Zachary "Zack" Sawyer Kopplin is an American political activist, journalist, and television personality from Louisiana. Kopplin has campaigned to keep creationism out of public school science classrooms and been involved with other separation of church and state causes. He has opposed school vouchers because they provide public money to schools which may teach creationism. As a high school student, he organized seventy-eight Nobel laureate scientists in a campaign against the Louisiana Science Education Act, a creationism law. He is also involved with science funding policy and curriculum and textbook policy. His new campaign calls for a launching Second Giant Leap for Humankind, calling for Barack Obama to invest $1 trillion in research and education. Kopplin has been interviewed on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, where Bill Maher noted, on the show, that Kopplin was the youngest guest ever to appear on his show. MSN.com called Kopplin the Doogie Howser of political activists.
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Edit: Its been a slow day. I'm stepping out for now. I'll come back later to answer anything else.
Hi Reddit. I’m Zack Kopplin, a journalist for Slate Magazine and an activist for science education. I’ve spent over five years in the trenches fighting the teaching of creationism in public schools. Ask Me Anything!
I’m especially excited to talk about a story I published in Slate yesterday, which exposes some Louisiana biology teachers who are literally bringing the Book of Genesis into public school classrooms as a “supplement” to the textbook.
Here are a few facts about me to begin. I’ve won the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Award for my work and gave a speech at the Playboy Mansion because of it. I’ve also been on Real Time with Bill Maher, where I won a verbal duel with WSJ economist Steve Moore over funding for research on snail mating habits. While I was in high school, I organized 78 Nobel laureate scientists in opposition to Louisiana’s creationism law. I’m currently living in Houston, but when I’m in Louisiana, home is New Orleans.
I’ve done this a few times so I’m ready for y’all to ask away.
Creationist Biology Teachers article: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/06/louisiana_science_education_school_boards_principals_and_teachers_endorse.html?wpsrc=sh_all_dt_tw_top
How do you balance the roles of journalist and activist? Do you feel that your role as a non impassioned informer ever interferes with your role as an impassioned crusader?
That's always tough. I tend to understand my role as telling the story and telling the truth. I absolutely have a bias, but it's towards reality. Evolution is real, it should be taught in science class, creationism shouldn't be, and I think if a journalist approaches it as trying to show both sides, they're actually being irresponsible, because there aren't two sides to the story.
It is tougher sometimes when I'm covering events I'm involved with, like textbook hearings or Louisiana Senate Hearings. I tend to opt for full disclosure of my role, and being totally honest about who I am. The story I'm telling will still be true, and so will the facts, and as long as readers are aware of who I am, they can read what I say and make up their opinions about that.
> I absolutely have a bias, but it's towards reality.
Wouldn't bill orielly (sp?) say the same thing?
Yeah, but luckily my record reflects honesty, and his doesn't. Part of it comes with meticulously fact checking what you write, and linking or sharing every source you can. If you go read my work, you can see the original documents I use, and check to see what I say matches up with reality.
Out of the 535 members of congress, zero identify as athiest/agnostic. How long do you think it will be until we see a shift in ideology from a political perspective? Personally, I think congress is full of closet athiests who are too afraid to admit it as it would be political suicide.
Honestly, I have no idea when Congress is going to start functioning properly, although when it comes to separation of church and state politics, state legislatures are often even worse than Congress.
In general have you rejected the idea of the Non Involved reporter?
It seems like that idea is going away. Here you are saying that the approach may be to accept your bias and disclose from the get go.
Yeah. I tend to agree with that, every reporter has some sort of bias. It's one thing to be professional. You can still be professional and have a bias. Don't quote people out of context, don't lie, don't make things up, but it's OK to say creationism isn't science.
Also, it helps when doing this to not say it yourself, but speak to an expert about why creationism isn't science. When I write that, I talk to a biologist, who will say it's not science. I chose to get their opinion (And I won't find a creationist to give a response to the scientist).
Hey! I would like to push reform faster, faster, faster. What can I do at home on the sofa to fight the teaching of Creationism in public schools harder?
Two big things. First, find out if your state has any sort of creationism policy. What state do you live in?
Second, public records requests. Send a public records request/FOIA asking for any emails or curriculum about creationism or intelligent design. Roughly 15% of teachers across the country teach creationism and we need to make this public information. You can send a request with an email, although it is often tough to get the information released.
What's the one piece of advice you'd like to give public/charter school students if they see creationism being taught in their classroom? Is there a way students in private schools can fight against it even though it's legally allowed?
Record it, and send it to the ACLU, FFRF, NCSE, or Americans United (or me). Do it anonymously if your parents would punish you.
Private school kids are unfortunately SOL. The U.S. believes that parents have a right to control their kids education fully. You can ask your parents to move me to a new school, but if your parents won't, it will probably be hard to avoid the school (unless it's physically abusive). You can learn science on your own.
If you are in a voucher private school, you might be able to sue the school on First Amendment grounds though.
I live in Houston right now, on Richmond though I used to live on Ashby. I'll send some FOIA requests.
How did I not even notice
Do you prefer Koppling or Kopplin' ?
Play devil's advocate here (no pun intended)
Wouldn't it be easier to ask them to include evolution and teach both rather than remove creationism?
I say this as someone who has taught both but ultimately chose evolution
So what the research has shown is it's far less effective to teach both. Students are actually better off being taught nothing at all than being taught both evolution and creationism, and have shown higher performance on science tests. (Being taught nothing is still not ideal.)
My speculation is that being taught creationism is going to fundamentally confuse some students about how science works.
Did you find the national attention as a "troublemaker" (in a good way)intimidating?
What did your parents say?
Honestly, the attention is incredibly impersonal. When you're on tv, you're just looking at a camera (for the most part). You may be talking to millions of people, but it's not scary when you can't see them.
I'm occasionally bothered by threats or general creepiness, but that's unavoiadable, and even people who aren't in the public eye (especially women) are subject to that kind of stuff all the time.
My parents are generally pretty proud of me, although someone from the Discovery Institute, a creationist think tank, just wrote an angry letter to my parents about me.
How did you end up on Real Time (that's how I heard of you initially)? Did you get a chance to hang out with/socialize with Bill at all, or is any interaction mostly done during filming?
Bill's people saw me on another interview and asked to be put in touch.
I got to hang out with him after the show. You don't get to meet him until you're on stage, but they do a hangout with all the producers and Bill and the other guests and y'all get to chat. He actually told me I needed to meet his ex (Cara Santa Maria).
is there any laws preventing teaching of creationism?
The U.S. Supreme Court in the Edwards v. Aguillard case prohibited it. Intelligent design was thrown out in Federal District Court during the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. It's prohibited under the First Amendment.
What are the long term real world consequences of being taught creationism? (Disclosure: I think creationism is absolute BS but living in the UK have never come across any believer in creationism so have no idea how it impacts people.
First, it's not science, so anyone going into a career in biology, agriculture, medicine or a related dicipline is going to be at a major disadvantage to their peers who were taught evolution.
Second, being taught creationism is going to harm students understanding of the nature of science and the scientific method. Believe me, I've read a lot of creationist textbooks, and they don't understand what a hypothesis, a theory or a law are. Most creationist textbooks believe that eventually scientific theories become laws, when in reality a theory is the strongest measure of scientific understanding.
Publish that please!
Do you ever feel like you're fighting a pointless or losing battle? What do you do to keep yourself focused and on task when it feels like you're not making progress? I can only imagine what it's like arguing against the crazies...
Yeah. I had an off year last year in part because there wasn't much progress. Eventually you need a victory to sustain yourself. I got back into it when i got on the scent of a document that would help me pull out the rug on what was happening inside Louisiana schools. That's been the subject of my last few pieces in Slate.
As a Louisianian, I want to thank you.
Can this only be overturned if a parent or student were to sue the state? If so, what is the problem getting it done since we know creationism is being taught?
Also, from what I know about Senator Morrell, we really need him to run for Governor.
Well it could be overturned by the Legislature, but they've made it very clear they want creationism in the classroom, so that route isn't happening. (Blame Senators Appel, Walsworth, White, and Guillory). That leaves the courts.
JP is awesome. I'd vote for him.
Cheers - even the Churches over here (I'm a lapsed catholic) accept creationism is a load of baloney but the six day creation of the world is a nice and simple allegory for the origins of man and the church's basic tenants. Keep up the good work!
Yep, although the U.S. creationists try very hard to export it to y'all.
Hi! I've been following your work for a while and I really admire what you've done. It seems to me like things are looking up for teaching real science in schools. Can you smell change in the air?
I wouldn't go that far to say there's a dramatic change in the air. I do think there will be another major lawsuit in Louisiana over creationism in the near future. Unfortunately, the creationists adapt well, and when they lose, they'll just begin working on a new politicial strategy.
As an Orthodox Jew, I commend you sir on your fine work. I prefer to teach my religion at home. How do you view the religious such as myself? I do wear a Kippah. I also have a Masters of Science degree, and firmly believe in the scientific method.
I'm not sure the right question to ask is how I view someone based on their religious beliefs, because generally that's not the factor that influences what I think of them. What's more important is if people recognize that there's a separation of church and state and don't impose themselves on other people.
When it comes to science, I generally take the position of non-overlapping magesteria. Science isn't meant to measure or model the supernatural, and has nothing to say about the supernatural. It's only meant to be a description of the natural world.
Sounds a bit like a game of chess - strategies changing so fast it's hard to keep up sometimes. Do you think that pro-science folks will be able to answer the moves of the creationists?
We always are, and I think over the long term, legally we're winning. The problem is that we haven't been able to budge public perception of evolution. Gallup has polled public opinion for 30 years, and it has always come back between 40-48% of the population are young earth creationist. The backfire effect is real.
I see people are really opposed to creationism, but is there any definite proof that it has caused any harm?
I'd argue that any student taught creationism in a public school science class has been caused harm. If we accept that students are entitled to the best education they can receieve, and an equal chance at a good education to their peers, than creationism is harm.
It's harm, because it's not science, and won't prepare students to take jobs in science fields. Evolution influences many different fields, like agriculture and medicine.
First off, I wanted to thank you and say that I really appreciate your endeavors in the interest of science and science education. As a fairly young high schooler who is a (formerly semi-closeted, if that makes sense) atheist and evolutionist in the somewhat conservative state of NE, it's sometimes pretty difficult to express my thoughts and opinions without being judged. But I'm sort of past that point now... in part, out of admiration for your work, so thanks.
I recall reading a particular Slate article in which you stated that Governor Jindal was a family friend of yours -- a "Brown University biology major" who became a creationist, which I find super intriguing. Did you ever get the chance to confront Jindal personally about this sudden (at least, outwards appearance-wise) change of heart? If you have, how did he respond? Or if you haven't, would you?
Also, what else can I do to support this issue? Or, perhaps, draw more attention and specifically acceptance to it from my peers?
No, I've never talked with him about this, and I'm really not sure how a conversation with Jindal these days. He used to be a family friend. That had changed by 2007, and he's not the biggest fan of me or my parents anymore.
I mentioned this earlier, but send FOIA/public records requests to public school districts. Find out what's being taught. We know 15% of teachers are teaching creationism all around the country.
Thanks for your war against religious stupidity. Is there any chance Louisiana will have a trial similar to the 2005 Dover Trial?
I think so
True. Here in Connecticut this luckily isn't as much of an issue. Even if you lost a few rounds of the metaphorical chess game recently (last night?) the fight isn't over!
Ok, y'all got way too meta with this.
So, as a Journalist, don't you need more than one source?
Well we've also got Supreme Court decisions like Edwards v. Aguillard, which also say it's unconstitutional to teach creationism, or even mention it in class.
Re the study, I'd love to see more research on the topic, but it's the only study that I'm aware of on this particular topic.