Creationist science fair attracts atheist onlooker

ROB CALLAHAN | Updated 2/12/2013

Homeschooled K-12 students take part in their own science fair, where a scripture quote is a requirement of every project.

It's Saturday morning and I'm winding past a small cemetery off of Snelling Avenue, taking the road that snakes around Northwestern College on my way to the Home School Science Fair. I'm keeping an open mind, although the website for the Twin Cities Creation Science Association suggests that I probably shouldn't. It boasts, "Unlike Many Secular Educators We Teach The Scientific Method!" The website also seems to suggest "prayer" is a valid step in the scientific method, and that science itself can be an outreach tool for "witnessing" to non-Christians. The site also has an animated GIF on it, and I hate animated GIFs.

Given the TCCSA's online persona, I'm expecting a group of plastic-smiled cult members. That's not quite what I find. Instead, gender dynamics among the parents are what catch my attention. Bleary-eyed, slouching dads are unhappy about getting up this early on a weekend. They stand in contrast to moms whose clothes, hair and jewelry reflect an affluent suburban lifestyle. They look like parents from a Rottlund Homes commercial, not like something out of Waco, and I can discern no difference between these Christians and any other run-of-the-mill Christian family you might see coming from church on Sunday.

That said, I don't fit in with this crowd and it's only a matter of time before somebody notices. The TCCSA's website tells me that's when I'll be witnessed at, so I try to take in as much as possible before things get awkward.

I'm expecting to see a lot of ham-fisted attempts at proving the Bible's craziest claims through science. Maybe there'll be a kid tying the Drake equation to a presentation on Ezekeil's UFO. Quantum electrodynamics will make a great excuse to talk about loaves and fishes. Someone will undoubtedly believe Jesus walked on water thanks to the miracle of thixotropy. Someone else will attempt to debunk the Big Bang by asking, "Then who put the singularity there?" At some point, dinosaurs and the Ark are bound to come up. That's the sort of thing I think I'll see. Instead, what I find is mostly standard science fair stuff.

A total of 21 displays tout their young owners' varying interests in science. One requirement of the fair is the inclusion of a Bible verse in every presentation. Some kids display their chosen bit of scripture prominently while most seem to treat it as an afterthought. Very young participants may choose between "experimental" and "non-experimental" projects. The non-experimental variety are best described as enhanced book reports, while the experimental ones employ experimentation in their attempts to answer questions about why wood floats, how robots are programmed and the mystery that vexes Juggalos the world over: How magnets work.

The girl at the cranberries display is 8. Her non-experimental display is an assembly of carefully printed and decorated factoids and pictures. It explains the growing process and illustrates the bog ecosystems where cranberries thrive. She speaks confidently about the health benefits of cranberries as the judges take notes and, at the end, doesn't mention her Bible verse. It's John 15:5, or "I am the vine, ye are the branches." I wait for the judges to mention it, but their inquiries are softer than expected. They mostly ask things like, "And do you personally like cranberries?"

An excited 8-year-old boy has conducted a simple fluid motion experiment inspired by the flipper shape of humpback whales, which he proudly tells me is the Whirly-bird vs. Whaley-bird experiment. He buzzes as he recounts the steps in his experiment, but frequently interrupts himself to share cool facts about whales instead. His mother hovers nearby and, as he talks about just how awesome whales totally are, she bends down mid-sentence to wipe his face with a Wet Nap. He and I both quickly pretend that never happened and he goes on without missing a beat. He mentions God only briefly, where the rules of the science fair would seem to require it, but makes no attempt to convert me at the end. Instead, he shows me comic strips about whales and tells me which websites I can visit to learn more about his project. I silently note that the sites I recognize are secular.

Another display asks, "Does Caffeine Effect [sic] Snails?" Steps one through three detail the mixing of caffeine and water, placing snails in the water and observing the results. I don't actually talk to the kid with the snails project, or even read over his results in any great detail, as I've become fixated on step four: "If all or most of the snails are alive after a few days, repeat steps 1-3."

The snails project, along with other animal projects at the fair, employs Genesis 1:25. That's the verse about God making all animals. None of the verse's corresponding displays actually set out to prove that claim, though. In fact, most of the kids seem to have chosen the loosest possible connection between their respective projects and the book of their faith. A magnet project uses Colossians 1:17, or " him all things hold." Other projects on butterflies, oil pulling, the Five Second Rule and the skeletal system are similarly only loosely associated with their Bible quotes. One of the organizers, who asked to remain anonymous, acknowledges that the Bible doesn't contain a verse for every possible science project. So, participants are encouraged to use the most relevant verse they can find. No one will lose points if the most relevant verse they can find isn't actually all that relevant.

Of the 21 projects on display, only one attempts a roundabout proof that a divine creation event took place in the last few thousand years. The "Does It Really Take Millions, And Millions Of Years For Stalactites To Form??" display details an older girl's attempt to debunk scientific views about the age of the Earth. She concludes that stalactites form in "a couple hundred years, if that!" after having created her own stalactites from a dripping solution of water mixed with Epsom Bath Salt. Her process is similar to that of making rock candy and, at its end, she concludes from her homemade stalactite that her hypothesis was correct:

"My hypothosis [sic] was, that it would not really take millions of years for Stalactites to form. One of my reasons for asuming [sic] that is because, at the cave I went to in Wisconsin, the Stalactites were still dripping, and wouldn't you think that they would be dry since they had been there for so long? So that was my hypothosis [sic]."

I'm bothered that something so slipshod on so many levels made it into any science fair, even one that seems on the surface to encourage Creationism-friendly projects, but I recognize that it's only a small part of what I've seen. Overall, the kids are tending toward uncontroversial projects and the organizers aren't bothering them about it. No one is talking to me about Jesus and the event takes place off the beaten path. Atheists and other non-Christians have to seek it out, so it isn't bothering any unsuspecting passersby. These people aren't the dragon slayers I was expecting. While the concept is a bit silly on the whole, there are worse affronts to secular knowledge going on. For instance, the guys who stand around preaching on Nicollet Mall are a far bigger nuisance.

So, if the Home School Science Fair really is trying to establish its own brand of "real" science by giving priority to faith over observation and exploration, it isn't doing a very good job. One out of 21 kids, or less than 5 percent, showed any notable adherence to the tenets of Creationism. To most of the rest of them, the Bible verse was just a requirement to meet if they wanted in. It was more ballast than premise. And that last kid, the one with the stalactites, wasn't convincing anyone but herself.

I left the event feeling like it should have bothered me more, but I just couldn't figure out why. I realized as I left that my Atheist readers would be likely to feel like I went too easy on the TCCSA, but I didn't go there to judge the TCCSA. If I had, there would be a more critical examination of the dogma on their website and the other pro-Creationism programming they offer. I was only interested in the event, though, and that event just wasn't the big deal it's been made out to be.

I do agree with noted atheist PZ Myers, who addresses the Bible verse requirement by asking us to "Imagine a secular science fair that demanded that all the results be supported by quotes from an atheist — it simply doesn’t happen, and even adamant atheists like me would consider that utterly weird." I don't think this event warrants the attention it gets, though. I would wager that the collective attention and efforts of the secular world would do more good for a greater number of people if we focused on getting Mall preachers off the street instead. If we could do that, we would improve the life of every downtown worker in the city. They would undoubtedly thank us for the peace and quiet.

[Photo: Rob Callahan]