09/23/2005: Blinding Them with Science....
Challenged by Creationists, Museums Answer Back by Cornelia Dean:
[How to confront] creationists eager to challenge the museum exhibitions on evolution.
…[And] on ways to deal with visitors who reject settled precepts of science on religious grounds.
Similar efforts are under way or planned around the country as science museums and other institutions struggle to contend with challenges to the theory of evolution that they say are growing common and sometimes aggressive.
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One company, called B.C. Tours "because we are biblically correct," even offers escorted visits to the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. Participants hear creationists' explanations for the exhibitions.
So officials like Judy Diamond, curator of public programs at the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln, are trying to meet such challenges head-on.
Dr. Diamond is working on evolution exhibitions financed by the National Science Foundation that will go on long-term display at six museums of natural history from Minnesota to Texas. The program includes training for docents and staff members.
… volunteers [are told] that when they encounter religious fundamentalists they should emphasize that science museums live by the rules of science. They seek answers in nature to questions about nature, they look for explanations that can be tested by experiment and observation in the material world, and they understand that all scientific knowledge is provisional - capable of being overturned when better answers are discovered.
"Is it against all religion?" he asked. "No. But it is against some religions."
Eugenie C. Scott, who directs the National Center for Science Education and is conducting training sessions for Dr. Diamond's program, said that within the last year or so efforts to train museum personnel and volunteers on evolution and related topics had substantially increased. "This seems to be a cottage industry now," Dr. Scott said.
Robert M. West, a paleontologist and former science museum director who is now a consultant to museums, said several institutions were intensifying the docents' training "so they are comfortable with the concepts, not just the material but the intellectual, philosophical background - and they know their administrations are going to support them if someone criticizes them."
At the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, the staff and docents often encounter groups from B.C. Tours, which for 15 years has offered tours of the museum based on literal readings of the Bible. The group embraces young-earth creationism, the view that the earth and its plants, animals and people were created in a matter of days a few thousand years ago.
Dr. Scott, who trained as a physical anthropologist, said that in training docents she emphasized "how the public understands or misunderstands evolution and some of the misconceptions they come in with." She hopes to combat the idea that people must choose between science and faith - "that you are either a good Christian creationist or an evil atheist evolutionist."
"It's your job," she told docents, "not to slam the door in the face of a believer."
At the American Museum of Natural History, which is about to open what it describes as "the most in-depth exhibition ever" on Darwin and his work, curators and other staff members instruct volunteer "explainers" on the science behind its exhibitions, according to Stephen Reichl, a spokesman. If visitors challenge the presentations, the explainers are instructed to listen "and then explain the science and the evidence."
Sarah Fiorello, an environmental educator at the Finger Lakes State Parks Region who took part in the Ithaca training session in August, said she was now prepared to take the same approach. When she describes the region's geological history on tours of its gorges, visitors often object - as even a member of her family once did - that "it does not say that in the Bible."
Now, she said, she will tell them, "The landscape tells a story based on geological events, based on science."
Dr. Durkee also said she found the session helpful. "When you are in a museum, you can't antagonize people," she said. "Your job is to help them, to explain your point of view, but respect theirs.
"I like the idea of stressing that this is a science museum, and we deal with matters of science."
Karen on 09.23.05 @ 08:14 AM CST