Lamar professor, state science board opposed to program that combines creationism, intelligent design

Lamar professor, state science board opposed to program
that combines creationism, intelligent design
By EMILY GUEVARA, The Beaumont Enterprise - 2/24/2008 - original
A lower jawbone from an earlier horse species lay on the desk in his Lamar University office. Numerous university awards hang on the wall behind him, and moving across his computer screen are photos of trips around the country working with colleagues and students.

Jim Westgate has devoted his life to the pursuit of truths that can be tested and proved. When the Dallas-based Institute for Creation Research recently proposed a master's degree in science education, Westgate, a member of the Texas Academy of Science's board of directors, helped write the academy's position statement against the inclusion of creationism and intelligent design in science curricula.

But that doesn't mean the scientist doesn't believe in God.

"For scientists, it's the precision that we use in our methodology and the precision that we use in communication that allows us to go to the moon and back and to operate on someone's heart," said Westgate, 55, who is a professor in Lamar's Department of Earth and Space Sciences.

"If you're a real scientist, you can't be an atheist. Because our scientific methodology doesn't give us evidence for or against God, you can't be an atheist."

The Institute for Creation Research's master's degree in science education exists to teach students science knowledge from both the evolutionary and creationist worldviews so that they can "relate science and science education concepts as revealed in scripture," according to the Web site. The institute teaches the experimental sciences such as chemistry, physics and math in exactly the same way as any other school, Henry Morris III, the institute's chief executive officer, said in a previous interview with The Enterprise.

But the approach differs when it comes to forensic science or science that looks at evidence of past events, Morris said in the interview.

"We have a creationist perspective that makes a difference in the way we look forensically at past data," he said at the time.

Courses like Geology of the Global Flood and data interpretation in the "context of a young-Earth time model" would not likely be seen in a public school course.

For Westgate and the Texas Academy of Science it's this combination of religion and science that is a problem.

"Using the scientific methodology, we can't distinguish between a God-induced event or a not-God induced (event)," he said. "We just don't address divine influence."

Westgate grew up a Catholic in Arlington, Va., and his early vacations were spent on the beaches of the lower Potomac River. His family had a beach house and they would frequently take the 15-minute drive from the house to Westmoreland State Park where swimming, picnics, hiking and fossil finding were their primary activities.

"He was a very good swimmer from a young age and Jim always had his eye out for arrowheads," said his sister, Diana Westgate Armstrong, who lives in California.

By his senior year of high school, Westgate was what might be called a hard-core paleontologist, climbing the cliffs looking for fossils.

One day he hit the jackpot.

"Initially I just thought it was a great big whale vertebra because it had a big hole in it where the spinal cord went through," he said. "So I thought it was a pretty neat discovery in the field, but it was neater to find out this was a skull."

Westgate took the fossil to scientists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. They were the ones who told him that he found the skull of a Baline whale. He ended up aiding scientists in the excavation of the skeleton and subsequent cleaning of the specimens.

"I think that was the point where it really started being more of a reality," Westgate said. "It wasn't just watching movies or reading books about paleontology."

Westgate continued his work with the Smithsonian Institution through his five years at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., serving as a research intern for four summers.

While increasing his science skills, Westgate also was forming his spiritual convictions. His mom had grown up in a Catholic family, and his father attended Catholic school.

"There was a huge religious emphasis growing up in the family at large, but we were unusual in that we did not attend Catholic school and all our other relatives did," Armstrong said.

The Westgate children did attend catechism school on Saturdays and Mass on Sundays.

"Usually we went most Sundays so it wasn't just Christmas and Easter," Westgate said. "By the time I got in high school, then it become optional as far as my parents were concerned, but growing up it was pretty consistent."

Around 1981, while Westgate was working on his second master's degree and teaching at Southwest Missouri State University, he and his future wife Karen Corwin found a new church after being told by a Catholic priest that they had to wait six months before marriage.

"(We) started attending Unitarian church services just to see," Westgate said. The church stuck, and he has remained there until this day.

Westgate said in general Unitarians believe in a God, but "not a God in a form of a humanoid" sitting on the throne with a white beard.

"I think the typical Unitarian God is not a micromanager," he said. "(They) may have God keeping everything organized, but not necessarily causing everything by divine influence."

Westgate's concern over the proposed master's degree in science education stems from his desire to keep science as science and religion as religion.

"We don't have any problem with that, but they should call it biblical studies," Westgate said of the degree.

He is confident the degree will not be approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board at its April meeting, when members are expected to vote on it. If it is approved, the message sent won't be a positive one, Westgate said.

"It tells the rest of the country that Texas' standards for education for science are sub-par."