The Loom

Dodos in Kansas

randy%20olson.jpgRandy Olson visited the Loom a few months ago in connection with his movie about our national fun and games with evolution and intelligent design, Flock of Dodos. He provoked a lot of discussion with his main point, that biologists were doing a poor job of reaching out to the public. Some skeptics wondered whether accepting Olson’s argument would lead to dumbing science down and engaging in the same bogus PR as creationists. This morning Randy dropped me an email note to point out what he considers a depressing confirmation of his thesis.

Kansas–where the science standards have been softened up for the supernatural and are now considered the worst in the nation–is getting ready for their primaries in August. To support the board members who rewrote the standards, the Discovery Institute–which promotes Intelligent Design, a k a “the progeny of creationism”–has rolled out a big campaign, “Stand Up for Science, Stand Up for Kansas.” They’re all over the place in Kansas, apparently, with ads, meetings, and other activities. This all must cost some serious coin.

Olson, a Kansas-born biologist himself, has found that the local candidates and organizations opposing the science-softening board members have been left on their own:

They are receiving NO SUPPORT from outside organizations. In spite of all the bellyaching and agonizing of the national science organizations from AAAS to the National Academy of Science, not one dollar is coming into the state to support the Kansas Education Alliance which is the main grassroots group assembled to fight the attack on evolution

I’m wondering if other readers from Kansas would agree with this description of the situation. I’m also curious to get reactions from skeptics who thought Olson was off base. If his report is accurate, then it would seem to be exactly the sort of problem he’s been trying to get people to deal with all along.

Comments

  1. #1 Dave
    July 13, 2006

    I can’t speak for national organizations, but there has been a lot of support generated from scientists IN Kansas, including a benefit concert by a Manhattan (KS)-based group called the Red State Blues Band. The band members include biologists from the KSU Biology Division. I am told by one of them that the concert raised over $1700 for KAE. Here’s a link.

    http://redstaterabble.blogspot.com/2006/06/our-man-on-scene-john-tatarko-sends.html

    If scientists in other parts of the galaxy would like to contribute money, that would be much appreciated. There are links for KAE and also for donations to individual school board candidates in the sidebar for Pat Hayes RedStateRabble blog (linked above).

    I am not sure if groups like the AAAS etc can legally support an individual candidate, so I am not sure what Randy would suggest that these groups do. I await enlightenment on that point. But it individual scientists would like to help out individual candidates in the tough KBOE races here, it would certainly be appreciated. I don’t know if we can out-fundraise the Disco IDiots, but it’d be nice to give it a shot!

  2. #2 Jason
    July 13, 2006

    I was one of the commenters in your original entry regarding Randy Olson’s suggestions for scientists. I took issue with his underlying assumption that most people would accept the science of evolution (and apparently now global warming) if only the evidence were presented to them in an easily digestable manner.

    Quite honestly, I see the current description of what’s going on in Kansas as a confirmation of what I expressed earlier and inconsistent with Randy’s suggestions.

    As I said then, and I still believe, this isn’t about science and how it’s presented. This is simply about what religious people want to believe. For a lot of people, “evolution” = “you are related to monkeys” and “you can’t read Genesis like a newspaper article”, both of which are simply unacceptable to them. Presenting your evidence in a clever manner won’t change that basic fact.

    Since their anti-evolution position was never based in evidence to begin with, it’s highly unlikely the evidence is going to convince them to believe otherwise. You can’t argue from an evidentiary standpoint, with people whose position is based in theology. Do so, and you’ll end up talking right past them.

    So Carl, when you say, “it would seem to be exactly the sort of problem he’s been trying to get people to deal with all along“, I don’t think any of us disagreed with Randy’s claim that the problem exists. We were simply disagreeing with his suggestions on how to deal with it.

    Why are the ID creationist candidates getting so much more support than pro-science candidates? Because in many parts of the country, the platform of “the Bible is right and evolution is wrong” will always be more popular than “you are related to monkeys”.

  3. #3 Carl Zimmer
    July 13, 2006

    Jason–Thanks for your comment.

    Kansas has in the past voted out creationism-supporting board members, so I don’t think you’re right in implying that it’s just a matter of how people in Kansas think about all this. And I also I think you’re missing an important point here. Randy is observing the difference in out-of-state interest and activity in this election.

  4. #4 Jason
    July 13, 2006

    Carl,

    I guess I am missing the connection between a lack of out-of-state support for the pro-science candidates in Kansas and Randy’s earlier suggestions of “quality control, attitude, concision, modernization, prioritization, understanding, risk-taking, humor, unscripted media, and sincerity” to help scientists improve communication.

    My earlier (and continuing) impression of Randy’s suggestions was that he believed if only scientists were better at communicating, we would have more people on our side. I agree with that in principle, I just caution against naively believing that it will produce any sort of mass effect.

    Yes, Kansas has previously voted out creationist board members, but IIRC, only after the board made Kansas an international laughing stock by eliminating evolution altogether. Perhaps the same thing will happen this time around. I’m quite sure there are a good number of pro-science voters in the state. But I’m just as sure there are a good number of Kansas voters who don’t care what the evidence says or how it’s presented, and never will.

    As one old internet friend once described such folks, “They are unwilling to surrender faith to fact”.

  5. #5 Dave
    July 13, 2006

    As a native (and current) Kansan, I think it would be helpful to clear up a couple of things.

    First, as Jason said, “there are a good number of pro-science voters in the state.”. But we are facing (and Randy was referencing) an upcoming Republican primary. Just as is the case in other parts of the country, the typical Republican primary voter is hard-core right-wing fundamentalist. It is going to be a serious task to help a moderate (i.e. non-troglodyte) Republican win this thing. Thank god there is not a flag-burning or gay marriage amendment on the primary ballot, that would really bring them out from under the rocks to vote.

    One can vote in the Republican primary only if you register Republican (which I have done). But it still takes a lot of us to out-vote the faithful flag-toting, church-going, “I ain’t descended from no monkey” Republican primary voter.

    Fortunately there are decent Democratic candidates in these races as well. So if moderates lose in the primary, we will still have a shot at replacing the KBOE IDiots in November. But again one has to realize that a lot of folks in this state will just automatically hit the button beside the Republican candidate’s name. So it would really be best if the IDiots were defeated in August, and then it should make no difference who gets elected in November.

  6. #6 SMgr
    July 13, 2006

    > “They are unwilling to surrender faith to fact”.

    As a former fundie, I’d like to caution that this statement is true only for a certain fraction of that population. We won’t be able to reach them and focusing on them is probably a waste of time.

    There are others that could be influenced by evidence if it were presented in the proper form–a form that minimizes the requirement that statements from scientists are taken on faith. It is “trust” and not “understanding” that must be dealt with first for these people.

    Unfortunately, a lot of science communication is not in the proper form for this other audience because it typically relies heavily on drawings, artist conceptions, secondary sources, etc. When a detailed actual image of a skull is provided, for example, the necessary details for comparison with other skulls are typically not provided and again one again must “trust” the pronouncements of the scientists that they are intermediate.

    Thus, picking up a standard book on evolution and thumbing through it instantly reinforces the creationist storyline of “see, its all made up”. Scientists lose this potentially reachable audience at square one with their standard fare.

    I would suggest that it would be best to start with providing compelling, detailed, primary evidence of the old age of the earth. You can’t make much headway with someone about evolution if they assume the earth is young. Tackle that one, and the web of lies can start to unravel because you begin to ask “what else do they have wrong?” That is a moment where trust begins shifting. Then one becomes more open to understanding.

    We must counter the “its all made up” storyline effectively.

  7. #7 Pat Hayes
    July 13, 2006

    As a resident of Kansas with two children who attend public school in the state, I alongside many other Kansans, have actively opposed the efforts of right-wing religious fundamentalists to write their pseudoscience into the curriculum standards here.

    What I find curiously missing from Jason’s remarks is any suggestion for how we might defend science education — here in Kansas or elsewhere.

    His remarks seem strangely defeatest to me.

    The creationists were turned back here in Kansas in 1999. Last year they were decisively defeated in the Dover school board election.

    I believe we can and will do it again in Kansas.

    But, what we need is help. We need supporters of strong science education to recognize that while this battle has a significan science component, it is essentially political in nature.

    If the creationists are successful, it will have important ramifications far beyond public school curriculums. It will be reflected in science funding and research in a number of fields from stem cell research to global warming.

    If we lose this battle, the right will move on to selectively target university professors, and others, for public humiliation in order to quiet opposition to their goals on college campuses.

    It will be more difficult to maintain the seperation of church and state. The judiciary will become progressively more reactionary and many of the freedoms we take for granted now will be eroded.

    I strongly urge supporters of good science education to lend your support to moderate school board candidates who are fighting to Take Back Kansas from the religious right. Even small contributions of $10, $15, or $20 will be enourmously helpful.

  8. #8 Jason
    July 13, 2006

    Smgr states, “As a former fundie, I’d like to caution that this statement is true only for a certain fraction of that population“.

    Of course. It’s certainly not a universal statement.

    Also, “I would suggest that it would be best to start with providing compelling, detailed, primary evidence of the old age of the earth“.

    Such a thing exists, and has existed for some time. TalkOrigin’s http://talkorigins.org/origins/faqs-youngearth.html “Age of the Earth” section is very readable and comprehensive. I also found the relevant sections of Carl’s book Evolution The Triumph of an Idea to be very clear and understandable.

    The problem is, the person has to go to that site or buy the book. And to be honest, I don’t know too many people of the anti-science persuasion who read such things.

    Pat observes, “His remarks seem strangely defeatest to me“.

    Not defeatest, just cautionary. As I said, I agree we should do whatever we can to communicate our work and ideas to the public as effectively as possible. I just caution against thinking it’s going to have too much of an effect on the public popularity of creationism and dislike of evolution in the US.

    You also note, “What I find curiously missing from Jason’s remarks is any suggestion for how we might defend science education — here in Kansas or elsewhere“…

    …but then go on to answer your own question….

    If the creationists are successful, it will have important ramifications far beyond public school curriculums. It will be reflected in science funding and research in a number of fields from stem cell research to global warming.

    If we lose this battle, the right will move on to selectively target university professors, and others, for public humiliation in order to quiet opposition to their goals on college campuses.

    It will be more difficult to maintain the seperation of church and state. The judiciary will become progressively more reactionary and many of the freedoms we take for granted now will be eroded.

    I agree fully. It is a political issue and should be treated as such (by making the arguments you outline above). My impression was that Randy suggests we treat it as a science communication issue. That’s why I still fail to see the connection between Randy’s earlier suggestions and the school board elections in Kansas.

  9. #9 Cheryl Shepherd-Adams
    July 13, 2006

    Thanks for bringing this up, Carl Zimmer.

    The radical right has been fundraising frantically here in KS. Add in the $4M Discovery Institute budget, seemingly devoted to PR instead of science research, and the pro-science forces are woefully underfunded.

    I’ll repeat Pat Hayes’ point – visit http://redstaterabble.blogspot.com for links to individual campaign sites and the site for the Kansas Alliance for Education. The maximum donation per person is $500, but we’ll take any amount, no matter how small.

    The radical right has targeted a couple of races as the most important. The pro-science candidates in those races are Sally Cauble and Janet Waugh.

    Please send $$$ quickly – IDNet is already running ads on Christian radio promoting their upcoming statewide DDD conferences, and we need more financial resources to counter their attacks.

    - from a 7th-generation Kansan whose family tree does indeed branch

  10. #10 Randy Olson
    July 14, 2006

    Hi Carl – Thanks for posting this. And while I did make a tiny bit of an over-statement (that not one dollar is coming in from out of state), the amount of money coming into Kansas from out of state is trivial compared to the anti-evolution groups, and as far as I’ve heard is only single individuals making personal donations, not large organizations.

    As for what these large science organizations can do? They are funded by foundations who are connected to other foundations, and somewhere out there exist people with money who are not terrified by politics.

    Because this is the problem. Academics are absolutely terrified by politics. They run the other way and bury their heads in the sand. And this is what it has all come down to in both Kansas and Texas. Pure politics. The August 1 primaries in Kansas are not an exercise in academic discussion. They are about state and local politics, which are going to have a direct effect upon the field of evolution and the teaching of science.

    Sad to say, but science over the past decade has been heavily politicized. Read Chris Mooney’s book, “The Republican War on Science,” if you don’t believe it. I’m here in Kansas right now for a week, listening to what’s going on. And its not good. They definitely need more help. This isn’t about the culture discussions, its about the culture wars.

    And again, if you have a hard time digesting all this, read George Lakoff’s book, “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” I’m just the messenger. The things I’m saying are being said by much bigger and more authoritative voices than mine.

  11. #11 Christensen
    July 14, 2006

    Mr. Zimmer, speaking from Kansas, I note that the national media has been almost uniformly against the trend in Kansas.

    The voters here can not help but see this, and this will have an effect on the outcome.

    Thus, this can not help but be considered support.

    Indeed, one argument is that jobs have not been coming to Kansas (evidence?) because of this exposure.

    Thus, the voters are being advised that if they don’t throw the present board out they will suffer economic detriment.

    I have to say, that when Dr. Olson was here, I found him very reasonable and balanced in his treatment of “the other side, but unfortunately that has not been my general experience from other advocates of replacing the present board.

  12. #12 Cambias
    July 14, 2006

    I’ve said this elsewhere but it bears repeating:

    I think one fundamental problem Creationists have with the Darwinian model is simply that a completely mechanistic universe is amoral. If there is no divine Creator, there is no built-in foundation for a moral order. There is no right and wrong for intelligent bags of organic molecules which evolved by a series of accidents.

    To a scientist, of course, this is beside the point. Scientific knowledge is (and must be) amoral. But this is a serious philosophical issue and the fears of the Creationists may not be entirely unjustified. I think supporters of science need to devote more effort to showing that science and religion are not mutually exclusive; as it is, too often discussions of Creationism degenerate into something not far removed from God-bashing. Lots of quotes from Catholic theologians would help, as they have grappled with these issues already.

    And, frankly, attempts at economic pressure convey entirely the wrong message. If I were a Kansan I’d be tempted to vote for the most extreme Creationist just as a thumb in the eye of anyone trying that kind of heavy-handed tactic.

  13. #13 SkookumPlanet
    July 14, 2006

    I posted quite a bit on Karl’s Hipster DoDos topic about the new media reality in the U.S. That, in turn is part of the mechanics at a higher level, a level few have discussed so far. Here or anywhere.

    Even if ID evaporates and the Discovery Institute closes, they’ll be back better and smarter. They’ll have a better set of tools which they’ll rent from Right Wing, Inc. There will be no wedge document written down every again. Eventually, when the left is reduced to wobblie status, truth will no longer matter. I don’t know how, but science must deal with these arenas. Soon we’ll cross a no-return Rubicon, and there’s no discussion, movement etc. on this overarching struggle. Change, comprehension, proper effort all has to start somewhere. It’s not about science, everyone knows that, yet in science, the environmental movement, the left in general no one looks or acts. The opposition are all liars, yes, of course. But there’s no peer review in life and politics.

    The radical right cares nothing about evo or id. It’s just a multipurpose tool. As dire as the ID emergency is, someone must start the process of building some sort of organization across all fields. Without any opposition, if the right needs to, they’ll pick you off one by one.

    The one approach like this I have seen, proposed in detail, is for environmental issues through the Yale Forestry Department [pdf report]. I’m not championing it, especially not their conclusions. But they’ve captured the nature of the problem and required response and the scope of what the left must do. If you look through it you’ll gain a visceral sense of how big the challenge is to science. They are looking at one small branch, but much of what they discuss is of general use.

    I was trained in an odd type of content analysis most find hard to conceive, and over several decades have used it professionally in an odd range of fields. Using that I understood the right’s goal and it’s methods ten to fifteen years ago. I learned of Justice Powell’s memo a couple months ago. Their goal saturates his memo. I was right, and their objective is crystal clear. Yet, I see no one operating against it. The entire left is distracted by immediate problems and endless, clueless internal debate on what to do about these problems. The right’s very happy about this.

    30 years ago they set that goal and adopted a process to get there. Their process I can only analyze indirectly, but to me it’s clearly the application of an ideal modern American corporation’s practices to politics and society. Not just electoral politics. They created what is, effectively, the world’s first sociopolitical corporation.

    There’s a Board of Directors and an R&D department and a marketing department. They fund basic research and cultivate a large group of researchers. They’ve developed an extensive, innovative franchise system to carry it out. Lately we’re seeing the refinement of a kind of joint-venture plug-in capability, which is what Exxon’s Global Warming Skeptic campaign is. My guess is that through co-investing/providing revenue you get to use it.

    In other words, in the U.S. today, being a conservative means thinking global warming science is junk science and the scientists involved are frauds, liars, and grant-chasing professionals. Any branch of science is suscepible to this. The right wing strategists believe, and are probably correct, they can deal with social and economic damage after they reach their goal. Scientists, as a group, potentially stand squarely between them and their goal. If science doesn’t prepare itself, parts of it will amount to not much more than a bug smashed on a radiator.

    GW skeptic, evo/ID, the War on Christianity, etc are all tools for them. These tools work, generally, pre-/subconsciously and are very poorly addressed by rationality. That doesn’t mean manipulation and lying are the answer. It means we must work with the reality of people’s minds, not against them, with the conduits that lead to those minds, not against them.

    The general idea that some course of action might be dumbing down science is a really dumb position. Science faces an enemy few in science have begun to see. Any and every piece of science, barring military related, will be at risk once the right’s goal is achieved. Politicians will come right into your classrooms and force you teach what they want, and boot you out of science altogether if you resist. Concern for dumbing down will be seen as a quaint, ineffective anachronism. If this sounds fantastical, you’ve completely misunderstood their goal. You’ve chosen selected data. Go back and look again.

    Nothing, absolutely nothing Right Wing Inc.’s opposition has done in the last 30 years has had any effect on their progress. I don’t think this way often for obvious reasons, but it’s quite clear if the opposition doesn’t start seeing this operation all around, hiding in plain site and so grasp their methodology, there’s no question they’ll reach that goal. In a time period shorter than most think.

    The evo/ID fight must be engaged, but the outcome will make no difference to them. Science must somehow get it’s act together on this broader level. It’s coming, it’s coming. Like a flat black featureless sand storm front it’s slowly engulfing everything. Turn around and see it.

  14. #14 Carl Zimmer
    July 15, 2006

    Hi folks–

    For some reason a couple comments that have come into the blog are not being posted here. Will investigate. Apologies for the snag.

  15. #15 Torbjörn Larsson
    July 15, 2006

    Some argue here that science should take a larger role than it has before. There are political risks involved with that. But foremost, why should that be necessary?

    If we compare science to technology, another creative tool, no one asks engineers to stand up for technology politically. Corporations and politicians do that through press and lobbying. I’m sure they can be made to see the benefit of science as empowering technology.

    To ask scientists to explain evolution better would be like asking engineers to explain television better. Which general user cares if the picture is interlaced or not? They want it to work. Sell the product, not the technology. And that is a task for the sales department.

  16. #16 Vic Anderson
    July 17, 2006

    Or was that Stand up 2 … ?

  17. #17 Stan
    July 17, 2006

    Soon, an investigation into certain Kansas Science organizations that are promoting candidates while enjoying 501 c () status will be in order.

    And the poster was right, the economic threats they have been making are hard to take, it has probably hurt them.

  18. #18 Stan
    July 17, 2006

    Soon, an investigation into certain Kansas Science organizations that are promoting candidates while enjoying 501 c () status will be in order.

    And the poster was right, the economic threats they have been making are hard to take, it has probably hurt them.

  19. #19 antiStan
    July 17, 2006

    The Intelligent Design Network of Kansas, Inc., will be touring the state during the week before the primaries.

    Thanks for letting us know that somebody will be investigating their 501(c)3 status and ensuring that they don’t cross the line into endorsing any candidates.

  20. #20 Steven B. Case
    July 17, 2006

    Part of the message is that the Discovery Institute is engaged in politics. You can call it marketing, which is the basis of their communication, but what they are influencing is a political process. Part of the question that Randy (and I) are asking is, “What agency is engaged in politics that support science research and the transfer of research into policy?” Who evaluates candidates and office holders’ scientific understanding and legislative support for research? Academics rely on education, as if when people are educated about the issues, they will think correctly. (If this were true then I would have to wonder why the rate of drug abuse and smoking is higher among medical doctors then the general population – are MD uneducated in the area?) Rationality and thinking are important values to those of us in the academic community however; they seem to rarely influence politics. So again, who is doing the political work for science? DI also has a very narrow focus around ID/Evolution. I realize they are seeking “cultural renewal” which is quite broad but they maintain a very narrow focus around evolution. Science is quite broad and the research community can have widely disparate foci. The narrow focus is helpful to the political marketing peddled by the DI folks – a point made by Randy in the movie. Try coming up with a sound bite in support of science.
    Finally, Thomas Frank made the point well – what is happening in Kansas is the visible tip of the iceberg for what is going on in the rest of the nation. It is absolutely critical that we respond appropriately in the upcoming election is Kansas – critical to the entire nation. If we lose, the consequences for the rest of the nation will be severe, but Kansas is often overlooked (foolishly) in its national importance.
    So here is the work – send money. Ten dollars matters in our elections ($35.00 is better). In the words of one of our State Board of Education Candidates – getting information out in western Kansas requires driving and gas is getting very expensive. Your ten dollars can make a difference in Kansas – right now. Ten dollars now is a lot cheaper then living with the consequences later. Visit http://redstaterabble.blogspot.com – Do it Today!

    One of the Dodos,
    Steve

  21. #21 Liz Craig
    July 17, 2006

    Steve Case is absolutely right. Kansas was and is a testing ground for intelligent design strategies. They have managed to get out the Religious Right out to elect a majority on the Kansas Board of Education, and that majority has trampled on every vestige of democratic, and even established Board of Education, procedures. They have done this to ensure that their version of science (anti-evolutionary) and their version of religion (fundamentalist) are supported in the science standards of the State of Kansas.

    The ID movement knew they would lose in Dover, so they pulled out. In Kansas, on the other hand, the Discovery Institute is purchasing air time and print space to advertise their version of reality, just two weeks ahead of the August 1 BOE primaries.

    This, in my opinion, treads right on the line of campaigning for candidates. They are doing this to support the KBOE standards, and by extension, the BOE candidates who gave their stamp of approval to them. William Harris of the IDnet was the leader of the minority on the science standards writing committee who produced these “sub-standards,” which earned an “F” grade from the Fordham Foundation reviewer.

    To my knowledge, this is the first time the DI has stepped into state BOE elections, providing money from their copious budget to support ID-friendly standards. How do we make it the last?

  22. #22 Joseph Dien
    July 20, 2006

    “Because this is the problem. Academics are absolutely terrified by politics. They run the other way and bury their heads in the sand. And this is what it has all come down to in both Kansas and Texas. Pure politics. The August 1 primaries in Kansas are not an exercise in academic discussion. They are about state and local politics, which are going to have a direct effect upon the field of evolution and the teaching of science.”

    As a KU professor, I have to take some exception to this statement. What you have to understand is that as a public institution, a major portion of the university’s support comes from the state legislature. We do what we can but if the perception is that we are getting involved in a political debate, as opposed to a scientific debate, that puts us in the position of arguing against members of our funding source and then we lose. We’re already on the defensive as far as state funding goes, given the tight budget situation. Academic freedom only goes so far and unfortunately the ID folks and their supporters understand this quite well. We also don’t have a prominent private university in this state whose faculty would therefore be free to speak out. I do have to say it would be helpful to have scientists from outside the state, who don’t have this issue, helping out.

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