A physicist's discovery begins an extraordinary odyssey
pride and prejudice in the scientific world.
By Dennis Crews
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An unprecedented media blizzard was generated by various scientific
institutions across the country in advance of the trial itself.
The loudest voices were virtually unanimous in condemning Act
590, and made dire predictions regarding the advancement of human
knowledge if the bill were to pass. Most were ruthless in their
characterization of creationists. Almost the entire December
issue of Science 81 was devoted to an attack on creationism,
and copies were given to the National Science Teachers' Association
for distribution to its members. In an article entitled "Farewell
to Newton, Einstein, Darwin...," Allen Hammond and Lynn Margulis
summed up the prevailing attitude: "To argue—as the creationists
do—that a theory must be true rather than that the evidence compels
one to it as the best choice is antithetical to science. To be
unwilling to revise a theory to accommodate observation is to
forfeit any claim to be scientific... Creationism is not science.
Indeed, creationists do not participate in the scientific enterprise—they
do not present papers or publish in scientific journals. And
it is precisely because creationists present themselves as 'scientific'
that they do most harm to the educational system."
This characterization was the exact reverse of the facts in
Gentry's case, but it served the ACLU well. The psychological
battle would be won or lost not by facts but by perceptions,
and it was clear that the plaintiff would do anything necessary
to win. The champions of evolution desired to vanquish creationism
so utterly that the issue would never rise again. With a veritable
army of over 50 attorneys and paralegals working on their case,
including some highly adept volunteers from the prestigious New
York law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, versus
only six which the Arkansas Attorney General's office could muster,
the ACLU went to Little Rock with an enormous advantage. No expense
was spared in mounting the most aggressive and sophisticated
attack possible against the creationists.
Not surprisingly, the trial produced no revelations but generated
great news copy. The ACLU team employed the tactic of making
witnesses for the state look foolish, using short, hard cross-examinations
to discredit them without allowing explanations or scientific
discussion that might bolster their credibility. A typical example
occurred when theologian Norman Geisler took the stand. Geisler,
arguing that in the absence of worship the concept of a creator
or first cause does not of itself constitute religion, cited
Aristotle's "unmoved mover" as a case in point. From this point
attorney Anthony Siano succeeded, step by step, in drawing out
Geisler's belief first in God, then in the existence of Satan.
Further aggressive questioning laid bare Geisler's belief in
the existence of demon possession and UFOs—much to the delight
of the plaintiffs—and with no opportunity to place these beliefs
in any context the cross-examination was terminated and Geisler
was dismissed from the stand.
At various points in the trial testimony for the plaintiff
became no less vulnerable, but the strategy of the ACLU lawyers
and the vagaries of the court prevented the state from exploiting
these weaknesses. Of particular significance was the ACLU's decision
to separate the origin of life from the issue of evolution itself.
Cross-examination of Yale biophysicist Harold Morowitz, witness
for the plaintiff, revealed why. After optimistically asserting
that scientists were "getting close" to knowing precisely how
life on earth began, Morowitz was forced to concede that leading
evolutionists still have only theories. Proper scientific theory
uses natural laws to predict physical phenomena and must be validated
by experimentation, but Morowitz finally admitted that even after
thousands of experiments and intense efforts none of the theories
on the origin of biological life had ever worked to produce a
This incongruity might have led to a more careful examination
of the uniformitarian principle had the judge not blocked the
state's attorney from proceeding further with the issue. It is
doubtful that more than a handful of observers understood what
was at stake, and why the plaintiffs did not want the trial complicated
by such questions. There are no natural processes that can adequately
explain either the origin of the universe or the genesis of life
on earth; both require either the suspension of known physical
laws or the intervention of supernatural forces. ACLU strategists
knew that evolutionary science could never be shown to rest on
a naturalistic base if the discussion wandered into cosmology
or origins—both of which, nevertheless, are integral parts of
evolutionary science as taught in most high schools and universities.
Thus the state lost a significant opportunity to demonstrate
the inconsistency of the plaintiff's case.
Geologist G. Brent Dalrymple of the U.S. Geological Survey
was the witness for the ACLU who eventually would be addressing
Gentry's findings. His initial testimony claimed radiometric
dating to be "the only process we know of that is constant through
time over billions of years."26 Under cross-examination, however,
several cracks opened in Dalrymple's argument. After close questioning
Dalrymple finally admitted that consistent results obtained by
different decay schemes today do not prove constant decay rates
in the past. He attempted to reduce the impact of this admission
by noting that varying decay rates would involve changes in physical
laws. Yet his only argument against this possibility was that
scientists "presume they have not" changed—at least not since
the big bang, upon which he was not anxious to comment since
all physical laws become invalid at that point.
Robert Gentry's research had proven this presumption to be
an unwarranted convenience for evolution—and one that tended
to foster prejudice against the acceptance of any evidence to
the contrary. If the testimony of a creation scientist boiled
down to a similar presumption, Gentry realized, he would be dismissed
with scorn. Should any other scientist be permitted the indulgence
of deficient reasoning simply for being on the popular side?
Dalrymple's credibility hung by a slender thread more than
once during his cross-examination by state attorney David Williams.
At one point Dalrymple emphatically asserted that he would want
to look closely at any study which, if true, would call the science
of geochronology into question. When Dalrymple was reminded of
Gentry's research and the letter his own friend and colleague
Paul Damon had published in EOS characterizing Gentry's study
as just such work, he accused Damon of engaging in rhetoric.
Finally Dalrymple revealed that he had not bothered to read any
of Gentry's articles in the refereed scientific journals except
for one nearly ten years old. He justified himself with the
excuse that publications by creation scientists are not authentic
Dalrymple's unfamiliarity with Robert Gentry's work did not
prevent him from having strong opinions about it. Calling Gentry's
falsification test "meaningless" and a "technical problem," he
characterized polonium halos as "a very tiny mystery" that someday
would be resolved according to conventional science. At one point
he even suggested that Gentry might be mistaken in his identification
of the halos. Since he had done no study on the subject, however,
under recross-examination he was forced to admit that his opinions
were only speculation. Apparently the ACLU calculated that their
witness' ignorance of Gentry's research would be less damaging
than having him study the articles before the trial and still
not be able to refute them.
A greater irony was to come. Gentry was not called to testify
until the end of the trial, after maximum dramatic impact had
already been registered by the plaintiff's star witnesses. Many
of the media, believing the show to be over, had already evaporated
from the scene. Nevertheless in the cross-examination ACLU attorney
Bruce Ennis immediately strove to discredit Gentry's integrity
as a scientist and diminish the importance of his discoveries.
His first questions focused on Gentry's religious beliefs, and
then dredged up an insignificant error from his early research
he had later corrected in print as a matter of routine years
before the trial. Such tactical maneuvers succeeded in keeping
the court preoccupied with irrelevancies and diverting attention
from Gentry's primary testimony on polonium halos.
26 S. Smith, 1982. Testimony of G. Brent Dalrymple, McLean vs. Arkansas State Board of Education. Little Rock: Official Court Reporter, U.S. District Court.
For readers interested in a more comprehensive treatment of this story, Robert Gentry's book, Creation's Tiny Mystery, is available for $18 (U.S.) + S/H.
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