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Defend Science, Darwin and the Biologists

Defend Science had an exhibit table at the SICB (Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology) conference in early January (the SICB is one of the major professional organization of biologists in the US. Approximately 1800 biologists and students attended). We learned a great deal: About important new organizations and efforts to popularize science; about the fierce struggle biologists are waging against creationist attacks on evolution, and in some cases just to teach evolution; and about what scientists and others can do to fight for science now – especially around Darwin Day and Darwin Year.

A few important things about the “landscape” in relation to science:

-Darwin Day and Darwin Year are going to be society-wide events this year; this is very important at this time when the battle over evolution is sharpening up.

- There is an emerging phenomenon of “Science Festivals”, which aim to popularize science broadly. There are five new Science Festivals in cities in North America in 2009 (up from zero, two years ago): Cambridge; New York; St. Louis; San Diego; and Montreal. Two other cities where there are active plans to bring a festival into being: San Francisco and Philadelphia.

- COPUS (Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science) officially launched the “Year of Science 2009” (COPUS is a coalition which includes hundreds of scientific and science-friendly organizations. It aims to reach out to the public to raise the “understanding of science and its value to society”.) At the SICB conference, COPUS was popularizing the new “Understanding Science” website, which went on-line during the conference. The website is aimed at teaching the scientific method in schools, from kindergarten through high school.

- A number of activities are going on around Darwin Day and Darwin Year. Some of what we learned included: National Geographic is coming out, in their February issue, with a major article on Darwin; there is a call in the blogosphere for blogs to enact special Darwin Day posts; and NOVA is coming out, in November, with three specials relevant to evolution, including one on Darwin.

To give a basic picture of the Defend Science experience at the SICB conference: We spent the first full day talking to a wide range of people and one thing we summed up is that the biologists are the “canaries in the coal mine” of this epistemological battle – the society wide fight over the basic question of how to know and change the world. The biologists are, as a whole, sharply engaged, especially in the South and Midwest, but also countrywide, in a battle over the teaching of evolution, which they see as a part of a much larger battle over critical thinking and a scientific understanding of the world.

Predominantly, the people who came to our table were very open to our basic message that while there will be some changes with Obama, in terms of science, there remains a big fight over evolution; this fight has everything to do with science and scientific thinking; and right now, things are getting worse, not better around this – and we need to ACT!

A few stories should help paint this picture:

- One young man from a small town in Louisiana talked to us at some length. In his town they don’t even bother with “Intelligent Design”, just the “young earth” creationism is put forward. He and his mother have stood up to this and have become public figures, of a sort; they’ve been politically attacked.

- Two young biology grad students came up to us from St. Louis. They said they felt that many grad students really wanted to take science to the people broadly, but they often didn’t know how to do this. They said that in St. Louis there is an organized program with “science buses” that go out to the masses with science and that they are part of that activity, but they know this doesn’t exist elsewhere.

- There were many people who spoke of plans they knew of around Darwin Day, but they were usually somewhat confined to the science sections of the campuses – in some cases by the orders of the administration – and while there were a few professors who were reaching out to the local communities with these programs, that was the exception. And, there were many places where no programs were planned.

- There was a huge battle over teaching evolution in Florida last year, which ended with the state legislature not passing a creationist bill for what seemed like bureaucratic reasons. Some professors involved in that fight said that they felt that this was going to come back, and that the bill would likely pass.

- While most of the people we talked to believe that Obama brings a change for the better, few thought that Obama was going to “go to bat” for evolution; they paid careful attention to the Defend Science analysis of the way the fight over evolution is sharpening up and that without people waging this fight there exists a very dangerous trajectory.

- There was a great deal of intense thought and grappling – among the people who came from areas where the Christian fundamentalists are strong – about how to teach evolution. A few very openly said that they didn’t feel that they could teach evolution. Nearly everyone had given a lot of thought about how. Many agreed that they had to take a firm stand, talk a lot about what is science, its method, studying reality and testing those observations, and, on the basis of firmly established results, then get into evolution. One professor said he spent a full week in his evolution class on the scientific method before going into evolution. Many, if not all, agreed that the concentration point of this is human evolution – one woman admitted, with embarrassment, that she just did not feel she could talk about human evolution in her evolution class, though she “did everything else.” One man said that after trying various things he felt he had to just start out with the scientific method and firmly, right from the start, put it out that humans evolved; that was science, deal with it, and, at least in the classroom, the students then went along and didn’t give him any flack. Many talked about how they’d analyzed the students and in some cases had even done questionnaires before and after their classes – one described that in his classes there are 25% who are friendly to evolution, 25% hard core opposed, and 50% opposed, but more in “the middle”. He felt that it was very hard to change the hard core, but he felt he had an impact on “the middle”. There were only a few who felt, from their experience, that they had any impact on the hard core creationists; although a few talked about particular students who had actually changed their view by going into this scientifically – we heard of one 15 year old who said “I have to accept the evidence” – and people like him now face how to deal with their families, community, etc. Some described being attacked by the local churches. Only a very few said that they had given up in the face of the pressure – but most know that it is a reality that in many local areas evolution is just not taught in public schools.

That was just some of what we encountered the first day!

We summed up this first day experience and concluded that we’d learned there were many positive things going on, including a widespread desire to “fight for science”, in a variety of ways. At the same time, we got a richer sense of the relentless creationist attack on evolution. We saw the need to do more to help people “fight for science”.

Off of this we developed a three part, practical program which we put out in the next few days. We called for: 1) Scientists and students to write Darwin Day editorials, op-ed pieces, and letters to the editor; 2) Where there were no Darwin Day programs, people should organize them; and, 3) Where there were Darwin Day events planned (which was true in a number of places), the scientists and students should make a big deal out of them, spread them into all parts of the campus and into the communities. We argued that doing these activities would make a difference in relation to the overall societal battle, that big things were at stake and ultimately what was involved was: What kind of world do we want to live in? We talked about Obama, why he is having creationist Rick Warren play a role at the inauguration, what this means and why Obama is not going to wage a fight for evolution. We argued why it is on us, why we need to act. All parts of this, in varying ways, were taken very seriously, and, for example, roughly 20 or so people are now seriously thinking of (and promised to do) op-ed pieces, or letters to the editor; i.e., people who were not thinking of it before our conversation. A COPUS organizer thought that it would be an excellent idea for COPUS to put out a call for this on their network (though they are going to modify it to include Darwin Day as a topic and also to emphasize doing this for the Year of Science, more generally.) In the course of this, where it was necessary, we talked with people about how we cannot cave in to the attacks on evolution; there’s too much is at stake.

We were very concrete about this call for Darwin Day programs. We talked about this at times to students who didn’t know how to organize a Darwin Day program. We suggested: Get two or more professors to talk about their work in evolutionary biology; have someone talk about Darwin and his significance; get a campus facility; create a leaflet announcing this and distribute it all over campus and into the community. We encouraged them to use the Defend Science “Darwin Day Statement”, or parts of it. Some people found this very helpful, just this basic, practical plan.

There were many discussions that went into a number of other questions – at the table and in all kinds of informal discussions. We had science author Ardea Skybreak’s The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creation book on our table, which is very unique in that it combines a thorough and readable exposition of the principles of evolution with an analysis and critique of the various forms of creationism; and we talked to people about using this book in the classroom. We also talked about the financial crisis and what it means for science. And, of course, we talked about what Obama will bring – for science and not just for science.

In this crowd, where everyone more or less assumes you are an atheist or agnostic, some raised that to fight to defend evolution you must seek unity with religion and argue essentially that there should be no conflict between religion and evolution. When we got into this, we made clear that while some of us are atheists, the Defend Science position is that Defend Science is not about attacking religion, per se, but defending science; however, there is a movement by the Christian fundamentalists which is vehemently going after science and we cannot and should not have any common ground with that! For those of us who are atheists, it can be complicated to be discussing things at different levels at the same time – to unite with everyone who wants to defend evolution and to talk about our own views at the same time; but this is something we have to master because these challenges are not going to go away.

We learned from the conference that Defend Science has had a strong impact, and a number of people look to Defend Science. One man from a college in the rural South, who is very active in fighting for evolution, told us that he had wondered if Defend Science was going to go on after the end of the Bush regime; he was worried that we might “close shop” and was very glad to hear that we were on-going. (He had too many interesting stories to get into, here; however, one point he stressed is that he felt that the questions of evolution, ecology and global warming were very closely linked, at the scientific level; ideologically at the level of whether humans are the “capstone of creation” or are a component of nature; he emphasized as well that in his community, this was very practical, and had everything to do with whether you are concerned about the real world or “end times”. He emphasized that in his view there’s a lot of unity on the ground between those who support evolution and those involved even in things like recycling, which in his community is something that some preachers are opposing!)

Darwin Day and Darwin Year are going to be significant in terms of the societal impact, more so than we had fully realized; which is very good. Concurrently, there’s the continuing, relentless creationist attack which poses a challenge to Defend Science – and others! As we said to people at the conference, it is not yet decided what will come out of this – and what everyone does will make a great deal of difference!

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