When Zack Kopplin was in his sophomore year at Baton Rouge Magnet High School, in 2008, he started his fight against a new law called the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), which has earned him fame and notoriety for being a notable advocate for science in defiance of this law's disguised attempt at introducing creationism into the classroom in Louisiana.
LSEA has been labeled one of the most significant "anti-science" bills passed in recent time by the American scientific community because it promotes the teaching of intelligent design, which has been proven to be creationism in disguise. Kopplin is one of the most prominent and youngest leaders in the fight against creationism in Louisiana and has been working to repeal LSEA since it became law in 2008.
Kopplin is currently attending Rice University and studying history when he is not working on his campaign to end creationism. He has won numerous awards for his work to keep creationism out of the classroom in Louisiana and across the U.S., including the National Center for Science Education's 2012 Friend of Darwin Award Winner and 2012 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Education.
Kopplin recently conducted an interview, via email, with PolicyMic's Dillon Zhou, on his life and efforts to repeal LSEA and protect the integrity of science education in Louisiana.
Dillon Zhou (DZ): Can you briefly explain what LSEA entails and how you heard about it?
Zack Kopplin (ZK): The LSEA was passed back in 2008. It allows teachers to bring supplemental materials into public school science classrooms to "critique" scientific theories like evolution, human cloning, and climate change under the guise of "academic freedom." This law creates a loophole for introducing creationism into the classroom in Louisiana.
I heard about LSEA as the state government was passing it, because I grew up in a political family.
Kopplin's father is Andy Kopplin, the first deputy mayor and chief administrative officer for the City of New Orleans, who has worked under both Democratic and Republican governors.
DZ: What was your initial reaction to LSEA?
ZK: It was 2008, not 1925, the year of the Scopes Trial, and I could not believe this law was passing. I couldn't believe Governor Bobby Jindal, a Brown University Biology major, would sign this creationist bill into law.
DZ: What motivated you to start your campaign against LSEA and creationism?
ZK: This law has always embarrassed me. For me, it’s a simple matter of right and wrong, teaching creationism is wrong, teaching science is right. All students deserve a good science education.
The personal spark came when I saw Livingston Parish teachers (our school district in Louisiana) attempt to use this law to make creationism part of their curriculum by replacing the standard science textbook with a creationist textbook. I realized that no one was standing up and I had to.
DZ: What makes you so sure that LSEA allows creationism to be taught in Louisiana?
ZK: Because the sponsor of the LSEA, State Senator Ben Nevers (D-District 12), said that it was so creationism could be taught in the classroom.
As noted earlier, when LSEA passed, teachers of the creationist bent took the standard scientific textbooks out of the curriculum and replaced them with intelligent design/creationist textbooks. If that wasn't enough evidence, the legal text of LSEA gives you further proof.
The language of LSEA is patterned after the Model Academic Freedom Statute pushed by the Discovery Institute, an organization that promotes the so-called Theory of Intelligent Design, which has been outed as a front for creationism. The link between intelligent design and creationism was established during Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District (2005), during which the Discovery Institute was also prominent in aiding the introduction of intelligent design (a.k.a. creationism). During the Kitzmiller Case, it was discovered that the intelligent design textbooks were originally creationist textbooks, which were hastily edited to replace the word "creationism" with "intelligent design."
DZ: Can you explain, your own words, what the terms "science" and "creationism" means?
ZK: "Science" is how we explain the natural world surrounding us. We develop a hypothesis. This hypothesis becomes a theory after we test it. These tests must be repeatable, there must be specific conditions in the test that would make the theory false. There also must be conditions for the theories to expand to in the future. Theories are supported by all the evidence and are extremely strong explanations of the natural world. In other words, "science" gives us a proof that we can look at and test out for ourselves, whereas "creationism" and intelligent design just is.
DZ: What are your goals as an advocate for science in both the short term and long term?
ZK: In the short term, I'd like to see LSEA repealed. I would like to expand my advocacy to opposing creationism nationwide and launch a Second Giant Leap campaign, to end denialist legislation and create $1 trillion of new science funding. The Second Giant Leap is a movement we're launching. It would specifically call for an end to science denial like the Louisiana Science Education Act and for $1 trillion of new science funding. In the long term, I’d like to see this movement’s goals - which are listed above - realized.
DZ: What has been the reaction of the Citizens of Louisiana?
ZK: We’ve had amazing support from around the country. We’ve had scientists locally and nationally endorse this effort, including 78 Nobel Laureate scientists and the American Association for the Advancement of science and we’ve brought out dozens of students from around Louisiana to testify against this law.
DZ: What or who has been your biggest challenge since you started your fight against creationism in Louisiana?
ZK: When Tennessee passed its own creationism law, copied after Louisiana’s, that was the toughest point for me. It was hard after all the work we had done in Louisiana, to watch Tennessee go backwards.
DZ: What do the proponents of LSEA and creationism think of your efforts to curb creationism and their agenda?
ZK: There are two videos detailing my interaction with the proponents of LSEA and creationism.
Here's the first one, where one of our senators thinks "Mockulers" disproves evolution:
Here's the second one, where the creationist senators ask about how E. Coli evolved into human beings:
These hearings and the line of questioning from these creationist lawmakers testifies to the strength of the creationist lobby and the logic used by their supporters.
DZ: I've read that you raised the teaching of evolution as a major issue during the 2012 election. Can you tell us about that?
ZK: During the 2012 election, I challenged Michele Bachmann about statements she made claiming that Nobel Laureates support intelligent design creationism. Because I had Nobel Laureates challenging creationism, I asked her to match my Laureates with her own. I believe the ensuing conversation in the national media helped convince other candidates to air their views on evolution.
When Michele Bachmann was considering a run as the GOP candidate, she asserted that, "there is a controversy among scientists about whether evolution is a fact ... hundreds and hundreds of scientists, many of them holding Nobel prizes, believe in intelligent design," during her campaign. I pointed out that there were millions of scientists who disagreed with her and intelligent design.
Kopplin responded by saying: "[F]or the next hand, I raise you 43 Nobel Laureate scientists. That's right: 43 Nobel Laureate scientists have endorsed our effort to repeal Louisiana's creationism law.... Congresswoman Bachmann, you claim that Nobel Laureates support creationism. Show me your hand. If you want to be taken seriously by voters while you run for president, back up your claims with facts. Can you match 43 Nobel Laureates, or do you fold?"
(The 43 Nobel Laureates later became 78 Nobel Laureates.)
Congresswomen Bachmann was unable to match Kopplin's 43 Nobel Laureate scientists.
Kopplin also took up the issue of evolution with Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and John Huntsman during the election season.
DZ: Why do you fight the powerful interests behind LSEA?
ZK: Our generation is going to face major challenges, from our climate changing potentially to a killer asteroid. We must invest in scientific innovation if we want to face these challenges. The way to do that is to fund more science and put an end to denialist legislation like the LSEA.