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Selling Pandas

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Selling Pandas
Robert J. Schadewald
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

For about a year, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) has been trying to get the creationist book Of Pandas and People into the public schools as a supplementary text. Scott Brande described how FTE, Haughton Publishing Company (the nominal publisher), and various religious activists tried to get it approved in Alabama (NCSE Reports 9(6):5, 10(1);8). Eugenie Scott has reviewed Pandas (NCSE Reports 10(1):16).

As John A. Thomas notes, FTE and Haughton Publishing have backed off (for now, at least) from pushing for statewide adoption in any state. (Texas, site of the next major statewide adoptions, does not adopt supplementary texts.) Instead, FTE is enlisting a quiet army of amateur salespeople to get Pandas into public school biology classes.

In a Dear Friend of the Foundation letter dated May 1990, FTE executive director Jon Buell wrote as follows:

[W]e are finding that the best approach to the local school system is through the biology teacher. Biology teachers are generally easy to contact, available for a meeting on short notice, and receptive. Experience has indicated that they are comfortable in making a decision to introduce a supplemental text with the review and approval of the school curriculum committee.
Buell appeals for volunteers for this quiet army, promising to send a Suggested Plan of Action and (if requested) an 18-minute video with the endorsements of a number of scientists, educators, and an authority on First Amendment law. (What genuine science book ever needed and endorsement from a lawyer?)

FTE anticipated (no doubt correctly) that some of those anxious to convince biology teachers to use Pandas in public school science classes would not own a copy, so at least some received a loaner copy to show teachers. The sales packet also contained A Suggested Plan for Action, overheads, a presentation script, and suggested answers to possible objections. The suggested plan does not suggest that the amateur sales representative actually read the book, let alone understand anything about science.

The idea is for a parent or other activist to take the sales kit and make a pitch to a sympathetic biology teacher. The suggested pitch is the usual creationist hogwash, condensed and somewhat sanitized. The sales representative is coached to denigrate evolution, misrepresent its scientific status, and appeal for students to be taught other, equally plausible, scientific alternatives. Indeed, the sales script often resembles as tobacco company press release on the health effects of smoking. For example:

Because theories presented to support evolution are informed speculation at best, but not knowledge, there is an unavoidable coercive element in teaching this single view.
As with tobacco flackery, minority positions are offered without being identified as such. For example:

Recently published, Of Pandas and People has been acclaimed by scientists and science educators for its accuracy and clarity in presenting plausible, scientific alternatives to conventional evolutionary theories.
Funny, but Pandas has been acclaimed in these pages for its inaccuracy and obscurantism; it seems only creationists can find in it scientific alternatives to conventional evolutionary theories.

The script suggests five ways Pandas will benefit good science education. For example, it will supposedly help students learn to distinguish between science and pseudo-science. Although Pandas is eminently well suited for a course on pseudo-science, it has no place in a biology class.

After prepping the prospect, the sales representative shows the video made by leading scientists and science educators and legal authorities. Then questions are entertained. Effective sales training arms the sales rep with canned replies to the most common objections prospects will offer.

Generally, half a dozen canned replies will cover 95% of the objections prospects (who must think on their feet) will generate. Indeed, FTE offers exactly six examples. The third is particularly interesting:

They may bring up one or more mistakes in the book, loudly pronouncing them to be inexcusable or stupid errors that show the kind of 2nd rate, incompetent material that fills the book.
Any sales pro hearing such an objection would quickly ring up no sale and depart. (If the prospect knows the product and thinks it's garbage, you're dead.) Therefore, one suspects that the example is intended primarily to brace the amateur sales rep for the knowledgeable prospect. In any case, here is the suggested reply:

While there are errors in the book -- as there are in the first printing of all books -- none of them is major or affects, in any way, the fundamental arguments of the book. The publisher is producing an errata sheet until the 2nd printing comes out with corrections, and if you think you've found some he may not already have seen, I'll be glad to pass them on to him.
Assuming all goes well and the prospect is sold, who will pay for the books, and how?

Some schools have discretionary funds. More likely, they would be paid for through special appeals by PTA or other parent interest groups. (italics added)
The italicized passage seems to be an obvious code phrase for church groups.

The following scenario seems to be FTE's best hope:

  • A local creationist activist finds a sympathetic biology teacher (perhaps a fellow member of his or her church) and makes the pitch.
  • The teacher convinces the curriculum committee and/or administration to approve use of Pandas provided funding can be found from outside sources.
  • A local church purchases the books and donates them to the school.
How effective FTE's new sales campaign will be is anybody's guess. The quiet army does not have to be good to be effective -- only numerous. And it is already out there fighting.

Ed. Note: Next issue we will have a story on the application of this strategy in Oregon. Stay tuned.