EQUAL time for ''creation science.'' With this beguiling plea for ''fair'' and ''balanced'' treatment, some fundamentalist Christians have tried to elevate a literal interpretation of some biblical accounts to the status of natural science.
This ploy has been widely denounced by both science teachers and mainstream religious leaders as a thinly disguised effort to inject particular religious views into the science classroom. That would be mischievous enough. But there is another dimension to the danger. It would also muddle the already generally poor level of scientific knowledge among the American public.
Although we live in a scientific-technological age, many students - probably the majority of students - pass through United States high schools and colleges with little or no basic education in the sciences. In particular, they are taught little of what the sciences have to say about the history of the universe and organic life - what is well-established fact, what is conjecture, and what major questions remain.
Given the lack of general knowledge, students - and often teachers - are ill equipped to detect and compensate for the distortions of fact and theory and the omissions of relevant points when biblical creationism is dressed up as a pseudo-science. It is hard for them to detect even patent nonsense when results of scientific research are twisted to support the ''theory'' that the universe was created in six solar days by divine fiat just 10,000 years ago.
This is why the recent reversal of the Texas requirement for equal treatment of evolution and creationism in high school science texts is so welcome. Publishers have been tempted to tailor their products for the massive Texas market. They have found it convenient to have authors skirt around questions of evolution. Such texts are a poor tool for effective science education.
The sciences have shed a great deal of light on the ancient cosmic questions: Who are we, where have we come from, and why are we here? But they make no pretense at providing ultimate answers.
Thus there is much to learn both from what they can say on the subject and from what they cannot say. For creation science to claim to provide the answers using the methods of natural science is itself unscientific.
To summarize broadly, scientists now have abundant evidence that both the universe and organic life on Earth have developed and changed over billions of years of time - that is, they are very ancient and they evolve. From the best current estimates, the universe is 10 to 20 billion years old.
Traces of earthly life go back 3 to 3.5 billion years. The earliest known rocks are nearly 4 billion years old. Some 4.5 to 5 billion years have probably elapsed since Earth and the solar system began their development.
Earthly life itself appears to have evolved from quite simple beginnings. There are gaps in the geological records. There are many puzzles and hotly debated questions. Biologists argue earnestly about the mechanisms of evolution. But few among them doubt that earthly life has evolved through time. Few doubt that the rich variety and complexity of that life today shares a deep and common heritage.
But there are limits to what the sciences can tell us. No one knows how it all started. If, as many scientists believe, the universe began in a burst of energy, what came before the ''Big Bang'' is a closed book. Nor does anyone know how organic life arose. If it was seeded on Earth from space, that still leaves open the question of its primal origin.
Also, no one knows how close the sciences can come to answering such elemental questions about the material universe. Beyond this, the sciences make no claim at all to any authority in such subjects as the meaning or purpose of life or the essential nature of man. Indeed, one of the strengths of modern natural science has been the recognition that such ultimately spiritual issues are beyond its competence.
For so-called creation science to be offered as a balancing alternative to the natural sciences would obscure this healthy sense of limits. Where the sciences raise unanswered questions, creation science rests on the false certainty of a sectarian, literal view of the Bible. Where scientists disclaim spiritual authority, creation science implicitly asserts that claim when it describes the history of the material universe in terms of fundamentalist doctrine.
There is much to be learned from the natural sciences. But it is in the churches and the home that this knowledge should be put into a larger spiritual perspective. The science classroom has no competence for such a task.