Q&A With Science Education Activist Zack Kopplin
This is the first in a two-part interview with 19 year-old science education activist and Rice University student Zack Kopplin. Zack has led the fight to repeal Louisiana’s dangerous Science Education Act, signed into law by Governor Bobby Jindal on June 25, 2008. His change.org petition garnered nearly 75,000 signatures. A letter to the Louisiana Legislature was signed by 77 Nobel Laureate scientists and Kopplin otherwise has the backing of dozens of important science bodies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science (10 million strong).
Zack has testified before his legislature, rallied on the steps of the Capitol in Baton Rouge, challenged Rick Santorum on creationism (mano-a-mano) and has been featured on Melissa Harris-Perry’s MSNBC show and in The Huffington Post. He is the recipient of the National Center for Science Education’s 2012 Friend of Darwin Award, the 2012 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in Education and was just named the inaugural Troublemaker of the Year for 2012 by entrepreneur Semyon Dukach. Perhaps the surest sign of what a pain in the ass Kopplin has become to science deniers is a recent, not-so-thinly-veiled threat in which he is told he will meet “justice in the way of (atheist) Madalyn Murray O’Hair“, who in 1964 was named the most hated woman in America and in 1995 was kidnapped and murdered. Zack Kopplin is a force of nature and I am proud to call him a fellow Louisianan.
Q: Tell us briefly about your family background, Zack. Myself, having been born and raised in Rayne, LA, I know all too well how difficult it can be in our home state to take a stand on something politically “difficult”. Growing up, was your family predominately knee-jerk Republican, Edwin Edwards Democrat or something in between? Has the dynamic changed in your own family, either way, with your role as an activist?
My family has always been behind me on this issue. My dad was Chief of Staff for (Governor Mike) Foster and (Governor Kathleen) Blanco and he actually told me about the Louisiana Science Education Act back in 2008 when it was passing.
[Zack's father, Andy Kopplin, also founded and was executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and is currently serving as first deputy mayor and chief administrative officer in Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration.]
Q: For those who may not know, tell us how you first became aware of what was going on in Louisiana schools in terms of the teaching of creationism as acceptable “science”, and what were the first steps you personally took in becoming vocal in your efforts to turn attention to it? What public figure or individual first jumped on board with you?
I first heard about this law the summer before my sophomore year in high school and was shocked as the Legislature passed it and our Brown University Biology major Governor signed it. I thought the Scopes Trial had been settled in 1925. My senior year of high school was when I began my campaign against this law. The first person I contacted was Dr. Barbara Forrest, a professor at South Eastern Louisiana University who was an expert witness at the Kitzmiller v. Dover Trial, which helped establish that intelligent design was creationism and equally unconstitutional.
Q: Louisiana was the first state in the country to pass legislation such as the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). Most probably don’t know that it was a Democratic State Senator – Ben Nevers, whose own wife is an educator – who sponsored this bill. Give us the basics and why you believe it to be so harmful.
This law allows creationism and other science denial to be snuck into public school science classrooms through supplemental materials to “critique” politically controversial scientific theories. [It's] harmful because allowing unscientific alternatives to established science into public school science classrooms will cause these students to be unprepared to take jobs in cutting-edge industries like biotech. It also confuses students about the nature of science. If they believe creationism is as valid as evolution, they will not understand the scientific method, and that could hurt them in other science fields.
Q: What’s the single scariest thing about the LSEA? And, is there one particular statement in its defense that has been most disturbing to you (and what is it)? As a corollary, what do you think has been the single best argument against it?
That it is still in effect.
The scariest statement I’ve heard was that adopting new science textbooks that taught natural selection would cause another Columbine. This was said to our State Board of Education, but you can hear Darrell White, a retired creationist military judge, say something similar on the radio here (Dec. 3, 2010, Jim Engster Show, *note, you will have to look up the 12/3/10 show in the archive, but it is beyond worth it – forward to 17:00 in, where the discussion begins).
The Livingston Parish School Board provided the best argument against the law by publicly saying the law was for “critical thinking and creationism” and “teachers should have the freedom to look at creationism and find a way to get it into the classroom.”
Q: How does the LSEA impact the economy?
[For instance], we’ve lost researchers. LSU’s former Graduate Dean of Sciences, Dr. Kevin Carman, testified last year that some researchers left LSU and others declined to take jobs at least in part because of the Louisiana Science Education Act.
Q: Where do things stand now with repeal?
We’re gearing up for the 2013 Legislative session, bringing together our grassroots activists again and starting to reach out to legislators.
[Senator Karen Carter Peterson sponsored repeal efforts in 2011 and 2012, which came up short; they will try again this session, and I'm sure Zack would agree every session thereafter until this law is knocked off the books].
Q: Just this past week, Oklahoma passed a creationism bill. Do you consider yourself to be “on board” in fighting these laws elsewhere? What is your plan on a national scale (and do you have a “team”) – is there anything tangible already in the works outside of Louisiana? How do you think the LSEA, if adopted as a model by other States, might snowball into other areas of education?
I plan to travel to some of the hotspots around the country as I’m able. Tennessee passed a creationism law last year and each year, a dozen states like [Oklahoma] or Missouri or Arizona attempt to pass their own creationism laws. And yes, this type of legislation could easily snowball into something that also affects history. Look at the Texas State Board of Education.
Q: Along these lines – I’ve seen many partnerships between you and distinguished leaders in the science, academic and legislative community, such as Barbara Forrest and Sen. Peterson, who seem to hold you in very high regard. Are there other students in your arsenal? I’m just trying to get a sense of the scope of what you’ve taken on and if, for example, you have “boots on the ground” at other universities, etc.
I’m going to work closely with a friend at Rice, Ben Simpson, on the Second Giant Leap campaign. I’d love to have more boots on the ground in other places but we haven’t gotten that kind of infrastructure.
Q: As we’ve all seen, this past week was a big one in science, with the Russian meteorite and then the asteroid “barely” missing Earth. How would a science class – based on the theory of creation – explain the asteroid belt and what the astrophysics community believes will be an eventual collision with a “killer asteroid”? Does the creation theory simply dismiss that a “killer asteroid” colliding with Earth approximately 65 million years ago was the extinction event for dinosaur life? And, then, as a matter of public policy, do we ignore what scientists consider to be a mathematical certainty that another “killer asteroid” will eventually collide with Earth? Finally, is this a matter of National Security?
I honestly don’t know what creationists think of asteroids. They usually focus on dinosaurs living with humans and dying out after the flood. I believe that we need to pay attention to these asteroids as part of public policy and that it is a matter of national security.
Q: Have you met, spoken with or otherwise personally communicated with Governor Jindal about the LSEA?
I’ve never talked to him about it.
[I would personally pay good money to listen in on this one......]
Q: Speaking of…..the Governor’s approval rating is right at 37% these days. What, in your opinion, are the 3 biggest contributing factors?
School voucher scandals, massive funding cuts, especially to health care, and, potential gigantic sales tax increases.
Q: The Governor (Jindal) released his new budget on Friday. Can you comment, specifically as to the state’s school voucher system, which was pushed and signed into law last year and will maintain funding through the Minimum Foundation Program, which provides state funding to public schools on a per-pupil basis?
[In November, a Baton Rouge judge ruled Jindal's policy to be unconstitutional because it diverted money from the MFP to private institutions. The Jindal administration appealed that ruling to the state Supreme Court.]
Q: Louisiana fun fact – most probably don’t realize, given Louisiana’s label as very red these days, that from 1877 to 1980, the Governor’s Mansion was occupied by a Democrat. That’s a very long run of blue; maybe unprecedented. This didn’t really change until Mike Foster’s two terms beginning in ’96 (we’ll not count Buddy Roemer changing party in ’91). There have been 41 Democratic governors and only 11 Republican governors in Louisiana’s history. Kathleen Blanco has been the only woman to hold that office. I’m getting to a question…..given Jindal’s sagging approval, given the national mood and shift to center (if not center Left), do you think it’s possible that we could see another long run of Democratic leadership in Louisiana? Your overall comments on this and the notion that “all politics are local” – that things really begin at the local level and citizens should probably pay more attention to the officials they are putting into State Houses. Are there any great political hopes for the 2016 Louisiana governor’s race/local politicians to watch?
Some people to watch (I don’t know if they’ll even run for anything new, but they’re stars) are Mayor Mitch Landrieu (New Orleans), State Senator Karen Carter Peterson (New Orleans), and Mayor Jacques Roy (Alexandria).
Q: Word association…..Melissa-Harris Perry.
I think she would appreciate if I said New Orleans.
Q: Word association…..Rick Perry.
There are three things. Creationism, Jindal endorsement, and I forgot the third…..
[If you don't get the joke here, you aren't a political junkie.]
Q: Are you a card-carrying member of Nerdland?
Q: I’m sure you had a choice of schools – why Rice and what are you studying? Campus clubs or organizations you’re involved with?
College admissions are a crapshoot. The school and the location ended up just working out with me. I’m a History major and I generally spend most of my time doing advocacy.
Q: Long-term career goals?
Making Second Giant Leap into a true international movement.
Q: What is the biggest difference between Texas and Louisiana?
Size and lack of New Orleans, maybe.
Q: Do you think you’d like to remain in the South?
I think it’s the place where I need to be to keep fighting this fight, and I like being in Louisiana.
Q: Biggest activist high?
When the videos of our state legislature recently went viral. I want to see if the legislature is more supportive of us this year.
[The link provided above is just one of the videos that went bananas. In it, Louisiana State Senator Mike Walsworth wants to know how E.coli "evolves" into a human being. It is the most incredible 1:12 you will ever see. No joke. Actually, watch this one too - Senator Karen Carter Peterson smacks down Senator Julie Quinn's dismissive quip to the science community, in the now famous "little letters" clip.]
Q: What you are most passionate about that is not science or education?
Public policy and politics in general. When I have spare time, I’m totally addicted to the news and the monthly article counter on my NYT subscription gets up to 300 articles a month (and that’s just one national paper).
Q: Favorite film and music.
Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and ska music. I’ve really started getting interested in foreign ska music. I’ve also been on a Springsteen kick lately
Q: Favorite food.
Q: What does Zack Kopplin do for “fun”?
I don’t know the last time I had time for fun, but soccer and running.
Q: Person (or persons) most inspiring to you.
Harry Kroto, James Carville, Barbara Forrest.
Q: Your five-person fantasy dinner guest list.
President Obama, Seth MacFarlane, Stephen Chu, Bill Nye, and bringing James Carville along too would be fun.
[No girls allowed.....boo, hiss]
Q: You are very fond of the Ragin’ Cajun, James Carville (same here). But this is serious: how in the world do you think that marriage (Matalin) works? This one stumps me.
Q: Most fascinating news in science of the last year you’d like everyone to know about.
How about in the last week and I think it’s this:
Q: National politician you most wholeheartedly approve of today and why.
Right now on the Democratic side, the President, after his pro science language in the State of the Union. On the Republican side, Jon Huntsman, because of his statements on evolution and climate change.
Q: NASA and the shuttering of our space shuttle program…..discuss.
I don’t think we should be shuttering anything. I absolutely understand the rationale for going deeper into space and that we need to focus there, but I want more science funding and more science in general, not less.
Q: I recently read a piece which discusses the enormous power of the Texas State Board of Education and their efforts to rewrite textbooks based on ideological and religious based “opinions” (terrifying). Briefly, your thoughts on it and what can be done to reverse course?
It makes Texas School Board meetings the most important school board meetings in the country (because California generally doesn’t have the problems that Texas does). And – removing the people who are destroying our textbooks from office. I hope my peers at Rice will help vote for Representatives who actually support science (I’m still registered in Louisiana).
Q: Tea Party – here to stay or dustbin of history?
There’s still like 60+ tea party Representatives in Congress right now, I think, so who knows? We’ll see over the next few years.
Q: Who is the coolest cat in the science community not named Neil deGrasse Tyson?
Q: How do we (is it possible to) change the perspective of people who categorically and unapologetically reject science and empirical reality? I mean, it – creationism – was never an issue when I was in grade and high school in Louisiana. Or at least, it didn’t appear to be. It was part of religion class or Bible studies. Do we attribute some of this to the explosion in home-schooling (in both TX and LA, slightly higher than 25% of school-aged children are home-schooled), as parents are citing “religious” reason for keeping their children out of schools?
We change this perspective by educating the new generations to understand science. While parents have every right to homeschool their children and teach them whatever they want, I wish they taught them evolution.
Q: What do you say to the climate science deniers who, in line with creationists, avert their eyes from empirical evidence and hard facts (you know, like Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, the giant uptick in tornadoes, rising ocean temperature, extreme wildfires…….)?
I think the culture might be changing given the latest poll.
And (finally, for real) –
Q: What other science and education-related questions should we be asking our politicians/leaders and why? How do we get other young people interested and active in this area so as to affect change in years to come?
Here’s a good site that’s doing just that, Science Debate.org. To get kids involved we need to teach them good science and then give them the tools and funding so they can actually do it.
Many thanks to you, Zack, for taking the time to do this with us. And stay safe, for goodness sake!
*Check back for part two of my interview with Zack. We’ll focus on his Second Giant Leap For Mankind movement, which calls for a renewed scientific revolution.
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[internal image credit: houstonchronicle.com]