The Discovery Institute Thinks Americans Are Stupid

Earlier today, on the nationally syndicated Michael Medved radio show, Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based “think tank” that lobbies for intelligent design creationism in the classroom, debated Louisiana’s own Zack Kopplin about the merits and the intent of the Louisiana Science Education Act (the LSEA). For those unaware, despite its banal title, the LSEA was sponsored by a creationist lawmaker, State Senator Ben Nevers (who, when the bill was in its initial draft, told the media that it was intended to promote creationism); it was written by a group of creationist lobbyists, modeled after a statute crafted by a creationist think tank, and signed into law by a Governor who admitted it was primarily intended to allow creationism in the public school science classroom.

In late 2010, Zack, then a senior in high school, spearheaded a campaign to repeal the LSEA, and during the last three years, he has asserted himself as one of the nation’s leading advocates for science education. (For the purposes of full disclosure, I am currently working with Zack to launch Second Giant Leap, a non-profit organization focused on promoting science education).

Casey Luskin may not be a familiar name, even to those in Louisiana who have followed the ongoing repeal efforts, but as an attorney and paid employee of the Discovery Institute, Luskin has worked to shape the discussion on the LSEA more than almost anyone else. Considering that the Louisiana Science Education Act was based, almost entirely, on the Discovery Institute’s “model statute” on “academic freedom,” the chances are that Casey Luskin actually wrote the LSEA.

Casey Luskin
Casey Luskin

I’ve written extensively and exhaustively about the Louisiana Science Education Act, and to the best of my knowledge, today was the first time anyone at the Discovery Institute has ever engaged in a substantive debate about the law, a law they consider to be their signature legislative accomplishment.

To be sure, both Luskin and Medved were cordial and respectful to Zack. Despite the fact that the deck seemed to be stacked against him, Zack walked out of the debate as the clear winner, and all things being equal, it was a savvy and wise decision for him to engage in the discussion.

Initially, when I sat down to write this piece, I intended on highlighting the fatal flaws in Casey Luskin’s arguments. They are still worth mentioning, though I now think there is a larger and more important point to be made. But first:

Among other things, Luskin suggested that Governor Bobby Jindal was “confused” about the purpose of a bill that he personally signed into law. Recently, in an interview with NBC News, Governor Jindal claimed that the LSEA provides local school districts with the ability to teach creationism and intelligent design, which is, in fact, exactly what it does. However, Luskin, an attorney who has spent the last few years of his career navigating around the rhetorical contours of well-established law on creationism, likely realized that Jindal’s comments exposed the charade. If the Governor admits the law is about providing for the teaching of creationism as science, then the Governor is also admitting that the law is unconstitutional. Notably, after first suggesting that Governor Jindal was “confused,” Luskin then mistakenly claimed that Jindal had never actually mentioned the LSEA in the context of creationism and that this was all a fabricated talking point. In fact, as the video and the transcript of the interview prove, Governor Jindal specifically referenced the LSEA, by name. As hard as the Discovery Institute may try, they simply cannot rewrite history or alter the evidence.

Bobby Jindal is the Governor of Louisiana. Bobby Jindal signed the LSEA into law. Bobby Jindal is responsible for enacting and enforcing the law. Bobby Jindal says the law is about providing local school districts with the ability to teach creationism and intelligent design as science. And as Casey Luskin knows, teaching creationism and intelligent design as legitimate science in the public school classroom is unconstitutional and violative of the Establishment Clause. End of story.

Luskin also focused on a provision of the LSEA that states the law shall not be “construed to promote any religious belief.” I know it may sound compelling, but the provision is meaningless; it could just as easily read, “This illegal law shall not be construed to be illegal.” As Zack repeatedly pointed out, the Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act, which was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Edwards v. Aguillard, contained an almost identical provision. Luskin and others can reference the provision until they turn blue in the face; the fact is: The law is intended to allow public schools the ability to introduce very specific religious mythologies (namely, New Earth Creationism) as science.

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Again, I had initially intended for this post to focus entirely on the debate between Zack and Luskin, but before I’d even written a dozen words, I received a notification from Google Alerts about an article published by David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute titled “Zack Kopplin Thinks Louisianans Are Stupid.” Klinghoffer writes:

Education activist Zack Kopplin thinks his fellow Louisianans are a bunch of rubes. And I don’t just mean the Darwin skeptics in Zack’s home state — I mean people in the state generally. He said as much in a TED Talk, where the 20-year-old Rice University student speaks about having introduced himself to new friends from out of state with the disclaimer, “I’m from the Louisiana, but I’m not stupid.” (See above at 2:06.) Isn’t that charming? But you can really tell how dumb he thinks people from his state are — and, in fact, people in general — by the way he frames his argument against academic-freedom legislation.

I don’t know who David Klinghoffer is (or thinks he is), but I know this: I have had the great fortune to work alongside some of the most exceptionally talented, loyal, and fiercely determined people in the state of Louisiana, and in my opinion, Zack is one of Louisiana’s truest champions and best ambassadors.

In his TED talk, Zack referred to the way in which kids from the Northeast perceived kids from Louisiana: “I’m from Louisiana, but I’m not stupid” was something he said as an icebreaker, when he was thirteen years old at summer camp in Connecticut. It’s despicable and completely dishonest to “quotemine” or cherry-pick a single line of a story Zack was sharing about how he felt as a child at camp, far away from home, in order to publicly suggest that he thinks Louisianans are all stupid. As anyone who was born and raised in Louisiana or the Deep South can attest, Zack’s experience is something we all understand and, likely, have all shared.

Zack grew up in a family of public servants, and during the last three years, although his advocacy has allowed him to reach an international audience, it has also made him a magnet for attacks by right-wing religious lunatics, some of whom have been downright creepy. Trust me: You don’t enter into this line of work and put yourself out there as a target for anonymous criticism unless you really love Louisiana and the people of Louisiana.

That said, I’m not suggesting that Klinghoffer is a creep (though he weirdly suggested that Zack’s use of the word “y’all” was an affectation).

But, without question, it is unethical and improper for him to willfully distort Zack’s comments under the imprimatur of a tax-exempt, tax-deductible organization. Klinghoffer’s either being ignorantly negligent or purposefully defamatory; either way, when a 501c3 officially engages in this type of overtly political activity against a single individual, we should all question the organization’s legitimacy.

Which got me thinking: What, exactly, is the Discovery Institute? And why are they a tax-exempt, tax-deductible 501c3?

After pouring over the last four years of their 990 reports, it became very clear: The Discovery Institute thinks Americans are stupid.

(Tomorrow: Part Two)