Engaging the Public

October 25, 2005

A copy of Rolling Stone sat on the driver’s seat of a car parked in front of Ida Noyes Hall at the University of Chicago Saturday. On top of the cover were bold red letters advertising an article about the Pennsylvania trial where parents have sued a school board to keep “intelligent design” out of the classroom: “Science vs. Faith: Evolution on Trial.”

Inside Ida Noyes, scientists from around the country were gathered for a conference on the “developmental basis of evolutionary change.” Douglas Schemske, a plant biologist at Michigan State University, put up a Power Point slide that identified the “controversies that remain”: “adaptation: few or many genes?” and “speciation: what are the principle isolating factors? What is the role of ecology?” Of course, these are controversies within evolutionary studies, but not about whether evolution is valid.

For the vast majority of scientists at the conference, the “intelligent design” hullabaloo is not nearly at the top of their list of controversies, and most seem to regard it as a particularly American oddity that has had little or no effect on their own activities. Some, however, have heeded what they see as a call to arms.

Sean Carroll, a genetics professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said he has “had a pulpit” because of his popular book about evolution – Endless Forms Most Beautiful -- that was published in April. And, unlike some scientists, he has chosen to use it. Carroll said that “K-12 teachers feel challenged” now when they teach evolution. “They need to hear that the National Academy of Sciences and university scientists back them up.” Carroll has visited some school teachers and has gained a reputation for closing his talks with a video montage of recent magazine headlines, pictures from the Scopes era, and images and headlines that recall some of the “150 years of human achievement that the body of work on evolution represents,” he said. All played to the tune of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”

Carroll, who has also been on National Public Radio, wonders whether it is time for scientists to start nudging their colleagues to become more active. But the problem, he said, is that scientists are “wired to shade statements in terms of how confident we are that it’s true…. Politics is the art of outright, data-free bullshit. We are uncomfortable with that,” he said.

Media coverage of the “intelligent design” debate is problematic, Carroll said, because it often presents a balanced scale of opinions, when “it’s really 10,000 to one.” Still, he does not think NPR or CNN changes many minds, but that they could better equip people with useful information. The minds that the media storm may be affecting, Carroll said, are those of foreign students. “In biological sciences, we are the country people come to get training. We draw the world’s talent, and some of the world is really concerned.” Carroll said he has heard that some students are a little more reluctant to come to American universities because of the politics surrounding stem cells, global warming, and evolution.

Some geneticists have had no choice but to consider how to talk about alternative theories to evolution by natural selections. Ian Dworkin, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at North Carolina State University, has taught some adult education courses on the human genome. He said that, among his colleagues, the subject of “intelligent design” almost never comes up, but he said some of the adults he has taught “have strong religious views” and questions about creation arise. “I make it a data-driven discussion,” Dworkin said. “I state as best I can the observations, and that within [an evolutionary] framework we have these predictions and these tests, and in science we can’t have a supernatural point of view.” Dworkin said he knows “a lot of strongly theistic scientists,” and said that his adult students’ religious beliefs do not mean they cannot learn about evolution, but that religion is simply beyond the relevant realm. “In science, any supernatural explanation is also a trivial one,” he said. “It won’t help us make better medicine.”

Many scientists have actively remained passive. Matthew Rockman, a visiting research fellow at Princeton University’s Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, said he thinks the topic of “intelligent design” is “just not germane,” and that getting drawn into a polarized debate is not useful, and may even lend credence to the controversy. Rockman added that, as a teaching assistant, he has never had to address “intelligent design,” but has heard that T.A.’s at another research institution have discussed “how to deal with students” should the topic arise.

Like Carroll, Rockman said part of the controversy he has noticed has been through the surprise of foreign colleagues. He recalled a July New York Times opinion piece by Archbishop Christopher Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Vienna. Archbishop Schönborn wrote that Pope John Paul II’s comment in 1996 that evolution is “more than just a hypothesis,” had been misinterpreted, and that the Catholic Church “will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real.” The article wended its way through the world’s scientific community, and manifested in the form “all the European people” on an e-mail list serve for people who study evolution “posting: ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Rockman said. “It was clear they had never dealt with this.”

Veronica Hinman, a postdoctoral fellow in biology at the California Institute of Technology, said she doesn’t think most people outside of science are even paying attention to all the news about “intelligent design.” Still, she said, it makes her a little “more conscious in explaining to the general public what it is we do, and why we do it.”

Marty Shankland, a professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Section of Molecular Cell and Developmental Biology, said he thinks all the fuss has galvanized some scientists. He noted that, though scientists often steer clear of advocacy, Web-based petitions to keep “I.D.” out of the classroom have been flooded with signatures. One of the cheekier ones is the National Center for Science Education’s “Project Steve.” The list is in honor of Stephen Jay Gould, and in response to lists like the pro-I.D. Discovery Institute’s list of 100 scientists who doubt Darwinian evolution. Project Steve has, so far, gotten signatures from 649 scientists named “Steve” in support of evolution as a “vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences,” the petition statement reads.

Shankland said the I.D. controversy brought Texas scientists out in force in September 2003 for a public hearing,  held every seven years, by the State Board of Education on which textbooks to use. Scientists came to address the question of whether to use textbooks that give “equal time” to alternative theories to evolution. Shankland said each scientist got three minutes to speak – with a bit more for Nobel Laureate  and Texas physics professor Steven Weinberg -- and the hearing went from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. Shankland said he worries that some textbook companies have “softened things” to avoid criticism in a major textbook market like Texas. “I chose the textbook for introductory biology [at U.T.-Austin],” Shankland said. “Publishers would definitely have taken me out to dinner if I promised to use their book.”

Sitting in the foyer of Ida Noyes Hall before lunch, Carroll had science’s equivalent of a celebrity experience. “I’ve read your book,” said Sam Mogil, a high school sophomore from New York who came to the conference with his mother to meet potential research mentors. Carroll rattled off a list of books, from Gould, to an out of print biography of Darwin, for Mogil to read. He also told Mogil to check out the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Holiday Lectures on Science,  which can be viewed via Webcast in high school classrooms in December. This year’s topic: evolution. Carroll said the topic was actually chosen before the I.D. issue erupted. “The timing just worked out great,” he said.

As he has become publicly visible, Carroll said he has started to tell people who study science “that you can have fulfilling careers in media and government. We need people there. If you don’t recognize that fishing with a net with certain size holes creates a certain population…we’re in [trouble].” He added that there are “plenty of people with collars,” referring to clergymen, “who fully accept evolution, but are not going or being put on camera.” For his part, Carroll seems energized to “equip” curious people with information about evolution. According to Mogil’s mom, “your book is three weeks overdue at the library,” she said. “I’m reading it too.”


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