May 04, 2016

Women of Doubt: Barbara Forrest

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Barbara Forrest is a philosophy professor and scientist most famous for her work against anti-evolution forces.

Dr. Forrest attended Hammond High School in the 7th Ward of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, before going on to obtain a Bachelor's of Arts in English in 1974 from Southeastern Louisiana University, a Master's of Arts in Philosophy from Louisiana State University in 1978, and a Doctor's of Philosophy from Tulane University in 1988.1

She began teaching philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University in 1988, and she continues to teach in their Department of History and Political Science. In 2004, Oxford University Press published a book co-authored by Dr. Forrest and biologist Paul R. Gross titled Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design.1

According to Wikipedia:

The book examines the goals and strategies of [the intelligent] design movement and its attempts to undermine the teaching of evolutionary biology. The authors analyze the absence of a scientific intelligent design hypothesis, ID's religious foundations, and the political ambitions of intelligent design proponents. They examine the movement's Wedge strategy which has advanced and is succeeding through public relations rather than through scientific research. They also highlight intelligent design creationism's relationship to public education and to the separation of church and state.1

Dr. Forrest has become a staunch proponent of accurate science education. She serves on the board of directors for the National Center for Science Education, an organization that specifically protects the teaching of evolution and climate science:

The National Center for Science Education (NCSE) is a not-for-profit, membership organization providing information and resources for schools, parents, and concerned citizens working to keep evolution and climate science in public school science education. We educate the press and public about the scientific and educational aspects of controversies surrounding the teaching of evolution and climate change, and supply needed information and advice to defend good science education at local, state, and national levels. Our 5000 members are scientists, teachers, clergy, and citizens with diverse religious and political affiliations.

Dr. Forrest's interest in evolution science began in the 1990s, and "[stemmed] from her support for public education and the separation of church and state."2

In a 2002 piece by Dr. Forrest in Natural History, she wrote that:

Although William A. Dembski, one of the movement's leading figures, asserts that "the empirical detectability of intelligent causes renders intelligent design a fully scientific theory," its proponents invest most of their efforts in swaying politicians and the public, not the scientific community.3

In that same piece, she continued to say:

At heart, proponents of intelligent design are not motivated to improve science but to transform it into a theistic enterprise that supports religious faith.3

Dr. Forrest's work on the intelligent design movement--especially her expertise regarding the Discovery Institute--contributed to one of her most notable experiences in advocating for public science education. In 2005, she served as an expert witness for the plaintiffs in Kitzmiller, et al, v. Dover Area School District:

Her areas of expertise in the trial were the history and strategy of the intelligent design creationist movement and the development of the creationist textbook, Of Pandas and People.2

Dr. Forrest testified in the trial from October 5-6, and she also submitted two expert witness reports. The first dealt with the intelligent design movement itself, and the second dealt with a specific textbook proffered by the Discovery Institute, Of People and Pandas.

The Dover verdict was a key blow to the intelligent design movement. The court found for the plaintiffs, with Judge Jones stating in the opinion:

A significant aspect of the IDM [intelligent design movement] is that despite Defendants' protestations to the contrary, it describes ID as a religious argument. In that vein, the writings of leading ID proponents reveal that the designer postulated by their argument is the God of Christianity.

In her portion of the trial, Dr. Forrest focused on the Wedge Strategy, a strategy found in Discovery Institute fundraising papers. This strategy lends credence to the idea that key proponents of intelligent design are operating from theological, rather than scientific, motives.

After the trial, Dr. Forrest encountered a new Discovery Institute strategy, this time in her home state of Louisiana, in the form of the Louisiana Science Education Act. This act proves more stubborn to repeal than the actions of the Dover school district:

The Louisiana Science Education Act does not mention intelligent design, but it permits public schoolteachers to use “supplementary materials” that will undermine evolution in their science classes. The law doesn’t require anyone to do anything; what it essentially permits teachers to do is use anything they want, from any source they want, in addition to the mandated state textbook. John West, a Discovery Institute spokesman and associate director for the Center for Science and Culture (that’s [the Discovery Institute’s] creationist wing), said that the Discovery Institute hoped that some school district in Louisiana would adopt their textbook, Explore Evolution, which is one of these sanitized intelligent design code language books. The Discovery Institute worked hand in hand with Louisiana Family Forum, which is an arm of Focus on the Family, in Louisiana, and the Louisiana Family Forum has been promoting a series of PDF documents on the internet, all of which are creationist supplements to the state-mandated textbooks. So that’s the kind of “supplementary material” they’re talking about.4

Dr. Forrest notes that this was a methodological pivot for the Discovery Institute and advocates for citizens to be aware of how their states are approaching scientific subjects:

After the Dover trial in 2006 [the Discovery Institute] made this their big project, so in 2008 they worked with about half a dozen variants of their model bill that were introduced in states around the country. In Louisiana, we had no organizational framework to respond to it. One of the ways that Florida, for example, has kept this stuff out is they have a very active, well organized Florida Citizens for Science. At the time we didn’t have that.4
Dr. Forrest worked with Zach Kopplin to introduce bills to repeal the act. The bill has been reintroduced from 2012 - 2015 and still has not passed.1

Despite being involved in secular humanist organizations, Dr. Forrest considers herself a pragmatic naturalist. I like her explanation from the Dover trial transcripts, so I'll share it:

Well, we'll take the pragmatic part first. That reflects an American school of philosophy, pragmatism, and for Dewey and Hook as they understand it, it means that an idea is tested by whether it helps us resolve a situation of doubt or uncertainty or helps us resolve a, solve a practical problem, and one of the things that they noted was that the patterns of inquiry that are part of the everyday process of answering questions, resolving uncertainty, or solving problems, really matched the processes that are used in science. So those patterns of inquiry were not invented in science, but they were used very effectively, very systematically in science. Those patterns of inquiry call upon the cognitive faculties that human beings have, and because they do, those faculties don't reach beyond the natural world into the supernatural world. So the conclusions that we reach about the world are naturalistic, hence the pragmatic naturalism part.5

It's a good way of pointing out that the very things we suggest as naturalists aren't alien to our human natures; they are a part of our every day experiences anyway.

Dr. Forrest continues to teach in addition to her position on the board of directors for the NCSE.


1 "Barbara Forrest." Wikipedia. <> Accessed May 3, 2016

2. "Available Speakers." National Center for Science Education. <> Accessed May 3, 2016.

3 Forrest, Barbara. "The Newest Evolution of Creationism." Natural History. <> Published April 2002. Accessed May 3, 2016.

4 "Interview with Barbara Forrest, Defender of Evolution and CSIcon 2011 Speaker." <> Published August 29, 2011. Accessed May 3, 2016.

5 "Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District Trial Transcript: Day 6 (October 5) AM Session, Part 1". TalkOrigins. <> Accessed May 3, 2016.

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