Posted by: COSI | October 31, 2008

Stepping Into Controversial Discussions

Science Centers for years have generally played it safe—make science fun, help families and teachers create good science learning environments, inspire children to continue their interest in the world around them. But DON’T go into topics that could upset members of the public or worse yet, donors. DON’T take positions, just present facts and let our audiences decide for themselves.

However, in doing so, a growing number of science center leaders around the world realize that we’ve marginalized some of the value we can bring to our communities through that approach. In fact, the international Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC), at the board level (of which I’m a member), has addressed this in its new strategic plan. The recently revised future strategy states a desired action to not only support our core function as great places to connect and inspire through science inquiry, but support science centers worldwide to:

“Proactively address critical societal issues, locally and globally, where science understanding and public engagement are essential.”

In response, COSI is blessed to have key partnerships with, among others, The Ohio State University and WOSU@COSI. With those partnerships, we are starting to explore ways in which we can encourage public discussion of topics that are important but controversial.

Balancing science versus religion often is seen single mindedly as a vote on evolution. Whether you believe evolution as scientists view it, based on large amounts of diverse evidence, and broad scientific predictability from that evidence, or whether you believe in a literalist interpretation of the Bible. Unfortunately, it is often seen and positioned as either you can support science or your religious belief, but not both.

As a science center we can’t help but explore an understanding of infectious diseases, human development and health issues, and the relatedness and complexity of the natural world (humans included) without building on the evidence that evolutionary patterns have been at force in the past, present, and will continue in the future. Not believing that can limit an individual’s ability to understand core scientific issues, and the societal and personal choices that are important to our future. At the same time we respect any individual’s right to believe differently.

So, last week we had the second in a forum series supported by the John Templeton Foundation, in partnership with OSU and WOSU@COSI, on the challenge we have as a society in reconciling religious beliefs and scientific understandings. The approach has been NOT to repeat the discussion efforts with strongly opinionated individuals from both sides, where I’ve often seen the debate quickly deteriorate to rhetoric, inflamed feelings, and seeing who has the louder voice.

Rather, our OSU partners thoughtfully assemble panels where the individuals come with a perspective from both sides of the equation. I thought that last week’s public forum, “THE INTERSECTION OF FAITH & EVOLUTION: Defining Science & Religion”, was particularly blessed with individuals who candidly shared their own personal journeys and thoughtful and intelligent ways of looking at that intersection.

Panel Moderator David Brancaccio, host and senior editor of NOW on PBS, showed his experience with moderating and prompting some great discussion among Carol Anelli, associate professor of insect physiology and cell biology at Washington State University; Connie Bertka, lecturer on Contemporary Issues in Science & Religion at Wesley Theological Seminary; and Joan Roughgarden, evolutionary ecologist at Stanford University.

About 150 people were on-site (as poorly shown in my Palm photos), asked questions, and eventually had to be nudged to go home as we approached an hour past closing. I was impressed with the people who came (of all ages), the diversity and quality of the questions (clearly representing personal beliefs of the full range), and the way many wanted to keep the conversation going after the program ended. As we did in 2007, the live panel discussion at WOSU-TV studios was extended to the wider community via video links to the Fawcett Center Auditorium on the OSU main campus, and to the OSU regional campuses at Lima and Newark. It is estimated that the panel discussion was viewed live by 830 people total.

I did get an earful from a few people who felt that we had not done our job by having “both sides” represented. Yet, personally, I thought our approach and the reflections of three scientists who all shared how they personally have incorporated both their faiths and their scientific rigor in how they look at the world a welcome difference from the typical contentious posturing.

This year’s discussion has not been posted on the OSU library’s site yet, but will eventually appear at http://library.osu.edu/sites/science_controversies/. Also on that site are all the lectures that were presented this year on campus prior to the panel discussion, including one by Judge John Jones, who presided over the Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School Board Intelligent Design Trial, and one by Ed Humes, author of Monkey Girl: Evolution, Education, Religion, and the Battle for the American Soul. Panelist Connie Bertka’s lecture “Evolution and Religion: Conflict, Contrast, or Conversation?”  is also on this site. From this link, you can also access last year’s panel discussion with Francis Collins, “The Intersection of Faith and Evolution: A Civil Dialogue“, that took place also at WOSU@COSI.

WOSU PLUS will air tapes of this year’s panel discussion each Friday night in November at 9:00 PM and will have portions available through their various media modes—further supporting the contemplation and discussion.

Are we adding value to the community by providing opportunities for these types of discussions?
Are there other topics you’d like to see us explore with our partners that you see important to our community’s discussion of our future?

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Responses

  1. I think it’s awfully strange that someone who wants to promote something called “science” is averse to presenting “just the facts.” Science is about experimentation, about figuring things out for yourself, about letting the evidence be your guide — advocacy and debate can use (or abuse) science, can be related to science, but they aren’t science themselves. Science education should less time trying to convince people to think in a given way and spend more time giving them things to think about. A dollar spent telling me to feel bad about extinction or using plastic bags at the grocery store is a dollar that would have been better spent at something which a hands-on center is uniquely qualified for. Any hack blogger can tell me that I’m irresponsible for not putting recycling above every other consideration, and they do it for a lot less money than you folks spend on those same kinds of things.

    I told you in my membership survey that I wouldn’t be renewing my membership if COSI kept up with where it’s been heading; this post doesn’t encourage me at all. And it certainly makes me (substantially) less likely to vote for those public funds you say you’re so desperately in need of.

    (having said that, I support these kinds of forums; they’re exactly what universities are supposed to be doing. You aren’t a university, you’re a pale immitation of what COSI used to, and still could, be.)

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my blog—I’m encouraged that people find it of interest!

    Your concerns over making sure COSI remains strong in our core strengths of providing engaging and inspiring exploratory science activities is right on—I hear you.

    Our 18,000 member households, yours included, count on that and we’ll continually monitor feedback to make sure that providing information and experiences that help children and adults to think for themselves and inspire them to explore their world.

    Maybe my messaging has not been clear that when we help facilitate forums and discussions with our partners, particularly WOSU@COSI, we are providing an additional service to the community, not something at the expense of our core strengths.

    So the Science & Religion series, NASA’s 50th Anniversary forum, and Governor Strickland’s town hall meetings on the future of our state’s education system have all been opportunities for COSI, primarily through its neutral identity, science core, and convenient location, to play host to new audiences.

    So thanks for helping me see how I need to continue to hone our message, stay true to our core as we continue the enhancement of our great COSI experiences that we’re known for PLUS explore new ways to COSI and its partners are providing community value for those interested.

  3. December 21, 2008

    WOSU-TV
    Columbus, Ohio

    copy: David Brancaccio, Carol Anelli, Connie Bertka, Joan Roughgarden, David Cheesebrough

    Hello –

    re: The Intersection of Faith & Evolution: Defining Science & Religion, a panel discussion held October 22, 2008 at COSI

    I was unable to attend the above panel discussion in October, and was pleased to see the first half-hour of the discussion broadcast today on WOSU-TV (only the first half-hour was shown).

    We need more programs of this type on the subject of science and religion.

    I found the first half-hour of this panel discussion, however, very disappointing, and in my opinion, far below the standard that should be met by a station such as WOSU.

    The panelists were obviously knowledgeable in their fields, but given the current debate today on this topic, surely someone coming from an Intelligent Design perspective could have (and in my opinion should have) been included on the panel. One of the panelists dismissed Intelligent Design out of hand, and that obviously goes against the calls for “open inquiry” that the panelists seemed to be making.

    While one of the panelists rightly emphasized the importance of defining terms, the basic term of evolution was not adequately or precisely defined. In any discussion of evolution, one needs to clearly distinguish between micro-evolution and macro-evolution. For example, one of the panelists stated that it was a fact that all life is descended from a common ancestor. Such a contention is far from a scientific fact, and cannot be subjected to any scientific test to prove or disprove the assertion – but, since the panelists were all of one mind (again, no one from the Intelligent Design camp) this incorrect statement was left unchallenged, at least during the first half-hour.

    The statement was made also that “evolution” was / is critical to scientific progress (again, definitions please). We can observe the current physical world and conduct our current investigations and experiments totally without regard to the truth or falsity of Darwinism, Creationism, Intelligent Design, Little Green Men or any other theory of where we came from. But again, there was no one on the panel to challenge this assertion.

    It seemed, at least from the first half-hour, that no attempt was made to distinguish between or define the study of origins and the study of what exists today. Here again a significant shortcoming. I don’t know anyone who objects to or questions micro-evolution (i.e., change within species). The question of macro-evolution (e.g., common descent) is a raging inferno in this country, yet because no distinction was made by the panelists, there could be no clarity regarding this situation.

    In response to the question by David Brancaccio, regarding the definition of the term “theory,” one of the panelists equated the theory of evolution with “the theory of gravity.” While I would hope this was merely a slip of the tongue, I suspect it was an attempt to legitimize evolution through definition (and by disingenuously mislabeling gravity). It is “the law of gravity” because gravity can be shown through application of the scientific method (can be demonstrated), and it is “the theory of evolution” because macro-evolution (definitions, always definitions) has never and cannot be shown through the scientific method (cannot be demonstrated). Everyone knows this distinction concerning evolution vis-a-vis gravity, and someone on the panel should have objected to this comment.

    Finally, the panelists bemoaned the state of scientific inquiry in our country, and the lack of knowledge concerning evolution. Bravo. Here is a solution to this state of affairs. Instead of making it illegal to teach any theories other than evolution in our science classrooms, why don’t we allow all theories equal access to those classrooms, and then, subject each to the scientific method and subject each to exactly the same standards of inquiry, letting the chips fall where they may. Surely none of the panelists would be against such open inquiry, would they? Wouldn’t then the best scientific theory rise to the top and the rest fall to the side?

    I am glad that WOSU and COSI held this panel discussion, and I wish I could have attended the live event in October. Obviously it takes a great deal of time and effort to arrange an event like this, and we are fortunate to have such events here in Columbus.

    Still I am disappointed in the structure of the panel, and in the obvious lean toward “evolution” (i.e., macro-evolution) as an a priori “fact.”

    I look forward to the next panel discussion and hope I might attend in person.

    In fact I would love to be a panel member or moderator. Just think of all the interesting questions I might bring to the table.

    Thank you.

    Chris Hogg
    Columbus, Ohio
    chrishogg_ohio@yahoo.com


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