In The Field

ASCB: Evolution: The gloves come off

Today, scientists were told that an epic battle is raging – and they must don their armor, head for the trenches and join the fight.

The battleground: America’s schools, churches and airwaves. Yes folks, we’re talking about the fight over evolution. And if you thought yesterday’s news on evolution wasn’t pretty, this is a lot uglier.

Two people who argued for evolution last year in the famous Dover trial on intelligent design told scientists who they’re up against – and how to fight evolution’s foes. (If you want to learn more about evolution, intelligent design and the Dover trial, read more here; those of you in Europe who think you don’t have to worry about this fight, read about why you’re wrong here).

Barbara Forrest, a historian and political scientist from Southeastern Louisiana University, talked about the links between the intelligent design movement and the extreme Christian right – i.e., people who want to resurrect Biblical practices like stoning. Forrest is also famous for having traced the origins of intelligent design back to creationism; she showed how ID is really just creationism repackaged under a different guise.

Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, then gave a packed hall of hundreds of scientists some practical advice about how to talk to regular people – i.e. non-scientists – about evolution and intelligent design. Miller’s advice is the best I have ever heard about how to speak with people who don’t believe in evolution. The most important thing he said was that scientists must engage the public – not lecture, dismiss, or condescend to the unwashed non-scientific masses.

From my day-to-day conversations with scientists, I know that many of them find the intelligent design movement frustrating, annoying and confusing. That’s probably why I often hear scientists make dismissive, derisive comments about people who have the audacity to believe in intelligent design, as if they are all ignorant boobs undeserving of more than a haughty sneer.

Sadly, that’s how we got into the mess we’re in today, with skirmishes over ID raging in almost every state. Too many people who know the evidence spent too much time ignoring the other side – or laughing openly at the presumed idiocy of ID’s believers. What scientists don’t understand is that lots of people who believe in ID have never sat down and had an honest, friendly conversation with someone who can lay out the case for evolution respectfully and clearly. Why? Because most scientists can’t be bothered to do anything beyond grouse about red-state boors from the safe confines of the faculty club.

Miller urged scientists to leave campus and go to churches, school board meetings and other public venues to talk about the evidence for evolution – and against intelligent design. He and Forrest coached scientists to keep a positive, friendly attitude at all times – or risk fulfilling the arrogant egghead stereotype that only fuels public distrust of science. For help on how to do this, scientists can turn to invaluable resources like the National Center for Science Education.

Why should busy professors waste their time with such activities? Miller’s message was clear – and kind of scary: “The one thing none of us can afford to say is: ‘I’m a cell biologist, I’ll let the evolutionary biologists handle this.’ The reality is that an attack on one science is an attack on the integrity of science itself. Their goal is to undermine scientific rationalism – and we should all be concerned about that.”


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