Thursday, February 19, 2009

Is boycotting the right way to deal with anti-evolution sentiment?

Adam Nossiter in the New York Times is reporting that the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) has decided to in essence boycott New Orleans as a site for a future conference. They are doing this in response to a bill passed last year by Louisiana that is considered by many to be a hidden way to introduce religion into scientific teaching (the Times says the bill "allows teachers to “use supplemental textbooks” in the classroom to “help students critique and review scientific theories.”). The SICB wrote a letter to Governor Jindal saying

“It is the firm opinion of S.I.C.B.’s leadership that this law undermines the integrity of science and science education in Louisiana,” 
“The S.I.C.B. leadership could not support New Orleans as our meeting venue because of the official position of the state in weakening science education and specifically attacking evolution in science curricula,” “As scientists, it is our responsibility to oppose anti-science initiatives.”

I note that they are going to hold their meeting in Salt Lake City instead, which at least in regard to science evolution and science education and state policy, is a bit better (e.g.,the Utah State Board of Education has made it clear it supports teaching evolution (see here)).

Along with the letter, a group called the Loiuisiana Coalition for Science has issued a press release saying that the state is "reaping what is sowed" by passing the bill.

So the question I have been asking myself is - is a boycott the right thing to do here? I am not sure. On the one hand, I commend SICB for taking a public action that is more than just words. I think it is pretty clear that this bill was designed as a backdoor way to allow religion beliefs to shape what is taught in public school science classes, which is sad. In response to this, I think scientists should do something more than just say this is a bad idea so at least SICB did something.

On the other hand, a boycott is perhaps a bit extreme and comes with many complications. In many cases, engagement is probably a better strategy. It is ironic in a way for a science group to be taking a George Bush-esque approach to dealing with disagreement. I guess I lean away from the boycott step not because it seems completely wrong, but because it seems a bit premature. Perhaps AICB could have held the conference there and organized a series of public discussion about science teaching. And on top of that they could have made a small contribution to a community that has been really hit hard recently.


  1. Hmm... While I understand the reason for avoiding New Orleans, why choose Salt Lake City for crying out loud? That has to be the absolute worst location for any science conference, as coffee and beer are commonly the favored morning and evening beverages of scientists...

  2. I agree with your assessment. Engagement is best (preferably public). Unfortunately the SICB is not a large enough organization to really make a boycott effective.

  3. I may be wrong, but I would guess that the people of New Orleans are not the ones responsible for this (i.e., not their elected representatives?)

    Also, it seems to me that keeping the conference in NO would have given them a better platform from which to oppose the situation in LA...

  4. I think the bill was almost unanimous in passing ... but maybe the NO reps. voted against it ... will look.

  5. No, you're right - looks like three opponents in the House and zero in the Senate. Wow.

  6. I like the boycotting idea. It sends a strong statement and shows that scientists will stand up for what they believe. It also sends a message to the scientists in Louisiana that they have to do more to influence the state's opinion.

    I know that scientists prefer to be more diplomatic, but sometimes a stronger statement is needed.

  7. Like I said - I am glad they did something. But the problem with a boycott at this stage is it seems too reactionary. I would have preferred they have the meeting in NO and organize some discussions and eventually if things do not work, then start moving towards more extreme measures.

  8. This is ridiculous. So the city of New Orleans is being asked to stand up and repudiate the evil state political machine. Have we not abandoned New Orleans before? Instead bring in speakers that are able to bridge the gap and make people think. Anti-evolution sentiment has not yet prevented the teaching of evolution, only screwed it up. It has not yet kileed people, unlike our energy policy. While it is dishonest, it pales in comparison to our failure to quit sending money to oil-funded terrorism.
    Bad science and bad theology go hand in hand, and now apparently we can emulate the wonderful tatics of the right and instead of Talking, let us go to war. That solves everything.

  9. Perhaps they should've scheduled more events there instead; the place seems to need it...


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