Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What is NIH up to?

We've been debating the appointment of a new NIH Director (Francis Collins) but ignoring the role that NIH's Office of Science Education plays.

On Wednesday night (tomorrow) they're showing Inherit the Wind and that puts them right smack in the thick of the discussion about science and religion.

I think this is a mistake—NIH should keep their nose out of that debate—but that's not the worst of it. Following the movie they've asked Matt Nisbet to lead a discussion about evolution. Here's how he describes it on his blog.
Following the film, I have been invited to make a few remarks on the evolution debate as it plays out in contemporary culture and the enduring themes from the classic movie. The event and film series is designed to facilitate active audience participation and debate, so I expect there will be some very interesting discussion. For more on the relevant themes related to science and public engagement, see this forthcoming article on "What's Next for Science Communication?"
Matt Nisbet? Were all the real scientists too busy? Why didn't they fly in Jerry Coyne for the evening? Or Richard Lewontin? Or Niles Eldredge? Even better, PZ Myers. These are scientists who know and understand science.

P.S. I don't think Clarence Darrow was an accommodationist. I wonder how Matt is going to frame that?


  1. Great: he's going to talk, not about science, but about science *communication*. Substance is dead; all that matter now is PR.

  2. I finally watched Inherit the Wind for the first time last year, and was shocked at how bad it was, given its reputation. The religious side was made into a completely ridiculous caricature, and many of the facts of the Scopes trial were re-invented to make the religious side look even worse. It almost made me feel sorry for them.

  3. Re Don Monroe

    Actually, considering the idiocy of the religious rights' insistence on a 6000 year old earth, I didn't find the treatment of the religious side a caricature at all. If anything, it was too "accommodating".

  4. Don:

    It should be understood that the authors of the play the movie was based on were using the story of the Scopes trial as a metaphor for the hysteria of the McCarthy era. The caricature was of unthinking hatred whipped up by politicians with their own agendas. The trial dialogue, however, particularly the interaction of Darrow and Bryan, was largely taken from the closest thing there was to a trial transcript.

    Besides, who couldn't love Spencer Tracy and Frederick March?

    As to Darrow being an accommodationist, what he repeatedly argued (no doubt for tactical reasons) was that both evolution and Genesis be taught in the public schools.

  5. I thought you were in Halifax "Questioning the Tree of Life" and would be too busy to post. How is the conference?

  6. Darrow was clearly an accomodationist in the film - especially at the end when we walks off with the bible and 'origin of species' together in his hands. The anti-accomodationist stance in the movie was taken by Gene Kelly playing the HL Menken role.
    The important point is that the accomodationist stance resulted in utter failure. The only legal position that has been successful historically in the US has been the neutralist position of keeping the state from actively supporting one religious viewpoint (something that the NAS and the NCES should try to remember a bit better the next time they try to advocate that science and religion are compatible so long as the religion is roman catholicism or liberal protestantism).

  7. SLC -- Your comment is delightfully ironic in that the William Jennings Bryan proxy in the film (and the play), consistent with Bryan himself, specifically denies being a YEC. Well done.

  8. If you are ever in the DC area during July or early August I invite all of you come to one of our Wednesday evening Science in the Cinema events (currently in its 16th year).

    And by all means...please check out what we are doing with respect to science education...

    Bruce Fuchs, Director, NIH Office of Science Education