Five reasons NOT to ignore the creationist summit

Written by: Carina Baskett

Primary Source: Wandering Nature

This Saturday, Nov 1, there is a creationist summit coming to Michigan State, where I am a grad student studying plant evolution and ecology. What to do? Much of the conversation among students and faculty has been along the lines of, “We should ignore them, they are baiting us, any response is exactly what they want, it is useless to talk to creationists because they will never change their minds and it will just be a shouting match.” I disagree entirely. I see this as an outreach opportunity. Here are my reasons to NOT ignore it (this is aimed at other biologists). Note that this particular summit will head to other campuses, so we are a test case in how to respond.

1. Ignorance about science affects our funding and job security (never mind the well-being of our nation!). When the public and the politicians don’t understand and trust scientists, shit happens that hurts science, like NSF getting raked over the coals in Congress.

2. No matter what we do, including not showing up, it’s guaranteed that the creationists will declare a victory over science to the other creationists. But if we don’t do anything, we cannot possibly declare any sort of victory over ignorance to each other or to the general public (i.e. the media).

3. Monday’s headline in Science magazine isn’t exactly positive press for MSU scientists. Let’s aim for this instead: “MSU scientists use creationist summit as outreach opportunity.” Go talk to people with journalism experience (in our case, that’s me). We don’t have to be afraid of the media—let’s figure out what headlines we want and don’t want, and make sure we say the right things to reporters.

4. There is no anti-creationist army that will show up and fight this battle for you. It has to be YOU. You may not be an expert in science communication or outreach, but you’re an expert evolutionary biologist, and you can go and be a smiling face that hands out flyers listing evolution education resources, and show creationists that scientists are people and not a faceless enemy. Or do more—whatever you think matches your skill set and will be effective outreach.

5. Practice makes perfect! You cannot run away from creationists forever. There will be some in your classroom. Some might show up to your talks and be disruptive. If you’re an evolutionary biologist, you need to learn how to handle these situations. This is a fairly low-key way to practice talking to creationists—you’ll be surrounded by friends and allies, not on your own in front of a room full of people.

A note on debating creationists. I spoke recently with a grad student at UArizona, Erik Hanschen, who has attended half a dozen of these events, and has had very civil, productive conversations with both speakers and attendees. No shouting matches, despite his very direct and challenging questions to the speakers. It takes a certain kind of patience, for sure, but it was so refreshing to talk to someone who has actually tried talking and engaging with people at similar events and had nothing but positive things to say about his experience. I’m not saying we should all try and do it, but it’s a counter-point to almost all of the recent conversations at MSU that claimed that any kind of conversation at this event will be futile and bad for us, etc.

So, there will be a meeting tomorrow to decide what exactly we are going to do. I believe that it will be some form of non-disruptive outreach. But it remains to be decided.

Another note: on the media. I’ve learned a lot this week about why scientists don’t trust the media. Some of these reasons are legitimate and due to poor reporting, while others are misconceptions about how journalism works. I’ve been moonlighting as a radio journalist for seven years now in three different reincarnations (see this, this, this), and I do not share this fear and mistrust of the media. Maybe this weekend will prove my naivete, but I feel pretty confident that, with a little preparation and foresight, we can avoid headlines that we perceive as damaging. So if you’re reading this from another school who is about to play host to a similar event, get a journalist on your side! They won’t be able to cover the story if they’re helping you, btw.

The above paragraph might sound crazy, given that we just got kinda burned by this story in Science. I don’t think many people were pleased about the story or the headline! I haven’t heard the whole back story, but I have heard some good reasons for why they are upset with the reporting process. Despite those legitimate complaints, in all honesty, from here in the trenches I think the story and the headline are accurate. Well, except that no one was interviewed who actually wants to do some outreach at the summit (and we are going against recommendations of most faculty…surprised that our point of view wasn’t included?). Sure, it doesn’t look great for MSU…but what headline were they going for, if the official response is to ignore the summit?

It’s important to remember that reporters are not doing public relations for you; they’re not “on your side.” I think what was reported was an accurate description of what is going on, and I think that if we prepare for this weekend, we can avoid this kind of mess. But again…I don’t know exactly what went wrong…so maybe everyone here did everything right, and just got unlucky/screwed; maybe it’s much harder to control what happens than I am anticipating.

I will definitely post a follow-up to share how our experience at the summit goes, on both the outreach and media fronts. Wish us luck!

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Carina Baskett
I am currently in my third year of the PhD program at Michigan State University. I’m working in Dr. Doug Schemske’s lab. I study how relationships between plants and animals, like pollination, are different in the tropics vs. the temperate zone. (watch a 90-second video about it.) For example, a typical tree in the temperate zone is pollinated by the wind (hence, allergies!), and its seeds are spread by wind. A typical tree in the tropics is pollinated by animals, and its seeds are spread by animals. I want to know, do these differences have implications for evolution?