From the time he was a high school senior in his home state of Louisiana, anti-creationism activist Zack Kopplin has been speaking, debating, cornering politicians and winning the active support of 78 Nobel Laureates, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New Orleans City Council, and tens of thousands of students, teachers and others around the country. The Rice University history major joins Bill to talk about fighting the creep of creationist curricula into public school science classes and publicly funded vouchers that end up supporting creationist instruction.
“Evolution and climate change aren’t scientifically controversial, but they are controversial to Louisiana legislators,” Kopplin tells Bill. “Basically, everyone who looked at this law knew it was just a back door to sneak creationism into public school science classes.”
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Bill Moyers: Welcome to this week’s broadcast and the “troublemaker” of the year. That’s right, my guest is the first recipient of a new award that singles out teenagers who are not afraid to speak their minds on major issues, even when everyone else around them disagrees. Not afraid, in other words, to stir up trouble for a good cause. That’s what Zack Kopplin was doing just the other day at a Save Texas Schools rally in Austin, the state capital:
Zack Kopplin: Do we want Texas tax dollars being used to fund private schools teaching creationism? Say no Texas!
Bill Moyers: Zack Kopplin was chosen to receive the first “troublemaker” of the year award because he’s made waves fighting on behalf of science and against laws making it easier to teach creationism in public schools.
Today’s fundamentalists, with political support from the right wing, are more aggressive than ever in crusading to challenge evolution with the dogma of creationism. But they didn’t reckon on Zack Kopplin.
Starting at the grass roots in his home state of Louisiana, he’s become a formidable adversary nationally, speaking, debating, button-holing politicians, and winning the active support of Nobel laureates, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The New Orleans City Council and tens of thousands of students, teachers and others around the country who have signed on to his campaign. Troublemakers all. Zack is now 19 and a history major at Rice University in Houston. He’s with me now. Welcome to the show.
Zack Kopplin: Thank you so much for having me on.
Bill Moyers: What was it about the Louisiana Science Education Act that you didn’t like?
Zack Kopplin: Well, this law allows supplemental materials into our public school biology classrooms to quote, “critique controversial theories,” like evolution and climate change. Now, evolution and climate change aren’t scientifically controversial, but they are controversial to Louisiana legislators. And basically, everyone who looked at this law knew it was just a backdoor to sneak creationism into public school science classes.
Bill Moyers: Who was behind it?
Zack Kopplin: Nationally, there’s this group called the Discovery Institute. They’re a creationist think tank that’s been pushing these types of laws all around the country for years and years. They even tried to get one nationally included in George Bush’s No Child Left Behind with the Santorum amendment. And so they wrote this law and they passed it on locally to the Louisiana Family Forum, which is our affiliate of Focus on the Family. Senator Ben Nevers, who sponsored it, said the Louisiana Family Forum suggested the law to him because they wanted creationism discussed when talking about Darwin’s theory. So we know from the horse’s mouth exactly what this law is about.
Bill Moyers: What’s your understanding now of creationism? What essentially does it hold?
Zack Kopplin: Essentially it’s a denial of evolution, mainly based off a literal interpretation of Genesis.
Bill Moyers: That God created the earth, a supernatural power intervened, and that’s where we and the universe came from?
Zack Kopplin: Yes. And so there’re some versions that say the earth is less than 10,000 years old. There’re some where they’ve, creationists have adapted and said, “Well, we got in trouble in the court case when we said that, so we’ll say it’s millions of years old. But evolution still doesn’t happen. We were created in our present form.” And that’s intelligent design creationism. Intelligent design creationism is still creationism dressed up to look like it’s scientific, but it’s really not.
Bill Moyers: When did you collide with this notion?
Zack Kopplin: So the Louisiana Science Education Act passed back in 2008. It was the summer before my sophomore year in high school. And so I knew about it. My dad’s been involved in Louisiana politics my entire life, so it was a dinner conversation. We’d be, like, “We can’t believe this bad law is just, like, it’s passing. But Governor Jindal will never sign it.” We knew Governor Jindal. He’s a very smart man. He’s a Brown University biology major. And so we decided, “Okay, when it gets to him, he’ll veto it.”
Bill Moyers: He’s also a Rhodes Scholar.
Zack Kopplin: He’s a Rhodes Scholar, yeah. And so it got to Governor Jindal with overwhelming support. And Governor Jindal started voicing his support for intelligent design creationism, he signed the law and he’s defended it ever since. And we were shocked. So for about two years I sort of stewed over this law. I wanted to fight it. I talked to all my friends. And my friends knew I couldn’t stand this law. But I never really knew how to take it on at that point. I was still too young to really recognize I had a voice.
Bill Moyers: At what point did you say that to yourself, “This is so important to me for my own reasons of conscience, that I’m going to make it my life as a young man.”
Zack Kopplin: So, my senior year of high school, I had to do a senior project. And I had friends who learned how to cook healthy food, learned a new language. And I was just, like, none of that interests me. But you know what? But what got my attention was this law. And so on a whim, I sent an e-mail to Dr. Barbara Forrest, who’s an expert about, an expert on this issue. She—
Bill Moyers: Teaches philosophy, doesn’t she?
Zack Kopplin: She teaches philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana. So she was an expert witness at the Kitzmiller versus Dover trial, where—
Bill Moyers: In Pennsylvania.
Zack Kopplin: In Pennsylvania, where intelligent design creationism was ruled unconstitutional. And while it’s not a Supreme Court case and doesn’t have holding across the entire United States, it essentially has put a stop to intelligent design as a serious method of sneaking creationism into the classroom.
But, so she was an expert witness there and she happens to live 30 minutes away from me in Livingston Parish, a local hotbed of creationism. And so I sent an e-mail to her and said, “I’m a student at Baton Rouge Magnet High and I really want to fight this law.” And so she apparently looked me up to make sure I wasn’t a creationist plant and then set up a meeting with me. And we got going from there—
Bill Moyers: A mole.
Zack Kopplin: Yep. I didn’t really ever expect it to actually take off the way it did. I sent one e-mail, and suddenly this whole campaign began.
Bill Moyers: Who else helped you?
Zack Kopplin: I set up a meeting with Barbara and I asked her, “who should I talk to locally?” We worked out Senator Karen Carter Peterson, who represents a district in New Orleans. And she was one of the few votes against the law when it first passed. So I got her to agree to sponsor a repeal bill. And that was a great meeting. She just said, “Okay, like, when do we get started?” And that was just her response to me, “When do we get started.” So, I talked to her and I also talked to Barbara about if we wanted to bring some big names on board, who should I, like, who should I talk to? And one of the people she recommended was Sir Harry Kroto, who is a Nobel Laureate chemist at Florida State. And so I sent him an e-mail. And he immediately called, he sent me an e-mail back and said, “Hey, do you have time to talk on the phone, like, on Friday?” And so we set it up where I had written a letter for Nobel Laureate scientists to our state legislature. I talked to him. And I woke up the next morning with him and about ten other Nobel Laureates having signed the letter. And we just started building from there. And so we have 78 Nobel Laureate scientists onboard.
Bill Moyers: But you haven’t repealed the law. It’s still in place.
Zack Kopplin: I mean, we would, I would’ve liked the law to be repealed two years ago, or even five years ago now. But it’s going to be a long, tough fight. And I think we know that at this point.
Bill Moyers: You realize that you’re bucking public opinion. The latest findings from Gallup last June are that 46 percent of Americans believe in creationism. 32 percent believe in evolution guided by God. I guess they would call that a form of intelligent design. And 15 percent believe in evolution without God’s help. You’re definitively in the minority.
Zack Kopplin: I would say we’ve got about 54 percent that are in the majority because there’s a difference between intelligent design and what I think that second option about God guided evolutionists, which be theistic evolution. And there’s a lot of people who say that God has caused evolution to happen. But they don’t, that’s not actually intelligent design. Intelligent design specifically rejects evolution, especially on a large scale. Creationists like to break it up into micro, macro evolution. That’s not a legitimate thing. That’s not what scientists do. But that’s how they say, “We can’t accept change over millions of years.” And—
Bill Moyers: And the theistic theory?
Zack Kopplin: Theistic evolution is to say what the Catholic Church accepts, where Pope John Paul II said there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of faith. And they just say, “We think God started evolution. And it’s run the way scientists say it’s run.”
Bill Moyers: Do you think the Gallup poll is simplistic?
Zack Kopplin: I think it’s very simplistic.
Bill Moyers: Doesn’t recognize the varieties of ideas on this subject—
Zack Kopplin: Yes, having said that, the 46 percent who think the earth was formed in the last 10,000 years is a very scary number for me.
Bill Moyers: Let me play you a clip from Representative Paul Broun of Georgia. He’s a member of Congress. You’ve heard of him, I’m sure. And this was his appearance at an event organized by the Liberty Baptists Church in his own state.
PAUL BROUN: God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that all that stuff I was taught about evolution, and embryology, and big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior. You see there are a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young earth. I don’t believe that the earth’s but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That’s what the bible says.
Bill Moyers: Representative Broun is a medical doctor. He is a member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. If he were sitting here instead of me, what would you say to him?
Zack Kopplin: We need to change that attitude. I mean, we need to be teaching evolution and embryology and the big bang theory because, you know, while he may think they’re lies from the pit of hell, they’re not. They’re good, established science. And if our students don’t learn it, they’re going to be at a disadvantage to the rest of the world, to China, to Britain to France. And we’re not going to do what we need to really make the advances to keep our way of life and ensure the survival of the human race, if we don’t teach our students science.
He has the freedom to be educated and educate his children the way he sees it. But, we have to make a specific distinction. Not in the public schools, not in publicly funded private schools, like voucher schools. And definitely not educating other people’s children.
Bill Moyers: You’ve taken this fight beyond the Louisiana law into the fight against school vouchers. Why?
Zack Kopplin: I didn’t initially really care about school vouchers because I was fundamentally a science advocate. And I was worried about evolution. And then last summer I got, a friend sent me an article by Alternet that had exposed a school in Louisiana in this voucher program that was apparently using curriculum that taught the Loch Ness Monster disproved evolution, and the Loch Ness Monster was real.
And so it caught my attention. And I said, “Well, let me look into this more.” And so I pulled a list of the voucher schools off our department of education’s website and just started going through them. And I’d look up a school and look up its website. And I’d go find a school that said, “Scientists are sinful men.” And we are—
Bill Moyers: Sinful?
Zack Kopplin: Sinful. And they rejected the things like theories like the age of the earth and anything else they said anything that, like, that that goes against God’s word is an error. And so I found a school like that. I found a school that put in their student handbook that students had to defend creationism against traditional scientific theory. And so these are schools receiving millions in public money.
Bill Moyers: Through vouchers—
Zack Kopplin: Through vouchers—
Bill Moyers: —transferring public funds from public schools to private religious schools.
Zack Kopplin: And recently we, I exposed with MSNBC that over 300 schools in voucher programs in nine states and Washington DC are teaching creationism. We have schools that call evolution the way of the heathen. And so it’s become pretty clear if you create a voucher program, you’re just going to be funding creationism through the back door.
Bill Moyers: Neal McCluskey at the Cato Institute writes, “Were Kopplin’s argument fundamentally that taxpayers should not have their money taken against their will to schools with which they might disagree, it would be one thing: vouchers do transfer taxpayer money, though they provide far more overall freedom than does public schooling. But Kopplin’s argument, like the arguments of so many people on numerous education issues, isn’t ultimately about freedom. It’s about prohibiting others from learning something he doesn’t like.”
Zack Kopplin: I think Neal McCluskey is forgetting about the First Amendment fundamentally. We have a separation of church and state in this country. And creationism is fundamentally religious. And evolution is just science and is not religious.
And I think as you probably have discussed on the show, the free exercise of religion includes religion and non-religion. So this country is fundamentally secular. And there shouldn’t be, you, we shouldn’t bring in one specific, not even just Christianity, but one specific version of Christianity that would not teach what the Catholics, or the Hindus or the Muslims or the atheists believe in the public schools and teach it instead of established science.
Bill Moyers: Do you ever wake up in the morning and say, “Hey, I’m only 19. I’ve got Rice, tough school to get out of and get started in my life, in my work. Why am I doing this?”
Zack Kopplin: I don’t think it’s a choice. I think it’s something that has to be done. And I’m the one who’s in the right position to do it, so I’m going to do it.
Bill Moyers: Well, Zack, I’ve enjoyed this conversation and I wish you well. Thank you for coming.
Zack Kopplin: Thank you so much for having me on.
Interview Producer: Gail Ablow. Editor: Sikay Tang. Associate Producer: Robert Booth.