BEACON Researchers at Work: Outreach in the lion’s den – An evolutionary biologist at a creationist conference

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU graduate student Carina Baskett. 

CarinaImagine that you are a construction worker, and one day a group of people set up a tent outside the house you are building. In this tent, people give impassioned lectures about how the fundamental physics of construction are wrong, how there is no evidence that nails actually hold wooden beams together, and how there is a direct connection between houses and Hitler (he lived in a house). How would you feel? What would you do?

This was the dilemma that Michigan State University biologists faced when we learned that a conference about young-Earth creationism was going to be held on campus November 1st last year. 

Personally—and I want to emphasize that this is my opinion, not necessarily representative of the diversity of opinions among the students and faculty at MSU—I felt upset that an anti-science, anti-fact conference would be held in the same building where I watch weekly seminars about ecology and evolutionary biology, on the campus of an institution supposedly devoted to discovering fundamental truths about the world. But the facilities were reserved through a student organization, so there was nothing to be done about blocking the event from taking place.

What to do, then? My fellow grad student Dan Brickley and I were dead set on responding in some way to the Creation Summit. We organized a couple of meetings with other students and faculty to discuss how best to respond. One idea was to ignore it completely, advice that we seriously considered but decided not to follow (see several reasons here). There were some confrontational ideas, such as staging a protest of the existence of the moon to mock the idea that evolution is debatable. But after much discussion over list-servs and other email threads, on Facebook, and in meetings, a few of us decided that the best course of action would be to channel outrage into outreach.

Outreach is a broad goal. Specifically, we aimed to engage in conversations with conference attendees to (1) give scientists a friendly face and to share our passion about science and research, (2) learn about misconceptions about science and evolution, and (3) dispel some of those misconceptions. However, we also wanted to avoid confrontation, which some of us feared would alienate attendees, and avoid direct debate about the evidence for evolution, which would give the impression that evolution is scientifically debatable.

We had grand ideas about educational displays, but there was not enough time to marshal the resources or obtain a university permit to set up a table. So I made a flyer that pictured two evangelical scientists (Francis Collins and Jennifer Wiseman) and text about how many Christians see no conflict between faith and evolution. On the back, there was a list of resources related to compatibility of Christianity and science, and introductory resources about evolution. I don’t know anything about the philosophical or theological arguments for how faith and evolution are compatible, but I thought that conference attendees would be more likely to ponder that message than a message about how they were wrong and we were right about evolution.

After all this planning and anticipation, I was nervous when the day of the conference arrived, but it was a bit underwhelming. There were less than 100 attendees, a third or less under age 30, plus 25 scientists, many who came just to watch and learn what creationists were saying, and others who came to engage (handing out flyers and/or having conversations with attendees). Dan, a campus minister named Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink, and I handed out about 80 flyers.

I talked with a couple of attendees, including one who seemed to be a conference organizer. Dan and I talked with him for about an hour. I felt that we were able to convey the message that scientists are humans with no hidden anti-religion agenda, a sense of excitement about science and evolution, and to educate (to some small degree) about how science works.

However, it was harder than I’d anticipated to walk the fine line between answering questions about science and getting drawn into an unproductive discussion of creationist talking points. We had brainstormed in advance about how to strategically avoid debates, such as saying, “That’s not my expertise, please see these resources,” but it wasn’t always possible to shut down that line of conversation.

We were successfully able to avoid confrontations (e.g., shouting). There was fear among some MSU scientists that attending the conference would inevitably cause dramatic conflict and lead to bad press, but I think we proved that civil outreach is entirely possible. Maybe in the Internet age we have forgotten that it’s much easier to avoid nastiness in face-to-face conversations than online. Despite the fact that we were there in opposition to the creationist message of the conference, and that we represented the scientific establishment that creationists view as oppressive, people were friendly and gracious.

I learned so much from this experience. I wanted to humanize scientists, but I had not realized that humanization is a two-sided coin. Just like me, creationists are doing their best to understand how this crazy world works and what our place in it is. They have come to radically different conclusions from me, and I do not agree with their methods that ignore reason and evidence, but we both share a concern about the future of our society. Now creationists are not faceless enemies to me, and I hope that the ones I talked with feel the same about scientists.

I also really enjoyed the communal aspect of the experience. It was exciting to talk and brainstorm with so many people about what to do in response to the conference. I was incredibly grateful and humbled to receive the advice and support of people who are much more experienced than me with evolution outreach and education, like Josh Rosenau, Bjørn Østman, Erik Hanschen, Emily Weigel, and Louise Mead.

At the end of the conference, I needed a shower to wash off the nervous sweat, and I have to say that it was a lot of effort for just a few good conversations with attendees. However, I would definitely do it again. There are very few avenues for civilized dialogue between evolutionary biologists and creationists, so we need to take advantage of these opportunities when they arise.

Speaking of which, if a creationist conference is coming to your town (University of Texas at Arlington, it’s coming your way at the end of April!), please get in touch. I’d be happy to share more about my experience.

For more information about Carina’s work, you can contact her at baskettc at msu dot edu.

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