Museums Train Docents to Deal with Evolution Skeptics
Being a museum docent wasn’t supposed to be this hard. Many have always led peaceful groups of compliant tourists through the halls of science, telling their near-memorized lines without incident: Sixty million years ago, the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteor, but their descendants are still with us today. Anyone know who those might be? Yes Johnny? Birds! That’s correct. Very good! Now, according to the New York Times, growing numbers of museum visitors are challenging the evolutionary explanations and asking questions that indicate they’re not buying the story. This has led to a new “cottage industry,” according to Eugenie Scott of the NCSE, of training guides for guides, teaching them how to deal with such situations.
The training emphasizes non-confrontational yet firm emphasis on the difference between science and faith: to be “polite but firm.” Docents are warned against challenging visitors’ religious beliefs directly. Instead, they are told to say things like, “The landscape tells a story based on geological events, based on science,” or “this is a science museum, and we deal with matters of science.” They are warned against antagonizing Bible-believing Christians who argue that the world is only a few thousand years old; after all, they paid the admission fee and have just as much right to visit the museum as anyone else. Dr. Scott in her sessions teaches docents not to avoid the word “evolution” or be defensive, but simultaneously not to slam the door in the face of believers. “Your job is to help them, to explain your point of view, but respect theirs.” The manuals encourage them to practice with memorized responses.
Tom Magnuson at Access Research Network found one such docent guide online on the front page of the Paleontological Research Institution, entitled “Evolution and Creationism: A Guide for Museum Docents.” It explains how to respond to a complaints about natural selection or other evolutionary mechanisms:
The question of whether evolution occurs is separate and different from the question of how evolution occurs. The evidence is overwhelming that evolution has occurred – that it is a satisfactory explanation for the observations we make about the history, order, and diversity of life….
Questions or debates about evolutionary mechanism have nothing to do with our confidence in whether evolution occurred. (Italics in original, bold added.)
Later in the document, one of the answers seems more firm than polite. The question is, Is it true there is lots of evidence against evolution?
No. Essentially all available data and observations from the natural world support the hypothesis of evolution. No serious biologist or geologist today doubts whether evolution occurred; debate continues, however, among scientists about the mechanisms by which evolution occurred.
The response to the question on intelligent design is also instructive. Doesn’t the complexity/design of nature imply an intelligent designer?
Science deals only with material causes of material phenomena. Nothing we can observe in nature requires a supernatural designer; we therefore defer to material processes to explain what we see in nature.
The document denounces the idea that evolution is a religion. At the bottom, it refers to the National Center for Science Education, indicating that the NCSE probably provided content or advice for the publication.
The guide warns against arguing with convinced creationists, saying “you can’t win.” The docent can try to deflect the question, agree to disagree, claim ignorance, or state that the museum is not the place to discuss “philosophy, religion or politics” but only “science” or “state-of-the-art scientific knowledge.” If all else fails, the docent can say, “Please excuse me. I have to go to the restroom.”
The Times says that the American Museum of Natural History is about to open “the most in-depth exhibition ever” of Darwin and his work. Already, curators and staff are gearing up to deal with visitors who will challenge the presentations.
This is a golden opportunity for informed visitors. The Darwin Party has published all their Talking Points, and all that is needed is to formulate good follow-up questions aimed at them. The Talking Points are so vapid and uninformed, this should be easy. For instance, look at the way they treat this question: How do you know evolution happened a long time ago?
By examining fossils and comparing them to organisms alive today. In the Museum exhibits, for example, a short film about Cornell professor Amy McCune shows how she uses fossil fish to study how evolution happened in what is now the Connecticut River Valley around 200 million years ago. She collects fossils from different layers and compares them to fish alive today and tries to conclude how evolution may have produced the patterns of similarity and difference she observes.
This is a non-answer. One has to assume evolution and long ages to believe it. At most, it only demonstrates microevolution, which is not the issue. The same fossils, layers and comparisons with live fish could be used by a knowledgeable creationist to argue against evolution and long ages and, instead, for a worldwide flood that sent many species into extinction. The Darwinist answer confirms that evolutionary “science” is merely a storytelling enterprise by ideologues intent on force-fitting fragmentary observations into a preconceived belief system. The blindness of evolutionists to their own circular reasoning is astounding. The question was, How do you know evolution happened a long time ago? The answer was, “Because evolution happened a long time ago. See these 200-million-year-old fish?” Surely the Darwinists could do better if better answers were available.
The talking points provide nothing new (see 09/02/2005 commentary). Most of them revolve around “science” vs “faith.” The published guide perpetuates the myth that evolution is a fact of science (even if the mechanism is hotly debated), and anything that doubts naturalistic explanations is ipso facto “religious.” This is a setup for any logical thinker, because it is another circular argument. Ask, how can a theory without a mechanism be considered scientific? How can one call evolution, a hypothesis (their own word) with no agreed-on mechanism, a fact without first assuming it is a fact? How can one declare what is scientific and what is not with mere definitions? If I discuss only scientific evidence in rebuttal, how can you assume I have a religious motivation without reading my mind? How can I know you don’t have an equally philosophical motivation to deny design? Surely you are not insinuating that a Christian is incapable of reasoning from evidence or caring about the truth, or that materialists are more unbiased, are you? What if the true answer lies outside natural causes – what if it really was designed? Wouldn’t that prevent naturalism from ever finding the right answer? Eventually, the discussion must return to the observable evidence. That is not where the Darwinians want the discussion to go. When forced, the museum curator may point to all the exhibits of intelligently-designed organisms on the wall, and say, “See? There is the evidence, right there. Look at those peppered moths, for instance.” Now we can get somewhere.
In the film The Triumph of Design, Phillip Johnson looks forward to the day when students will respond to the evidence for peppered moths, finch beaks and the other usual Darwinist propaganda fare, with informed follow-up questions like, “Yes, we know about that. We know the peppered moth story was a fraud, and that it did not really prove anything about macroevolution. We know about Darwin’s finches, and that the changes to beak size showed no long-term trend; that does not demonstrate macroevolution, either. Where is the evidence that macroevolution occurred?” One can sympathize with a teacher’s sudden urge to go to the restroom.
All this being said, the last thing any reasonable person wants is for a poor, well-meaning docent to end up sobbing in the restroom over an “extremely argumentative or confrontational” visitor. Want to destroy any chance for progress against Darwinism? Just be a mean-spirited, dogmatic, unkind, loudmouth disputer trying to make the docent or curator look foolish in front of other people. For a Christian, who believes in loving one’s neighbor and sharing good news, nothing is uglier, and nothing will backfire faster. The goal is to encourage discussion, to build bridges to other people – to appeal to their sense of logic and integrity. Long-shut doors need to be opened so the fresh air and sunshine can come in. Let the Darwinists be the ones culpable of shutting off discussion. Let them be the dogmatists. Let their tactics backfire against the evident congeniality and reasonableness of their opposition. The firm but gentle pressure of an increasing number of thoughtful, informed visitors will have its healing effect over time. Many of these docents are volunteers or poorly paid workers just trying to do their job. (This is true, sometimes for summer hires, or leaders of cave tours who, without any formal training in geology, simply parrot scripts that glibly describe formations as x million years old.) If such workers are merely repeating what they were told to say, it’s not fair to pin the blame for all of Dogmatic Darwinism on them as individuals. Yet unwarranted claims should not go unchallenged, either, whether from trained curators or untrained volunteers. What to do?
One productive approach might be to speak with the docent alone, before the tour. Let’s call the docent Linda. Introduce yourself with a friendly greeting (it must be genuine, not forced), and let her know your point of view. Reassure her that you are not there to argue; instead, say that both of us know that Darwinism is a controversial subject. Let Linda know you respect scientific evidence. Explain that many times evidence can be interpreted in more than one way, and that you just want the scientific evidence to be able to speak for itself as much as possible, and for problems or controversies to be acknowledged. Ask Linda’s permission to present an alternative explanation for the fossil series, rock layers or whatever. If she agrees, this takes the pressure off her to talk about it (and possibly misrepresent it) in front of the group. If you are given the chance, be brief and accurate. Don’t steal the show. Hopefully you came prepared with knowledge specific to the display. If she doesn’t want you to speak, at least she will know that an informed visitor is present, and that awareness may temper her dogmatism.
Whatever happens, express kindness, appreciation and diplomacy at all times. Show respect. Compliment the things that are good about the museum. Most people are more influenced by the way you say something than what is actually said. Be real and transparent. Don’t speak beyond your knowledge, but don’t settle for pat answers, bluffing or evasion, either. The normal civil manners – waiting one’s turn, not interrupting, not attacking another’s character or motives – these should all be second nature. If you can communicate an informed, knowledgeable position in a winsome manner, you may find others in the group – maybe even Linda – crowding around you after the tour wanting to hear more, and thanking you for speaking up. Another unobtrusive way to influence the museum is to write polite but firm statements on response cards about dogmatic exhibits. Here’s another: infiltrate the ranks. Sign up to be a museum docent and ask the hard questions to the trainer in the “dealing with creationists” class. This could neutralize Dogmatic Darwinism before it affects hundreds of visitors. If the museum retaliates by forbidding non-Darwinists from joining the museum volunteer docent staff and requiring a statement of faith, call the ACLU. When they decline, well, you have a story for the local newspaper, and perhaps a case for the ADF. Readers may wish to write in with their own suggestions and experiences.