Thursday, December 1, 2011

Of course we believe in evolution!

This summer I got a DM on Twitter from a PR guy in North Carolina. He asked for my email address so he could send me this (edited for length):
Hi Barbara - As you may know I'm David Wescott, a PR flack living in Durham, NC. In my spare time I like to do advocacy projects with scientists and science communicators.

I know you heard about the video on YouTube from this year's Miss USA pageant, where all of the contestants were asked the question "should evolution be taught in schools?" and the answers weren't exactly what we'd hope they'd be. This quickly led to criticism from scientists and a parody video where fake pageant contestants were asked the question "should math be taught in schools?"

Given your background, I'm sure I don't have to explain how this is a hot-button political issue for many people. The discussion becomes so polarized so quickly that there never seems to be time for the most important thing - a positive, easy-to-understand message that explains why teaching evolution is so important. We can make the case for teaching evolution without resorting to attacks or getting baited into political sideshows that allow critics to shift the discussion away from the merits.

We're asking people to to provide a very brief video of themselves basically answering the question "why should evolution be taught in schools?" We're going to create a compilation video of women scientists answering the question much in the same style as the Miss USA video. (We think it's important to provide a showcase for female role models beyond beauty pageant contestants.) Then we'll use social media and PR tactics to promote what we're doing to moderate, sensible non-scientists who simply may not have all the facts - the people we're actually trying to convince.

I'm wondering if you'd like to provide a video and/or let other scientists you think might be interested know about this.

Now I'm not sure about the hot-button political issue and I'm not sure what he means by "given my background." But I had a lot of free time this summer and I liked the idea that I could do this while collecting unemployment compensation from Texas, so it's almost like they are paying to promote teaching evolution in school. So I replied (edited to protect the innocent):
Hi David,

You can put me down for a video.

This issue resonates with me particularly. I have a beautiful and gifted relative who was Miss {My Small Town} in 19XX and first runner up in the state pageant in the Miss America pageant system. She went to one of the top engineering schools in the country as a Presidential scholar. She was president of her sorority and the homecoming queen. She graduated as an Industrial Engineer. I recently realized that she's a CREATIONIST! I mean, I knew she was a religious zealot, but I was prepared to overlook that since she's the only person in my family who ever invites me to anything and we could just stick to engineering topics and be fine. But creationism, man, I was floored. And her son is HOME SCHOOLED! How will he EVER get the real story?!

Well he will certainly go to college. I just have to hope he has the rational sense to go to a good one. And then it is a UNIVERSITY responsibility to teach evolution. But what about his mother? She has a degree from one of the top ranked engineering schools in the nation and they didn't teach her evolution! They didn't actually teach it to me either as a physics major. I'm not really sure how I know it. We had the same biology classes in high school and I'm almost sure they taught evolution. I suppose the reinforcement I got from my family, the other side from hers, was key.

So why is health class in college with the slides of venereal disease a state requirement and not evolution? Georgia is actually required to teach it in high school now, by law, but I worry about the home schooled people. Is there anything to be done to educate them in college? The curriculum is so tight. I don't care if they just put an evolution book in required English class, do something! Make it like AP English so you can get out of evolution in college only if you prove you learned it already in high school?

Anyway, send me the requirements for the video and I'll try to think of something cogent to say about evolution.

So I told the organizer up front that I am not college educated about evolution. I never claimed to have any credentials, only an emotional connection to the topic. He sent me these instructions.
Here's the plan. we're hoping you can provide us, by August 31 a brief video answering the following questions:
1. Why should evolution be taught in schools?
2. What is one way that studying evolution has benefited our society?
3. Can you imagine science without the theory of evolution?
I wrote something up and found I was completely incapable of memorizing it. I put it in my phone and read it over and over in free moments. Whatever kind of ADD I have is the variety that makes rote memorization impossible. I ended up putting my monitor next to the camera and held my trackpad to scroll through the text and tried not to look like I was reading. Even when I wasn't reading my eyes pivot like a ghost crab just from trying to remember. I suck at videos. But I said I'd do it, and they said they'd edit it, so I had to send it in. I expected the editor would spend a lot of time with his head in his hands. The idea that all these separate people would make video that would mesh was far fetched to me. I was right, too. My friend Dr. McWhorter watched the final compilation: "So the message is Blah blah blah blah blah blah?" Yeah that's what I got too.

PZ Myers put this video on his blog yesterday along with some commentary he found from detractors. And this personal reaction:
I confess to cringing in a few places — there’s too much ready equation of evolution with natural selection — but I certainly wouldn’t question the competence of these accomplished scientists, even if I might argue with them a bit.
I cringed too, PZ. And now I'm cringing again because I TOTALLY did that -- equated evolution with natural selection. I'm sorry! I didn't know that was bad. We were supposed to be talking about ways studying evolution has benefited our society. Maybe the example I thought of was ways studying NATURAL SELECTION benefited our society. I honestly thought they were related. I think it would be totally fair to question the competence of these accomplished scientists. I'm not that accomplished, just opinionated. I have free time. It's sort of the counter condition to being accomplished.

I suppose I am an illustration of the failure of our educational system, and another example of why PZ Myers hates physicists.

I am not sure about the details of the distinction between natural selection and evolution, but I am damn sure I don't believe in creationism. Richard Dawkins explanation of the strange path of the nerve in the neck of a giraffe sounds good to me. How my relative can believe it proves creationism instead baffles me utterly. When I was in elementary school we had a very old woman come to our class about once a week to talk about religion. She had boobs that hung so low they came down over her belt. I could never pay attention to anything she said because I was trying to imagine how she got dressed. How did she hold those up when it took two hands to buckle her belt? I remember her strange body shape vividly but nothing she ever told us about the bible. She was around when my mother was little too. I guess she had a less distracting figure when she was 25 years younger. My mother told me one day they learned about creation. She was intrigued and captivated. She went home and asked her mother, "Mama, we don't believe in evolution do we?" And my grandmother told her, "Of course we believe in evolution. Don't be ridiculous." And that was the end of that. My mother reckons she believed in creationism for about 4 hours. I suppose that's evidence right there that children are just naturally gullible, but tend to defer to their parents. I have no explanation for why an intelligent adult would believe a preacher over Richard Dawkins when it comes to this topic.

Anyway, the PZ Myers blog was to let people vent about how mean it was for some group called Uncommon Descent to call us "gals" and "show mares." Frankly I find their put-downs weak and it doesn't offend me at all. I feel worse that I screwed up the actual topic. Considering I am in fact incompetent, "show mare" is kind of a compliment. I guess I'm one of the ones that make them throw a qualifier before "young," but I like the association.
It shows sixteen female academics or science writers, mostly young, whose enthusiasm for evolution is so overwrought that they turn themselves into propagandists.
Eager to show how well they have been trained, they are like show mares who trot around the paddock jumping over each gate in turn. All the while they give the camera a look that says: “Aren’t I good?”
I'm pretty sure the way we mostly look wildly anywhere besides at the camera really says: "Aren't I done?" We definitely don't have the poise of the Miss USA contestants. And according to Penn Jillette they were only being judged by how they held themselves while they answered, not what they actually said. Which to a scientist is a complete non sequitur. How many Miss USA contestants could use non sequitur in a sentence? THAT is why we think we're so good.

Anyway, here's my unashamed propaganda about natural selection: the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. The theory of its action was first fully expounded by Charles Darwin and is now believed to be the main process that brings about evolution. (from the dictionary) I wasn't trying to piss off PZ Myers when I kept saying evolution. I read in the comments on his blog that the distinction is that evolution is random, not directed. Well that doesn't make a very good personal anecdote. I had to add some pictures to this video because it's bad enough to have to hear my voice. I don't have to see my face the whole time too.


  1. Huh. This video is only 2m 19s long, and cuts off in mid-sentence just as you were saying something interesting about the quail population.

    As I mentioned to you in email earlier, I was totally surprised (but happy) to see you pop up in the midst of that "women talking about evolution" video, even if it did seem a bit scattered, content-wise.

    Go you!

  2. The quail stuff is at 1:34. Keeps going for me. Sorry it stopped for you. I can't believe you made me watch this AGAIN! ;-) I like the plastic bin video a lot better. So much more catchy. :)

  3. Ok, I am college educated in Evolutionary Theory and Natural Selection, and have ongoing education through my work as an Oncology and Hematology Consultant in the genetic factors related to oncology.

    That said, I can only surmise that P.Z. Myers has a bug up his ass...again. I have a basic philosophical difference from P.Z.: I'm not a dick, nor do I believe in acting like a dick.

    P.Z. parses EVERY FREAKING WORD that come out of peoples' mouths, or that they write down.

    This goes hand in hand with my issue that you're aware of that has to do with teaching science in general, and complex topics specifically. Topics like genetics, natural selection, evolution as a whole, are difficult to teach because they are so complex. But we need to begin instruction to people in very non-complex ways, in order to build an understanding before wading into the sticky stuff.

    So loosely putting natural selection together with evolution is not a mortal or venial sin, pardon the puns. It simply requires further clarification as it is taught. P.Z. needs to chill out (but he never will) about some things.

    This is difficult to do. The worst thing to do is to vilify someone trying to express these theories in ways that make them understandable. Make corrections? Sure. Nicely. Think Phil Plait. Don't be a dick.

    I like the video, Barbara. Don't sweat natural selection. You know what you're talking about and you expressed yourself really well.

  4. Addendum to my post. Seems P.Z. didn't have as much of an issue as I surmised. My apologies for telling him to chill. This time. :-)

    I'm accustomed to him jumping all over people for the slightest misstep. Here I've done it to him. mea culpa.

  5. I'm glad I didn't get it too wrong. I should give credit to Dr. Bruce Means for explaining this to me in the first place -- that I was naive. I went to one of his lectures and I was really confused why people in Guyana were destroying the cloud forests. Didn't they know? Bruce rolled his eyes at me and said "Not everybody is raised by people who have made an extensive personal study of ecology. Your grandmother didn't learn that stuff by going out in the woods. She learned it from books." Lightbulb over my head. Also that's Bruce's picture of a rattlesnake. I have his manuscript for the natural history of the Eastern Diamondback on my computer. I need to finish editing it.