Right-wing billionaires, creationism and pseudo-science: Why is a wingnut giving commencement speech at Montana's best tech college?

Uproar at Montana Tech as a conservative funder of creationist museums is asked to speak at top engineering school

Published March 27, 2014 5:11PM (EDT)

Greg Gianforte      (Fox Business)
Greg Gianforte (Fox Business)

A major funder of “creation museums” has been selected -- strange as it may seem -- to be the commencement speaker at Montana’s leading institution of science, Montana Tech, the mining and engineering school in Butte that has produced some of the world’s top geologists.

The speaker is Greg Gianforte, a conservative billionaire whose philanthropic endeavors include funding museums whose purpose is to discredit Darwinism and persuade visitors that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that North America’s geology was carved by Noah’s flood, and that dinosaurs coexisted with early humans.

To say the least, Gianforte is an odd choice to address an audience of young men and women who are embarking on careers in the earth sciences, many as mining and petroleum engineers. On the day Gianforte speaks, these graduates will be ending four years of studying how the Earth, and everything in it, formed over billions of years out of stardust.

They will now be sermonized by a man who bankrolled the 20,000-square-foot Dinosaur and Fossil Museum in Glendive, Mont. This museum's website warns that “when you visit a major natural history museum, you will see wide-eyed children being funneled into an abyss of deception.”  The curator of the museum told the Billings Gazette that “there’s no scientific proof whatsoever that evolution ever took place.”  Visitors are shown displays and dioramas that explain how the dinosaurs likely died out 4,300 years ago, during the great flood.

Odder still is the fact that Gianforte is no stranger to science at all. He is a computer scientist, who built a massively successful company, RightNow Technologies, that he sold for over a billion dollars in 2011 to the Oracle Corp. And he has donated money to Montana Tech for its computer science program, which is presumably why the chancellor of Montana Tech, Don Blakketter, invited him to be the guest of honor at graduation.

Professors have asked Blakketter to revoke the invite on the grounds that Gianforte is anti-science whereas Montana Tech is pro-science, and students are discussing staging a walkout during the speech. I put in a call to Blakketter, but did not hear back.

The objectors are not only upset about Gianforte, but also the inclusion of his wife, Susan, in the program.  She was invited to co-deliver the commencement speech with her husband.  Susan Gianforte is a vociferous opponent of laws designed to protect gay people from being targets of discrimination.  She believes businesses should have the legal right to refuse service to gay customers, and she has been leading the charge against an anti-discrimination ordinance that is now being debated by the city council of Bozeman, where the Gianfortes live.

There is also an interesting political triangle here:  Not only are the Gianfortes very active in conservative politics but Gianforte is widely believed to be planning a run for governor in 2016 against the incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock.  Gianforte has been giving speeches around the state lately declaring his intention of “bringing jobs to Montana” and gave the keynote address at a state dinner earlier this month to a standing ovation. Blakketter, meanwhile, reports to a Board of Regents appointed by Bullock.

Worship and science are not incompatible but they are by no means an integrated discipline. I don’t take issue with Gianforte believing that Adam and Eve lived with dinosaurs or that Jonah lived in a whale, if in fact that's what he believes. That's not much different than my family telling the story of the Exodus during Passover. However, we don't build museums about it, because there is little historical or archaeological evidence that such an episode ever even took place in the way that the Old Testament describes it. Gianforte, however, would appear to believe that the scientific method is OK for computer science but fungible where religious principles are offended. And Blakketter apparently is unconcerned that Gianforte is engaged in a powerful effort to persuade children that real museums are “conspiracies.”

I gave Gianforte a call to try to get him to explain this paradox to me. I was almost hoping that he would tell me that he likes to promote the idea that the Earth is 6,000 years old but doesn’t actually believe in any of it.  But I never heard back from him.  I did, however, speak to a person at the university who told me that Blakketter, after being approached by the faculty, contacted Gianforte and instructed him not to bring up creationism during his presentation.

I think that’s exactly the opposite of what should happen. Mr. Gianforte should be encouraged to explain precisely how he arrives at his theories of how the Earth was formed.  It might not be science, but it would be enlightening.

By Eric Stern

Eric Stern is Deputy Secretary of State in Montana.

MORE FROM Eric Stern

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Creationism Editor's Picks Montana Montana Tech Pseudo-science