At the time, Dr. Scott was a newly minted professor of physical anthropology at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Gavan had been her mentor at the University of Missouri, where she earned her doctorate, so she took a few of her students to Missouri to hear the debate.

“We were greatly dismayed,” Dr. Scott recalled in an interview. “The scientist talked science, and the creationist connected to the audience and told good jokes and was really personable. And presented a lot of really bad science.”

She realized then that creationism is “a movement that could have really serious consequences for science and science education.”

Today, Dr. Scott, 67, is nearing the end of a 27-year stint as executive director of the National Center for Science Education, which despite a relatively skimpy budget has had an outsize impact on the battles in courtrooms and classrooms over whether creationism — the idea that the universe was devised as it is by a supernatural agent — or its ideological cousin, “intelligent design,” should be taught in public schools.