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February 18, 2008

Creationism: Would You Like Fries with That?

Eugenie_scott Amid the clatter of a hotel dining room last night, a spirited debate over creationism caught my ears. A table full of speakers was preparing for a session today on the public understanding of science.

Evolution doyen Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), based in Oakland, California, was presiding in a charcoal blazer. Still pale from a bout with the flu, she sipped spoonfuls of French Onion soup. "It's the first time I've been dressed in a few days," she confessed.

So what's the best way to deal with creationists? "It's a dialogue we need," said Steven Case of the University of Kansas, Lawrence, as he dug into a mushroom burger. "The only way to know they're hearing you is by listening."

But biochemist Andrew Ellington of the University of Texas, Austin wasn't buying it. "Do you fight evangelism with mealy-mouthed appeals to 'let's all get along'?" No, he said, the key is to pitch an economic argument to policy makers. If creationists are allowed to weaken science standards in schools, we might as well concede economic superiority to the Pacific Rim and teach our kids how to work in fast food restaurants.

Education is key, agreed biologist Martin Storksdieck of the Institute for Learning Innovation in Edgewater, Maryland. Teaching evolution can work with kids raised in creationist families, he said, citing some personal experience in conservative Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. "If the stories are compelling enough, kids will listen."

It's going to take a while. Nicholas Matzke worked at NCSE until last fall when he started a PhD in integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. "Might take hundreds of years, like it did with heliocentrism," he said, referring to the idea that the sun, rather than Earth, is the center of the solar system. That kind of horizon tested Ellington's patience. "We're going out with a whimper, not a bang," he said, rubbing his eyes with frustration.

"We're not going to throw in the towel," vowed Scott. But still feeling under the weather, she excused herself to go to bed.

--Erik Stokstad