23 October 2005

A couple of thoughts on Intelligent Design and Blame

The current success of the Intelligent Design movement in the United States is not entirely the fault of scientists and science educators. But, sadly, we really haven't done all that much to hinder their social, political, and cultural progress. A heroic few - Genie Scott, Wes Elsberry, Nick Matzke, and the rest of the full time staff at NCSE - have worked full-time at opposing anti-evolutionists. A number of other scientists and academics have invested a large amount of time into fighting anti-evolutionism. Their work has been fantastic, but the focus of the work has been a bit narrow.

I don't mean that as a criticism of NCSE and the others who have been working to fight the anti-evolutionists. There are a lot of anti-evolutionists out there, they spew forth massive volumes of misleading garbage, they are threatening the education of children all over the United States, and they desparately need to be opposed.
With the number of people working at opposing them so small and their resources so limited, there is no way that NCSE could have any other focus than on responding to the anti-evolutionists.

Unfortunately, reacting to the anti-evolutionists is not going to be enough to win the day. Anti-evolutionism is a popular position these days, and it is being promoted heavily on many religious fronts. Tactical victories in courtrooms will not change this, and such victories might not even be enough to shift the initiative away from the anti-evolutionists.

If we continue as we have been, we will lose this fight. It does not matter if we have the weight of all of scientific evidence on our side. It does not matter that we are right. It does not matter that their position is anti-scientific. It does not matter that their outlook on reason is pre-rationalist. It does not even matter that their efforts to integrate their own religious perspective into all aspects of American culture is entirely counter to the vision that the founding fathers had for a republic without a state religion. Those things should matter, of course, but sometimes the popularity of a movement matters more than whether or not the views that it advances are intelligent, healthy, or correct.

Although the enemies of science claim that this is a scientific debate, we know that this is not the case. We understand that their opposition is primarily based in religious beliefs, and in a deep philosophical distaste for the concept of having a cousin swinging from a frame in a zoo while eating bananas. What we don't seem to grasp, however, is that treating this as simply a matter of science versus nonsense is not going to work in the long term. We must begin to treat this as what it is: a battle for the hearts and minds of the next generation.

At the moment, we are losing this battle. Mostly, this is because we haven't been showing up. The Christian right has youth ministers. They have services targeted entirely for young adults. They have tried, and largely succeeded, in creating an environment where it is cool to be a young, conservative Christian. For the most part, our outreach has been absent. We recruit scientists as we always have, and we do very little to make sure that we are exposing everyone to the joys of science from a young age.

This is where we need to do more. We need to get scientists into all classrooms at all levels. We particularly need to get scientists into classrooms in areas that are distant from the academic habitats that we are usually restricted to. We need a real grassroots effort at selling science to the public. I have never met a scientist that was not addicted to science. I have never met a scientist who did not have a true love for the process of discovery. Unfortunately, we are very good at hiding our love of nature behind the clinical language of science. That's the one thing that we need to get worse at.
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