by David Bloomberg
Longtime REALL members may recall that we had a booth two years ago, along with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), Gateway Skeptics, and the St. Louis Association for Teaching and Education, at the Illinois Science Teachers Association (ISTA) annual conference in Collinsville. Anybody who has read my Chairman's column in the past few months knows that we were doing it again this year, here in Springfield.
I must say that this year's conference was somewhat less exciting than the last one we attended -- but excitement can be overrated, especially since, in Collinsville, it came in the form of a creationist yelling at us about how we were going to hell. But I digress.
I'd like to thank (in order of appearance) Ron Larkin, Frank Mazo, Bob Smet, Bob Ladendorf, and a special thanks to Romesh Kumbhani, a University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) student who answered an E-mail request for people with strong biological knowledge to attend in case anybody wanted to debate us. Thanks also go out to NCSE, who provided creation/evolution pamphlets, help in designing REALL's flyers (a copy of which you should find enclosed with this newsletter), and contributed to the cost of the booth; the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), who provided issues of the Skeptical Inquirer and Bringing UFOs Down to Earth (a skeptical UFO booklet by Phil Klass aimed at a young audience) to give away; and to the Skeptics Society, who provided copies of their article, 25 Creationist Arguments and 25 Evolutionists' Answers to hand out to the teachers.
Earlier I noted that the conference was a bit less "exciting" than last time. However, it was definitely good to have been there. We made contact with, and gave information to, a number of teachers, coordinators, and others interested in fighting creationism and other forms of non-scientific thinking. Since a main reason for REALL's existence is to disseminate information to the public, talking to science teachers, who can then pass it along to their colleagues and students, is one of the best ways to meet that goal.
Indeed, just letting them know that we exist is a good reason to be at these conferences. One of the first teachers we talked to on Friday said that he has not yet had any problems while teaching evolution (he was a bit surprised, actually), but wants to be prepared in case he ever does. Others told us that they already have encountered problems with parents and/or school board members and need factual information to help counter the pseudo-science presented by the creationists.
Of course, we also had several creationists come up to us, reacting to our presence with varying degrees of politeness -- though, as I indicated earlier, none started yelling at us, as happened last time. One thing that may have led to some confusion on the part of the creationists who approached us was that our booth apparently did not sufficiently demonstrate our views at first glance. It appears that the first words catching the eyes of many passers-by was the title of Ranse Traxler's article, "The Misconceptions of Evolution." The article (appearing in The REALL News Vol. 1, Number 3) was about common misconceptions that are held by creationists and some of the public about evolution. However, some people saw the title and assumed it was an attack on evolution -- exactly the opposite. Next to that article, we had copies of the Skeptics Society article, 25 Creationist Arguments and 25 Evolutionists' Answers, which seems obvious enough in its stance, but apparently that point didn't come through immediately. Next to that were the NCSE pamphlets with titles like Creation/Evolution, which don't make their position immediately clear either. As the day progressed, we added a couple of "examination copies" (we didn't have enough to hand out) of pamphlets with more direct titles, like Facts, Faith, and Fairness: Scientific Creationism Clouds Scientific Literacy in addition to a "Darwin fish" bumper sticker to make our position a bit clearer. Next time, I'd like something even more demonstrative -- anybody have a life-sized cut-out of Darwin we could borrow?
Of those creationists who didn't know our position and approached us, several left without any of the handouts as soon as they realized they had made a mistake. A few took the information anyway, though one specifically told me she wouldn't change her mind. There was only one creationist who is specifically worth mentioning. He is a teacher in Streator, Illinois, who said he is a creationist and teaches "both" in order to let the students "make up their own minds" (I can only imagine how well he teaches evolution, considering he thinks it's "based on faith" and believes it to be untrue). Our conversation started with him telling Frank Mazo and I that "many of the top scientists are creationists." I immediately challenged that claim, and he just as quickly retreated from it, saying that I may be right, but only because creationists weren't promoted because of their views. That still makes no logical sense, since there is no "promotion" to "top scientist"; it is a description of a person based upon their work and standing with their peers. However, logic didn't seem to be this person's strong point.
Next, he told us of his degree in microbiology. He said that he questioned his evolution professors at college, and they eventually "admitted it was based on faith." I told him that if that was true, his professors weren't very good. He replied that they were the top biologists in the world. Where did he go to school? Western Illinois University. Now, I certainly intend no sleight to Western, or any students or staff there, but I haven't talked to anybody (including graduates of that school) who could support this guy's claim that the top biologists in the world were at Western.
As he started getting in specific biological claims, Ron Larkin took over. The two of them talked for almost an hour, during which time Ron pointed out flaws in his logic and questioned him about his claims. This was a bit uncomfortable for the creationist, who is apparently used to questioning others, but not defending his own unscientific beliefs.
While a main reason for our being at the conference was the creation/evolution issue, we emphasized the entire concept of critical thinking and the scientific method, especially applying it to fringe science claims. We encouraged teachers to help students use the scientific method to look at events occurring outside the science classroom. Indeed, several teachers told us that they were interested in doing so -- one had been doing it for years with good success. We gave them some suggestions, and if any of our readers have ideas for incorporating the topics we deal with here into the classroom, please send them in to me so that I may pass them on to interested teachers.
The next ISTA meeting will be held in the Chicago area, so it is less likely that we will attend unless I hear from some volunteers to help staff a booth. If you're interested, please never hesitate to volunteer to help with something. Volunteer early, and volunteer often!