Eugenie Scott on Choosing Skepticism’s Battles, Differentiating from Atheism

September 16, 2013


It’s been one year since I last interviewed science education advocate Eugenie Scott, and the struggle to save science from being supplanted by religious ideology in public education has not ceased. But, as you’ll see in our new interview on the heels of the upcoming CFI Summit, much has been learned. Dr. Scott and I talk about what’s changing in this struggle, what’s staying the same, and go deeper into questions about what issues groups like the NCSE and its allies should prioritize.

We’re a dynamic and tumultuous community of humanists, skeptics, atheists, and everything in between, and we’re confronted with anti-science activism coming from all corners of the political map. Dr. Scott has some important thoughts on who we are as a movement (or as separate movements), and what battles we should be choosing to fight.

And if you want to see Dr. Scott in action, register now for the CFI Summit, October 24-27 in Tacoma, Washington!

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PF: One year ago, just before CSICon 2, you and I talked about the state of science education, characterizing the creationist and anti-science movement as “stealthy,” using legalistic and rhetorical tricks to wind its way into public schools. Has anything changed in the past year, be it the frequency of assaults on science, or perhaps a change in tactics or strategy?

ES: I don’t know whether it’s good news or not, but the strategy has not changed, and we got about the same amount of anti-science legislation this year as last. The definitely good news is that none of them passed—due in no small part to the efforts of concerned local citizens who called their state representatives to explain why these bills were harmful to their state’s children’s education. In 2012, of course, we were very disappointed that the Tennessee Academic Freedom Act passed, despite concerted efforts. Sometimes the politics is just against you.

PF: How about public acceptance of the reality of things like evolution and climate change, outside the stalwart naysayers—do you sense any movement of the needle there?

ES: So much depends on how questions are asked in survey research. I’ve done just enough of it to give me a healthy respect for people and organizations that do a good job. The acceptance of evolution increases if there is no mention of God, the Bible, or other religion-associated terms. Once religion is mentioned—almost as if the respondents were being reminded—acceptance of evolution declines. So how the question is asked is extremely important.

Last year’s bad weather (Sandy, Midwestern droughts, etc.) is correlated with a slight increase in the percentage of Americans who agree that climate change is taking place. The worry here is that a mild winter or a cooler summer next year will reverse that trend. People do not distinguish clearly between weather and climate, so annual shifts in weather can be misinterpreted as implying climatic change in the long term is not actually happening as it appears. Collecting survey data that are reliable is one issue—there is a science to it, of course—but understanding why people hold the views they hold is a second issue independent of the actual data.

PF: Your work with the NCSE has been mostly focused on evolution and climate change, as they are the most vulnerable subjects right now. But I think it’s safe to say that we’re seeing a movement, much of it from the political left, that rejects science when it comes to things like GMOs and vaccines. Is this a front on which groups like the NCSE will soon have to fight? Is this going to affect science education to the point where we’re fighting Dover-like battles, but to save the reputation of germ theory?

ES: I can’t speak for my successor or what the board will recommend, but in the past, we’ve tried to focus on movements like creationism that distort science and affect science education. Climate change denial fits that description. Anti-vax is important, but it’s not a science education issue: no one is contending that kids should not be taught the germ theory (except a few fringe Christian Science practitioners, and they have no political power). Anti-GMO is also not a science education issue. It is also, in my opinion, not a clear-cut anti-science issue. In fact, I see a lot of the anti-GMO activity to be focused around economics of growing food in third world countries and so on. Those issues are not anti-science, but extra-science. Of course, people who believe that GMO foods are inherently unhealthy are misinformed, but there is more to opposition to GMO than only those issues.

Being that we are a small organization, we have been careful not to expand our mission beyond a short list of topics. Many years ago, a board member wanted NCSE to take on animal use in scientific experimentation, since he interpreted rejection of animal use as an anti-science movement. I’m not sure that it is, but in any event, it would spread us too thinly — and it isn’t an education issue anyway.

PF: One of the things you’ll be talking about at the CFI Summit is the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which if adopted should strike a blow for quality science education. This is an affirmatively pro-science initiative, as opposed to being a defensive move, it seems to me: Rather than try and keep ground we already have, it’s a chance to build up and outward. So first off, would you agree with that characterization?

ES: Pretty much. There are huge advantages in having many states with the same standards: it simplifies textbook writing, for example. Publishers don’t have to have an edition for state X, and state Y, and state Z. But the more exciting thing about the NGSS is the stress on inquiry learning, and an ambitious effort to integrate the process of science and scientific reasoning into the content area. The goal is to make science more than memorization of lists of facts.

PF: Of course we have resistance to NGSS from the usual science opponents. What is the character of that resistance? What do they say is the problem with these kinds of science standards?

ES: The resistance takes several forms. One is a political conservative/libertarian antipathy to anything that looks like federal intrusion into local control of education (which NGSS isn’t, by the way: it’s written by a coalition of states with guidance from the National Academy of Sciences). Another is opposition to the inclusion of evolution and to the inclusion of climate change. Some of these groups overlap, but not all.

PF: The CFI Summit is a little different from most conferences of late, in that it emphasizes a coming-together of atheists/humanists and skeptics, which of course implies there’s something a division between them. Now, you’re someone who seems to swim in these two ponds with no problem, so I wonder what you see as the nature of that division, if any. In other words, are all of us skeptics, humanists, atheists, naturalists, or what have you, all really in the same boat and part of the same movement, or is there really a divide that needs bridging?

ES: There are two boats, and there’s no need to bridge any divide. Humanists, atheists, naturalists and what-have-yous are one group, and skeptics are in another. Skeptics are interested in science, and in applying critical thinking to extraordinary claims. They include both nonbelievers and people of faith, as well as people who don’t especially care about philosophy/religion. Humanists/atheists, etc., are people with a nontheistic philosophical view (though I’m not sure that atheism really is a philosophy. When atheists wax philosophical, they mostly channel humanist thinkers or values). Do not assume that humanists are necessarily interested in science or necessarily apply science in their everyday reasoning. I know religious skeptics and
new-age humanists.

I don’t see a need for a bridge. If I want to think about philosophy, I’ll go to a humanist meeting. If I want to think about science, I’ll go to a skeptics’ conference. In fact, a bridge hurts skepticism. Skepticism is the larger boat, open to all who are interested in science. If we conflate skepticism and humanism, we are chopping off the end of the boat occupied by theists and those disinterested in religion. I’m more interested in keeping as many people in the critical thinking boat as I can, so I see no value in combining the two movements. If you belong to both, fine. But they are not the same movements.

PF: It was recently announced that you’ll soon be retiring from the NCSE, and it’s kind of hard to imagine it without you. I hear Microsoft has an opening in a major leadership position, but let’s keep that between you and me.

ES: NCSE will do fine without me. It’s a solid organization with a good reputation and an excellent staff. I’d be perfectly content if five years from now a new staff member opens up a file in the archives and says, “Genie who?”

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Don’t miss Eugenie Scott and the entire lineup of leaders, thinkers, and activists at the CFI Summit! Register now!