Interview with Eugenie Scott November 4, 2007

Interview with Eugenie Scott

At the Atheist Alliance International convention, I had a chance to talk with Eugenie Scott.


Scott is the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education and one of the most vocal opponents to Intelligent Design. She is often quoted by the media as an expert in science education.

She is also the author of Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction and Not in Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design Is Wrong for Our Schools.

Thanks to all those who submitted questions for the interview.

The transcribed conversation is below:

Hemant: After the Dover case, are there any schools in the US having major battles with Intelligent Design (ID) proponents?

Eugenie: Yes, because even though the Discovery Institute has changed its strategy and is no longer promoting the idea that schools should have policies teaching Intelligent Design, they’re still out there. The Intelligent Design idea is still floating around among the masses, shall we say, so we fully expect to get school districts on their own, not being directed by the Discovery Institute… [saying,] “Gee, let’s teach Intelligent Design!” But I have a feeling that’s going to stop pretty quickly.

Hemant: Intelligent Design [is going to stop quickly]?

Eugenie: Efforts to try to get policies to try to teach Intelligent Design… now that’s not quite the same thing. I think the Discovery Institute figured out, actually a couple years before Dover, that they bet on the wrong horse. The phrase “Intelligent Design” is a bad one for their purposes, because any judge is going to say, “Hmm… who’s the designer?” And… it’s going to be clear that the designer is going to be God. And you can’t teach that in the public schools. So they’re looking around for an “agentless” form of Creationism.

Hemant: What will be the next incarnation of the Creationism/ID folk?

Eugenie: A [quick] answer to this is that, yes, ID is still going to be popping up in school districts… because they didn’t necessarily get the memo from the Discovery Institute to shift to the new strategy. But I’m sure the Discovery Institute is searching around for an agentless form of Creationism that doesn’t have the liabilities of the phrase “Intelligent Design,” which implies a designer, which implies God, which gets you in trouble with the 1st amendment… sort of the equivalent of what the Creation Science people years ago came up with as “Abrupt Appearance Theory” which doesn’t have an agent… just “poof, there they are, and we can explain this scientifically!”

But what they are concentrating on is the “Teach the Controversy” approach which in translation means “Pretend [to students] that scientists are arguing about whether Evolution happened.” They have a number of euphemisms for this approach. The one they first practiced… was in the Ohio science standards fight of 2002. And that was the “critical analysis of Evolution.” Now these are all terms of art. “Critical analysis of Evolution” sounds very sensible. It sounds perfectly pedagogically correct; why shouldn’t you have a critical examination of anything scientific? That’s fine. But the context here is “critical analysis of Evolution” means “criticize Evolution”…

Both sides [in Ohio] claimed victory. The evolution side said they were just talking about analyzing aspects of evolution. So this is about looking at arguments about mechanisms or about the pattern of evolution… and, of course, the Creationists said, no, this is about whether Evolution took place…

Another euphemism they use is “teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution”… somehow, we have to help the American public understand that when we talk about the “critical analysis of Evolution” or the “strengths and weaknesses of Evolution” or “teach the controversy” or “teach Evolution as theory, not fact,” all of these various euphemisms, what they’re really talking about is teaching bad science in the name of fairness. And it’s not fair to students to teach them wrong stuff…

Hemant: Should we teach ID in the classroom if only to say “Here’s why it’s not valid”?

Eugenie: No… just for purely practical reasons. In order to teach ID, a student has to know a great deal about molecular biology [and] about cellular biology. In order to understand [William] Dembski’s probability theory argument, students have to know a fair amount about probability. Now… how much background knowledge would students have to be given to get them up to the point where they can understand why these arguments are really invalid? It’s not that high school students are incapable of learning this, but teachers don’t have the time to do it.

Hemant: What should our next president do to advocate good science?

Eugenie: On the national level, there’s actually very little that can be done to affect the curriculum… education is very decentralized in this country… Schools boards have a tremendous amount of authority, far more authority than the president does. But that said, it’s a bully pulpit and a great deal more can be done just to change the tone and the mood about science.

Hemant: Where are the attacks on science coming from?

Eugenie: Attacks on evolution come in any state, but they’re more likely to take place in small towns than cities. And that’s a demographic phenomenon… In the small towns… you have less variability. You have less diversity of political entities that are vying for authority. And in a small community, it’s quite possible that religious conservatives might be a substantial minority. And they tend to be very concerned about education, more so than maybe some other pressure groups in the community, and so they will focus their attentions on the school board and who’s being elected and what policies are being followed… that can happen anywhere… small towns in the northwest, the blue states of Washington and Oregon… we’ve had Creationism problems there. We’ve had Creationism problems in upstate New York…

Hemant: Are there any schools that have managed to please both the scientists and the ID-proponents?

Eugenie: No. Because what scientists and teachers want is for the consensus view of science to be taught… you’re not dealing with fringe ideas… in fact, in high school science, you don’t have enough time to deal with all of the consensus science. The ID people want to [make] an idea that’s outside of science — that has not been incorporated into science – mainstream.

Hemant: Is there an epidemic of science teachers not teaching (or minimally teaching) Evolution because they don’t know it or simply to avoid any conflict?

Eugenie: We don’t have data on that… it’s my impression that a substantial number of teachers around the country just find Evolution too big a pain in the fanny to deal with. They want to avoid controversy so they just skip it.

Hemant: What should science teachers do when confronted with a student who does not accept evolution?

Eugenie: Call NCSE [510-601-7203 or 1-800-290-6006]. We can put them in touch with people in their community who can support them, with scientists, and with civil libertarians. A great deal of what can be done and should be done is to work behind the scenes so that this does not become a big public press frenzy… so that compromises can be made and the problem can be solved… and it’s more likely to be solved backstage, not onstage.

Hemant: What are the best practices of teachers who have dealt with Creationist parents?

Eugenie: There’s one rather amazing approach that teachers have found successful… When a parent comes in and says, “I don’t want you to teach Johnny Evolution because we don’t believe in it,” what a teacher can say is, “Well… please understand that it’s my job as a teacher to teach the consensus view of science. I’m going to be teaching Johnny what scientists think is accurate science. This is what he’s going to learn when he goes to university,” for example. “Johnny’s job is to learn it. If he wants to reject it, that’s his business.”

And all of a sudden, the parents get considerably more relaxed because they thought they were going to be made to “believe in Evolution” and “[believing] in evolution” is not what education is all about. The interesting thing that happens… is that Johnny learns Evolution and find it’s not as scary as he’s been told. Because what he’s been told is that if you – I’m going to use the proper term – accept Evolution, you have to give up your faith in God. And that simply is empirically wrong. What it may result in is Johnny tempering some of his religious ideas because, indeed, Evolution is incompatible with Biblical literalism… but it is not incompatible with the majority of Christian theology.

Hemant: What are the best resources for someone to learn about evolution?

Eugenie: Especially for teachers, there’s a wonderful website sponsored by the University of California Museum of Paleontology. It’s called ”Understanding Evolution”… it’s got information on the science of Evolution as well as really good information on how to teach it better. That’s your one-stop shopping.

Hemant: [From a reader] Are there any Eugenie Scott T-shirts or mugs? A huge fan here needs one.

Eugenie: I’m turning pink! No, this is not the “Cult of Genie”! But you could get a Steve shirt from NCSE! Project Steve is much better than a Genie Scott shirt.

Hemant: And that’s still going well, right?

Eugenie: Oh, this is the gift that keeps on giving!… The Steve-o-Meter is now over 800 Steves…

Hemant: Are there other debates which involve religion in schools?

Eugenie: Sex ed. Sex education was the first big cultural battle ground for religion versus science. But again, it’s not so much over the science, which is one of the distinctions. Similarly, the battle over stem cells is not so much over the science… nobody really argues that stem cells can be made to do wonderful things… well, ok, there’s something of an argument going on over whether somatic stems cells are as good an embryonic stem cells, but that’s something that you can evaluate with the science and the science hasn’t really been done. Thus far, it looks like the somatic cells don’t work as well, but by and large, the argument over stem cells is over “Should we do it?” Not whether the science works… and the distinction between that and Evolution is that you do have people saying the science doesn’t work [in Evolution]. Part of the argument is emotional – if my child learns Evolution, then he’ll give up his faith in God – but a big chunk of the Creation/Evolution controversy are attacks on the validity of the science itself, which does make this a little different from other science-related controversies.

Hemant: I heard your first name is actually “Atheist.”

Eugenie: That’s what it appears to be, at least on a number of websites… it’s sort of like the ID community’s inability to write one or two sentences without sounding alarmist! I don’t describe myself as an atheist because atheism has a connotation of more than just not-theism… [The connotation] of atheist is someone who is anti-religious. I’m not anti-religious. I’m an anthropologist. It makes as much sense for me to be anti-religious as it does for me to be anti-kinship. I mean, this is part of the human condition. I don’t believe in the supernatural. But when I look at the huge component that religion is, in human culture… it is foolish to just dismiss it as foolish superstition that we can ignore. We can’t. We have to understand why it is so meaningful for so many people. And if we can come up with a non-supernatural way for meeting those same needs, perhaps that is useful. But I don’t consider religion to be an unmitigated evil, as do some people who call themselves capital-A atheists…

Hemant: How would you answer that question of what you are?

Eugenie: I would say I am a non-believer or I am a non-theist. And then at least they have to ask, “What is a non-theist?” Or most commonly, I will describe myself as a Humanist. Because Humanist is actually not an anti- position. A Humanist is a position that holds for certain values and ideals… [Why] define yourself as non-theist? Define yourself by what you do believe rather than for what you’re against.

Hemant: What can we do to promote science to women?

Eugenie: I think promoting science to women is parallel to promoting science in the general public or promoting science to children in general. We have to help people understand that science is not just important… but it’s really fun and interesting.

Hemant: What led to your interest in science?

Eugenie: Beats me. I just always liked nature. I always liked animals. I was never really able to explore nature very much. I lived in cities. We never had a car. We never went camping. But I always wanted to do things like that. And once I did grow up and once I did get a car, I started camping! I started getting out in nature as much as I could.

Hemant: Can you tell us anything about your role in the Ben Stein movie “Expelled“? Apparently, you are the “Big Science Academy” class Treasurer (Richard Dawkins is class president).

Eugenie: And I must say when I looked at that page on the website… I believe I’m a fairly modest person, but I was proud that that was the most inflammatory thing they could find to quote me on. I’m quoted as saying, “ID is [ultimately] a science stopper.” And all the rest of them are just flaming religion…

When I think back onto the interview [for the movie]… I can’t think that I gave them much that they could use. What happened was [Producer] Mark Mathis called me up several weeks after the interview, saying, “Boy,we really liked the footage we shot of you. I want to come back with our host [Ben Stein] and just shoot the same questions all over again, ok?” Yeah, that’s perfectly fine. And it was a few days later we found out that “Rampant Films” was just a show and that there’s something real fishy going on about this whole thing. And actually, I didn’t know how fishy it was until… Denyse O’Leary blogged [about] her attendance at a Discovery Institute preview of the film. We kinda got an idea of what this was all about. But basically, I was just offended that he hadn’t been honest with me. You know, I had a great rapport with Mark Mathis. We had very friendly emails. We commiserated about bad backs… I liked the guy! And so, when you do develop a rapport with a reporter and then you find out that you have been deceived, you are more annoyed. I told him that I wasn’t going to [do] a follow-up interview. Well, of course, that would’ve been with Ben Stein and they would’ve hammered me on [Rick] Sternberg and all the other martyrs, I’m sure. But I can’t think of any footage that they got of me that’s going to be very helpful…

Hemant: Do you think they’re going to use the original interview of you at all?

Eugenie: That’s all they’re going to be able to use. Unless they’ve got some newsreel footage or something… but I’m pretty careful about what I say in public. I mean, it’s easy because, like I say, I’m not anti-religious, so I don’t go about making all kinds of statements they love to quote. And I don’t make ad hominem remarks. I keep my opinions of these people to myself.

… ok, I do think Kent Hovind is a loon, but that’s about as strong as I get.

Hemant: What the funniest thing an ID person has said about you?

Eugenie: Let me count the ways… well, I suppose it’s always amusing being compared to a Nazi. Simply because it’s so over the top. There’s somebody’s rule… that whichever side starts comparing the opposition to neo-Naziism loses. [Hemant’s note: It’s Godwin’s Law]

[tags]Atheist Alliance International, Eugenie Scott, National Center for Science Education, Charles Darwin, evolution, religion, science, Kitzmiller v. Dover, Intelligent Design, William Dembski Rick Sternberg[/tags]

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  • PrimateInRepose

    Wow! She’s my new hero. There are so many great parts about this interview. I love her ideas for dealing with creationist parents and the information about Abrupt Appearance Theory, which was new to me.

    Schools boards have a tremendous amount of authority, far more authority than the president does

    This has been my experience as well. I live in a small town and the situation is even worse than she is outlining here. In small towns with no large industry the federal money that comes in for the school makes the superintendent a more powerful player than the mayor.

    The school board typically does not have the checks and balances and observance of protocol that other government bodies employ, making it ripe for corruption…for instance we had one individual on the Board who is also the local liquor distributor working to convince the Superintendent not to mention the word “alcohol” during the drug awareness week.

    The ID issue has not come up. What a mess it will be if it ever does.

  • “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
    As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.
    World without end. Amen, amen.”

  • Richard Wade

    David, you have made much more intelligent or at least intelligible comments on other posts than the above bible belch. All by itself, blurted out here on this post about a science educator it has absolutely no discernible meaning. It might as well have been a big gross burp.

    Do you have anything to actually say? Preferably in your own words? We have had conversations, remember?

  • Aj

    I thought Eugenie gave the best talk at AAI. That was an extremely concise interview, excellent questions, props to the interviewer and the question contributers.

  • I’d have liked to ask her about new ideas for promoting science since the ones being used for the past twenty years seem to be pretty much a failure. The United States is one Supreme Court ruling away from tearing down the last bricks in the wall of separation and the tactics being used in defense of science have made things worse.

    I lay a good part of that failure to three things:
    1. Class arrogance including some regional overtones.
    2. The hijacking of science to use it as PR in anti-religious propaganda.
    3. You’ve got to speak the language of people who you are hoping to win over. They don’t like being told that they are idiots. Your arguments might be brilliant and have the evidence behind them but if you get on their wrong side they won’t hear it.

    But if “science” wants to keep on with a losing battle plan there is little that I can do about it. I’ll have to do the best I can with people who care more about winning politically than in feeling good about themselves.

  • grazatt

    I used to think Ben Stein was OK , what do you think he is up to with this?

  • grazatt

    I just came across this creatioist quote about her
    David Berlinski describes Scott as a “small squirrel-like creature who is often sent out to defend Darwin”.
    What an asshole thing to say about such a nice lady!

  • grazatt, what Ben Stein is up to is exactly what he’s been up to since at least the time he worked for Nixon, positioning himself to make more money by playing for the side connected to corporate fascism. He has always been a piece of slime.

  • grazatt

    Dang, and I liked him on ferris bueller

  • Richard, my good internet acquaintance.
    How are you, sir?

    Just thought I’d throw that out there. I do believe that we were all created to glorify God- that is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost- and that even those who sought not to, or sought to ignore Him have always done so.

    So, whether intentional or unintentional, people have glorified, are glorifying, and will glorify God for eternity past, present, and future.

    To quote the great apostle Paul in Romans 9:17-18:
    “‘For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.’
    So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires.”

    Have you ever thought about the “gifts” that you have in your life. Why, for instance, you are better at certain things than other people? Or why other people are better than you at certain things? We would differ on many of these “gifts” in that we would agree that they can be attributed to parenting, genetics, interests etc. I said differ, because I would go as far as to say that parenting, genetics, and interests are not outside of the “giving” of the great Giver.

    That difference notwithstanding, I think that we would at some point agree that there are some “gifts” that cannot be explained.

    All that to say that I believe that God gives everybody gifts, and Richard your inteligence would be hard to explain, even given the best parenting and education in the world. Many have great (maybe even better than yours) parents and have had a great (maybe even better than yours) education, and yet strikingly lack inteligence, which you obviously don’t lack.

    Where does that come from? Is it just that you possess those things naturally? That would beg for there to be a Naturer (gotta love the blogosphere where you can make up words!)

    I believe that God has given “gifts” to all, and that Romans 9:17-18 explains why He gives gifts to those who would qualify as both righteous and unrighteous on the basis of Psalm 1.

    God chose to drag me to salvation, in large part against my will, using a lot of “random” things (which don’t seem so random now).
    And that is one reason I posted what might seem to be a “random” comment here… with the hope that the Creator, Judge, and King of the universe might use this randomness as He used other randomness along my salvation journey!

    I came across a verse in the book of Joshua that was striking to me, as I have been contemplating that the entire Bible, both Old and New Testament, was written to make much of Jesus Christ.
    Not sure if you have checked my blog lately, but I have ended a couple of my recent blogs with it.
    At the risk of being redundandt, I will do so here.

    “On that day the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; so that they revered him, just as they had revered Moses all the days of his life.”

    I believe that the Bible, the universe, and all creatures always have been here to, are here to, and will always be here to exalt Jesus Christ, that is God the Son.

    My hope and prayer is that the Lord will exalt Jesus Christ, the eternal King of the universe, in the sight of all the world in general and specifically in your sight as you read this as well as throughout your seconds, minutes, hours, and days. That the world and you will revere Him all the days of your life, as Moses and Joshua were revered all the days of their lives.

  • PrimateIR

    Comment Spam!

  • J Sveda

    Nice article, I’m glad to learn more about the situation.

    One question about David post: what does ‘to exalt’ mean? Dictionary definiton is to glorify, honor.

    David, keep in mind that for many people there’s next to no difference between Old Testament creation and many other creation myths.

  • Kate

    David…lay off the ‘shrooms. You’re making other (good) Christians look bad when you start babbling on some silly rant. Really now. I hope you know that our eyes all start glazing over when you and your friends start on the same old tired rants again and again…


  • Tyler D

    In the name of the father, the son and the holy goat?

  • Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, performed many miracles, was willingly brutally murdered on the cross “for the joy that lay before Him,” so that all who believe will not perish, but have eternal life.

    “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing, in whose case the God of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

  • Richard Wade

    Hi David, sorry I couldn’t answer promptly, I was dealing with a vermin infestation. I am very well, thank you, and I hope you and your loved ones are also.

    The use of a detached random or at least seemingly irrelevant quote of scripture is so common around here it has its own name, a “drive-by.” Probably not a good idea. It makes you appear to be unhinged or drunk because there is no logical context for why it’s stated. If, under a pseudonym I visited one of your posts about your religious ideas and tossed out “The sun is on average 93 million miles from the Earth,” you’d think that was some geeky nut case.

    Your longer comment of 625 words contains 76 percent your words and 23 percent bible stuff. Your most recent comment is zero you and all bible babble. I’m responding to the earlier, longer one. Of the part that is more or less your own thoughts, I’m sorry but I can understand only about half, I think. I’ll try to respond to the parts of which I can make sense.

    Yes, I have often thought about the things that I am good at and that others are good at, and what makes us all the ways we are. What causes these differences is complex and subject to a great deal of debate in scientific, philosophical and religious forums. Some theories are interesting if not completely convincing, some are half-baked and some are just silly. We have a lot more to learn about ourselves.

    Using certain terms to talk about people or the world around us can set us up to make misleading assumptions. For instance the word “gifts” to describe a person’s talents or aptitudes. They can also be called attributes, qualities or abilities but to call them gifts loads in the assumption of a gift giver. That’s a not-necessarily-so assumption pre-loaded by the term you have used. People use the term “creation” to describe all the stuff around them. It’s stuff. Animals, plants, planets, galaxies, are all stuff. Creation implies a creator, another Olympic leap to a conclusion. I try to use terms that are as neutral as possible so I don’t give myself unnecessary biases. It’s very difficult but at least some glaring ones can be avoided.

    Thanks for the compliments about my intelligence but I don’t really think of myself as intelligent. The definition of intelligence is another of those vague concepts for which the jury is still hopelessly out. I’m really just articulate. My thoughts aren’t terribly profound, highbrow or original. I’m just good at expressing what thoughts I have very clearly. It’s an ability. If you want to call it a gift then you’re adding your own assumption for which I don’t see any evidence. Go ahead if you like, but don’t expect me to jump to that conclusion with you. When you say if it’s natural then a Naturer therefore has to be implied, no, not really. Seeing a cause-and-effect chain of events and conditions in front of you does not by necessity lead to the conclusion that a previous cause one or two or ten million steps back has to be a conscious intelligence, a super-duper mind modeled after a human mind with a sense of self, thoughts, feelings and intention. That is anthropomorphizing nature.

    David, I like the little bits and pieces I glimpse of David the guy, not David the Agent of God’s Great Message. Let the loving, caring, generous aspects of your faith soak in to your personality until they become more second nature, more just a sweetness about how you relate to others and the world in simple, uncontrived ways. Right now it’s like an elaborate costume and headdress that almost entirely obscures you, hidden somewhere inside all that finery. Try just being David the guy. He’s nice enough to like, interesting enough to talk to and worthy of as much respect as any other guy or gal. I’m not saying don’t ever talk about religion, I’m saying try talking about your expression of it in real terms, simple stories about you and other real persons in your daily life, the way you did about your little nephew on your blog.

  • Siamang

    I still need my Eugenie Scott T-shirt and mug.

  • Kate

    Richard – even if David didn’t read that…amen. Very well said!!!

    When will they realize that babbling random Bible verses makes them sound incoherent?? Hopefully your words got through to him.

  • Richard Wade

    David’s a nice person. He’s very new to his re-found path so he’s excited about it and wants to share it. It takes time to settle down and be more calm and considered about it. I don’t really fault him for his fervor. He seems young, and I confess I envy that as much as I’m relieved to be over it. I hope he comes back.

  • Believeordoubt

    I don’t like her. I agree with some of the points about not teaching fringe science to high-schoolers, but she goes far beyond this and claims that science could never involve God as an explanation, and did a bad job of arguing against Dembski’s design filter: the crux of which is the claim that God can’t be an alternative to chance or law for an explanation because God’s actions aren’t lawlike.

    Okay, people are entitled to opinions, and I’d be okay with her saying that this is her argument for her view. But she tries really hard to come off as some sort of authority representing a wide consensus (Just look at the name or her organization: what name could be more official sounding?). Sure enough, there is one regarding evolution. But there isn’t one, at least in the philosophy of science, about methodological naturalism (which she proudly teaches to her audiences as if it were an axiom of geometry). In fact, I think there are very good arguments against this view of science, and not from theists, mind you. Richard Dawkins, I believe, even disagrees with the principle that science and religion deal with separate magisteria. He says that God is a scientific hypothesis, just a very very bad one.

    However, she can make her case a lot less objectionable to me by simply saying that as a country that practices freedom of religion, we can’t invoke God in public schools; and she can do this without having to make comments a priori about what can or can’t be supported with empirical evidence, or to get into an area in which she’s not really an expert, and in which she has no right to claim any authority, the philosophy of science.

  • Believeordoubt

    Actually, I shouldn’t say I don’t like her, as I don’t know her, but I definitely don’t like some of the things she says/does.

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