What about a picture of Charles Darwin burning in hell to teach kids about flames?
I don’t think so. Although I personally am not like some of my fellow secularists in reacting viscerally to any and all stylistic or symbolic references to Judeo-Christian religious themes, I am aware that there are recognizable religious visual or literary elements which, if used as part of a teaching tool, can be easily construed as promotion of a religion. “Promotion” is not standing on a soap box preaching, or telling students that a particular religion is bad while another is good, or giving extra credit points for prayer. Well, it is that. But promotion is also something as simple as a person in authority casually wearing a religious symbol or having such a symbol on a desk or wall in a classroom, or making references to a particular religious metaphor while teaching. These casual representations and references are relatively benign among adults, or in college, or probably even in senior high school, but in grade school they are regarded as promotion and public school teachers must not engage in this behavior.
Which brings us to the Science Marketing’s Boner of the Year award. Which, tongue in cheek, I just made up to draw attention to an interesting development.
You are familiar with Marketing for Scientists, the blog and the effort, as well as Marc Kuchner, science marketing guru. Marc’s thing is that marketing is important because without it you mostly get ignored. He’s right, of course, and I generally support and appreciate his efforts. You’ll remember the discussion a while back of Bill Nye‘s dressing down of creationism. Some people thought that Bill Nye being a meanie was a marketing disaster, and I disagreed. In retrospect, I’m sure I was right, because the controversy over Bill Nye pointing out that creationist parents are doing it wrong led to a widespread discussion of creationism in schools, and that discussion has to happen frequently. Also, Bill was right. Hard to go totally wrong if you’re right.
Marc just sent me a link to the latest post on Marketing for Scientists, which is “The Top Six Science Marketing Hits of 2012.” Number 5 is The Flame Challenge, of which Marc says:
This contest, held by the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University with help from actor Alan Alda, dared scientists and educators to submit videos explaining what a flame is—a subtle concept. What set this contest apart from other science communication contests is that the judges were 11-year old students: some 6000 of them at 130 elementary schools. The results taught us something deep, I think, about how children view scientists.
Here is the video, which is discussed here:
(If you can’t see that for some reason, go to the link.)
I happen to think this video does a great job of explaining the science of the flame. The visuals and the dialog bring the viewer to a question, then address the question in a way that explains it but raises another question, which is then addressed, until the whole thing is explained at a fairly high level. That is a very good technique. The voice over, visuals, music, and overall production are high-value, attractive, attention grabbing, well timed, and all that. In short it is a very nice piece of work.
Unfortunately, the video can’t be used in a public school classroom in the US because it promotes Abrahamic religious themes. Promotes as in uses which is really all you need. The video opens with a man who looks a LOT like Charles Darwin chained to a wall in hell, surrounded by flames. The narrator then goes on to explain to the possibly holocaust-victim evolutionary biologist all he might ever want to know about flames. Satan (or some other high ranking devil) makes an appearance a bit later. He is used in the story to demonstrate incandescence by heating up his pitchfork in the hell-fire. Later, during the wrap-up, Satan plays air guitar with the pitchfork, which is cute.
I know, a lot of people are going to say that I’m being ridiculous, that these themes are just part of culture, that they don’t mean anything, that kids are exposed to this sort of thing anyway, that the science teacher can use the video anyway and then have a lecture on the conflict of science and religion, etc. etc. etc. But all that is wrong, sorry. It is promoting a particular religion with state funds which is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, it is inappropriate and could probably get a teacher in trouble if the right people knew the teacher was showing it. Making a science video and not taking into account the fact that teachers who have not thought about what they are doing could get in trouble is not good marketing. Well, it isn’t bad marketing either, it simply isn’t about marketing. It is about end user safety. This is like making a child’s toy and it is a) very fun, b) very desirable, everybody wants one, c) very well marketed and d) hurts some of the kids. And, no, we casual denizens of the internet don’t get to write off the fact that the negative effects potentially caused by a certain choice could be mitigated against by having an additional set of lectures.
On top of all this, I know there are teachers out there who will see this video and think it a great idea to use in the classroom precisely because it has a Judeo-Christian religious theme, and some will even like it because it depicts Charles Darwin burning in hell. Indeed, this is a physical science video, and there are probably more physical science teachers who happen to be Christian Creationists than life science teachers who are creationists, and the latter number is known to be well above 25%. So, yeah, Ben Ames, the maker of this video, may have produced a product that supports a creationist agenda, in a small but not insignificant way, even though that was presumably not his intention.
There may be a flaw in the process that could easily be fixed. Ben Ames is a communications and journalism guy, not a middle school teacher, or even a middle school education expert (I think … subject to correction). This project in communicating science, which I’m sure is a good one, will continue. I recommend that language be placed in the guiding documents for the project reminding producers that iconography or reference, even seemingly benign, to religious themes would likely disqualify a work from actual use in actual schools and would be best avoided. Also, having a science education expert familiar with the grade level and the legal and socio-cultural aspects of “marketing” science in the mix somewhere would be good. The idea would be to not let developers get beyond concept stage with unusable elements in place, in order to avoid wasting effort. As I say, this little film on flame is outstanding and really does the trick. It is simply unusable in the classrooms for which it intended, and unfortunately, will be used to potentially negative effect, and, here and there, exploited in a negative way. (This whole discussion must be adjusted, of course, for cases outside the US, where the First amendment does not apply, but where there may be similar issues.)
In this case, describing what a flame is, Hell seems like an obvious theme because there would be a lot of flames there. In some future year, perhaps the project will focus on floods … what could go wrong then?