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... Similar efforts are under way or planned around the country as science museums and other institutions struggle to contend with challenges to the theory of evolution that they say are growing common and sometimes aggressive.
An ex-girlfriend of mine used to be a volunteer tour guide at the Museum of Natural history. Every once in a while, she would get harassed by creationists who were not there to listen and ask probative questions, but to try to preach to the others on the tour.
"The goal is to understand the controversies, so that people are better able to handle them as they come up," she said. "Museums, as a field, have recognized we need to take a more proactive role in evolution education."...
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.
I have no problem with creationists. It is their prerogative to believe whatever they wish. Nor do I have any problem with creationists who visit museums and ask probative and respectful challenging questions. But, I do have a problem with creationist who visit museums only to pick a fight. That is no better than if a biologist was to walk into a church and start pestering a pastor during a sermon.
There is more than one type of creationist, he said: "thinking creationists who want to know answers, and they are willing to listen, even if they go away unconvinced" and "people who for whatever reason are here to bother you, to trap you, to bludgeon you."
Those were the type of people who confronted Dr. Durkee, a former biology professor at Grinnell College in Iowa. The encounter left her discouraged.
"It is no wonder that many biologists will simply refuse to debate creationists or I.D.ers," she said, using the abbreviation for intelligent design, a cousin of creationism. "It is as if they aren't listening."
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"I like the idea of stressing that this is a science museum, and we deal with matters of science."