Science Museums Prepare to “Encounter Religious Fundamentalists”

The New York Times recently described how science museum workers deal with those who dare to question the hegemony (I’ve added the emphasis):

ITHACA, N.Y. – Lenore Durkee, a retired biology professor, was volunteering as a docent at the Museum of the Earth here when she was confronted by a group of seven or eight people, creationists eager to challenge the museum exhibitions on evolution.

They peppered Dr. Durkee with questions about everything from techniques for dating fossils to the second law of thermodynamics, their queries coming so thick and fast that she found it hard to reply.

After about 45 minutes, “I told them I needed to take a break,” she recalled. “My mouth was dry.”

That encounter and others like it provided the impetus for a training session here in August. Dr. Durkee and scores of other volunteers and staff members from the museum and elsewhere crowded into a meeting room to hear advice from the museum director, Warren D. Allmon, on ways to deal with visitors who reject settled precepts of science on religious grounds.

. . .

Dr. Allmon, who directs the Paleontological Research Institution, an affiliate of Cornell University, began the training session here in September with statistics from Gallup Polls: 54 percent of Americans do not believe that human beings evolved from earlier species, and although almost half believe that Darwin has been proved right, slightly more disagree.

“Just telling them they are wrong is not going to be effective,” he said.

Instead, he told the volunteers that when they encounter religious fundamentalists they should emphasize that science museums live by the rules of science. They seek answers in nature to questions about nature, they look for explanations that can be tested by experiment and observation in the material world, and they understand that all scientific knowledge is provisional – capable of being overturned when better answers are discovered.

Let me see if I understand. Someone questions some of the “settled precepts of science” by referring to “techniques for dating fossils” and “the second law of thermodynamics,” and how does the guide reply?

She pulls out her handbook for dealing with “religious fundamentalists” and gives pat answers about how “science museums live by the rules of science,” saying that “they understand that all scientific knowledge is provisional.”

It’s possible the “provisional” line is just meant to placate the religious nuts, but maybe some museum workers actually think something can be both a “settled precept” and “provisional.” If that’s the case, then I suspect the cracks in the hegemony are widening.

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