By Karl Giberson, Ph.D

Physicist Eric Hedin is headlining the Culture Wars right now because of his class at Ball State University on the "Boundaries of Science." Critics and supporters are deeply polarized about the propriety of this class, which the syllabus says "will examine the nature of the physical and the living world with the goal of increasing our appreciation of the scope, wonder, and complexity of physical reality."

Critics charge Hedin with promoting religion, noting that his syllabus is clear that he believes science provides pointers to God and that biological evolution is inadequate. His most strident critic, University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, hyperbolically describes Hedin as the "the Ball State University professor who proselytizes about Jesus in his science class."

Hedin's most enthusiastic supporters are the Intelligent Design proponents at the Discovery Institute. Lawyer Casey Luskin, who debated the case with an atheist on Michael Medved's radio show, considers Hedin a heroic champion of academic freedom. Luskin is promoting a petition in support of Hedin, asking people to sign onto the following declaration:

We, the undersigned, urge the administration of Ball State University to support Prof. Eric Hedin's academic freedom to discuss intelligent design and related issues in the classroom. We call on you to reject demands by the Freedom from Religion Foundation to censor or punish Dr. Hedin for exercising his right to free speech.

(Note that the petition is for Hedin to "discuss," rather than "promote" intelligent design.)

David Klinghoffer, another intelligent design enthusiast, describes the complaints about Hedin's course as deriving from "scientific materialism and rigid, intolerant, prosecutorial Darwinism."

The Hedin uproar interests me because I teach similar courses -- at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. -- that explore the boundaries of science, the nature of scientific truth and the religious implications of science. I just turned in final grades for two of them that were well-received by my largely Catholic students: Science & Belief and Does Science Disprove God? Most of the topics in Hedin's course are also in mine, and he even lists one of my books in his course bibliography. My classes, like Hedin's, are general education science electives and most of my students come from outside the natural sciences.

Teaching courses on controversial subjects when you have a public -- or even private -- position on the controversy is a balancing act. Teachers, especially professors, are authority figures with powers of persuasion that should not be used to move students to positions that do not represent the mainstream thinking on the topic. Students should not leave a class -- science or otherwise -- with the idea, for example, that there are serious questions in the scientific community about the validity of evolution. But there is nothing wrong with exploring minority, outsider and even eccentric ideas of thoughtful scholars, especially when those scholars wield considerable cultural influence, or are tackling big mysteries, like free will, consciousness or the existence of God.

I once taught an honors seminar on the work of Phillip Johnson, by far the most important figure in the Intelligent Design movement. I even hosted Johnson on campus so the students could hear his arguments untainted by my low opinion of them. In my science-and-religion classes at Stonehill, I assign equal reading from theists and atheists and spend roughly half the time discussing the ideas of the atheists. My goal -- and I think I succeed -- is to help students think through important issues that may inform their own spiritual journeys, regardless of the direction they are traveling. And as we know, college students do a lot of traveling.

How a class accomplishes the goals of the syllabus depends on how classroom discussions are handled. For Hedin's overall classes at Ball State, which are mostly traditional astronomy and physics classes, we know that the students rank him very high on "rate my professor," although one -- just one -- widely quoted student did complain that "the class had an extremely Christian bias and (Hedin) does not believe in evolution."

No evidence whatsoever supports Jerry Coyne's claim that Hedin is "proseletyzing for Jesus" in his Boundaries of Science class. Coyne is notorious for pretending not to understand the difference between a philosophically motivated theism and Christian fundamentalism and has waded into this controversy with his usual blinkered culture war mentality.

On the other hand, I can hardly agree with the intelligent design folk at the Discovery Institute that this is an academic freedom case. Academic freedom is a noble, if ambiguous, concept that can be invoked in support of many things but one of those is not the freedom to tell students things that are not true. If, as the syllabus suggests, Hedin's students are learning that the ideas of the intelligent design movement are the cutting edge of science and heralding a major revolution, there are grounds for concern. If the students leave Hedin's class believing that the scientific community is wrestling with the proposals that have come out of the intelligent design movement, then they have been misled and poorly served. Most practicing scientists understand that their disciplines have unanswered questions and "boundaries" of some sort. But virtually none of them are looking to an external "designer" to answer these questions.

Hedin's assigned readings and bibliography are somewhat unbalanced, although one of the two required texts is a solid popularization of conventional big bang cosmology, unadorned by theological speculation. However, were students to infer that the extensive bibliography list covers the bases for the discussion of the "Boundaries of Science" they would be mistaken. Of the roughly 20 books listed, half advocate basic intelligent design with the remainder divided evenly between books by Christians sympathetic to raising constructive questions about God in the context of science -- like Keith Ward and myself -- or non-theists with minority viewpoints that resonate in some way with traditional theism -- like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies. Noticeably absent are genuinely critical books of the sort written by Vic Stenger, Steven Weinberg and even Jerry Coyne that address the same issues but offer informed atheistic responses.

But is any of this a big deal? Should Ball State University terminate a young assistant professor teaching a general education course, which most faculty avoid like the plague, outside his field because, on first offering, it was ideologically slanted? I wonder how those us living in the ivory towers of academia would fare if our most challenging interdisciplinary syllabi constructed early in our careers became topics of national conversation?

Eric Hedin is an assistant science professor, popular with most of his students. He needs to get promoted to associate and then full professor. If he works hard, he will get tenured along the way. And my guess is that his interdisciplinary explorations, like those of many thinkers inclined to consider the larger context of their fields, will become more sophisticated as time passes. If not, his colleagues won't vote him tenure. In the meantime, Ball State doesn't need external culture warriors telling them how to run their university.

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AuthorKarl Giberson

By Karl Giberson, PhD

The most interesting strategy employed by anti-evolutionists over the last century and a half has been to report that "Darwinism is Dead" or "Evolution has Collapsed." The exercise is all but meaningless in terms of scientific discussion but it's a marvelous culture war strategy, requiring almost no effort to get a few people claiming, in all seriousness, "They say evolution is dying. Most scientists don't believe it any more." And as long as the claim is made to laypeople who have no idea what the actual scientific community thinks, the strategy is sure to have some influence.

The anti-evolutionary Discovery Institute has just published a report titled "How a Scientific Field Can Collapse: The Case of Psychiatry." Taking aim at everything from its "eccentric pioneers" (Freud and Jung) to its "peer reviewed" -- but often changing -- guidebook, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," the article reports on recent and credible concerns about psychiatry published by scientists in respectable publications likeNew Scientist.

The real quarry of the article, however, is not psychiatry, but evolution. The article lists many of the problems of psychiatry -- long history of failure, ignoring critics, reliance on a book, etc., etc. -- and then claims that similar maladies afflict evolution -- failing to explain the Cambrian Explosion, exalting Darwin and the Origin of Species, refusing to hear or publish scientific critiques of Darwinism, etc., etc. Psychiatry is collapsing, and evolution is just like psychiatry, so it should be collapsing also.

But we have heard all of this before. In 1968 Henry Morris, who did more to galvanize anti-evolution than anyone, published "The Twilight of Evolution," inaugurating a non-stop chorus of claims that Darwin's theory was all but dead. At around the same time the Harvard educated lawyer Norman Macbeth published "Darwin Retried," claiming evolution had collapsed. Writing in the American Biology Teacher in 1976, Macbeth announced that evolution had "utterly failed." Another lawyer, Philip Johnson, made identical claims in "Darwin on Trial," published in 1991, described on its website as a "standard in American protest literature." "Darwin on Trial" launched the Intelligent Design movement.

The list of books claiming that evolution has come down with a serious illness is long. On my bookcase alone, we have "Evolution: A Theory in Crisis," "The Collapse of Evolution," and my favorite, "Evolution Shot Full of Holes."

Immediately after the Origin of Species was published in 1859, Darwin's rival Richard Owen said the book and its speculative theory would be forgotten in 10 years. Eberhard Dennet published "At the Deathbed of Darwinism" in 1904. George MacCready Price, who influenced William Jennings Bryan, claimed in 1924 that Darwinism was now a "doctrine ... merely of historical interest." And then, of course, we have the "Lady Hope" myth that Darwin himself announced his theory to be dead, as he lay on his own deathbed.

In the century and a half since Darwin's theory of evolution was first pronounced dead, it has grown steadily stronger. It is not in "crisis." It is not "collapsing." It is not "shot full of holes." Darwin's theory has grown steadily stronger to the point where virtually all evolutionary biologists -- not a one of whom wrote any of the books listed above -- would be mystified by the claim that evolution was dying, or even feeling poorly. Evolution is no more ill than heliocentricity, atomic theory or quantum mechanics is ill.

Ironically, the reason for the robust health of evolution can be found in the very article attacking evolution I quoted above from the Discovery Institute: Science -- and this includes evolution -- is a self-correcting enterprise. I know little of psychiatry, but I am not shocked to discover that critical voices have emerged and are being heard. This is the norm for science. Seemingly secure science is often modified -- think Newtonian physics -- and entire fields even disappear, like phrenology (studying personality via bumps on the skull). Anyone who understands the scientific community knows it to be full of renegade individualists only too eager to overturn the status quo. This aggressive self-examination is the reason why we now understand the world so well -- why we know the behavior of nature in such excruciating detail that we can build a phone capable of extracting a tiny bit of information from a database on the other side of the planet.

The historical lesson is clear, even if the anti-evolutionists can't see it: Science is open to correction. In the event that evolution does become a "theory in crisis," we will read about that in Scientific AmericanNature and Science, not the blogs of the anti-Darwinian culture warriors.

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AuthorKarl Giberson

By Karl Giberson, PhD

I was sobered while watching a recent conversation on HuffPost Live about America's troubled conversation over origins. Nominally about recent attempts in Louisiana to get creationism into the public schools, the wide-ranging conversation shines a remarkable light on the country's century-long battle over creation vs. evolution.

All of the strategies developed by the anti-evolutionary leadership to rally support for their cause are on display. Significantly, however, the individuals in the conversation are not the leaders of the movement promoting their standard arguments, but ordinary conservative Christian leaders who have absorbed the anti-evolutionary message. Their confident claims and responses to challenges testify to the rhetorical power of this message. They are true believers.

The great power of the anti-evolutionary message embraced by so many Americans comes from the following, all of which are on display in the conversation:

  1. Appealing to America's democratic impulse: At a time when we constantly hear that lawmakers should heed the voice of the "90 percent of Americans who want more gun control," on what basis do lawmakers ignore the "vast majority of Americans who reject evolution?" Does this constituency have no right to be heard? Must their children be forced to learn ideas in the public schools at odds with their family's values and rejected by most of the voters?
  2. Demanding fairness and tolerance: Isn't America all about being fair? And what could be fairer than giving voice to other viewpoints with widespread support? At a time when most Americans are demanding gay marriage in the name of fairness, why are we being so unfair to the creationists, excluding their ideas about origins?
  3. Promoting freedom for our students: Must education be coercive on the topic of origins? Why can't teachers present "both sides" and let our "bright high school students" make up their own minds? Will this not encourage critical thinking in our science classes? What is this need to restrict science teaching to just one viewpoint when there are others in play?
  4. Appealing to authority: A popular anti-evolutionary website contains the signatures of hundreds of credentialed academics who "Dissent from Darwin." This is a lot of intellectual firepower. Surely such a large crowd of anti-evolutionary scholars can't all be wrong.
  5. Deflecting criticism: Much has been made of the failure of the creationists to publish in scientific journals. But their ideas are blocked from those journals by editorial and peer referees whose allegiance is to the scientific status quo. New paradigms, like Intelligent Design, are rejected out of hand.
  6. Currying sympathy: Anti-evolutionists in secular universities or other scientific institutions are forced to hide their views from their colleagues. I was once in a gathering that including several such individuals and they insisted that nobody take any pictures, lest they be identified. If they "come out" they run the risk of losing their jobs, run off by intolerant peers who object to their ideas without considering them. Ben Stein exposed this abuse of Intelligent Design scholars in the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed.


This rhetorical strategy contains great synergistic power; polls show that Americans are not coming around to accept evolution, even as its scientific credibility has grown to point of certainty. The conservative Christians in the video above have heard and embraced all of these arguments. In their view, they have a strong case and every right to press it.

 

Dismantling these arguments takes more time than assembling them. And the process often sounds like little more than special pleading and self-serving prejudice. Science, of course, is not a democratic process -- and it shouldn't be -- but explaining why is a bit tricky to an audience that values democracy so highly. High school students are not capable of adjudicating the validity of anti-evolutionary arguments -- they have enough challenges simply learning the material and taking time to put fringe ideas in their heads is not reasonable. Restricting education to well-established knowledge is certainly not intolerance, but you can't tell that to someone who rejects well-established knowledge.

The "Dissent from Darwin" list disintegrates when you look at it closely: The signers are largely non-biologists or even non-scientists. Many are retired academics, trained long ago before evolution became so established. Virtually none are experts in the sense of being evolutionary biologists active in the field. Ben Stein's movie is riddled with falsehoods that have been exposed. (No creationists have even submitted papers to scientific journals, much less had them rejected. The few cases of people losing their jobs turn out to far more complicated than simply anti-creationist prejudice.) And on it goes.

Science education in America is in trouble.

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AuthorKarl Giberson

By Karl Giberson, Ph.D

Anti-evolution bills continue to circulate in school districts across the country. The concerns that motivate the bills are now about a century old, first making headlines in the famous trial of John Scopes, on trial for disobeying a Tennessee law known as the Butler Act passed in 1925. The law read:

That it shall be unlawful for any teacher in any of the Universities, Normals, and all other public schools the State which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Scopes was declared guilty in this celebrated trial but anti-evolution lost in the court of public opinion. Laws similar to the Butler Act were quietly ignored in other states. In 1968 the Supreme Court struck down a similar law, still on the books in Arkansas. Mississippi's supreme court struck down their version of the law two years later.

Anti-evolution reappeared in a new form in a 1982 trial in Arkansas with a more modest demand for a "balanced treatment of creation science and evolution science." If creationism could not be legally mandated as the only thing taught about origins, surely it was reasonable to demand that it have a place alongside evolution. In a much examined decision, Judge Overton declared that creationism was religion and had no place in America's science classrooms.

Overton's decision effectively guaranteed that creationism -- at least any version resembling the biblical story, which the Arkansas version did -- would never have a place in science classrooms funded by American taxpayers. The decision forced the anti-evolution movement to adopt a new strategy, known as Intelligent Design or ID.

The supporters of ID, who are strongly anti-evolution and overwhelmingly Christian, promote the idea that a creative "intelligence" is responsible for the appearance and development of life on earth. Because they don't identify this intelligence as God -- the only actual alternative they have ever offered is that it could be "space aliens" -- ID must be regarded as non-religious.

ID went on trial in Dover, PA in 2005 after a local school board mandated a curriculum requiring the teaching of ID, and promoting an ID textbook Of Pandas and People as the appropriate anti-evolutionary resource. The trial was a disaster for ID. The textbook was shown to have been a creationist text that had replaced "creationism" with "intelligent design." The judge handed down an aggressive ruling that ID was really creationism, and thus religious.

Anti-evolution was defeated in Dover, just as it had been in Arkansas, Mississippi and, for practical purposes, in Dayton, Tenn. But it was not killed and, as the saying goes, "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." And sure enough, a Gallup poll taken last year showed a significant increase -- from 40 percent to 46 percent -- in the popularity of creationism (46 percent endorsed the choice "God created humans in present form").

Anti-evolution bills continue to circulate with no sign of diminishing. Each time they reappear, their demands are more modest, evolving in response to their last failure. From outlawing evolution in Tennessee, to "equal time" for creationism in Arkansas, to "ID" in Pennsylvania, the argument has now become "teach the controversy." The same people, using the same strategies, spurred on by the same motivations, now call for America's public schools to present the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution, often described as "teaching the controversy." Anti-evolutionists charge that academic freedom demands they be heard. After all, should not teachers be permitted, encouraged or perhaps even required to present both sides of any scientific controversy?

Anti-evolutionary leadership comes from the well-funded and sophisticated Discovery Institute in Seattle, Wash., which enthusiastically reported that "eleven bills addressing academic freedom in science education" were soon to be voted on to possibly become law. (Some failed recently.) In particular, Montana's HB 183 was applauded because it would "free K-12 public school science teachers from fear of administrative reprisal to teach objectively both sides of scientific controversies..."

This new strategy is compelling and one can hear the rhetorical packaging: "All those who oppose academic freedom for America's public schools raise their hand." No hands? I thought so. One right-wing ID pundit is arguing that "Teaching the controversy is a good liberal cause."

The call to "teach the controversy," despite its noble sound and appeal to American intuitions about fairness, is built on a lie and an abysmal confusion about science pedagogy.

The "controversies" don't exist and, if they did, they would be poor choices to hand over to high school students to adjudicate. Imagine, for example, asking high school students to decide whether the laws relevant to radioactive decay have been constant since the earth first appeared. How would they even think about this? Take the age of the earth as an example of one such "controversy" on which the Discovery Institute has been careful not to take sides. The age of the earth was a matter of some controversy for well over a century -- but that century ended a hundred years ago! Used to dating the earth at about 10,000 years using the Bible, geologists determined that it was much older more than two centuries ago. At first the numbers were varied and uncertain; different dating methods yielded different results. There was no consensus in 1850 -- a real controversy existed.

But when scientists don't agree, they work energetically to find out what is wrong. Research is done to gather more data; papers are published highlighting the disagreements and asking tough questions. More data is gathered. Conferences are held to address the problem. Very bright young people eagerly go into this field because it is obviously in need of fresh thinking. More data is gathered. Young whippersnappers brashly challenge their elders. Fogeys with their heels dug in gradually become marginalized. More data is gathered. Slowly the discrepancies begin to disappear under a mountain of fresh data until the reasons for the differences vanish and a consensus emerges.

Students who go on to study science and join the scientific community will one day work on actual scientific controversies -- and there are many. But they are not the ones that the anti-evolutionists want to see in America's public schools. We do our students no favor by pretending that religiously motivated objections to well-established ideas constitute genuine scientific controversies.

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AuthorKarl Giberson

By Karl Giberson, Ph.D

The complicated and ancient drama of selecting a new pope will soon begin with the departure of Pope Benedict, our planet's most important spiritual leader. His successor will embrace a tumultuous set of challenges at a critical time in the history of Christianity.

An underappreciated achievement of Pope Benedict has been his consistent support for science. At time when the gulf between science and Christianity is widening in the United States -- polls show support for young earth creationism is on the rise -- Benedict was a quiet and powerful voice calling for Christians to embrace science.

Just over a year ago Benedict even founded a new organization -- The Science and Faith Foundation -- at the Vatican to continue and enlarge the task of building bridges between science and theology, and to ease concerns of Christians that their faith demands the rejection of science. The executive director Father Tomasz Trafny describes the mission as the search for a "coherent vision of society, culture and the human being," arguably the most important quest we confront today.

The new Foundation launched by Benedict continues the work of the Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest project (STOQ), created by Pope John Paul II. The STOQ project promoted high-level dialog between leading scientists -- without regard to their faith commitments -- and Catholic leaders. The project informed Catholic leadership on everything from stem cells to the Big Bang to anti-evolutionism in the United States. The organization played a lead role in the Vatican's decision to form a commercial partnership to explore ethical stem cell research with Neostem, an American pharmaceutical company.

The Foundation represents an expansion and consolidation of more diffuse explorations of science and religion, but is best understood as part of the ongoing commitment of the Church to engage with science on its own terms. In dramatic contrast to much of conservative Protestantism in the United States, the Catholic church has a long history of meaningful interaction with science on many levels. Many of the first serious efforts to integrate evolution into the Christian doctrine of Creation were Catholic efforts, with Teilhard des Chardin being the most significant. The Big Bang Theory was first proposed by a physicist named Georges LeMaitre, who was also a Catholic priest. And Benedict, like his predecessors, consistently endorsed the Big Bang Theory and never called on Christians to reject it or the 14 billion year old universe that comes with it.

The Vatican also houses the The Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the world's first exclusively scientific academy. A forerunner to the academy appeared in 1603, a few years before Galileo, the most famous Catholic scientist, pointed his telescope at the heavens. Galileo, a loyal Catholic until his death in 1642, was also one of its first presidents. Today the organization consists of some 80 members, all leading scientists from every race and religion, including the agnostic Stephen Hawking.

Addressing the Pontifical Academy last year Benedict spoke of the "greatness of contemporary science" and its "repercussions for human beings." He called for man to "constantly expand his knowledge of truth and order it wisely for his good and that of his environment." The Academy will explore evolution later this year. And far from insisting that Christians reject it, it will ask the tough questions and wrestle with the implications for Christian faith.

In April 2006 I was privileged to be invited to the Vatican to participate in one its many conversations on science and religion. One of the few Americans on the program, my task was to explain "American hostility to evolution." I was humbled to realize I was a part of a long conversation that had once included the controversial idea that the earth moved about the sun -- a conversation the Church would like to forget. I was also dismayed to realize just how many evangelicals, America's largest religious group, had simply abandoned this conversation, diverting their energies to opposing science and convincing Christians to reject it, with projects like Ken Ham's Creation Museum.

The Vatican conference was in April and most of us attended Easter Mass at St. Peter's where Benedict spoke to thousands of faithful Christians. As special guests we sat on the platform from where we could observe an ocean of worshipers in the world's most famous square. Benedict read from the book of Mark, switching smoothly from one language to the next as he spoke directly to the many tribes gathered in Rome to worship on Christianity's most important day. Each responded with a cheer, as they heard their leader speak to them in their language.

Benedict's message is much broader than science, of course. But it is encouraging to realize that the man who would learn to read the Bible in the many languages of his fellow Catholics, would also make the effort to speak the language of science with its many dialects.

In addressing the Pontifical Academy Benedict offered the following vision for the important conversation between science and religion. It's a vision we must hope and anticipate his successor will share, and one that must become much larger within Christianity.

"In the great human enterprise of striving to unlock the mysteries of man and the universe, I am convinced of the urgent need for continued dialogue and cooperation between the worlds of science and of faith in the building of a culture of respect for man, for human dignity and freedom, for the future of our human family and for the long-term sustainable development of our planet. Without this necessary interplay, the great questions of humanity leave the domain of reason and truth, and are abandoned to the irrational, to myth, or to indifference, with great damage to humanity itself, to world peace and to our ultimate destiny."

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AuthorKarl Giberson

By Dr. Karl Giberson

A friend of mine is in the late stages of a tragic pregnancy that will lead either to a stillborn baby or, at best, to a baby that will struggle for a few hours and die. The prognosis was made early on and the decision to take the baby to term was made. The story is heartbreaking but reveals something powerful about our species and how we think about new life.

We know a lot about how babies develop and what can go wrong in a process that is unimaginably complex. Fortunately the process works perfectly most of the time, which is why news of a pregnancy is most often greeted with a chorus of congratulations -- and problems are viewed with such concern.

One of the most extraordinary insights we have into the development of new members of our species is the actual visualization of the physical process. We have had these for quite some time, but I was reminded of just how powerful they are when I -- along with millions of others -- watched Alexander Tsiaras' talk on "Conception to Birth -- Visualized."

As the title suggests, the talk lets the viewer watch a fast forward "short film" in which a glob that we are told consists of human cells morphs smoothly into a embryo we can tell is at least a primate, and then into a recognizable human baby.

Much of the science of the last half-century has focused on illuminating this process -- how eggs get fertilized and implanted, how DNA codes work, how cells copy and differentiate, how symmetry and asymmetry are initiated and maintained, how the signal to start the birth process is launched. The transformations visible in "Conception to Birth" are at least partially understood, and nothing looks inexplicably mysterious from a purely scientific perspective.

What is deeply mysterious, however -- and I was struck by this as I watched the video -- is the emergence of an overwhelming sense of intangible value in the developing embryo. The glob of cells became a person and in doing so acquired astonishing value -- a value that some say is actually infinite. Some social theorists even argue that ascribing an infinite value to human life is the "central moral intuition" of Western civilization -- albeit one handled quite clumsily much of the time.

The emergence of this value -- however we measure it -- reveals the vast chasm between science and religion. Science provides so much insight into the material dimension of what is going on in a mother's womb, and so little -- perhaps none -- into the significance of that process. Watch the "Conception to Birth" video while taking your emotional pulse. Notice how hard it is not to start smiling as the human form of the baby matures. Notice an emerging hope that everything is OK; watch for an intuition that something grand is happening. Notice how hard it is not to view the developing embryo as having rights. And, in the context of our difficult conversation about abortion, notice how much harder it is to keep viewing the circumstances of the embryo as simply an issue of the mother's health.

I don't think for one minute, of course, that these transcendent mysteries are dispelled by religion. No simple religious commitments make complete sense of what is going on. But at least the mysteries are acknowledged and embraced and not "explained away" as nothing more than incidental artifacts of a natural selection that rewarded tribes that valued their young. The traditional Christian claim that humans are created in God's image and loved by their creator at least opens the possibility that the values we intuit are indeed real.

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AuthorKarl Giberson

By Dr. Karl Giberson

The ruckus about Rubio's relationship to geology continues unabated. And my attempt last week to deflect attention from him to the larger problem of science literacy in the United States has been misinterpreted as a defense of Rubio's position and a lack of appreciation for the relevance.

Let me be clear (as I may not have been in my first post): I think the age of the earth matters and that our leaders need to be either scientifically informed or skilled at finding authoritative voices to consult on the many scientific issues relevant to the future of the country and the planet.

I worry a lot about people who believe the earth is a few thousand years old, for example. I don't see how they can possibly think clearly about the issue of energy. If the earth is 10,000 years old, then there is no such thing as fossil fuels. The oil in the ground could not have originated from fossils laid down 4,000 years ago in Noah's great flood, which is what young earth creationists believe. Fossil fuels, in this view, are not the result of hundreds of millions of years of organic change. Their origin is a mystery.

Knowing how our planetary fuels originated should inform deliberations about the best price for gas, the optimal EPA targets for fuel economy, and the level of subsidy for alternative fuels. And geologists are a critically important part of this conversation. I have so often heard people like CNBC's "drill-drill-drill" Larry Kudlow exclaim about how wonderful it is that the United States has enough oil and gas to last for a couple of centuries. That statistic does not encourage me in any way. We need to be thinking about our energy needs on a time scale of millennia and longer and geologists can help us with that.

I think all my critics agree with me on this point. But this was not the point I was trying to make.

I have spent decades deep inside American evangelicalism. When I first engaged the origins controversy I thought the solution to the problem of anti-evolution was simple: provide evidence and people will change their minds. False things should be easily trumped by true things. And today I find many of my younger colleagues wading into this controversy with the same naïve optimism.

But after decades of huffing and puffing and blowing on the straw house of creationism, it still stands. If anything, creationism has only become more popular, even while the evidence refuting it has grown steadily stronger.

We will never resolve the issue of widespread scientific illiteracy if we simply attack public figures that reject evolution or an ancient earth. That does nothing but steel the reserve of those propagandists who make their living undermining science. The young earth creationist worldview is couched in a larger theological framework that takes "spiritual warfare" seriously. There are forces for good in the world and there are forces of evil. One strategy that creationists have employed successfully is to argue that they are on the "good" side, from which it follows that those who oppose them are on the side of "evil." So-called "secular" scientists are thus so tainted that they are readily dismissed.

Much work needs to be done here to both understand this cultural phenomena and then to address it. I have been wrestling with it for a quarter century and am just beginning to understand why it is not going away. Ten years ago I published "Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story," arguing that the origins controversy is a culture war, not a scientific controversy. Six years ago I published "Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion" (with Oxford University Press, not a partisan religious press) raising alarms about how the public face of science was far more hostile to religion than the scientific community as a whole. Last year I published "The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age" (with Harvard University Press) examining the structures of authority within evangelicalism and how they empower what looks like a confident rejection of mainstream science. These and other books from people like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse (both atheists) are our attempts to raise the right sort of alarm about broad cultural currents in American society. Assaulting public figures who express these cultural currents turns them into heroes.

Writing in the New York Times on Thanksgiving, Paul Krugman again weighed in on Rubio's geological cliff: "Don't shrug off Mr. Rubio's awkward moment," he said. "His inability to deal with geological evidence was symptomatic of a much broader problem -- one that may, in the end, set America on a path of inexorable decline."

We should be worrying about the more than 100 million Americans who think the earth is 10,000 years old and trying to figure out how that happened. Rubio is simply an expression of that large problem and attacking him is nothing more than the proverbial assault on the messenger.

Addendum: 'Species of Origins' was co-authored with Donald Yerxa; 'Oracles of Science' was co-authored with Mariano Artigas; 'The Anointed' was co-authored with Randall Stephens. I also note, as a clarification of my previous piece, 'Marco Rubio's Fiscal Cliff,' that I did not intend to imply that Jerry Coyne's excellent book, 'Why Evolution is True,' is itself hostile to general belief in God. My point was that Coyne is a highly visible crusader for atheism.

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AuthorKarl Giberson

By Dr. Karl Giberson

The science blogosphere is alive with condemnations of Marco Rubio for being vague on the age of the earth. In a much-discussed interview with GQ, the Tea Party favorite said he thinks there are "multiple theories out there on how the universe was created." The earth, says Rubio, may have been created in "seven days" or "seven actual eras." The ultimate answer to the question GQ posed -- How old do you think the earth is?" -- is that "It's one of the great mysteries."

Writing in the New York Times, Juliet Lapidos accused Rubio of intentionally waffling and pandering to a scientifically illiterate base that has "no truck with geologists." This is her charitable response, which she describes as "cunning." The alternative, she says, is "idiocy." Andrew Sullivan, writing in The Daily Beast, called Rubio "nuts." The more restrained Paul Krugman got into the ring, asking the provocative -- and relevant -- rhetorical question: "If you're going to ignore what geologists say if you don't like its implications, what are the chances that you'll take sensible advice on monetary and fiscal policy?" Even Rubio's fellow conservative Ross Douthat was critical, asking, "How are you going to have effective science education if schools have to give equal time to the views of fundamentalist Christians?"

GQ's question to Rubio was one of those "gotchas," dropped into the middle of an interview, like Katie Couric asking Sarah Palin what news sources she read. In his meandering response Rubio even tried to undermine the question itself as having "zero to do with how our economy is going to grow."

Rubio's critics are alarmed that an up-and-coming Republican leader is, once again, floating in a fact-free zone. It's Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock and Paul Broun all over again. It's the Republican primary when all the candidates -- save poor, fading Jon Huntsman -- publicly rejected evolution. It's climate change denial. It's leaders lying and pretending to be as stupid as the voters they are cultivating, as Ron Reagen said to Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball on Nov. 20.

While we should certainly be concerned, and heed the blogosphere's wail about the dangers of scientific illiteracy, I don't think we should be so quick to attack Rubio as if he embodies the problem. Krugman is, of course, absolutely correct about the dangers of ignoring "what geologists say" but (and here is where the rubber meets the road) who gets their ideas about the age of the earth from geologists? How many people even know a geologist?

We need to step back and ask how these "controversies" might be adjudicated by conservative religious people who are not members of the scientific community -- people like Rubio. What does evolution, the Big Bang and the age of the earth look like to lay people who are not investigating such questions from a scholarly perspective?

(I am giving Rubio the benefit of the doubt here about his honesty. I have no reason to believe he was lying to GQ in the interview. In fact, what little I know about Rubio suggests that speaking truthfully is probably important to him, although not without its political challenges.)

For starters, it is simply not true that "all educated people accept evolution, the Big Bang, and the great age of the earth," and only ignoramuses think otherwise. Groups like Answers in Genesis, the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research aggressively market the impressive academic credentials of their staff scientists. The Discovery Institute has compiled a list of hundreds of scientists with Ph.D.s who "dissent from Darwin." Answers in Genesis has a former college biology professor on staff and publishes a "peer reviewed" journal. One of America's best-known anti-evolutionists is tenured in biochemistry at Lehigh University. There are entire universities -- Liberty, Bob Jones, Patrick Henry, Cedarville -- where faculty sign faith statements rejecting evolution.

Answers in Genesis spends $20 million a year assuring conservative Christians that evolution, with its ancient earth, is a decaying fossil of a theory, that scientists are abandoning it, and that the evidence is clearly on the side of the biblical story of creation. They also argue that evolution and an ancient earth contradict Christian beliefs and undermine the authority of the Bible.

This is what people like Rubio are likely to hear in their churches, read in their Christian literature, learn in their Christian schools, consume in their Christian media.

But suppose that Rubio decided to pursue these questions in more detail and, not knowing any actual geologists, went to a well-stocked bookstore and purchased a cross section of popular science books explaining evolution, the Big Bang, and the age of the earth. In all likelihood the authors of these books would be some of America's most vocal and anti-religious atheists -- Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Daniel Dennett, Vic Stenger. And the books would argue with a suspicious passion that belief in God must be rejected if one is to take science seriously. Some of the books would have titles like "God: The Failed Hypothesis. "

Even a diligent search would turn up but a few books explaining how contemporary scientific ideas can be understood within the framework of traditional Christianity.

From inside the scientific community, or far outside the faith community, the question "How old is the earth?" is trivial. The answer is 4.54 billion years. But from most other places that number will be harder to find.

America's troubled conversation about our origins is, unfortunately, more of a culture war than a scientific controversy. Geologists have become irrelevant. Give Rubio a break.

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AuthorKarl Giberson

By Dr. Karl Giberson

Evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of hell" according to U.S. Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga. They are not scientific theories, supported by mountains of evidence as scientists would have us believe. They are a part of Satan’s grand plan to keep people "from understanding that they need a savior."

Broun’s extraordinary remarks were made at Liberty University, the fundamentalist school that became an evangelical powerhouse under the leadership of Jerry Falwell. The largely fundamentalist audience cheered the comments.

Broun’s comments and the audience response should raise alarm bells for those who care about science education in this country. It is one thing to claim, invoking some authority from outside the mainstream, that evolution has weaknesses. Or that the evidence does not warrant the absolute certainty with which scientists embrace the theory. Or that some of the evidence for evolution has been compromised by recent discoveries. The Discovery Institute, where the heart of the intelligent design movement has been beating for some time, does this every day on its website. In principle one can have a conversation on those grounds. I have, in fact, had such conversations.

The claim that evolution and other scientific ideas are “lies from the pit of hell” however, creates an entirely different context for discussion, namely, no context at all.  How does one discuss the truth of an idea when your conversation partner believes that idea comes from Satan as a part of a conspiracy to dissuade people from becoming Christian?

It would be nice if Broun’s comment was exceptional—a singular bit of self-contained political comedy like Christine O’Donnell telling us she was “not a witch,” or Donald Trump pretending to run for president. But Broun’s comment is mainstream anti-evolution and has been circulating within fundamentalism for a century. It would have been familiar to many in his audience at Liberty University.

Many fundamentalists have drawn connections between evolution and Satan. Ken Ham, who heads the world’s large anti-evolution organization, Answers in Genesis, titled his now-classic attack on scientific theories of origins, The Lie: Evolution. A serpent graced the cover of the first edition of the book.  Ham suggests that modern proponents of evolution—which would include Francis Collins and myself, as well as our atheist colleagues, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne—are the “false teachers” predicted in the Bible.  Our appearance, spreading the lie of evolution, is a signal that the apocalypse is near.

Henry Morris, who almost single-handedly created the modern creationist movement, outlined the argument in great detail in his 1989 book The Long War Against God: The History and Impact of the Creation/Evolution Controversy. In a book praised by fundamentalist publications and endorsed by religious leaders, Morris outlines in considerable detail how Satan has been using evolution for millennia to subvert the gospel. In this scenario—supported with countless footnotes and other scholarly apparatus—Darwin is not the originator of evolution. Darwin, argues Morris, was nothing more than a “catalyst for a revival of ancient paganism, coming at just the right time in history to bring to fruition a revolt against God for which many in Western Europe had been preparing for over a century.”  Morris suggests that Satan delivered the theory of evolution to Nimrod when they met on the Tower of Babel.

Ham and Morris are two of the most important and influential fundamentalist leaders of the past half-century. Their arguments appear with great regularity in Sunday School classrooms, youth group workshops, and even in the syllabi of courses at fundamentalist schools like Liberty University and Bob Jones University.

Responding effectively to what look like crazy rants from people like Broun requires that we understand that, whatever we think  of the rant, the viewpoint is widespread and shared by many of America’s religious leaders.  Evolution and the Big Bang will never win the allegiance of America’s millions of fundamentalists on the basis of evidence.  This conflict is a culture war pitting good against evil and the stakes are much higher.

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AuthorKarl Giberson

From March 2012 issue of Choice Review

"Conservative American Christians often turn to different institutions and authorities to learn the "truth" about science, family life, and history. Stephens (Eastern Nazarene Univ.) and Giberson (emer.,Eastern Nazarene) explore some of the individuals and institutions to which evangelicals turn, including the work of Kentucky's Creation Museum and the Institute for Creation Research, historical research on American origins done by David Barton's Wallbuilders, and the family life advice of James Dobson and Focus on the Family. The book also tells the story of a Christian college student who transferred from a fundamentalist college in Tennessee to a more liberal evangelical college in Massachusetts, showing how one person both inhabited and challenged networks of authority in searching for a personal faith. The book's final chapter explores the role of "anointing" for authority in evangelical circles and the reasons that some figures and institutions gain authority. With its coverage of wide-ranging figures and issues, the book reveals important facets of ways evangelicals maintain both their ideology and boundaries in what they perceive as a threatening culture. This insightful work is an important contribution to readers' understanding of the ways evangelicals maintain their self-identity and worldview. Summing Up: Recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through researchers/faculty; general readers."

-- A. W. Klink, Duke University

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AuthorKarl Giberson

From GoodReads.com

"One of the joys of reading this book is that Giberson does more than present a God friendly cosmogony; he also tells a little of the history of science and the way in which our current scientific knowledge testifies of the remarkable world we live in."

Read full review here

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AuthorKarl Giberson
CategoriesPopular reviews

From Sep. 2012 Issue of Journal of Church and State

"The Anointed is a fine work that is accessible to the average reader while having substance to offer the expert. It should be read by anyone who wishes to have insight into the modern evangelical intellectual subculture that so influences American political and social life today."

Read full review here

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AuthorKarl Giberson

Karl Giberson, Ph.D via Huffington Post

I have often wondered--quietly and usually to myself--what would happen if we could edit the Bible. After all, textbooks get edited and publishers bring out new and improved versions that are more in tune with how things are, instead of how things were. Wouldn't it be good if some ecumenical committee could go through the Old Testament and take out all the language about stoning people to death for breaking various rules? Or maybe soften that passage where the Psalmist talks about bashing the heads of the babies of his enemies against the rocks? We could also fix some of those New Testament misquotes of the Old Testament.

...read full article here

 

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AuthorKarl Giberson
CategoriesHuffington Post

Writer's Log: Stardate 9-11-2012

I resolved at the end of 2011 to blog about writing every day in 2012. I also resolved to lose some weight. I did about half as well in both categories as I had hoped. I was coming off a great couple of years writing—I published 3 books in 2011 and had 2 scheduled to appear in 2012—and I wanted to put some of my experiences as a busy, active writer in print. I was also teaching my first writing course at Gordon College and wanted to share some of my “insider” experiences with my students.

I am officially awakening my writing blog after its summer slumber, inspired by my great class of writing students at Stonehill College, especially those who promised to carefully read any comments I put on their papers.

We talked a bit in class today about the steps involved in writing. I am hoping to move the class past the “one-click” approach that for writing is “Do one hasty draft at the last minute and hope it looks edited and polished.”

I write almost everything in the same way, whether a blog on the Huffington Post, an op-ed in the NY Times or a book for Harvard University Press, although such different projects employ these strategies in very different ways.  In all cases though, I have 4 basic steps, which I think any experienced writer will recognize. 

1)     Before you write a sentence have a conversation with yourself.

A)    What do you want to say in your piece?  Too often writers will simply write “about” a topic, without identifying what message they want to leave with the reader.  In my book that just came out last week, Seven Glorious Days: A Scientist Retells the Genesis Creation Story, I wanted specifically to make the scientific account of origins—from the Big Bang to the present—sound like a grand narrative with a direction and a purpose, as if it was going somewhere.  This guided all my prose construction.

B)     Who are you writing to?  You should have an audience in mind.  Quite literally it can be useful to picture this audience. As I write this right now, I am picturing my students at Stonehill. This doesn’t restrict my audience, of course, it just guides my choices as I write and reminds me not to write for my editors.

C)    Why are YOU writing this? This rule is much easier for an experienced writer, of course, since you have a better sense of who you are. I can respond to this question: “I have written 9 books on science and religion and am qualified to write on this topic.”  (This is a boring response, though.)  My actual response for Seven Glorious Days as I was developing the project was more like “I know enough about the Big Bang, astrophysics, geology, solar systems, biochemistry, evolution, human origins, and anthropology to join all these together into a narrative. And I know the Biblical story and rhetoric well enough to make them fit together.  If you are a student you might answer this important identity question by noting that you are fully bilingual and so have something to say about languages; or you played Little League for 4 years; or you really love your grandparents; or you almost died in an accident.

D)    What great stories do you have? We have all great stories and sometimes all that is needed is the courage to tell them. Most of us have interesting anecdotes that can bring our writing to life. If you think someone should read your writing, then you should be OK with telling them your stories.

2) Always make a rough draft, from a sketchy outline (which, if I am honest, is often only in my head).  Short pieces often don’t need outlines, but 80,000-word books certainly do. I pay close attention to word counts as I write to avoid spending too much time on early topics and running out of space. My current book project has two many words in the first half, so I have some work to do to fix that.  Writing too much can be a waste of time but it does give you room to cut weaker material.  I pay no attention to mistakes as I go and avoid diversions. I don’t stop for footnotes or fact checking. I make notes to myself: “Find better example,” or “Use a baseball analogy.” I insert ***** for information I don’t have and come back later. The goal is to get your rough draft in place so you can start to think about how it all hangs together. You know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln died, so there is no danger in postponing your visit to Wikipedia until your draft is done. I do the same thing with footnotes, often just putting “get footnote” or “I think there is something in that book by Koestler” where the footnote should be.  There is great value in having a completed draft so you can think about your piece as a whole. I find this is also true for a book length draft.  Returning to edit the first chapter, after you have written the last chapter, gives you a great perspective on where your project is going.

3) After I have a draft I like, I correct and finish it but I don’t polish it yet because I don’t want to think about polishing prose at the same time I am doing book-keeping: Filling in gaps, getting footnotes, fact checking, looking for detours, etc.

4) Polish the prose.  This is the part I like the best—playing with words. I fix boring sentences. I think about ledes. I look for mixed metaphors—“He dove right in and headed down the highway.” I try to eliminate passive voice, which is often hard and sometimes not advisable.  I look at my verbs—are they strong? Do they convey the full sense that I want?  Are they interesting? Boring is bad. Totally bad. I always look closely at my word count and watch it drop while I polish.  Editing often involves nothing more than eliminating waste words.  You see the sentence: “After having looked at the first century of American history, I will now attempt to explain why the second century is basically a repeat of the first;” and you gag and change it to “America’s first century is also its second.” The idea is always to help your reader move from one idea to the next without have to pass through thickets of irrelevant prose.  I once edited a 10,000-word chapter down to 9000 words without eliminating a single idea.

I should polish this blog some more but I am not going to…I lost 8 pounds so far this year, by the way.  Eliminating words is much easier than eliminating pounds.

 

 

 

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AuthorKarl Giberson
CategoriesWriting

 

"Karl Giberson's Seven Glorious Days presents an attractive and readable account of creation showing that there is no need to oppose scientific and biblical ways of understanding the origin of the world. His ability to translate the complex insights of physics, cosmology, and biology into terms that ordinary Christians can grasp is matched only by his ability to express deep religious convictions in simple and direct language.

Giberson's book is invaluable for any Christian wanting to think seriously about our place in the natural world. It's culminating point--that we are made to love one another--is one that the human race needs to hear now more than ever."

Stephen J. Pope 

Professor of Theological Ethics, Boston College

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AuthorKarl Giberson

 Writer’s Log: Stardate 16-4-2012

(I am doing a terrible job with posting daily. Somebody needs to start paying me.)

Saving Adam is a huge sprawling book that is pushing me far outside my comfort zone. I have been reminded of that this month as I have been working on a chapter dealing with material that I literally knew nothing about six months ago—nothing that is, beyond the fact that it was relevant to my topic.

The disciplines into which we compartmentalize our knowledge make it hard to think clearly about certain types of problems. The question of Adam and Eve is one such problem. On the one hand the topic is profoundly Biblical. But is Biblical in Christian, Jewish, and other ways. And it is historical. By the 17th century some people were becoming convinced that Adam was not a real person.  It is cultural and we can’t really talk about Adam without Dante and Milton.  It’s political. Nineteenth century southern racists used a twisted version of the Adam story to justify mistreating African slaves. It’s scientific.  Our knowledge of genes and fossils is forcing us to invent all kinds of very different Adams to make sense of the data.  Adam is even psychological—I know a lot of really smart people who are psychologically attached to the idea of a first man and woman, often for reasons even they cannot explain.

Thinking clearly about a topic like Adam requires bringing all these disparate disciplines and perspectives into dialog with each other.

The section of the book I just completed looks at some of the interesting ideas about Adam in extrabiblical literature from the period after the Old Testament was basically completed. This literature, which I was only dimly aware of six months ago, is fascinating. There are amazing stories of Adam gathering his children around him at age 930 to tell them about what happened in Eden centuries earlier. There are stories about Eve telling her side of the story. Some stories make Eve look worse than she does in Genesis; others make her look better. All of the stories raise troubling questions about whether we can know that the Bible contains the right books—fortunately that is not my topic. 

It was quite satisfying to delve into a brand new topic and, from a position of total ignorance and confusion, slowly learn enough to make the points needed for my story.

I have 25,000 words on my book now—1/3 of the way to the finish line.

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AuthorKarl Giberson
CategoriesWriting

Writer’s Log: Stardate 29-3-2012

Someone once compared writing books to having children—you spend a lot of time with them at first and invest much of yourself, but then they go off on their own and you hear about them from time to time.  This has been a week when several of my children have been on my radar screen in various ways.

The Big Project now is Saving Adam, and I am now spending a few hours on that almost every day. I have sent off the first two chapters to my editor at Beacon for a review, and am working on the chapter now where I have to explain the incredible significance of St. Paul’s “Second Adam Christology” to a secular audience. This is a fascinating theological concept but it is not immediately apparent why protecting it is so important to evangelicals. 

On Tuesday of this week I did the first booksigning for The Wonder of the Universe, at Gordon College. My writing students set up the event and three of them interviewed me about the process. The crowd was small but it was a very nice evening.

Earlier today I got an email from a friend at the University of Navarre where Mariano Artigas taught until his death shortly after the publication of The Oracles of Science.  The Spanish translation of the book is about to appear—which is exciting—and they are hoping I can come to Spain for the launch. They were very gracious hosts the last time I was there.  The Oracles of Science is now available in English, Italian, Polish, and Spanish.

Also in today’s mail I got my royalty statement from Lion Hudson for the second half of 2011, which is basically the first 6-month period that Quantum Leap was available. They sold 1362 copies for total royalties of 562.89. Half of that goes to my co-author, Dean Nelson. But I am getting nothing this time around, since authors don’t see any new royalty money until their advance royalties have been covered. Dean and I got $1000 each and we are still around $350.00 ahead of the game. Royalty checks tend to all come around the same time but I suspect that they will never amount to very much. My earlier books are selling at a rate of about 2 or 3 per month now.

Today’s mail also brought a report from InterVarsity about reviews and other publicity for The Language of Science & Faith.

The biggest book news of the day however, is the arrival of the copy edits for Seven Glorious Days: A Creation Story for the 21st Century, coming out from Paraclete Press in September.  This is the single most tedious part of writing a book—to go through hundreds of tiny bits of busy work.  I worked on this for a while this afternoon. My editor wants references for some quotes that I thought were sufficiently well-known not to need that. Some pictures need better attribution. A thousand small edits have to be approved. Etc etc.  This is part of being an author, though, so I have to do it.

Overall, it’s been a good week, spending time with my literary children.

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AuthorKarl Giberson
CategoriesWriting