Volume 10, Number 1

Articles, Books, and Reviews

Book Reviews

Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy
David Price, John L. Wiester, Walter R. Hearn
American Scientific Affiliation, 1986, 48pp.

Reviewed by Dennis Wagner

In 1984 the National Academy of Sciences published an attractive four color booklet entitled, Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Sciences. The purpose of the publication was to help stop the rising tide of creationism, and to that end, the booklet was mailed out free of charge to thousands of high school science teachers across the nation. The booklet drew sharp criticism from scientists and theologians alike for three primary reasons.

First the NAS writers overstated the factuality of the theory of evolution. For example the readers were led to believe that the general theory of evolution was a law of science on equal footing with the laws of gravity. (For another example of overstatement see Peter Gordon's review of Christian Schwabe's paper in this issue, in which Peter quotes from a section of the NAS booklet concerning the molecular evidence for evolution).

The second problem with the NAS booklet was its patronizing and suspicious treatment of religion. Charles Darwin was cited as a devout believer who spent his lifetime searching for truth through science. Meanwhile, several pages later, there is a passage on the significant scientific contributions of Sir Isaac Newton with no reference to the importance that his Christian faith played in his scientific inquiries.

Perhaps the most serious error in the NAS booklet was not what it said, but what it didn't say. The booklet failed to address the most critical issues related to origins. For example there was a section titled Origin of the Universe and Earth, which never mentioned any of the unsolved problems concerning the origin of the universe. Instead the NAS writers shifted the focus from the origin of the universe to the evolution of galaxies. Likewise, when it came to the fossil evidence, the NAS authors conveniently avoided discussing the weakest link in the chain, the origin of the first mammals (metazoa).

Integrity in Science Education

Soon after the NAS publication hit the streets, several members of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) began writing a response (the ASA is a fellowship of 2,200 men and women with degrees in science who are interested in exploring the relation of science to the Christian faith). Eventually a group was formed called the Committee for Integrity in Science Education. David Price (a high school biology teacher with a Ph.D. in Science Education) chaired the committee which included John Wiester, (trained in geology at Stanford and author of The Genesis Connection), and Walt Hearn (former biochemistry professor at Iowa St.).

Part way into the project the committee decided to redirect its focus from a reply to the NAS booklet to a more positive publication that would create a bridge between the two polarized positions of the general evolutionists and the young earth creationists. What the committee finished with was Teaching Science in a Climate of Controversy, which is intended as a handbook for high school science teachers, to allow them to teach the science evidence about origins without undue influence from the ideologies of evolutionism and creationism. The handbook also attempts to make science more exciting by including the unknown and unresolved problems regarding origins.

The Science Teacher's Dilemma

The first section of Teaching Science shows the teacher how to proceed confidently even in the midst of intense public controversy. Here the teachers are encouraged to teach with openness and to teach science without omitting important points, overstating its claims, or distorting the truth.

After a brief history of the creation/evolution controversy, seven classroom guidelines are presented: 1) When the controversy arises in the classroom the teacher is encouraged to use it as an opportunity for discussion. Such a discussion can help students ask critical questions, weigh probabilities, and separate facts from opinions; 2) Define the limits of discussion. Try to narrow the focus to a few clearly defined questions; 3) Show respect for opposing views. 4) Consider the whole spectrum of opinion; 5) Seek common ground; 6) Watch your language. Define important terms so that meaningless debate is avoided; and 7) Keep asking questions. Don't allow pat answers to terminate the student's thinking process.

The first section ends with a discussion of correcting mistakes in science. There is a human side to science which occassionally causes proponents of both sides to over promote evidence for their cause before the facts are all in. The Piltdown man and the Paluxy mantracks are two examples that are given.

Four Key Questions

The second edition of Teaching Science focuses on the science evidence by considering four key questions: 1) Did the universe have a beginning? 2) Did life on earth arise by chance? 3) Where did the first animals come from? and 4) Do we share common ancestry with apes?

For such a short publication Teaching Science does an impressive job of covering key issues in each area. No doubt some critics will complain that a key evidence or theory was not covered, but considering the target audience, there is more than enough material on origins presented here than will ever be covered in most high school science course. There are also many photos and diagrams that make the book inviting to browse.

The authors go to great pains to point out which questions go beyond the purview of science into philosophical issues. Unlike the NAS booklet, the Teaching Science authors avoid making dogmatic assertions and encourage teachers to present the known and the unknown, suggesting that this is a stimulating way to teach science.

The booklet ends with a challenge to teachers, a list of additional books and resources, and a score card for a graded response and comments.

In Response

During the past nine months over 60,000 copies of Teaching Science have been distributed to educators across the country. 47,000 of those were distributed to high school biology teachers. 76% of those returning the score card have rated Teaching Science very favorably (A-B). Positive reviews have appeared in the Council of Scientific Society Presidents News (February 1987) and by George Cornell of the Associated Press (mid February).

A barrage of negative reviews have also been published in several science journals. In several cases the ASA has made minor changes to the second edition to appease these critics. However, most of the negative criticism is not aimed at the data presented, but rather is an emotional reaction to the ASA attempt to remove the "ism" from the scientism and evolutionism that was so boldly presented in the 1984 NAS booklet. (see The Science Teacher, Editor's Corner, February 1987; Creation/Evolution Newsletter, November/December 1986; Science, 2 January 1987, News and Comments; and American Biology Teacher, May 1987). As mentioned in my editorial elsewhere in this issue, there appears to be an orchestrated campaign to discredit the ASA publication. To date all but the Creation/Evolution Newsletter have refused to publish replies from the ASA authors. However you may write to the ASA office and request copies of the replies that have been sent to each publication.

In conclusion, I highly recommend the Teaching Science handbook. Proponents of both creationism and evolutionism will find some statements in this publication that will no doubt upset them. But what else would you expect from a book whose purpose is to bridge the gap between these two polarized positions? More importantly we will all have something to learn from this book, and hopefully something we can teach without controversy.

Creation's Tiny Mystery
Robert V. Gentry
Earth Science Associates, 1986, 315 pp.

Reviewed by Gregg Wilkerson

For the past 20 years, Robert V. Gentry has studied pleochroic haloes and radiogenic element behavior in granites, pegmatites and coalified wood. Pleochroic haloes are spherical discolorations in biotite and zircon caused by the decay of radioactive elements. This book summarizes Gentry's scientific research. It also gives a detailed account of the Arkansas "Creation Science" trial (December 1981) and of Gentry's personal sacrifice and persecution of his creationist beliefs. The purpose of this book is to provide a description of the Arkansas trial from Gentry's point of view, to "set the record straight" about events that happened and statements that were made at the trial, and to show how pleochroic haloes indicate that the earth was instantaneously created. The organization of the book is as follows: it begins with a description of Gentry's early research into pleochroic haloes. There is then a chronologic commentary on the trial. The book ends with a description of subsequent efforts on Gentry's part to get his creationist interpretations published.

Gentry's Scientific Autobiography

The impetus for the book, Gentry says, was "born out of the ashes of my apparent defeat at the (Arkansas) trial" (p.4). Gentry went to the trial and testified, feeling certain that his testimony would sway the court and substantiate the teaching of "creation science" in Arkansas. Gentry's testimony was only one part of a large body of testimony made on behalf of the State of Arkansas, but it can be said that he was the State's "star witness." The evidence presented at the trial failed to convince Judge Overton and the A.C.L.U. won the case. The "creation science" law was deemed unconstitutional: it violated the separation of church and state. In addition to this legal defeat, Gentry experienced a second personal loss as a result of his testimony. Prior to the trial, Gentry had a $1.00 per year contract to conduct research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Through the arrangement, Gentry was able to use the expensive equipment necessary for his pleochroic halo research. After the trial, this contract was not renewed. Gentry feels that the termination of his research contract was the direct result of his giving creationist testimony at the trial. The picture emerges of personal tragedy for making creationist interpretations that are unacceptable to the evolutionary scientific "establishment." The book's appendix contains reprints of most of Gentry's papers and correspondence with editors of scientific publications. Gentry shows how on several occasions he was required to re-write his conclusions and omit creationist statements from his manuscripts.

In spite of this, Gentry believes that his research will "...stand as a rock of Gibralter against the tide of evolution" (p.202).

Summary of the Arkansas Trial

A large part of the book is taken up by transcripts of testimony from the trial and Gentry's commentary thereon. Gentry has much to say about testimony from A.C.L.U. witness Dr. G. Brent Dalrymple of the U.S. Geological Survey, Branch of Isotope Geology. Gentry even critiques a letter by Dalrymple sent to Kevin Wirth of SOR. Gentry uses these critiques and commentaries as a forum to show why his creationist interpretations are correct and why "evolutionary" interpretations (as expressed by Dalrymple and others) are wrong. This strikes me as an inappropriate way to discuss science. If published transcripts of the trial indicate anything, it is that the courtroom is not the place to debate scientific issues.

Gentry's Scientific Research: The Data

For those not acquainted with Gentry's research, this book is a good place to start learning about pleochroic haloes and isotope diffusion in granite and coalified wood. Gentry is respected in the scientific community as a careful and thorough researcher. Few serious objections have been raised about his experimental techniques or observational procedures. His data is sound. That is why it has been published in prominent scientific journals. Still, while some researchers, such as Kazmaan (1979) and Feather (1978) say they agree with Gentry's identification of Po haloes, no investigator has come forward with new data confirming Gentry's data independently. What Gentry calls "deafening silence" about his work may simply be that nobody outside creationist circles is really interested in pleochroic haloes. One criticism I have about Gentry's reports and book is that it is not possible to determine exactly where his samples were obtained. Any scientific report should enable another scientist to go out and duplicate the research. The important scientific contribution of Gentry's book is his "Radiohalo Catalogue", which includes 60 color photographs. This catalogue will be invaluable to future radiohalo researchers. Few scientists question Gentry's data. I doubt, however, that anyone in the evolutionary "establishment" will take Gentry's interpretations seriously until an "unbiased" researcher can duplicate his findings.

Gentry's Scientific Research: The Interpretation

The main purpose of this book is to show how pleochroic haloes should be used as the basis for creation science instruction in the public schools. Gentry wants his interpretations, as well as his data accepted by the scientific community. In his book, Gentry clarifies his interpretation of Precambrian granites. He does not think that all Precambrian rocks are created rocks, only those in which he has found Po-214 and Po-218 radiohaloes. Several questions need to be answered before I can agree with Gentry's flat interpretation:

1) Is the lead that Gentry has found at the center of Po haloes through electron microprobe analysis really from Po-214 and Po-218? The electron microprobe only indicates the mass of the material at the center of the haloes, not its chemistry. Could other elements be present to cause interference effects that result in a wrong interpretation of the variety of lead present in the halo? Such uncertainties must be removed through independent confirmation on higher-energy electron microprobes than were available to Gentry at ORNL.

2) Are the theoretical Po-214 and Po-218 halo radii accurate? Gentry's identification of Po haloes is based, in part, on individual halo radii measurements. Theoretical alpha decay energies are related to halo radii for elemental radiohalocenter identification. Independent verification of the halo radii for these elements is needed.

3) What is the geologic setting of the pleochroic haloes? Some of Gentry's samples are from pegmatites, others from massive granite. A pegmatite, in and of itself, is evidence for a sequence of events. It is a cross-cutting relationship: the pegmatite is younger than the rocks that host it. Pegmatites are often found in fracture zones. This relationship suggests that the generalized sequence of events for the origin of pegmatite is as follows: 1) formation of the host rock, 2) fracturing the host rock, 3) paegmatite intrusion of formation within the fracture zone. This is a logical deduction based on field relationships. To date, the pleochroic haloes have not been interpreted in light of their tectonic or stratigraphic setting. Such data is needed before a final interpretation of the haloes can be made.

4) Do Po haloes exist in Phanerozic rocks? Granites and pegmatites of each geologic period should be analyzed for Po haloes. Gentry states that Po-214 and Po-218 haloes exist only in the "Genesis rocks." Such a statement requires more data than is presently available. After all, the only rocks Gentry has examined are Precambrian. If Po haloes were found in the Boulder or Sierra Nevada batholiths, for example, the hypothesis of fiat creation of Po would be negated, since these intrusives are clearly not "Genesis rocks"--they intrude pre-existing Triassic strata.

5) Are there any nuclear reactions that can produce Po-214 and Po-218 from more ordinary isotopes? Perhaps the interaction of neutrinos or other sub-atomic particle with uranium, thorium, or a normally non-radioactive isotope can lead to the creation of Po isotopes and haloes. Perhaps Po haloes can be formed in the laboratory by exposure of biotite to sub-atomic particles, x-ray or gamma rays. Such studies need to be made before the claim that certain Po haloes represent extinct radioactivity can be sustained.

6) What was the sequence of geologic events in earth history and how are these related to pleochroic haloes? In his book, Gentry brushes off much criticism of his work by stating that this criticism is rooted in uniformitarianism, a philosophy which he believes his research shows is in error. Gentry has a different understanding of contemporary uniformitarianism than most geologists have. We do not hold that the rates of natural processes have been invariant in the past, we only assume that these processes conformed to natural law. The disciplines of stratigraphy and structural geology have deduced a sequence of geologic events for earth history. These deductions are based on fundamental assumptions that are based on logic, not on uniformitarianism. In fact, these logical rules were originally formulated by catastrophists: I refer to the"laws" of superposition and original horizontality (although the latter is demonstrably incorrect in some respects) and to the "laws" of cross-cutting relationships: a fold is older than a dike that cuts across it, a fault is younger than the rocks it displaces, etc.. Using these basic logical rules, geologists constructed the geologic column and found it could be applied universally. Gentry states that his studies indicate that uniformitarianism is an invalid assumption. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, that uniformitarianism cannot be used to deduce past events. What about the sequence of events worked out independent of uniformitarianism? The geologic column is an inference based on the application of logical rules, and must be considered in the interpretation of radiohaloes. The sequence of events in earth history as deduced from superposition and cross-cutting relationships stands apart from evolutionary theory or radiometric dating.

What, then, about Precambrian tectonic and depositional events? Many Precambrian granites show evidence of intrusion into pre-existing Precambrian rocks; these Precambrian granites cut across folded Precambrian metasediments. Gentry holds that some of the Precambrian granites were instantaneously created. However, available evidence about the geologic setting of short half-life Po radiohaloes in coarse-grained igneous rocks suggests that they were not instantaneously created, but are the result of a sequence of geologic events. They cannot have been created unless it is postulated that the creator made the "Genesis Rocks" with an apparent geologic history. Such an ad-hoc hypothesis is not at all satisfying. Furthermore, even if some "Genesis Rocks" do exist, the Po isotope data do not indicate when they were created. Gentry apparently believes that Po radiohaloes are evidence for a young earth (although he does not specify any age). However, it is never made clear how Po radiohaloes can possibly support such an inference. Instantaneous formation does not necessarily indicate young age.


In summary, Creation's Tiny Mystery is a book which everyone interested in the Creation-Evolution debate will want to have. It will be quoted for many years to come by creationists and anti-creationists alike. The book raises several questions about the ethics of the evolutionary scientific "establishment", and its treatment of Gentry. These questions are, of course, colored by Gentry's frustration at not having his creationist interpretations published along with his data. One wonders what harm it would do to publish Gentry's ideas: it might cause another scientist to conduct studies that would support a more traditional interpretation. Then again, Gentry might be right. Why not encourage further investigations?

This book fulfills its purpose of giving an account of the Arkansas "Creation Science" trial. It does not fulfill its purpose of convincing me that pleochroic haloes prove fiat creation. Several important scientific questions must be answered before such an interpretation can be accepted. The book does make a significant contribution to the scientific literature (The Radiohalo Catalogue). Unfortunately, this contribution is lost in the religious-political motivations of the book. Had the book been written as a scientific treatise about pleochroic haloes and diffusive isotope geochemistry and less as an autobiography and editorial about the Arkansas trial, I think it would have greater impact in the non-creationsit community.


Dott, R.H., and Batten, R.L., 1971, Evolution of the Earth, McGraw-Hill, New York, 649 p.

Fether, N., 1978, "The Unsolved Problem of Po-haloes in Precambrian Biotite and Other Old Minerals", Communications to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, No. 11, p.147.

Kazmann, R.G., 1979, "Time: In Full Measure", EOS Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, v.60, p.20.

Copyright © 1997 Dennis Wagner, Gregg Wilkerson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 6.6.97