Creationism And Evolution: Organizing a Symposium
How can you organize an all-day symposium on creationism and evolution? The Science Council of New York City (SCONYC), composed of nine science teacher organizations, sponsored such a conference at Rockefeller University on Saturday, December 6, 1980. From conception to fruition, it took five months. The following article was prepared so that others may benefit from the experiences of those who were neophytes in such an undertaking.
SCONYC's symposium on "Creationism and Evolution" grew out of the pedagogue's proverbial "response to a felt need." We found that many of our colleagues were vague about answering creationist allegations because (1) they were unaware of recent developments in evolution theory and the implications of these developments for the controversy, and (2) they had no overall view of the arguments on each side. In addition, many were oblivious to the extent of creationist penetration into local school boards, textbook adoption committees, and state legislatures.
At. its first meeting in July 1980, the symposium committee (composed of representatives from the various organizations) considered the objectives for the proposed conference. More pedagese? Not really. Clearly stated objectives not only determine the program but also affect such routine matters as the admission fee (if any), the data to be requested at registration, and the composition of a questionnaire for the audience.
After much airing of views, the committee decided to expand its objectives to include action as well as education. The thrust of the symposium, thus, would be both to educate our colleagues and to make a start at organizing science teachers and scientists for thwarting the creationist initiative.
At this first meeting, committee members agreed to spend the next month exploring such matters as potential speakers, time schedule for the symposium, possible sites, identifying individuals who could be called upon for assistance with specific tasks, methods of publicity, and problems of financing. During this time, we, Kraus and Resnick, as co-chairpersons, met weekly to coordinate and evaluate the ideas that were being forwarded.
When ready to present its tentative plan, the symposium committee met with the executive board of SCONYC to obtain approval. At this meeting, people volunteered for such assignments as program, publicity, finance, printing, registration, and mailing. We set D-day for Saturday, December 6, 1980—subject to availability of the proposed panel of speakers and of the host institution. We brainstormed about possible speakers and sites.
In setting the date, we considered such factors as national holidays, religious holy days, school examination schedules, national examination schedules (SATs), and even preholiday shopping periods. We agreed that our proposed program would be too lengthy for an evening meeting and that an all-day symposium would be needed instead. But when we opted for a Saturday conference, we (alas!) introduced the complication of finding food and dining space for almost four hundred individuals on a weekend.
Then, a host of interrelated tasks had to be accomplished almost simultaneously. The co-chairperson established a list of priorities, assigned responsibilities to specific individuals (including themselves), and monitored progress.
These are some of the tasks that had to be done:
1. Establish the program. To address the symposium, we invited individuals known to be outstanding in specific areas of evolution theory, who are knowledgeable about the creation-evolution controversy, and who have been involved in nationwide efforts to organize evolutionists on the grass-roots level. We aimed high and did not hesitate to pursue the most wild-eyed suggestions that had emanated from our committee meetings. The speakers invited were Isaac Asimov, Niles Eldredge, Wayne Moyer, and Stanley L. Weinberg. In no instance did we have a refusal. It was all done by telephone, followed by a letter of formal invitation. We did not find it necessary to approach our alternate choices.
2. Select the meeting place. We considered such factors as the prestige of the site, centrality of location, seating capacity, cost, public transportation, and parking. A phone call "cold" (that is, without benefit of advance introduction by a prestigious scientist) to an officer at Rockefeller University was met with a cordial expression of interest. This was followed by letters, personal visits, and the completion of an application form. Through the efforts of a gracious secretary who served as contact person, we made arrangements for a projectionist who would also tape the proceedings, for use of extra rooms, for platform seating and microphones, for registration tables at the entrance, and even for the use of the restricted parking area for the speakers and key individuals. Finally, we obtained definite approval before printing our announcement fliers.
3. Registration. We decided upon advanced registration by mail at a $2 fee. We reasoned that a person holding a paid-for ticket would be more likely to attend than one who must make a crucial decision on a possibly snowy December morning. In establishing the nominal fee, we were more concerned about attendance than defraying costs. We established November 28 as the deadline for advanced registration, but indicated that on-site registration would cost $3, if eats were available. Rose Blaustein handled registration matters; John Augenstein prepared questionnaires.
4. Print announcement fliers. With all major details in place, we commercially printed five thousand announcement fliers and four hundred admission tickets. The fliers included a tear-off registration form. (Copies of the flier may be obtained from Jerry Resnick at the address given above. Please send stamped, self-addressed envelope.) We asked registrants to include a self-addressed envelope with their fee—a precaution that saved our registration chairperson much time. This individual devoted much time and effort in the preparation of lists of registrants and their addresses. These were useful at the door for admitting individuals who had mislaid their tickets and for the later compilation of a card file.
The flier provided such information as the site and its address, date, time, names of speakers, topics to be discussed, and registration details. It also included the name and phone number of one of the co-chairpersons, to whom questions could be addressed. The flier also specified that the program would not include a debate. Instead, briefly stated questions would be answered by a panel of the speakers during a question-and-answer period.
5. Arrange for publicity. All SCONYC organizations mailed fliers to their members. We inserted notices in journals of national and state science teacher associations and sent fliers to the New York Academy of Sciences. We publicized the symposium at the national convention of the National Association of Biology Teachers held in Boston, and at an upstate meeting of science teachers. We mailed fliers to heads of the physical and biological science departments of nearby colleges and high schools. Heads of the science-education departments of nearby universities, four-year colleges, and community colleges were also on our mailing list. Personal phone calls supplemented the mailings when one of us knew a contact person. We asked school superintendents to publicize this educational meeting within their districts. And, of most importance, we sent repeat mailings.
We were not effective with the media. We desired media coverage not for advance publicity but rather to disseminate some of the ideas developed at the symposium to the public, to scientists, and to science educators. To this end, we telephoned and wrote to the science editors and education editors of our major newspapers explaining why this would be a newsworthy event for them to cover. However, despite the stereotype of the reporter as an intrepid newshound, none would venture forth on a cold Saturday morning! Now we realize that we should have provided a news release in advance and made a personal visit. One editor, however, does plan to do a piece concerning our symposium and the burgeoning anti-creationist movement.
6. Provide the speakers with complete program details. Two weeks before D-day, we sent each speaker a detailed outline of the program, including the time schedule. In reminding each speaker of his specific topic, we also suggested specific points or questions for inclusion. We also provided a response form to solicit biographical data, visual-aid requirements, and miscellaneous suggestions.
7. Make arrangements for food. For us, this seemingly simple matter constituted our most agonizing and time-consuming problem. Our host institution could not adequately meet our needs on a Saturday. We feared that people wandering off in search of a restaurant might not return. Finally, we had a caterer provide an inexpensive box lunch for half the audience, and we directed the remainder to the cafeterias of two nearby hospitals. Had we not already printed the tickets, we would have notified this woodsy bunch of biologists to brown-bag it.
8. Respond to criticism. Several creationists and evolutionists wrote or phoned to complain that we did not have a creationist to present the opposing view. As part of our letter of response, we said: "We felt that we could make better use of the limited time available by an overall, dispassionate analysis rather than by a debate-type confrontation of a kind that often becomes enmeshed in a few, possibly trivial aspects. Oratorical displays are often more obfuscating than illuminating." We also pointed out that one speaker's task was to attempt an honest, point-by-point comparison of the competing arguments. Finally, we stated that the program provided for a question-and-answer period, and we hoped the questioner would obtain new insights from the program.
We believe that our cordial and frank response to criticism and our eliciting of questions from creationists during the open-forum segment of the program provided a wholesome atmosphere. The moderator also made a point of welcoming those in the audience who held creationist views.
Meticulous planning, faithful execution of assignments by committee members, and full cooperation by personnel of the host institution caused the symposium to run smoothly (except for slight chaos at lunchtime). Fortunately, we had selected an overall coordinator for the meeting. This individual met early with the working committee and student assistants to direct them to their assigned posts. The coordinator greeted the speakers and honored guests and ushered them to an alcove where they could meet informally before the program began. He also opened the meeting, gave directions at lunchtime, started the afternoon session, and served as general dispenser of information. We should have had two guides, fitted with colored armbands.
We had a few pleasant surprises. Charlotte Frank, executive director of the Division of Curriculum and Instruction of the New York City Board of Education, read a statement supporting the teaching of modern evolution theory in the science curriculum. Charles C. "Spike" Brooks, an unexpected visitor from Atlanta, Georgia, exhilarated us with stories of his experiences in that state. Catherine A. Callaghan, associate professor of linguistics at Ohio State University and a Ohio anthropologist, brought copies of her American Biology Teacher article, which details evolutionist answers to twenty creationist arguments.
The final step for us pedagogues, of course, was evaluation. This took place at a euphoric Dutch-treat dinner for the symposium committee. An analysis of the symposium questionnaires disclosed that this single meeting had converted nobody: Evolutionists remained evolutionists and creationists remained creationists. This did not surprise us; individuals willing to devote a day-off to a discussion of this topic must already be strongly committed. However, we were gratified to learn that 25 percent of the creationists who responded thought we had been quite fair in our presentation of their views. Half of the people said that they had learned much from the updating in evolution theory.
If we had changed so few minds, what were the values of the symposium? Some were tangible, others intangible. One tangible outcome was the development of a card file of people in our state who want to become involved in an action program. We are sorting the cards so that they can be pulled by city, county, and school. We are building a communications network of people who can organize a letter-writing campaign in their schools or localities, and who can fill busloads of colleagues to visit the legislature while it is in session. We have names of volunteers to serve on a steering committee that will coordinate the efforts of scientists, educators, clergymen, lawyers, and parents.
We had thirty-two registrants from New Jersey and ten from Connecticut. We designated separate areas for these people to find their colleagues and begin organizing themselves. If people from our sister states did get a start, we claim this fringe benefit as an additional tangible outcome.
An intangible outcome of the symposium was the sense of cohesiveness developed in individuals who, already aware of the creationist threat, were seeking a means of moderate personal involvement. Also, our five thousand fliers. and the potential newspaper publicity are alerting somnolent scientists, science teachers, and laypersons to the threat to vitiate the scientific process and to crumble the barrier between church and state.
If you should organize a symposium in your city, such a rally of cohorts will provide esprit, cohesiveness, and direction to those who are making lonesome efforts in defense of their most cherished goals. They are out there, awaiting your call.