Monday, April 14, 2008

A creationist in our midst

I was surprised to see a little advert in our campus newspaper, the Collegian, last friday for an upcoming event on campus - part of a lecture series titled "Does Planet Earth Reveal A Creator? There IS Compelling Evidence" to be given by a Dr. Don Patton, Ph.D.! How can a scientist, especially one who teaches evolution, not be intrigued by that? So I followed the link on the advert and discovered that Patton is in Fresno all week, hosted by the Sun Garden Church of Christ around the corner from campus. He will speak first at the church, but they are advertising a series of free "science" themed talks for Fresno State (2 nights) and Bullard High School (3 nights) - aren't we blessed?! So I shared the news with colleagues on campus and my friend Scott Hatfield, a biology teacher at Bullard High, who was really alarmed and sent out a call for help. PZ Myers then picked up Scott's distress call over the weekend, weighing in with much advice on strategy to deal with such an incursion of religion into the public school space.

Scott has just posted an update indicating that Bullard High School will not be a venue for these lectures [UPDATE to the update: Scott's frustration is back because apparently the talks will still be held at Bullard High], and that Patton's local handlers have known this for two weeks - yet they continue to advertise the event as occurring at the school! As far as I know, the Fresno State lectures are still on - but I will find out how much truth there is to that as well. Given the other evidence I see from video snippets of Patton's talks posted on their website, it is hard to believe anything they say. I am curious also to learn more about how our campus came to be chosen as a venue in the first place. After all, its not every day that such blatant "challenges" to science are brought to the Satellite Student Union, right next to the Science building that is my academic home! Is it simply a case of the university happily taking the money from whomever wants to rent our space, without regard to what they will use it for? Or is some campus organization / entity actively hosting this event? Given that the advertising mentions no such CSUF entity, I hope the former is the case, although I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are people/groups sympathetic to Patton's anti-science agenda on campus. But, odd as it may seem, for once I do hope Fresno State is being merely a money-grubber in this case - and that some campus entity is not giving these people a free ride because they are a religious organization!

Bear in mind that I'm not really worried about any "challenge" to evolution from this "geologist" who, among other things, is known to claim that humans and dinosaurs coexisted (although I haven't been able to ascertain whether he also believes that T. rex was a vegetarian before Eve bit the apple). Evolutionary biology thrives on plenty of real challenges and unanswered questions, and new critical questions and perspectives are always welcomed, not Expelled. So bring it on, if you have any real alternative hypotheses that we can test - but I doubt Patton has any such to offer. His goal seems to be merely to exploit the lack of knowledge on the part of naive religious people, and to sow further confusion about - not to mention potential hostility against - good scientific evidence by filtering it through his own particular interpretation based on a particularly literal reading of the bible. (And I emphasize "particular" because not even many other creationists, let alone intelligent design proponents buy into Patton's twisted version of the geological/fossil evidence.) Moreover, being a university open to free exchange of ideas, we need not worry as Scott does about violating any state education standards. In principle I shouldn't have to worry about this kind of thing corrupting any young minds either, given that we are at a university with mostly adult students - but I'm not entirely convinced of that around here; I'm not that confident that we are reaching our critical thinking goals in our education here, having seen enough uncritical students, and being aware of the strongly religious / conservative culture of the Central Valley. As such, I would encourage my students to attend, but with their critical faculties turned on (and they better be turned on this late in the semester if you are taking my class!), and to ask good questions. Especially those of you who have engaged me in some thoughtful discussion of religion/science issues on the class blog or via email.

I do have a different concern where I do question the university however, and that has to do with whether we want to be used by charlatans to promote their own agendas that are blatantly against everything we are supposed to stand for. The promotional materials for the lecture series already proclaims that Patton is a "popular" speaker at colleges and universities, on top of highlighting his geoscience "expertise" and touting his "Ph.D.". I most certainly do not want him using the fact that he merely had access to our lecture hall to bolster his "academic" credentials among the uncritical believers victim to his deceptions. And on that ground alone, I do seriously question the appropriateness of Fresno State playing host (even if unwitting) to this event.

In response to my own "advertising" of these lectures, several of my colleagues have responded with ideas on how we might counter this propaganda / proselytization. I will post updates here when I've learnt more, so stay tuned!


R. Moore April 15, 2008 at 10:33 AM  

It is quite clear that every "lecture" Mr. Patton gives a university becomes a CV element. How one can have a "CV" without ever being awarded a teaching position is beyond me.

Patton is exploiting the malaise of the CSUF academic community for his own purposes, be assured he will be promoting his triumph over academia long after the insult to the CSUF science community is forgotten.

Anonymous May 13, 2008 at 1:51 PM  

I attended one of his lectures at Bullar High School. I wasn't able to stay for whole 2 hrs but while i was there his whole presentation/powerpoint consisted of quotes quotes from well-known evolutionary biologists. I didn't see him making any point on his own, and not to mention those quotes were picked in very selective and shrewd manner. When questions were asked, he wasn't able to answer them well which shows he really doesn't have thorough knowledge about the topic he was presenting.
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