Thursday, June 4, 2015

#1383: Wendell Bird

If you take a quick look at the courtcases involving creationism in public schools in the US, one name tends to pop up so often that it is hard to avoid giving him an entry in our Encyclopedia. Wendell Bird is an Atlanta-based attorney who concentrates primarily on litigation and in tax laws affecting exempt organizations. Now, of course any defendant deserves an attorney, and defending creationism in public schools is as such not itself an indication of lunacy, but Bird definitely seems to have a personal interest in the creationism-evolution debate, and that interest is not guided by reason, evidence or science.

Oh, what the heck. Bird is a former staff attorney for the Institute of Creation Research, for crying out loud, and the Discotute’s current strategies for getting creationism into public schools are really a continuation of Bird’s tactics from the 1980s (this timeline of creationism is illuminating). Bird is, in other words, among the founders of the Intelligent Design movement and its outreach strategies (no, Bird is not a scientist, but the Intelligent Design movement has, contrary to what they assert, never been about science but about getting their unscientific musings into public schools).

So, for instance, Bird defended Louisiana’s “equal time” law in the famous 1985 Edwards v. Aguillard, which was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals and eventually by the U.S. Supreme Court (good resource here); during the case Bird, interestingly, pushed the “academic freedom” strategy hard, arguing that it is “a basic concept of fairness, teaching all the evidence” (never mind that the “evidence” procured in favor of creationism was not evidence for creationism in any case). He also took the familiar crackpot trick of quote-mining to new levels; apparently with the help of Paul Nelson, he assembled a massive 500-page brief that consisted almost entirely of thousands of quotes from authorities on every topic bearing on “creation science”, from astrophysics to biology to philosophy to religion. Given the obvious dishonesty involved, the brief failed to convince the judges, but Bird later turned his brief into a large, two-volume book, The Origin of Species Revisited.

It all began in the 1970s; in 1978, then Yale Law School student (under Robert Bork) Bird wrote an article arguing that the U.S. Constitution required the teaching of “scientific creationism” in public schools, an argument he further developed for the Institute for Creation Research to a resolution (authored by Bird) “concerning balanced presentation of alternate scientific theories of origins,” intended as a model for local school boards that wished to adopt a policy of teaching creationism. That strategy was then the basis for the defense in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, a case where Bird was the primary legal advisor for the anti-science rabble. But the resolution was also the model for all later creationist bills and “academic freedom” bills used to try to get religiously-motivated science denial taught as science in public schools (e.g. this one and these), and Bird’s defense deliberately tried to gloss over explicitly religious or Biblical language to make everything sound more scientifically acceptable – instead of God’s creation of species, he would talk about their “abrupt appearance” and explicit references to the Bible would be removed – the very same strategy pushed by religious fundamentalists under the heading “Intelligent Design” to this day.

In 2007 Bird led a notorious lawsuit against the University of California, brought on by some private Christian high schools (Association of Christian Schools International et al., or ACSI) against the U.C. because the U.C. doesn’t give credit for certain courses taught at these private schools (described in some detail here). The courses in question included “science” courses that used Bob Jones University textbooks full of fake fundamentalist pseudoscience. During the case Bird applied his usual tactics, including radical quote-mining (it’s pretty striking that an experienced attorney would fail to realize that quote-mining is an exceptionally bad idea in a court case, where the references usually will be checked) and – but of course – persecution complexes: By not treating denialist pseudoscience as equivalent to science, the U.C. is persecuting Christians, the way Bird sees things; also the fact that “[t]he senior reviewer is Buddhist, and the reviewer who handled religious school science courses and drafted most policies is Jewish …” is evidence of anti-Christian bias. Needless to say, perhaps, the ACSI lost, but their tactics still reveals a mindset that is pretty scary.

Diagnosis: One of the movers and shakers behind anti-science legislations in the US, and arguably one of the founders of the modern Intelligent Design movement. A scary and hugely influential figure, in other words.


  1. I don't think that Bird is, or ever was, a Fellow of the Discovery Institute or its Center for (the Renewal of) Science and Culture. Also "MacLean" should be "McLean."

    1. Have updated the entry - the MacLean/McLean error was embarrassing. As for Bird and the DiscoTute, rationalwiki mentions him as a Fellow, but I cannot (with a quick google search) find any other unambiguous reference to that, so I guess you're right.