Josh Rosenau – The Evolution Revolution

April 18, 2011

Our guest this week is Josh Rosenau, the Programs and Policy Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and writer of the blog “Thoughts from Kansas” at ScienceBlogs.

Josh has pursued a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas, studying the ways ecological competition shapes the ecological niche and geographical ranges of species. In his role at the NCSE, he works with grassroots groups, testifies before school boards, meets with legislators, works with scientists to be more effective communicators and the public to increase science literacy globally.

In this interview with Karen Stollznow, Josh presents the “Three Pillars of Creationism”, the beliefs and claims of creationists. He describes their rhetoric and propaganda, and the setbacks they cause for science, from legal cases to creationist theme parks.

Josh also talks about some recent successes for science. The NCSE works tirelessly to battle creationists and improve the public understanding of evolution. But this is an organization that aims to “go out of business”, and where the staff members ultimately aim to be out of their jobs.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, April 18th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Josh Rosenow, the programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education, the NCC and writer of the blog. Thoughts from Kansas at Science Blogs. Josh is formerly a doctoral candidate at the University of Kansas in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. 

In his role of the NCOIC, he works with grassroots groups, testifies before school boards, meets with legislators. He works with scientists to be more effective communicators and works with the public to increase science literacy globally. Josh, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks. Great to be here. 

Now, you work for the National Center for Science Education, also known as the NSCLC, and one of your roles is that of media representative for not only your organization, Bot’s for Evolution. Now, skeptics are always asked, what is skepticism? And we’re expected to supply a precise and pithy answer. So what is your public elevator pitch to explain evolution? 

Evolution is the explanation for the diversity of life on Earth. It’s the foundation of modern biology, and it’s something that all students should understand and be able to then be comfortable with. 

Well done. That was very pithy. And in a previous interview with demographer Cheryl Russell, she revealed that a little over 50 per cent of Americans believe in evolution. So how do you communicate to people that evolution is a fact? Whether they want to believe in it or not? 

I think that the important thing there is really the word believe, because I don’t believe in evolution. I don’t believe in gravity. 

It’s not about what I believe or what I don’t believe. It’s about what the evidence tells us. And the best scientific evidence, the consensus of the community, of scholars who study this is that evolution works. Evolution is the best explanation for the diversity of life. 

And that’s that’s what’s important. People can believe whatever they might like, but the facts on the ground are going to stay the same. 

And current statistics are also showing that younger adults are more likely to believe in evolution. So to what do you attribute this? 

I think that evolution, education is improving. I think a lot more teachers are part of the challenge in science education is that the people doing high school science education, which in some cases are is the last science class the person is going to take. The people doing those classes maybe had a science class in college 20 years ago or more than one science class. But, you know, the last science class that they took at full length was was 20 years ago, which means that they’re always gonna be there will always be a certain lag between what students are learning right now and what scientists are teaching in college classes right now. 

And John Miller at University of Michigan has done science literacy surveys for decades now and comparing American and European levels of science literacy. American students on standardized tests do a lot worse than European students on average. But the publics in the United States and Europe wind up being basically on this on a par. And his argument is that we basically catch up in America by having most colleges require at least one science class from their students. And his argument is that we’re basically catching people up. The American public up with with other industrialized nations, with that one year of science class that the fraction of people who go to college are taking. Which if that’s if that’s true, it is a sort of remarkable thing. So I think that the level of science education in high school is improving because younger teachers are are getting a better evolution education than they were in the early 90s or the 80s, which means that they’re teaching it more and it’s in more state science standards. And the quality of the state science standards as they cover evolution is better there. So there’s more pressure on teachers from formal institutional structures that they should teach it. 

And a lot of more scientists are out there doing more science education, they’re doing. They’re doing podcasts. They’re blogging themselves. They’re contributing to people’s blogs. They’re doing science cafes. They’re trying to find ways to reach out beyond the traditional sort of staid, stentorian NOVA special with some British accent in the background, explaining to you what these animals are doing. They’re trying to find different ways to reach out to the public and explain why evolution is important. And all of that has to contribute. 

OK. And so you’re talking about education beyond secondary and tertiary level. So I’m also thinking about grassroots groups. And you’ve worked closely with grassroots groups to improve the public understanding of evolution. So how effective are grassroots efforts? 

Grassroots efforts are key to a lot that we do because a lot of what we’re doing is not. We’ve got a dozen people on staff at NCSA, give or take. And there’s no way that that wee wee small band of folks here could possibly change the the broader public perception of evolution. Most of what we’re doing is is helping people who are in trouble in a local community. No parent calls us and says. My my kid came home with this creationist pamphlet. What do I do? And in helping a parent in a situation like that or a teacher who’s being pressured by by a parent or by an administrator not to teach evolution, helping someone in that situation, it’s it’s really key to have someone in their community that they can work with, because usually the folks who are calling us know basically what they have to do. They know what’s right and they know why what’s happening in their community is wrong. But they feel alone. And they they they just need someone to say you’re doing the right thing or you’re in the right place. And it’s great if we can do that. But if there’s someone who can go with them to a meeting in their school, that’s even better if there’s someone that they can have. Have a coffee with now and then and just be able to talk about it. And. Be more at ease with that situation, that’s that’s really key. And it also means that it’s not us rolling in from California and saying, hi, we want to tell you, Arkansas, how to run your schools, which is not going to work. I mean, that, you know, they don’t they don’t cotton much to carpetbaggers in a lot of the places where we have problems. 

You’re talking the talk there. Yeah. 

I’ve always wondered that your organizations in California, in Oakland and a lot of these issues are in the south. 

It seems so far away from it, all its things come up all over the country, things come up not necessarily so much in the Bay Area, but certainly in the Central Valley in California and in Southern California and in rural areas in northern California. There was a case in Berkeley last year. Last year, the year before, where a third grade teacher after going on and telling the students, hey, you know, Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and that’s a myth added just like evolution. 

So we got into that a little bit, too. But it shows up all over the place. I think if you look at the distribution of things that we’re actively monitoring at any given time, the distribution on the map is pretty uniform. That almost surely doesn’t reflect where things are actually happening. But for us to hear about something, there has to be it has to be happening in the community and someone in the community has to be bothered by it. And I think in a lot of communities in Alabama. No one is going to no one. No one minds that creationism is being taught in the school there. And the teachers can be doing it. And it’s not uncommon for something to come to us. A teacher’s photocopying, a creationist textbook that he he made himself. It’s happened in Virginia a few years back and someone filed suit over it and complains about it. And it turns out that he’s been doing this for 20 years. You know, this is it turns. And in this case in Virginia, it was the year that the guy was going to retire. So if the student had come forward a year later, there would have been no lawsuit even to be filed. I mean, we would have heard about it and we would have been bothered by it, but there would have been very little to be done at that point. So it’s not uncommon that when we hear about something, the teacher will say, hey, I’ve been doing this for decades. Why? Why are you complaining about it now? So, you know, it happens all over the place. I’m sure that it’s more concentrated in the southeast. When you look at public polling, the levels of rejection of evolution are much higher in the southeast. It would be shocking if that didn’t translate into what’s happening in the schools. But we’re in in California basically for historical happenstance. When when the group was founded in 1981, there was no staff. It was an all volunteer organization that existed to bring together information that was being gathered by local groups in all all over the country, groups in Kentucky and Kansas, all over the place that had been doing sending information around to each other, sort of round robin style. And they said, you know what, we really should have a central clearinghouse that can coordinate everything that we’re doing. And that’s what NTSC was. It was it was just a repository of information. After in 1987, after the Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court case struck down the teaching of creation science. And the creationist came right back and said, OK, we’re going to find a different strategy. It became clear that this wasn’t something that was just going to go away. And the group decided to hire an executive director who was Jeannie Scott, who is still the executive director. And at the time she was teaching here in the East Bay. And the first office was in her basement. And it’s been here ever since. 

And apparently there were another candidate that they were considering at the time, lived in. I think Buffalo or Albany or something. I can’t tell you how often I’m grateful that they chose Geni, not just for that reason, but, you know, not not having to have to move to upstate New York. All right. 

And so it seems to me then that there could be a lot of activity that’s taking place, which is underground, and you’ll never find out about it then. 

I suspect that that’s true. 

There was a survey that came out a couple of years ago with a researcher in Pennsylvania surveyed 500 or so high school science teachers, and one in eight of those teachers said that they spend at least an hour advocating for creationism in their classrooms. We’re not there. You know, of the hundreds of thousands of teachers of science teachers that are out there. You know, we’re not getting that level of reporting. So clearly, there’s a lot going out there that we never hear about. We try to do outreach through things like national science teachers association conferences, skeptic’s conferences, other things so that parents and teachers and and other folks in the community will know that we’re there and we’re available to help. So hopefully if someone encounters something happening in their schools, they can contact us and we can we can do what we can to help. But a lot of of the way that we hear about things and we see something in a local newspaper through a Google News alert, or it bubbles up somehow and becomes a conflict not over evolution, but in the course of some other thing that’s happening. A newspaper story will say, oh, and this teacher is also teaching creationism. Really? OK, there in Ohio, there’s a case that is still I think it’s in its third year now that this has been dragging on a teacher. That headline story was in April of Think it was 2008. The headline was that the teacher was was had all these Bibles being removed from his classroom. So a middle school teacher in in Ohio. And it turned out pretty soon that this was a result of a dispute where he had burned with using a high voltage device in his classroom. He had burned a cross in the kid’s arm. And then, as it turned out, he had also been teaching creationism. So so we sort of kept an eye on the case, but really burning the cross on the kid’s arm was the big issues here. 


Although ultimately, what he what the school board. The thing that they both had the best grounds to fire him over was the teaching creationism part. But he’s still appealing his his dismissal from the school for reasons that are hard to fathom. 

But there it is. 

And you were talking about outreach. And I wanted to ask about science communication. You work with scientists and teachers to help them to become more effective science communicators. So in what ways are or were they doing it wrong? 

The way that we teach scientists to communicate the scientific paper is in many ways intentionally the worst way to communicate ideas. It’s it’s supposed to be because the easiest way to tell is to convey an idea to someone is to tell them a story. That’s the way that humans have been doing communicating big ideas to each other for, you know, all of human existence as far as we know. 

And the scientific paper is a.. Story in a lot of ways. Right. You start off with the introduction. This is everything I knew before I even began this study. And then the methods. This is the things that I did. I had no idea what the results would be. And then here the results. And here are the conclusions I drew for them. That’s not the way that anyone does research. Right. 

You gather some information and that’s fine. And then you go and you figure out, OK. Here’s an experiment I want to do when you get some results. And those were interesting and it suggests some more experiments. And so you go back and you get some more information. You devised some new methods, get some more results. And all along the way, you’re analyzing them and going back and tweaking your methods. 

And at some at the end of it, you’ve got some data to work with. And there’s a story there that you could use to convey how you do science and why this result is exciting. But in a scientific paper, you don’t want to be getting into all of that because. Those are essentially ways that you can almost cheat. It’s not even the sign of the paper, it wants to be just about here’s the here the data and here’s how I analyze them and the results that I draw from. You want to take the personality out of it as much as possible so that you can have an unbiased evaluation of the results. And that’s great for a scientific paper. But in a public presentation, it’s awful. It’s just there’s nothing to compel anyone to stay sitting through a presentation like that. And a lot of times we just don’t train young scientists or reward scientists who choose to do this necessarily to do that sort of scientific outreach. We don’t train people to do a fifteen minute talk at a conference, let alone a 15 minute talk at a science cafe where you’re talking to non-specialist. And, you know, it’s little things like that where not everyone has to do that. Not everyone is going to be good at it. Not even going to want to do it, but provide the risk, providing the resources and providing the training. How do you do a radio interview? How do you do an interview for a podcast? How do you talk to a TV reporter or print reporter? It’s little things that at some point a researcher may well have to do or may well have an opportunity to do and be better if they do it well and they do it badly. And a lot of those skills are also things that translate to the classroom. A lot of college lectures are just definitely dull and could really be improved. With no small changes, but having a lot of people. Then when I was in grad school, I don’t. I never got any sort of formal training in pedagogy. And I think a lot of my professors had neither. 

So some of it is little stuff like that that we can do outreach and help people just find better ways to convey who they are as scientists and why they’re excited about what you’re doing and why this is important in ways that go beyond what would be acceptable in a, you know, public in a scientific research paper. 

So, Josh, speaking about research in your own academic research, you’ve studied the rhetoric of creationists in the Islamic world. 

So in general, what is the rhetoric of creationists who could maybe describe it a bit and provide some examples that the framework that I’ve used for that research and I’ve also been applying to global warming denial as well, is what we talked about there being three pillars of creationism. Big rhetorical frames that you see through through the ages in creationist rhetoric, going back to William Jennings Bryan in the early, early creationist movement in the 19 teens and twenties, and the three big themes are the idea that evolution is a bad science. It’s doomed. It’s about to go by the wayside. And there’s people who’ve collected quotations from creationists going back even before the time of Darwin saying, oh, you know, these these anti Genesis ideas are surely going to fall by the wayside any day now. And people are going to return to just straight up biblical creationism or people saying, oh, yes, evolution is a false science. And even even scientists are rejecting it. They’re trying to prop it up because of their evil secular agenda. But it’s going to fall any day now. People saying that in the 80s, people saying that in the 1930s, people saying that in the 1930s, in the 1980s and it still has not happened. You’ve the second pillar is. Historically, it was evolution is incompatible with with Christianity, with book. And then that sort of morphs and becomes more generally. Evolution is incompatible with Christian morality, with morality in general evolution. Versions of this are that our evolution leads to the Holocaust or it leads to communism or it leads to abortion or any of it leads to terrorism is an argument that the Turkish creationists make that trying to say that the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 were somehow because of Darwin. And the third pillar in the climate change realm. This isn’t a religious. Issue that it gets brought up. What? The way that it comes up is that. Climate change or accepting the climate change is happening leads to anticapitalist anti free market policies and that this is therefore the same thing as promoting communism and Stalin ism and Maoism and. All of the atrocities committed by your least favorite communist regime. And the third pillar that we see is an argument that, well, people should just be able to make up their own minds. For William Jennings Bryan, this was. Taxpayers pay their money for the public school and they should be able to decide what’s talking to them. In the 1970s and 1980s, the creation science movement said, we just want balanced treatment of evolution and creationism and students should get equal time for both and they should be able to make up their own mind. And the Discovery Institute these days and in through throughout the era of intelligent design, their argument is let’s teach the controversy just and let students make up their own mind. Let’s teach these strengths and weaknesses of evolution. Let’s teach the arguments for and against. These are all standard parts of the rhetoric. What’s interesting is that looking at the writings of the pseudonymous Turkish writer hiring Yaha, who is this is a pseudonym that has to have more than one person behind it, because the sheer volume of material that comes out under this name is unimaginable. There’s no way that one person is doing this. 

What it seems to be is largely American creationist material that was translated to Turkish edited. The Koran is nonspecific about the age of the Earth. It doesn’t have the beginning. It doesn’t talk about days. They on the first day that happened on the second date has happened just as first this happened, then this happened. Then that happened. 

Which means that it’s not a younger creationism, the way that the Institute for Creation Research or answers in Genesis with their Creation Museum and the Noah’s Ark Theme Park. They’re fine with the universe being thirteen point seven billion years old and the Clinton earth being four and 1/2 billion years old. So they drop those parts. The editors, they reorganize it a little bit, then translate it back into English. They translate into French and German, into European and Western language is really more before they translate it into Arabic or Urdu or languages used in majority Muslim countries. And a lot of this material is distributed to Turkish populations in Europe or in the United States to try to keep them within the fold, to try to keep them within the traditions. 

And so looking at that material, you don’t see that third pillar. You see the first pillar, you see them. A lot of arguments that evolution is wrong. He there was this big twelve pound. I just waited yesterday for a talk that I was giving this book that weighs twelve pounds. It’s got great big thick covers with holograms embedded in them on the front back and every page in it. It’s got to be 300 pages long, each of them full color glossy photographs, mostly contrasting a fossil organism with a modern species that’s supposed to look exactly the same. So therefore, evolution must be wrong because, look, these haven’t evolved. The site of all of these things are. The photographs are beautiful, they’re taken from great sources, usually without copyright in some cases. When people look carefully at the pictures, they realize that the insects that he was trying to illustrate were not actually insects. They were photographs of fishing laws that he had copied. You can see the fishing hook. I don’t know if he thought it was an over positive or something, but no, it’s a fishing hook. And along the way, arguing that therefore evolution is wrong and evolution leads to communism and the Holocaust, and for while he was a Holocaust denier. But then he decided that evolution led to the Holocaust. So to find that had occurred. And copies of this were sent out to every basically every biology professor in the United States and in England and in France, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of copies of this sent out for free. No one knows where the money comes from. Really, their ideas out there. But. Nothing that that is as well-supported as I might like this, certainly a lot of propaganda there. 

And so I’m wondering if this rhetoric is persuasive to outside groups. 

He clearly thinks it is in Turkey. And clearly in the United States, the fact that for 30 some odd years that we have good public polling, the numbers on acceptance of evolution are basically the same. Certainly suggests that that that rhetoric is effective and it plays to a lot of our biases. 

Who doesn’t want to be on the cutting edge of the brand new science that’s coming in? Sure, evolution is great, but that’s all that’s 19th century science. And a lot of times that the argument they’ll make. Oh, that that’s old. That’s sure. In the 19th century, that was fine. But now in the 21st century, we’ve got the exciting science of intelligent design or whatever, and that has an appeal. And partly it has an appeal because the idea that humans share a common ancestor with monkeys bothers people. 

The idea that we evolved from animals, that we are animals, that we are primates. That makes people feel like they’re not quite as special as they’d like to be. And it raises questions about, OK, so where does the soul come from? What happens to me after I die if I just evolved? Where where does morality come from? If I wasn’t created and if there’s no creator and if the law was not handed down to Moses on that final, you know, these big questions that are not going to be answered in a biology class, certainly. And it’s just not the place to for that discussion. 

But questions that once people start thinking about evolution, they get raised for them and then they have a hard time finding answers to. 

So they wind up just rejecting the science, because if someone comes to and says, hey, it’s not only does it have all these pernicious moral effects, and not only does it scare you in all sorts of ways, it’s wrong. It’s bad science. And here I’ve got this other thing that is totally legitimate. And one of the things Horyn Yaha does in Turkey is invite Western scientists in who, you know, it’ll be. People from the Institute for Creation Research or the Discovery Institute. But people who have PTSD and say, look, these Western scientists, American scientists come here and tell you that intelligent design is is good research, that evolution is bad. 

And that’s a really popular message because Turkey is pro-Western in a lot of ways. They want to be more like Europe. They want to be more like America. They want to have an active scientific research community. And if they can be on the cutting edge like that and they can be validated by Western scientists, then so much the better. 

And you highlighted one piece of this rhetoric just a little while ago that students should be allowed to analyze and evaluate all sides of scientific evidence. So at the secondary level, are students able to critically evaluate these complex arguments or should this really be about teaching facts at that stage? 

I certainly think that you would you have to be giving students the tools. You know, the base work of skepticism, the ability to evaluate claims you want to be laying that groundwork in in their their primary and secondary education, certainly. Is the best way to do that with evolution? Probably not. 

I mean, that’s. You want to be laying a foundation also of the basic ideas that they need to have in the basic facts and the basic conceptual understanding that they’re going to need for a lifetime. And if you talk to pretty much anyone in the scientific community, you’d look at statements from groups like the National Academy of Sciences, biology societies, science, teaching societies, medical societies. All of them will say that evolution is the foundation of modern biology. 

And in an era where personal genomics revolution is just starting, it’s getting to the point where. In 10 years, I would be surprised if having your whole genome sequence done is a cheek swab and a 50 dollar fee when you go to the doctor. How do people. Fifty dollars may be optimistic, but but it’s already the cost is dropping rapidly. So how do people deal with that information when it comes out? How do people how can people be not just biologists, not just researchers, but how can people be informed citizens in a world where we we can produce synthetic organisms? And where do it yourself? Synthetic biology is a hobby that people are taking up. How do we deal with the tricky issues that that’s that’s going to raise for society if people don’t understand the basic ideas of the science? So I think, yeah, the primary and secondary education, the focus should be on getting people to understand the basic concepts, which has to include evolution. And then, of course, it has to include giving people the skills to be critical thinkers around scientific issues and to be able to to evaluate claims that someone’s making. But there are lots of ways to do that. That with things that are legitimate scientific controversies, whether it’s within biology of saying, OK, let’s let’s look at the discussion that goes on between people who think that natural selection dominates evolutionary processes and people who think that neutral drift dominates evolutionary processes. There’s real science there and there’s an interesting discussion to be had. But in order to do that, you need to first understand what evolution is and then understand when natural selection is understand which and drifted, and then you can start examining some of the legitimate scientific controversy within evolution. But to treat evolution as something that is itself scientifically controversial is misinforming the students. 

And you were talking about evolution denial recently. And you’re currently working on a paper that draws parallels between evolution, denial and global warming denial. Do you think that we could link evolution denial to any other kind of denial, like Holocaust denial as well? 

I think that you do see similarities in the rhetoric from a lot of different sorts of denial’s movements, whether it’s evolution, denial or global warming denial or vaccine denial, or I haven’t looked at as much at the rhetoric around Holocaust denial by ISIS. Back to you would see some similarities there, too. And the the three pillars that I described before for evolution, you see very similar sorts of rhetoric around global warming. Where the focus, instead of being on a religious aversion to the idea, it becomes of political and economic ideology based aversion to the idea that if we accept political warming is happening, then it will lead to massive government regulation of the economy. And that will be horrible for all sorts of reasons. It’s scholars who’ve studied this, described it as free market fundamentalism, in contrast to the religious fundamentalism that drives creationism. But the mindset is very similar and there is substantial overlap between the groups. There’s your if you’re in surveys that I’ve seen where people ask people about their beliefs around evolution and global warming. People who reject one are much more likely to reject the other. 

And so, like with global warming skeptics, do you creationists advocate themselves evolution skeptics? 

Yeah, you’ll see that. And in the groups like the Discovery Institute will have. Have. Sort of half heartedly, at least glommed on to global warming denial as something where, oh, look, the same way that we we say that pro intelligent design articles aren’t being published in the scientific literature because of a massive conspiracy of scientists. And, well, look. Global warming deniers say the same thing is happening, too, to their attempts to disprove the science of global warming. It’s this is all the same process. They haven’t really done a lot to try to develop those sorts of linkages or to really they have not at the Discovery Institute, which is the institutional home of intelligent design, creationism. Really done much with global warming denial. But in their blogs and in their writings, they often draw that parallel. 

Mm hmm. And you mentioned your colleague, Jamie Scott’s a little earlier. And she once said to me that the ultimate objective of the NCSA is to go out of business and for the staff to be out of jobs that you don’t wants to be needed as an organization. So at this stage, when will you be out of a job? 

I can’t I can’t disagree that this is one of those jobs where I would be happy to be put out of business. I don’t see it happening anytime soon. 

As I as I said before, the polling around evolution for 30 years has been basically unchanged. The number of people who accept that evolution happens is within, I think, four or five percentage points of where it was in 1981. And it’s never really varied by more than. Four or five points from from the average over those 30 years. Global warming is is more variable in how people accepted views haven’t really hardened the way that they seem to have done around evolution. So hopefully that’s something that that doesn’t become a persistent. Anti. Anti science movement in the way that creationism has has done. But the anti evolution forces are continue to be well-organized. Groups like Answers in Genesis has just announced that they’re going to be getting can be investing a whole bunch of money to build a Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky, where they will build a scale model. What will build a full sized model of the ark? They’re going to have a model of the power of battle on the theory that that worked out so well the last time I’d heard of that. 

That’s the Ark encounter, isn’t it? That’s what it’s called yet. Yeah. That they’ll have live animals on Noah’s Ark. Right. Show how it’s done. Yes. 

And we’ve got other creation museums, too, the one in Petersburg, Kentucky, and the Creation Evidence Museum in Texas. 

And there’s the whole one end experience. 

There are a bunch of a lot of these are just like little things that that in Missouri for a while, there was a persistent back and forth between a local school district that had a habit of taking students to their local little creationist museum that claimed to have the hammer. Noah used to build the ark, among other important relics. So, yeah, I mean, it’s just crazy little things that pop up that you’d never hear about, except that all of a sudden there’s a teacher asking, is this really OK that this is going on? And so, yeah, I mean, it’s it’s something that has become so ingrained in American culture that I think it’s going to be it’ll take a while to even be able to talk realistically about having about rooting that that movement out of the American psyche. 

But you’ve also had a lot of successes in the past year, the biology textbook textbooks which were approved in Louisiana. And was it Don McLeroy who was booted off the Texas Board of Education and their anti evolution bills, which failed in Arkansas and Missouri and Kentucky and elsewhere? 

Oklahoma, I don’t think there was one in Arkansas, but yeah, but with the New Year, we’ve had six new bills filed. Just since the beginning of the year, hopefully none of them will go anywhere. But. It’s this the last election brought in much more conservative state legislatures and a whole bunch of new legislators. So in places where these bills have been introduced before and they usually die in committee. Yeah, they just they’re legislative sessions are pretty short. There’s not a whole lot of time on the calendar and the states have bigger problems to deal with. They, for the most part, don’t have any money. And so they have to deal with that. So hopefully they just decide that they don’t really have time to get into these culture war issues. But sometimes taking some votes on culture where things as a way to to make people happy after you’ve had to take some tough votes on on financial things. So it’s not inconceivable that these come up for a vote this year. And it’s harder to predict because there’s been so much turnover after the last election. 

So far, the only of these bills that has passed was the one in Louisiana where we’re watching and hoping that it doesn’t mind up have having negative consequences. But it’s hard because these bills, the way that they’re written, they don’t require anyone to do anything that they aren’t already doing necessarily. But it allows you to to teach critical analysis by, you know, especially around controversial subjects like evolution and climate change. Which, again, you know, I’m sure everyone kids should be taught to analyze things critically. It sounds so reasonable. But ultimately, the arguments that people make in terms of, well, you know, what would this look like? What would be a simple lesson plan that you think teachers should do for this and the examples that they give our standard creationist arguments. So the fear is that this will that creationist teachers will take this as an opportunity to as an invitation to do more creationist teaching. And the teachers who. The majority of teachers who don’t feel comfortable teaching evolution as it is, the survey that I was describing earlier found that 60 percent of teachers minimize their coverage of evolution. They cover it, but they just do what they think of as the bare minimum. And they try to couch in ways that, you know, students have to believe this. They don’t have to accept this. We just you know, this is in the in the standard. So I have to cover it. But, you know, we’ll move on really quickly. Teachers in that sort of situation will see this and the singling out of evolution in the bill itself as just another reason to to undersell what we know about evolution. 

So you’re being kept busy, but you’d rather be out of a job than be fine. So just a bit of a fun question. What is Project Steve? 

Project Steve is a response to a standard style of anti evolution argument going back even to the 1920s in the era of the Scopes trial and William Jennings Bryan. You would have creationists showing up at school board meetings saying, look, I’ve got here a statement signed by 50 eminent scientists or 100 eminent scientists, all of whom reject evolution. Right now, the Discovery Institute has a statement like this. It’s actually an incredibly weak statement. 

It says, yeah, we’re we, the undersigned are skeptical that evolution by natural selection and random mutation is sufficient to explain the diversity of life on Earth. And we encourage people to be skeptical about other things. Well, you know what? I could find that right. I mean, I know that there are other evolutionary mechanisms than just natural selection and mutation. I know. So the fact that they’ve only been able to get 700 some odd people to sign their their petition actually speaks pretty poorly. But they use it for the same purpose to show up at school board meetings and say, oh, we’ve got a seven, seven or eight hundred scientists who reject evolution and who think that we should be teaching intelligent design. So in response to that, we decided to have our own petition. And because science is not is not decided by petitions, we didn’t want to just have something, you know, and other things for people to sign and another meaningless petition out there. So we decided to to point out the problems with these petitions by saying you can only sign our petition if your name is Steve or Stephen or Stephanie or Esteban or some other cognitive Steve. So this is in honor of the late Stephen Jay Gould, but also just a way of saying, look, you can make a petition to show just about anything with with any sort of arbitrary restrictions and rules. And what does this really mean anyway? Although at the end of the day, we do know from census records that the I was just looking at this. It’s eleven hundred fifty five scientists who signed the petition so far. Steve’s represent around one percent of the U.S. population. 


Assuming that the scientific world is about in line with that, fifty 155 scientists to find our petition correspond to one hundred and fifteen thousand scientists. Which and which comes out to something like half of the biologists working in the United States of APHC biologists. Which is pretty good compared to the seven or eight hundred people that the Discovery Institute has gotten to sign their petition without any restrictions on national origin or on the name or in some cases even on the professional qualifications. 

That’s a nice parody. Yeah, we have fun with it. 

And just finally, Josh, I’d like to ask my guests for a bit of wisdom from their area of expertize. So Inclosing, what would be your soundbite about evolution from points of inquiry listeners? 

I guess for me, the biggest thing that I found is it’s remarkable how often people will call up and basically just looking for an argument. It’s like in the Monty Python sketch, you know. Yes, I’m here for. I’d like to sign up for an argument, please. And they come in and they start off. They have some pretense of why they’re calling. Oh, yes. I had a question about fossils. And pretty soon we’re arguing about standard creationists talking point. 

But when it’s possible to essentially to get the fingers out of the years, to just get past whatever their initial point of resistance is, how often it’s possible to have a genuine conversation with them and not to turn them around 100 percent in one 15 minute conversation. But but to to really move them at least gradually, to be to open their mind up a little bit and to be thinking about it a little bit differently. And if they have 100 interactions like that, you have several things where people take them seriously and listen carefully to what they’re saying to find what that what that the nugget of their argument really is. That underlies all the other things that they might be saying that you really can move people and that there are opportunities to change minds and that that’s cause for optimism. 

So you don’t just end the conversation after five minutes and then shot to the mall sometimes. 

But if I’m if I’m in a good mood, you know, you can you can often have a good conversation that does get people thinking a little bit differently. 

And I guess that’s one of the many reasons why your organization exists and is so successful. 

Yeah. If we can do stuff wholesale, then that’s great. But sometimes it’s all it’s about doing it retail. Just one person at a time. Yes. Oh yeah. And that is amazing to who takes that. 

If they’ve been getting these talking points in a church group that they attend and they take back some of these responses and and just plant that one seed of doubt in a few other people, you get a different conversation going. 

And that’s that’s all part of what has to happen. 

Well, Josh, thank you so much. It was a pleasure to speak with you today. Good talking to you. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. You can find out more about Josh at his blog. Thoughts from Kansas at science blogs, dot com backslash TFC. And you can find out more about the National Center for Science Education. That’s in CSC dot com to participate in the online conversation about this show. Please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Mark Whilom. Today show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow