Monday, February 20, 2006

Be Aggressive and Educate

I caught several blog posts this morning discussing science and the need for further education to help battle the anti-science phenomenon. PZ Myers discusses, with justifiable frustration, a news item about Biblically Correct Tours and similar groups formed as an “antidote” to what creationists consider “scientific indoctrination” at museums, zoos and other interpretive centers. Myers correctly points out that it is not just factual nonsense being conveyed by these groups, their tour guides and displays are also falsely accusing scientists of “deep evil”:

The tours are not all fun and games, with the guides claiming that evolutionist thinking supports racism and abortion. This happened on a recent NCAR tour, when Carter told a dozen children and their parents abortion was an act of natural selection carried out by humans.
Other tours suggest Hitler was playing his version of survival of the fittest by favoring whites, and note that museum dioramas of early humans have black "subhumans."
"My contention is evolution kills people," Jack said in an interview. "It's not that evolutionists don't have morality, it's that evolution can offer no morality. Ideas have consequences. If you believe you came from slime there is no reason not to, if you can, get away with anything."

Myers further cites Matthew Nesbit’s proposed strategy for advancing science and lauds the first point on the list: SCIENCE EDUCATION REMAINS CENTRALLY IMPORTANT. He goes on to say:

And I have to admit that educating you, the readers of this weblog, is actually a small part of the task. The real job lies with our public school teachers—they're the ones shaping the education of the next generation—and no matter what we do right now, the evolution-creation struggle in the public consciousness is going to be going on for at least the next 20 years. It's very easy to wreck a school and foster ignorance; it's very difficult to crawl out of the rubble.

At Red State Rabble this morning, under a post entitled “Suppress This!” Pat Hayes noted the hypocrisy of creationists whining about their ideas being suppressed when everyone agrees they’re not legitimate science and should not be included in a science curriculum (any more than astrology deserves time in an astronomy course), while simultaneously censoring their own faculty for teaching correct biology. True of course, but what caught my eye was the following:

Moreover, creation science and intelligent design theory, far from being suppressed, are being taught with fanatical devotion to defenseless children every week at Sunday School classes in tiny, impoverished rural churches and glitzy suburban megachurches, alike.

Finally, in a comment on Myer’s post at Pharyngula, Torris asks the question:

Does anyone have any good examples of how they have successfully reached out to the school teachers and made a difference?… science school teachers - do you have any suggestions on how those of us who don't teach science in the schools can help?

From my perspective in northeastern California there are a number of concurrent themes running through these posts that have helped me develop a strategy for defending science in this area of the country. These include the relationship between science professionals, public school teachers, and education in rural communities:

First, Myers is correct: education is the number one issue every science advocate, but especially professional scientists, needs to address. My experience is that there are two important aspects to this, one that frequently gets overlooked. We certainly need good, qualified teachers in public school science positions who can teach proper biology and who are not suckered by anti-science “alternatives”. More importantly, science advocates at all levels need to openly support those teachers who want to teach good science but are under student, parental, administrative or community pressure to do otherwise. You’d be surprised how many are out there, even in small rural areas like northeastern California, who don’t feel they have any support. If you don’t have a professional science background, help teachers get access to resources you know about; write letters to local media in support of science when issues come up; talk to the teachers and make sure your kids are getting proper science education. If you’re a professional scientist in a smaller community than you have a greater responsibility. Make it clear in the local paper or other news source that you support legitimate science and you are there to support any teacher who wants to teach good science and any student who wants to learn good science. I was inundated with phone calls, emails and just on the street “thank yous” by teachers, students and others for simply making a public challenge to local creationist rhetoric. I know some have the expectation that teachers just stand up and defend science. That’s easier done in larger school systems in big cities. The reality is that small town teachers can’t always afford to do that, particularly where the iron fist of conservative Christianity has taken hold. They live in the same communities. Those of us in the professional community (particularly if you’re like me and really enjoy public confrontations), need to “pinch hit” for teachers in these debates.

Second, there are many ways to educate people in the community, many of which are often overlooked. Offer to give presentations in classrooms (at all levels – you’d be surprised how many good questions kindergarteners ask!); give lectures at local service organizations, historical societies or other venues. I speak to elementary schools, high schools, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Rotary Clubs, historical societies and a host of others. I’ve even offered to speak at church youth groups (no takers yet, however!).

Third, you don’t need to be overt. Not every presentation has to be: “I’m here to challenge creationism and other pseudo-science”. I spend a lot of time with younger kids just talking about science in general, the importance of questioning and skepticism, the need to do further research if you have a question, etc. With young kids sometimes we just look at “neat stuff” like African animal skulls; with the Girl Scouts, it’s been an annual “Nature Walk” at Camporee, gaining an appreciation of the way the natural world works. Just building a relationship with kids and teachers is good start.

Fourth, Myers is also correct that we need to go on the offensive. Challenge everything brought up by the creationists, in every medium possible. If it’s public – challenge it! Yes, that would mean that you need to challenge a Biblically Correct Tour if you should happen to hear one. But play to your strengths. I don’t have the “Type A” personality that would allow me to go nose-to-nose with a BCT “tour guide” in an aggressive manner. I may, however, play the curious passer-by and ask embarrassing questions of the “guide”.

Whatever works for you; and if personal confrontation is a problem, there’s always letter writing, helping with the local science fair, providing solid information to teachers and students (such as all the good stuff on these blogs) or a host of other methods. If you’re not getting a voice in the local paper, start a blog, website or some other forum for your local community (it’s one of the main reasons I started this one - although I wish someone would link here for a little more advertising amongst the blogging community - oh well, if there's one place where natural selection is operative, it's the blogosphere). In the end I have found that being upfront, but polite about your views on science can go a long way. In spite of what we often fear, my experience has been that most people really don’t have an opinion on the subject either way and are just parroting what they heard on FOX news. These are the people you need to address – the pro-science crowd already understands and the anti-science crowd doesn’t want to understand no matter how much real world data bites them on the ass. I can't begin to count the number of students who say to me at the end of my physical anthropology class, "Thanks so much! I never realized what evolution was all about!". There's a large group out there just hungering for someone to talk to them - don't let the creationists be the first ones to do so...