Forum suggested the bill .... They believe that scientific data related to creationism should be discussed when dealing with Darwin's theory.” The Louisiana Family Forum is a very successful lobbying group. They are Baton Rouge political insiders, and as Dr. Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University pointed out, their financial information from 2008, when the Louisiana Science Education Act was passed, shows that they had $691,915 in revenue that year. That gives them influence. With that money, the Louisiana Family Forum thinks they’ve bought the Louisiana legislature. Despite their influence, the Family Forum does not own the legislature, and I expect legislators will cast their votes for the future of Louisiana students and repeal the LSEA.
LW: And speaking of the LFF, it seems as if their executive director, Gene Mills, has been particularly -- shall we say, passionate-- about this whole issue. He's written that Darwin's ideas are "an affront to reason," and he's compared advocates for pro-science education like Barbara Forrest to Saul Alinsky and Marxists. For someone who leads an organization that ostensibly supports family "values," Mills has seemed, to me, to be particularly hyperbolic and frequently disrespectful of those who disagree with him. It seems a little contradictory-- advocating Christian values while advancing personal attacks that fail to uphold the Golden Rule. How do you respond to the LFF and to those like Director Mills who suggest that the repeal efforts are being advanced by anti-religious Marxist radicals hell-bent on undermining Christian values?
ZK: Despite what Mr. Mills says, I think it is quite clear that pro-science advocates are not hell-bent on destroying Christianity. Most major Christian denominations make clear that they do not think evolution and Christian beliefs are incompatible. Pope John Paul II said, “there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of faith.” Also, as I discussed with Rev. Welton Gaddy on State of Belief, it is not hostility to religion to not teach creationism in a public school science classroom
LW: I listened to your interview on the Jim Engster show. It certainly appears as if you are receiving the support and the praise of educators and concerned citizens from all over the State. What has been the reaction at your school? How have your teachers responded?
ZK: I’ve had a great deal of support from my school. It has been heartening to have my friends and teachers behind me. Even better though, I’ve had support from schools across the state including Caddo Magnet in Shreveport, Louisiana School for Math Science and the Arts in Natchitoches, and Ben Franklin High School and the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans. You mentioned support from educators across the state. I would like to point out, both the National Association of Biology Teachers and the Louisiana Association of Biology Educators have endorsed the repeal effort.
LW: You have been the center of a lot of attention recently. It is very difficult for grown adults to attack or criticize a 17-year-old, but still, you have been subjected to some anonymous criticism online. How do you handle criticism?
ZK: I’ve had a lot of support from my friends and the people I meet, so I don’t pay attention to what people say on the internet.
LW: What about the support of clergy? I know this is a major focus of your initiative-- attracting clergy. How successful have you been?
ZK: I’ve been very successful. Here are a couple examples: Last December, two Presbyterian ministers testified on our behalf during our successful defense of evidence based science textbooks in front of the Louisiana Board of Education. Also, the repeal has the support of Rev. Welton Gaddy, a Baptist minister from Monroe and president of the Interfaith Alliance. Professor Michael Zimmerman, who leads the Clergy Letter Project, also supports the repeal. As I noted earlier, most major Christian denominations do not believe evolution and Christian faith are incompatible.
LW: If this law is not repealed, do you have any indications that it may be challenged in the courts? Is it something you would consider?
ZK: I don’t consider court an option. I plan on getting this law repealed this year. If we’re not successful, we will work to repeal it next year. Repealing this law is the best option we have. It is faster, it won’t land the state with expensive legal fees, and it will improve Louisiana’s reputation.
LW: What do you think the long-term effects of this law could be in Louisiana? How will it affect our economic competitiveness and the quality of our public education?
ZK: This law will hurt Louisiana students’ chances of getting jobs. It will also hurt our chances of getting into good colleges and getting good internships. Louisiana students will be passed over in favor of other students who live in a state that does not have an anti science reputation. The Louisiana Science Education Act harms the quality of Louisiana’s public education. Even if teachers don’t use this law to teach creationism, it will intimidate teachers who would teach evolution.
LW: It's interesting: I've heard that many, if not most, of the people who have publicly advocated in support of this law are actually parents who home-school their children or send them to private schools. Have you noticed a disconnect between the people advocating for this law and the people actually affected by it?
ZK: During the meetings at the State Board of Education, I asked all the public school students and parents to stand up. The public school folks were the ones in support of science. The people advocating against teaching evolution in public schools were mostly, if not all, from home school families.
LW: Talk about the support you've received in the scientific community. Are there any big names that have endorsed your efforts?
ZK: We have been endorsed by a number of big names. To top that list, 42 Nobel Laureates have sent a letter asking for the repeal of the Louisiana Science Education Act. We also have support from a number of prominent scientists including Dr. Ken Miller and Dr. Francisco Ayala. The Dean of Science at LSU, Dr. Ken Carman, testified in favor of evolution at the BESE hearings in December and he supports the repeal.
LW: What advice do you have for other kids who want to raise awareness for an issue near and dear to them?
ZK: Find something that you are passionate about and just do it. That is the hardest part.
LW: Anything I am missing?
ZK: I would just like to say that I believe we can and will repeal the Louisiana Science Education Act this year.
You can read more about Kopplin and his efforts to save science education in Louisiana on his website,www.repealcreationism.com, support his efforts by joining his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter. He will give updates on how to get involved in the repeal.
Lamar White, Jr., a native of Alexandria, Louisiana, a graduate of Rice University with a Bachelors of Arts in Religious Studies and English, and the publisher of the website CenLamar.
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