Everybody Plots All the Time! – Tanner Edis on Misinformation Outside the U.S.

Taner Edis gave a remarkably compelling and sobering talk this morning on how an advanced, modern society can find itself in thrall to conservative religious politics, baseless medical treatments, the institutional embrace of pseudoscience, the diminishment of secular expertise, and an embrace of conspiracy thinking and creationism.

Oh, I’m sorry to mislead you. I was talking about Turkey, not the United States.

Edis used Turkey as his prime example for how a culture can become hostile to science, and the pieces of Turkey’s puzzle looked a lot like ours. As George Hrab remarked at the end of Edis’s talk, “It’s beautiful how human beings are the same everywhere, and it’s also really sad that human beings are the same everywhere.”

Some examples: Culture wars in the 70s in Turkey laid the groundwork for a rise in creationist thinking and its inculcation into institutions. Conservative religiosity is now the rule in Turkey, as concepts like evolution are excised from the educational system. All this time, the government becomes ever more secretive.

Creationism itself is marketed in a modern and media-savvy way, dressed up almost like a Tony Robbins-esque path to success as much as a theology.

Meanwhile, the public doesn’t trust anyone, especially “experts” and elites, and identifies with conspiracy theories, yes, even about 9/11. Edis said the popular attitude boiled down to, “Everybody plots all the time!”

You get the point, I assume. The names are different (usually), and the degrees of impact that each factor contributes vary, but the fundamentals are there.

So one key point from Edis’s presentation was that we can take lessons for skeptical activism by observing the similarities and differences among nations and cultures as they lean toward or away from hostility to science and the embrace of woo. We need to look more closely at the role the media and corporations play in advancing anti-scientific thinking, and what they have to gain.

So hey! It’s not just us, everybody! But, uh oh. It’s not just us.

Robyn and Richard at the Grand Canyon

Just before CSICon got started last week, Richard Dawkins and CFI’s CEO Robyn Blumner visited the Grand Canyon, and chatted with the good folks at the National Parks Service. Robyn told me about it, and shared some photos, so I thought it would be a nice idea to put them here. Robyn, who took the photos, told me:

Richard’s conversations with the staff were eye-opening. He learned that frontline interpretive guides are under regular siege by creationists who believe the Grand Canyon is proof of a great flood 4,000 years ago. Although the job of the park rangers is to provide scientific information, they are also cautioned not to be confrontational or insulting to religious beliefs.

I can imagine how tough that must be, and reminds me of the struggle faced by science teachers that Bertha Vazquez is working to solve.

Anyhow, here are some lovely photos of their visit to one of Planet Earth’s most breathtaking locations.

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Eugenie Scott and Bertha Vazquez on “Reaching the 60%” for Evolution Education

Eugenie Scott could probably just walk up to the microphone and read the phone book (for the millennials, those are extremely large paperback dead-tree books with very thin pages that listed the phone numbers of every human and establishment in a given geographical area). She positioned herself as a “warmup act” for Bertha Vazquez of TIES (Teachers Institute for Evolutionary Science), but come on. It’s Eugenie. She is adored among this crowd, and really, she’s earned it. You don’t need me to tell you that.

cv8tfhqvmae1vg3Scott came to discuss the “sins” against evolution education in public schools, and the stats are indeed sad. According to a 2011 survey, 60% of teachers were “teaching evolution, but not so you’d notice.” This 60% “qualify” their teaching, going through the “teach the controversy” line of thinking, apologize for teaching evolution, or limit the subject to microbes.

In other words, despite victories like the one Scott helped bring in the Dover Intelligent Design case, “evolution is winning in the courts, but losing in the classrooms.”

So what is being done to reach those teachers?

14907590_10154081945670698_6787172562982360594_nBertha Vazquez, a middle school science teacher who runs the TIES program with the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason & Science, is here to do something about it.

Saying she has the “greatest job on Earth,” she also admitted that she often feels like she is being “pecked to death by ducks.” You can see why she’s such a great teacher: very evocative language.

Vazquez talked about the pushback she gets from students and parents around the teaching of evolution, as well as the reticence, addressed by Scott, of teachers to tackle the subject. There are of course those teachers hostile to evolution, with the attitude that evolution is akin to zombies, “You don’t have to believe in evolution to understand what it is.” Not helpful.

“Teachers need to feel confident teaching this subject,” she said, and then used the same number Scott did from the 2011 survey. She said you have the 20% or so of teachers who are doing great teaching evolution, the 20% who reject it and teach creationism, and “it’s the 60% of teachers in the middle I want to reach.”

So, battling some overwhelming technical difficulties with the slide presentation that were beyond her control, she went on to explain what TIES does to reach that 60%. Fossils, the current relevance of evolution (such as antibiotic resistance), and an understanding that these teachers are not alone, that they have allies and support.

To help with religious resistance, she shows examples of religiously-believing evolutionary biologists right alongside the work of folks like Dawkins.

The response she’s gotten from teachers who have taken TIES workshops is truly inspiring, you can feel the relief and the sense of accomplishment from the messages Vazquez gets.

And now TIES has a new partnerships program to bring nearby biologists into middle school science classes, in collaboration with an in support of those middle school teachers.

This is the real world good this movement is doing. It doesn’t get much more foundational than this.

Eugenie Scott has long been a hero to this crowd, and ever shall be. I think they added another today to their roster of heroes. As Dawkins said from the audience, “Bertha, you’re a star.”