Scott is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education and one of the most vocal opponents to Intelligent Design. She is often quoted by the media as an expert in science education.
She is also the author of Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction and Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools.
Thanks to all those who submitted questions for the interview.
The transcribed conversation is below:
Eugenie: Yes, because even though the Discovery Institute has changed its strategy and is no longer promoting the idea that schools should have policies teaching Intelligent Design, they’re still out there. The Intelligent Design idea is still floating around among the masses, shall we say, so we fully expect to get school districts on their own, not being directed by the Discovery Institute… [saying,] “Gee, let’s teach Intelligent Design!” But I have a feeling that’s going to stop pretty quickly.
Hemant: Intelligent Design [is going to stop quickly]?
Eugenie: Efforts to try to get policies to try to teach Intelligent Design… now that’s not quite the same thing. I think the Discovery Institute figured out, actually a couple years before Dover, that they bet on the wrong horse. The phrase “Intelligent Design” is a bad one for their purposes, because any judge is going to say, “Hmm… who’s the designer?” And… it’s going to be clear that the designer is going to be God. And you can’t teach that in the public schools. So they’re looking around for an “agentless” form of Creationism.
Hemant: What will be the next incarnation of the Creationism/ID folk?
Eugenie: A [quick] answer to this is that, yes, ID is still going to be popping up in school districts… because they didn’t necessarily get the memo from the Discovery Institute to shift to the new strategy. But I’m sure the Discovery Institute is searching around for an agentless form of Creationism that doesn’t have the liabilities of the phrase “Intelligent Design,” which implies a designer, which implies God, which gets you in trouble with the 1st amendment… sort of the equivalent of what the Creation Science people years ago came up with as “Abrupt Appearance Theory” which doesn’t have an agent… just “poof, there they are, and we can explain this scientifically!”
But what they are concentrating on is the “Teach the Controversy” approach which in translation means “Pretend [to students] that scientists are arguing about whether Evolution happened.” They have a number of euphemisms for this approach. The one they first practiced… was in the Ohio science standards fight of 2002. And that was the “critical analysis of Evolution.” Now these are all terms of art. “Critical analysis of Evolution” sounds very sensible. It sounds perfectly pedagogically correct; why shouldn’t you have a critical examination of anything scientific? That’s fine. But the context here is “critical analysis of Evolution” means “criticize Evolution”…
Both sides [in Ohio] claimed victory. The evolution side said they were just talking about analyzing aspects of evolution. So this is about looking at arguments about mechanisms or about the pattern of evolution… and, of course, the Creationists said, no, this is about whether Evolution took place…
Another euphemism they use is “teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution”… somehow, we have to help the American public understand that when we talk about the “critical analysis of Evolution” or the “strengths and weaknesses of Evolution” or “teach the controversy” or “teach Evolution as theory, not fact,” all of these various euphemisms, what they’re really talking about is teaching bad science in the name of fairness. And it’s not fair to students to teach them wrong stuff…
Hemant: Should we teach ID in the classroom if only to say “Here’s why it’s not valid”?
Eugenie: No… just for purely practical reasons. In order to teach ID, a student has to know a great deal about molecular biology [and] about cellular biology. In order to understand [William] Dembski’s probability theory argument, students have to know a fair amount about probability. Now… how much background knowledge would students have to be given to get them up to the point where they can understand why these arguments are really invalid? It’s not that high school students are incapable of learning this, but teachers don’t have the time to do it.
Hemant: What should our next president do to advocate good science?
Eugenie: On the national level, there’s actually very little that can be done to affect the curriculum… education is very decentralized in this country… Schools boards have a tremendous amount of authority, far more authority than the president does. But that said, it’s a bully pulpit and a great deal more can be done just to change the tone and the mood about science.
Hemant: Where are the attacks on science coming from?
Eugenie: Attacks on evolution come in any state, but they’re more likely to take place in small towns than cities. And that’s a demographic phenomenon… In the small towns… you have less variability. You have less diversity of political entities that are vying for authority. And in a small community, it’s quite possible that religious conservatives might be a substantial minority. And they tend to be very concerned about education, more so than maybe some other pressure groups in the community, and so they will focus their attentions on the school board and who’s being elected and what policies are being followed… that can happen anywhere… small towns in the northwest, the blue states of Washington and Oregon… we’ve had Creationism problems there. We’ve had Creationism problems in upstate New York…
Hemant: Are there any schools that have managed to please both the scientists and the ID-proponents?
Eugenie: No. Because what scientists and teachers want is for the consensus view of science to be taught… you’re not dealing with fringe ideas… in fact, in high school science, you don’t have enough time to deal with all of the consensus science. The ID people want to [make] an idea that’s outside of science — that has not been incorporated into science – mainstream.Hemant: Is there an epidemic of science teachers not teaching (or minimally teaching) Evolution because they don’t know it or simply to avoid any conflict?
Eugenie: We don’t have data on that… it’s my impression that a substantial number of teachers around the country just find Evolution too big a pain in the fanny to deal with. They want to avoid controversy so they just skip it.
Hemant: What should science teachers do when confronted with a student who does not accept evolution?
Eugenie: Call NCSE [510-601-7203 or 1-800-290-6006]. We can put them in touch with people in their community who can support them, with scientists, and with civil libertarians. A great deal of what can be done and should be done is to work behind the scenes so that this does not become a big public press frenzy… so that compromises can be made and the problem can be solved… and it’s more likely to be solved backstage, not onstage.
Hemant: What are the best practices of teachers who have dealt with Creationist parents?
Eugenie: There’s one rather amazing approach that teachers have found successful… When a parent comes in and says, “I don’t want you to teach Johnny Evolution because we don’t believe in it,” what a teacher can say is, “Well… please understand that it’s my job as a teacher to teach the consensus view of science. I’m going to be teaching Johnny what scientists think is accurate science. This is what he’s going to learn when he goes to university,” for example. “Johnny’s job is to learn it. If he wants to reject it, that’s his business.”
And all of a sudden, the parents get considerably more relaxed because they thought they were going to be made to “believe in Evolution” and “[believing] in evolution” is not what education is all about. The interesting thing that happens… is that Johnny learns Evolution and find it’s not as scary as he’s been told. Because what he’s been told is that if you – I’m going to use the proper term – accept Evolution, you have to give up your faith in God. And that simply is empirically wrong. What it may result in is Johnny tempering some of his religious ideas because, indeed, Evolution is incompatible with Biblical literalism… but it is not incompatible with the majority of Christian theology.
Hemant: What are the best resources for someone to learn about evolution?
Eugenie: Especially for teachers, there’s a wonderful website sponsored by the University of California Museum of Paleontology. It’s called ”Understanding Evolution”… it’s got information on the science of Evolution as well as really good information on how to teach it better. That’s your one-stop shopping.
Hemant: [From a reader] Are there any Eugenie Scott T-shirts or mugs? A huge fan here needs one.
Eugenie: I’m turning pink! No, this is not the “Cult of Genie”! But you could get a Steve shirt from NCSE! Project Steve is much better than a Genie Scott shirt.
Hemant: And that’s still going well, right?
Eugenie: Oh, this is the gift that keeps on giving!… The Steve-o-Meter is now over 800 Steves…
Hemant: Are there other debates which involve religion in schools?
Eugenie: Sex ed. Sex education was the first big cultural battle ground for religion versus science. But again, it’s not so much over the science, which is one of the distinctions. Similarly, the battle over stem cells is not so much over the science… nobody really argues that stem cells can be made to do wonderful things… well, ok, there’s something of an argument going on over whether somatic stems cells are as good an embryonic stem cells, but that’s something that you can evaluate with the science and the science hasn’t really been done. Thus far, it looks like the somatic cells don’t work as well, but by and large, the argument over stem cells is over “Should we do it?” Not whether the science works… and the distinction between that and Evolution is that you do have people saying the science doesn’t work [in Evolution]. Part of the argument is emotional – if my child learns Evolution, then he’ll give up his faith in God – but a big chunk of the Creation/Evolution controversy are attacks on the validity of the science itself, which does make this a little different from other science-related controversies.
Hemant: I heard your first name is actually “Atheist.”
Eugenie: That’s what it appears to be, at least on a number of websites… it’s sort of like the ID community’s inability to write one or two sentences without sounding alarmist! I don’t describe myself as an atheist because atheism has a connotation of more than just not-theism… [The connotation] of atheist is someone who is anti-religious. I’m not anti-religious. I’m an anthropologist. It makes as much sense for me to be anti-religious as it does for me to be anti-kinship. I mean, this is part of the human condition. I don’t believe in the supernatural. But when I look at the huge component that religion is, in human culture… it is foolish to just dismiss it as foolish superstition that we can ignore. We can’t. We have to understand why it is so meaningful for so many people. And if we can come up with a non-supernatural way for meeting those same needs, perhaps that is useful. But I don’t consider religion to be an unmitigated evil, as do some people who call themselves capital-A atheists…
Hemant: How would you answer that question of what you are?
Eugenie: I would say I am a non-believer or I am a non-theist. And then at least they have to ask, “What is a non-theist?” Or most commonly, I will describe myself as a Humanist. Because Humanist is actually not an anti- position. A Humanist is a position that holds for certain values and ideals… [Why] define yourself as non-theist? Define yourself by what you do believe rather than for what you’re against.
Hemant: What can we do to promote science to women?
Eugenie: I think promoting science to women is parallel to promoting science in the general public or promoting science to children in general. We have to help people understand that science is not just important… but it’s really fun and interesting.
Hemant: What led to your interest in science?
Eugenie: Beats me. I just always liked nature. I always liked animals. I was never really able to explore nature very much. I lived in cities. We never had a car. We never went camping. But I always wanted to do things like that. And once I did grow up and once I did get a car, I started camping! I started getting out in nature as much as I could.
Eugenie: And I must say when I looked at that page on the website… I believe I’m a fairly modest person, but I was proud that that was the most inflammatory thing they could find to quote me on. I’m quoted as saying, “ID is [ultimately] a science stopper.” And all the rest of them are just flaming religion…
When I think back onto the interview [for the movie]… I can’t think that I gave them much that they could use. What happened was [Producer] Mark Mathis called me up several weeks after the interview, saying, “Boy,we really liked the footage we shot of you. I want to come back with our host [Ben Stein] and just shoot the same questions all over again, ok?” Yeah, that’s perfectly fine. And it was a few days later we found out that “Rampant Films” was just a show and that there’s something real fishy going on about this whole thing. And actually, I didn’t know how fishy it was until… Denyse O’Leary blogged [about] her attendance at a Discovery Institute preview of the film. We kinda got an idea of what this was all about. But basically, I was just offended that he hadn’t been honest with me. You know, I had a great rapport with Mark Mathis. We had very friendly emails. We commiserated about bad backs… I liked the guy! And so, when you do develop a rapport with a reporter and then you find out that you have been deceived, you are more annoyed. I told him that I wasn’t going to [do] a follow-up interview. Well, of course, that would’ve been with Ben Stein and they would’ve hammered me on [Rick] Sternberg and all the other martyrs, I’m sure. But I can’t think of any footage that they got of me that’s going to be very helpful…
Hemant: Do you think they’re going to use the original interview of you at all?
Eugenie: That’s all they’re going to be able to use. Unless they’ve got some newsreel footage or something… but I’m pretty careful about what I say in public. I mean, it’s easy because, like I say, I’m not anti-religious, so I don’t go about making all kinds of statements they love to quote. And I don’t make ad hominem remarks. I keep my opinions of these people to myself.
… ok, I do think Kent Hovind is a loon, but that’s about as strong as I get.
Hemant: What the funniest thing an ID person has said about you?
Eugenie: Let me count the ways… well, I suppose it’s always amusing being compared to a Nazi. Simply because it’s so over the top. There’s somebody’s rule… that whichever side starts comparing the opposition to neo-Naziism loses. [Hemant’s note: It’s Godwin’s Law]
[tags]Atheist Alliance International, Eugenie Scott, National Center for Science Education, Charles Darwin, evolution, religion, science, Kitzmiller v. Dover, Intelligent Design, William Dembski Rick Sternberg[/tags]