What’s Wrong with “Equal Time” Laws

One of the stated goals of the creationist movement is to pass “equal time” or “balanced treatment” laws, which would mandate that public schools teach creationism alongside evolution in science classes. Their argument is usually that it is only fair to present both as options and let the students choose for themselves, and that to do otherwise constitutes unfair discrimination against their religious beliefs.

Superficially, these arguments may seem convincing. After all, tolerance is certainly a good thing, and what could be more fair than to let students make up their own minds? However, these reasons aside, there are several excellent reasons to consider such laws dangerously misguided. To teach creationism in public schools as science would confer upon it an air of legitimacy which it has not earned and does not merit.

First of all, it should be said that neither I nor any reputable scientist would ever advocate excluding any legitimate scientific rival to evolution from the classroom. When there is a genuine scientific controversy, students should absolutely hear both sides of the issue, and neither should be taught dogmatically. Academic fairness and intellectual honesty demand no less.

However, merely saying that a controversy exists does not make it so. The fact of the matter is that, among practicing, qualified scientists – the only group whose opinions are relevant when it comes to whether there is a scientific controversy – there is overwhelming support for the theory of evolution. Creationists who have any degree or relevant expertise in the biological sciences are a tiny, insignificant minority compared to the vast majority of scientists who have no doubt that such a process occurred, and that the assertions of creationists are factually incorrect. In scientific circles, creationism has been unambiguously defeated; it was replaced by evolution over a hundred years ago and has been the topic of no serious scientific research since. No papers are published on it in mainstream peer-reviewed journals, no positive evidence supports it, and no new innovations or discoveries have ever come about as a result of it.

Creationists argue that it is only fair to give both evolution and creationism equal time, but this is not true. What would be fair would be to give equal time to every theory that is scientifically valid and supported by evidence, and since only one theory, evolution, fits those criteria, that is exactly what is done. If more than one theory could meet these requirements, it would indeed be fair to teach them all, but this is not the case.

Consider a parallel: the controversy over the occurrence of the Holocaust. The vast majority of historians consider it the undeniable truth that Nazi Germany instituted a program of deliberate genocide that resulted in the deaths of between five and six million Jewish people. However, a small, vocal minority insists that this evidence is misinterpreted or forged, and that the Holocaust either did not occur or occurred on a far smaller scale than mainstream scholarship believes. Does the existence of these contrarians mean that there is a “controversy”? Should we teach both views in history classes so that students can make up their own minds about whether the Holocaust happened? That would be only fair, wouldn’t it?

It is true that public schools should be in the business of creating independent thinkers, not in indoctrinating their students; but neither should they be centers of political correctness where every view is presented as if it were equally as valid as all the rest. To tell students that evolution and creationism are equally plausible, when the scientific community overwhelmingly rejects this, is to give a deceptive illusion of balance, and this is doing them a severe disservice. It is misrepresenting the views of the scientific community and telling students that we cannot decide between opposing views and that the opinions of experts are no more relevant than the opinions of any other group. This is precisely the wrong message to send if we want to create educated people who can tell the difference between truth and falsehood.

In addition, there is a simple constitutional argument: equal time laws, or any other policy mandating the teaching of creationism, violate the separation of church and state. Creationism in all its forms is not science, but religion; therefore, to teach it as science would be an unconstitutional government endorsement of a particular faith. On this point the courts have agreed, repeatedly ruling against the creationists and striking down “balanced treatment” laws as unconstitutional. See here for specific examples of such cases.

Finally, there is the fact that instruction time in school classes is severely limited. Given this unavoidable restriction, it is crucial to only teach ideas that have been tested and accepted by the scientific community – something which creationism has conspicuously failed to do. Evolution has the benefit of a hundred and fifty years of scientific research and support, while creationism has nothing comparable. Lacking this background of evidence, teachers presenting a “balanced view” of creationism would only be able to sketch out its basic ideas – a task of a few minutes. But if equal time were truly required for both ideas, they would then be forced to skip over the huge quantity of evidence in evolution’s favor and present only its basic ideas as well, creating an entirely false impression that the two were equally well supported. Of course, this is exactly what creationists want.

On scientific grounds, creationism has failed. This is why creationists have sought to do an end run around the process of scientific validation and instead force their ideas to be taught through political lobbying and legislation. If creationism were supported by the evidence, there would be no need for laws mandating that it be taught – scientists everywhere would acknowledge its merit, and there would be no argument about including it in school curriculums, but this is not what has happened. If the creationists are so confident, why not present their ideas in peer-reviewed scientific journals and let people with the proper training and expertise evaluate them? That they avoid this most obvious of challenges, and attempt to make uneducated young students, rather than qualified experts, the judges of their ideas’ merit speaks volumes.

In the end, “equal time” laws are a disastrously bad idea, an attempt to legislate creationists’ ideas into public schools when they have been falsified in the scientific arena. To protect the separation of church and state, and to encourage scientific reasoning and critical thinking skills in the next generation, they must inevitably be rejected. If creationism is to be taught in public schools, let it be taught in the one place it belongs: a comparative religion class.