Late last month I participated in a panel discussion on “Confronting Creationism” as part of a day of outreach/education activities associated with the 9th North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati. I was joined on the panel by Richard Hoppe and Jason Rosenhouse. What follows are a random string of comments and recollections from the day’s events (I’m not a reporter and didn’t take notes; Jason has posted on the meeting at more length).
The panel discussion was interesting, if brief. It was held over lunch (which means I didn’t eat lunch ‘til 3). Each of the three Panda’s Thumb panelists gave brief spiels. I recounted my random walk into this issue – from informal conversation with teachers to the erroneous assertions by Behe to the overstated expectations from Axe’s work, all explored via discussion boards and blogs. Dick Hoppe discussed his experiences with the locality surrounding Kenyon College in Ohio, and Jason regaled us with stories about creationism conferences. Jason also tried to stir the pot with some reference to the new atheist/accommodationist debate that seems to have come front and center. This segued into an interesting, if all too brief discussion with members of the audience. Others will have different takes (and perhaps more detailed recollections), but the take-home message I got from this is that this latter issue is quite a concern for educators. I suspect (even if I cannot give precise quotes) that science educators by and large have no wish or intention to be drawn/dragged into an anti-religion crusade.
As I said, this panel discussion was too short. If any reader was in attendance and would like to continue the discussion here, then feel free in the comments.
There were other activities on Thursday that were relevant to the issue. The conference plenary session on Thursday morning was devoted the subject of Evolution and Society. The line-up of speakers was impressive and most enjoyable. Ken Miller spent most of his time arguing that scientists need to “take back design” – the idea being that antievolutionists have inappropriately stolen the term, and given it connotations entirely beyond the usual usage of the term in science. Jeremy Jackson from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography gave an animated talk about communicating science. (Some of the underlying tension amongst science advocates fairly screamed through in his talk, via his frank dislike of Pharyngula.) Josh Trapani’s talk about communicating science to policymakers was interesting as well, almost a challenge to those in the room to make themselves much more visible to elected officials. Felisa Smith gave an excellent and accessible overview of research explaining how the seemingly mundane (rodent debris) can inform us about matters of great importance (climate change). The other speakers – Terry Mark and Eugenie Scott – gave interesting talks about evolution education. Nothing new to me (hence the brevity of this mention), but still a good selection for this session.
There were afternoon sessions on The Nature of Science and Public-Science Literacy and on Paleontology in K-12 Education. I got to one talk in the former session, which I found rather forgettable. Instead of these sessions (more relevant to ev/cre, ID, etc.), I stole away to Symposium S14 – Crisis in Reefs: Is the Past the Key to the Present? Not because I am a paleontologist, but because this session was co-chaired by George Stanley, who will be Heather’s advisor at the University of Montana. I must admit that it was pretty exciting to listen to a totally foreign field of science, knowing that my oldest daughter would be working in the field. This session was also refreshing in that it reminded me that this was a scientific conference, and that the ev/cre issue is still a curiosity (a matter of morbid fascination, I suspect) for most of the attendees. One reason I did not care for the Nature of Science session was that I dropped in on it after Symposium 14, and after I had spent some time sharing coffee with a collaborator of mine who is in the Chemistry Dept. at the University of Cincinnati. The contrast was stunning, and I found myself wondering why one would even have a Nature of Science session at a meeting like this. But that’s just me – I am sure that others found the latter to be of some interest.
All in all, this was a good experience for me. I’d like to thank Arnie Miller (if he ever reads this) for the invitation to participate on the panel. It’s not every day I get a chance to fold so much – a panel discussion with on-line friends and others interested in this issue, mingling with celebrities like Miller and Scott (and Professor Steve Steve), getting a preview of Heather’s future, catching up with collaborators – into one day.
Oh, I tire of the “you can’t discuss religion” issue.
Here in Texas, among things kids in social studies are supposed to learn is the role of religion at various points in history, in world history, in U.S. history — and astoundingly enough, in geography. In one of my Pre-AP world history courses I had a one student who would, like clockwork, remind me that it was illegal to “mention religion” whenever we got close to it. On the third day of discussion on the Renaissance and Reformation, I told him we had heard his views, his views are contrary to state standards, and I spent five minutes re-explaining the First Amendment to the class. When he approached me after class I asked him if he were uncomfortable with the discussion (“no”) or whether he thought I was unfairly targeting his beliefs, whatever they were (“no”). He just thought I should know that it’s against the law to mention religion in a classroom. For extra credit, I told him to bring me a copy of that law. Oddly, he never got the extra credit.
That’s about the depth of thought that goes into the claim that teachers might needlessly be dragged into religious discussions.
For those who are supersensitive and stupid about religion in schools, avoiding the topic only leaves students at a severe disadvantage. It’s impossible to teach history without discussing the role of religion. Every competent teacher knows how to do that without preaching.
I’ve always found it difficult to avoid religion in science, too. Students want to know — if Big Bang, how then creationism. It’s not our role in astronomy class to teach theology, I tell kids, just teach the best science. Are there conflicts between the best science and religion? Let the students work them out with their parents. The classroom is not the place to work them out. But neither is it the place to hide conflicts by failing to teach the real science.