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Creating Science Interest

To the Editors:

Edward Davis's article, "Science and Religious Fundamentalism in the 1920s" (May-June), raises two important questions for American scientists and nonscientists alike: How did the situation concerning this topic in the U.S. compare with that in other countries at this time? What are the comparative attitudes around the world at present?

If significant numbers of our citizenry doubt the laws of radioactivity that indicate an age for the Earth of over 4 billion years, and hence contradict fundamentalist biblical chronology, but support the long time scales demanded by evolution, then there is the real danger that our nation, despite its military might, will be regarded by more enlightened peoples and nations of the world as being intellectually backward. This, in turn, undermines the fine work that has been accomplished by so many in our scientific community, and contributes to a poor educational atmosphere for our young people, thereby further eroding the intellectual level of society, and its future potential.

One way to improve the situation would be for NOVA to launch one or more programs dealing with the life and accomplishments of Henri Becquerel, Pierre and Marie Curie, Lord Rutherford, Frederick Soddy and the many others who contributed so much to knowledge in the area of radioactivity and radioactive decay, and its significance for dating.

Such programs should highlight parallel efforts by those who contributed to our knowledge of laws of sedimentation and paleontology more generally. Explanations as to what makes the Sun shine, and contributions by the late Hans Bethe, should also be described. Elementary courses at the junior high and high school level on these topics, together with suitable textbooks, should also be developed, together with appropriate low-cost, clearly written paperbacks for the general public.

Frank R. Tangherlini
San Diego, California

Dr. Davis responds:

First, on the issue of the Earth's age, I would contrast (in this case) the 1920s with the 1960s and subsequent decades. Virtually all fundamentalist leaders of the 1920s, including William Jennings Bryan, accepted a lengthy Earth history (many millions of years; at the time, geologists estimated approximately 100 million years for the Earth's age), with most living things having come into existence and then gone extinct prior to the appearance of humans. They had various ways of understanding this religiously, in relation to the Genesis creation stories, but nevertheless they had no quarrel with "deep time" itself.

This changed radically in the 1960s and afterwards with the influence of The Genesis Flood (1961) by John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry Morris—a work that has accurately been called the "bible" of creationism. If you want to read more about the encounter between conservative Protestants and modern science in the period from 1859 to 1920, I recommend David Livingstone's Darwin's Forgotten Defenders (1987) or Ronald Numbers's The Creationists (1992), especially the former.

Bryan was, of course, opposed to evolution, as were some conservative Protestants in England and other countries, for reasons such as those I wrote about in the article. At the same time, other conservative Protestants accepted evolution, as Livingstone (an English author, incidentally) documents well.

As for today, creationism (particularly the young-Earth variety) is now a worldwide phenomenon. Indeed, the leading American creationist website ( ) is operated by an Australian, Ken Ham, and one of Ham's principal associates (Jonathan Sarfati) is also Australian. There are Islamic creationist organizations in Turkey and other places, and Jewish creationist organizations as well.

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