Science educator invites questions about evolution from public by walking around with a sandwich board

February 20, 2020 • 12:15 pm

I have to admit that Maggie Ryan Sandford is much braver than I. In the article below from Nature, and in the short video embedded in it (I put it below), she dons a sandwich board that says, “Ask me anything about evolution,” and parades around the Minnesota State Fair.  (Sanford is identified as “a science communicator and author of the 2019 book Consider the Platypus: Evolution through Biology’s Most Baffling Beasts.”)

  You can read her short piece by clicking on the screenshot below:

Clearly her object was to engage people in a discussion about evolution, and the implicit aim was to convince them that evolution is true. In the process, she says she learned some lessons about how to change people’s minds (sadly, that aim isn’t spelled out clearly.)

It didn’t hurt that Sanford answered “yes” when people asked her, “Do you believe in God?”, as a “no” would certainly turn away people bent on having a good time at the fair. But here are the lessons she said she learned from this perambulation:

. . . as a science communicator and former education researcher, I knew that, in matters of deep personal belief, facts matter less than feelings. The need to identify whom you’re dealing with is a natural human instinct. Answering was the only way to unlock the rest of the conversation. So I simply let people know I was a big fan of the globe and everything on it, and that I’d written a book about animals that I hoped people would find inviting.

And so to her three lessons:

Lesson 1: Don’t argue with beliefs. People tend to incorporate facts that align with their belief systems.

No problem. I just had to find topics that made sense to all of us — pro-and anti-evolution alike. Dogs or livestock breeding, for example. Half the folks within a 30-metre radius were there to showcase their carefully bred cows, horses and chickens. Open-faced and genuine, I invited them to school me on the areas of their expertise. Which, it turns out, is evolution.

I agree. If you’re there to change people’s minds, don’t mix anti-theism with pro-evolutionism. And if you can change the mind of a cow breeder by telling her that she’s actually practicing evolution by artificial selection, so much the better; but Sanford doesn’t say that she changed anybody’s mind!

Lesson 2: Listen. The most challenging group of the day consisted of two men and a woman in their late twenties. The men were just looking for a fight. Telling me why I was wrong was, I supposed, a way of asking me about evolution. I asked them to elaborate, to tell me why it was that they found evolution hard to swallow. This led to their female companion insisting: “She listened to you. Now you listen to her.” In the end, one man explained my points to the other. “She’s saying evolution is mutations in our DNA,” he said, forcing his companion to let him finish. “I’m just saying, I get her side.”

Agreed again. You can’t get in people’s face and hector them about evolution: you’d be acting like a Darwinian Elizabeth Warren. And if people are open-minded, then of course you should hear them out and answer them patiently, especially if you’re wearing a sandwich board that invites a give-and-take. But again, was anybody’s mind changed?

Lesson 3: Learn what people really think. Almost everyone — secular and religious — had misconceptions about evolution. Advocates of evolution often hadn’t learnt that evolution can now be tracked in genomes, not just fossils, and that humans are related to all living things, and that we didn’t come from apes because we are apes (keep in mind, ‘ape’ is a word that humans made up).

It’s extremely useful to learn what the most common misconceptions are about evolution (e.g., “in evolution, everything happens by accident”). This way you can prepare yourself for what you’re about to encounter, and have some ready answers.

Finally, Sandford avers that the ability to relate to another person as a fellow human is key in helping them accept evolution:

Lay people are more likely to trust and engage with science when they learn that researchers are human beings, fallible and conflicted. Yet somehow it seems hard for many in the scientific community to show those qualities to others. A common concern is that, in the anti-evolution, anti-science debate, any whiff of disagreement or uncertainty spells doom for scientific arguments.

When I began this ‘experiment’, my hypothesis was that a willingness to show vulnerability — to show that we science folks are willing to listen and receive criticism — boosts credibility, not the opposite. I think my experience supports that. When feelings speak louder than facts, appealing to feelings can actually work in favour of science.

I’m not sure what it means to “receive criticism” when you have the truth on your side, as Sandford does, but perhaps she means only that you should listen to people’s beefs about evolution.

But, as I’ve said several times, Sandford doesn’t mention whether she actually changed any minds—not one. What she did seem to learn is that religion is the biggest block towards accepting evolution:

But the misconceptions of religiously inclined folks often had greater personal significance. Listening to them, it became clear that they considered evolution an attack on all they held dear. Several asked me about a narrative they’d heard somewhere about how “life began when water was dripping on a rock”. Clearly, they were worried that such a narrative undercut the idea that humans were created in the image of God.

And indeed, you don’t even have to be especially religious to consider evolution an attack on your worldview—although it helps. Evolution undermines human exceptionalism and our self-image in many ways. In the book below, which I recommend, Steve Stewart-Williams goes through all of these ways (click on screenshot to go to the Amazon site):

And here are two of the slides I use when explaining why Americans are scared of evolution; many of the points are from Stewart-Williams’s book (and I credit him when I show these slides). The red bits are implications that I consider especially important in turning people off evoution:

In general, while teaching facts about evolution does work, as I know from the email responses I got to the book Why Evolution is True, American remains obdurately anti-evolution, with only 22% of us accepting naturalistic evolution for humans compared to 40% being young-earth creationists and 33% theistic evolutionists (those who think God intervenes in the process, especially in the origins of humans). In other words, 73% of us have a supernaturalistic view of evolution—more than three times the frequency of those who accept “Darwinian” naturalistic evolution as it’s taught in biology class.

In the end, the vast majority of opposition to evolution comes from religion. The more religious the country, the less acceptance of evolution. Religion immunizes people, at a every young age, against evolution, for they get their faith before they learn about biology. As I always say, if I could do just one thing to increase the acceptance of evolution in America, it would be “make religion vanish.”

That is a hard job, and will take decades or even centuries. And it’s why I wear two hats, one as an evolution teacher and promoter, and the other as an anti-theist. I’m not sure that Maggie Sandford’s strategy works, as she seems to go light on the facts and completely avoids criticism of faith. It’s no surprise that she doesn’t boast about her victories at the Minnesota State Fair!

But I’d be churlish to tell her to lay off, because she may well be planting seeds of doubt in people—seeds that may sprout only much later. So Ceiling Cat bless her for having the courage to parade her views in public and invite criticism. I do wish her success.

Here’s the video:

h/t: Dom

60 thoughts on “Science educator invites questions about evolution from public by walking around with a sandwich board

  1. We might just as well say it – religion is the greatest limitation to learning and the story of teaching evolution proves it. Pretending that religion is fine with evolution simply does not work.

    1. “Give me the child …” etc. That’s why they want them. If there was no religion until people were already educated, there would be a lot less of it.

  2. I think she probably is planting seeds in people’s minds, and some of them might come around in time. I’ve never met anyone who switched from religion to rational thought overnight.

    1. I agree. We all must think by ourself on a subject we rejected, for bad reasons, before accepting it. We must first realize why we were rejecting it, then correct our views by finding good (or better) reasons. It takes time and it is not always possible: when the consequences of changing our mind on one point contradict too much our worldviews, we tend to stay within them.

      In that aspect, religion acts like a strong anchor or tight blinkers.

      1. Also, not many people have the courage to admit they were wrong publicly, especially when they’re young and with their peers. Changing your mind is often seen as a character flaw too or weakness too. Look at how politicians are attacked for flip-flopping. Often the flip-flop is for a good reason, like they’ve come to recognize that there’s nothing wrong with same-sex marriage.

    2. Letting go of God can be depressing and ominous. People have put a lot into their faith and by a certain age there is almost no going back. The hardship is not entirely on the biologist to convince someone that evolution is true.

      Reminds me of Robert Sapolsky’s comment about sushi: if it’s not been tried by a certain age it’s almost certain not to be tried.

          1. Interesting interview. I am perhaps less adventuresome on new music ( I like to think because there is already so much music, of different sorts, that I already love), but I have definitely not lost my curiosity on new foods. I will try almost anything (except stuff I already know I hate, such as marzipan,which makes my teeth crawl.) I usually cook at least one totally new recipe every week. Tonight it was garlic soup with melted anchovies (don’t like them whole on pizza, for example) but they are great dissolved with garlic and herbs. There’s a great Italian sort of dip called bagna caudA (dialect for bagno caldo, hot bath) made with garlic, anchovies, and reduced cream. You dip veggies in it.

            All that said, I am the princess with the pea in my sleeping arrangements. Got to have a good mattress and the pillows just so🤓

          2. Interesting interview. I am perhaps less adventuresome on new music ( I like to think because there is already so much music, of different sorts, that I already love), but I have definitely not lost my curiosity on new foods. I will try almost anything (except stuff I already know I hate, such as marzipan,which makes my teeth crawl.) I usually cook at least one totally new recipe every week. Tonight it was garlic soup with melted anchovies (don’t like them whole on pizza, for example) but they are great dissolved with garlic and herbs. There’s a great Italian sort of dip called bagna caudA (dialect for bagno caldo, hot bath) made with garlic, anchovies, and reduced cream. You dip veggies in it.

            All that said, I am the princess with the pea in my sleeping arrangements. Got to have a good mattress and the pillows just so🤓

    3. You’re right, that’s exactly what she’s doing. The fact that empathy and kindness (rather than blunt force, demonstrations of how right you are, and denigration) are the ways to change people’s minds is aptly demonstrated by the remarkable feats of Daryl Davis, a black man who has “converted” over 200 KKK members simply by talking to them until they realized that the stereotypes of black people they held were false, and/or that their hatred was irrational, and/or that their hatred had been taught to them.

      The first person Davis converted was a man he happened to end up having beers with in a bar, just by happenstance. The two men became friends over time and, even when Davis learned the man was a KKK member early in their interactions, he didn’t simply give up on the man or think him evil. Eventually, the man simply left the KKK because he realized that most black people are just like most white people — he realized that what he had been taught didn’t accurately reflect reality.

      We can all learn from someone like Davis. I think the Democratic Party and its supporters can learn a lot from Davis. I know we’re all extremely frustrated by Trump and his supporters, but I regularly see people (even here) impute nefarious motives to all Trump supporters, or think all of them to simply be evil and/or rubes. But, just like many people in the KKK, people who support one political party, position, or politician over another do so because of how they were raised, misconceptions, lack of diversity in politics in their environment, etc. Most people who disagree with us aren’t evil — most people aren’t evil, period — and the best way to convince people of other positions is to be friendly, empathetic, and willing to listen. Constantly mocking them will only steel their resolve.

    4. Well said. Even within a rational scientific viewpoint, it can be hard to digest something you’ve learned. I’m still working on learning the lessons of the theory of relativity. Along with at least one physicist:

      Right now, as you read this, a baby in India is taking its first breath and an old woman, her last. … At the same time, hundreds of new stars first ignite. The observable universe adds enough space for a hundred new galaxies. All of this is happening, this very second, across the universe, right now. And yet this ‘right now across the universe’ does not exist.

      –Anthony Aguirre, Cosmological Koans, “The Cosmic Now”.

  3. “You can’t fight feelings with facts.”

    Sad, but true. And this simple fact may ultimately spell doom for our 244-year democratic experiment.

      1. That would be cool. I’ll have a drink with you virtually. Let’s see, looks like I got some wine, scotch, a martini and beer. Pick yer poison. 🍷 🥃 🍸 🍺

    1. I know what you mean. If tRump wins a second term he’ll wait till his next State of the Union, and toss boxes of tissue at the Dems. Not a pretty sight. 😎

  4. This reminds me of Street Epistemology (I believe Peter Boghossian coined this term) and Anthony Magnabosco is someone who practices the method (he has a YouTube channel if you are interested).

    I believe the idea here is to plant seeds of doubt and encourage self reflection of your own strongly held beliefs.

    In terms of changing people’s minds, it would be a hard thing to quantify but he did discuss some of his success stories in some public lectures.

    Interesting, but not a very scalable solution 🙂

  5. If xians reject their creation story, that means their god is “wrong,” and that would mean that they and their worldview are “wrong.”

    That’s a tough nut to crack.

  6. I especially like how she makes it clear that there is no evidence of a soul. So many people I’ve taught just take it for granted that there is such a thing. And why? Because that’s what they were told. Once any idea of an immortal soul is off the table, people start to grasp the ideas better.

  7. It’s funny how so many laymen think that they’re somehow qualified to argue evolution, but they would never think about arguing quantum mechanics when the fact is that don’t know more about one than the other.

    1. I get what you’re saying, but I’ve come across plenty of laymen that have argued quantum mechanics with experts with a high degree of confidence. Some people just have no clue what they are up against (the methods of science, the knowledge accumulated using them, the evidence supporting it all and how all the pieces support and fit together with all the other pieces).

      1. WUT?!

        Most laymen don’t even know what quantum mechanics is, much less are able to discuss it. I certainly couldn’t discuss it.

  8. The guy who said, “I’m just saying, I get her side” suggests Sandford made some progress at least, especially since this comment came from the “most challenging group of the day” and that “The men were just looking for a fight”. My sincere best wishes to her for her efforts to challenge people’s beliefs in an uncomfortable environment for most of us.

    1. Being seen as approachable is a big plus. Prof CC[E] could pull off such a public engagement, as he is the least unpretentious, down-to-earth super-smart person I’ve ever met. People like that, and makes them more willing to listen.

      But someone else should wear the sign with an arrow pointing to him.

  9. I have had a few interactions with creationists. It’s a delicate process. I’m always very careful to negotiate some common ground and try to advance understanding by tiny increments – but I try not to expect instant conversion. Just seed planting.

  10. That is very cool. Good for Maggie. I too would probably punt the God question. Except for young earth Creationists, it shouldn’t get in the way of understanding the facts and wonders of evolution. While I do not think NOMA is possible as a consistent philosophy, I’d be willing to use it as a strategy to get people to open their minds to evolution.

  11. Gotta say, wearing that sandwich board was pretty ballsy of Ms. Sandford.

    But had she wanted to show true courage at the Minnesota State Fair all she had to do was take her chances eating a corn dog or riding a roller coaster maintained by carnies. 🙂

    1. My first thought was that scene in Die Hard with a Vengeance. I’m, uh, not going to say what was written on that sandwich board…

  12. Funny, I find the blue stuff more objectionable than the red stuff, although obviously the Pantokrator could have created life through an evolutionary process.

    there is no qualitative difference between life and non-life, or a moment when “life” suddenly appeared.

    What does that mean? Biology has a definition of “life”, and clearly there was a time when something that met the biological definition of “life” appeared, and a time before that when there was no life. As far as “sudden” or not, are we talking geologically or on what time scale? [And evolution addresses the “origin of species”, not the origin of life if I recall, it presupposes living things that reproduce.]

    But no, I don’t suppose a giant hand came out of the sky and touched a pool of molecular goop.

    But sure, life is qualitatively different from non-life, hence the distinction in biology. That doesn’t mean that the physical components of life are not reducible to chemical compounds. But a self-organizing system of matter seems qualitatively different from a non-self-organizing aggregate of matter, no?

    There is no mind-body dualism: No free will. The mind is what the brain does.

    There may be no Cartesian mind-body dualism, but in fact organisms can practice deception, that is behave one way when in fact they intend something different. A child may pretend to need to pee to get their parents to stop the car on a long trip. There is a distinction between observable behaviors (of a body) and a mental intention (a mind). Not sure that the abstract mental state can be ascribed a physical location at all actually, I suppose that makes it incorporeal, but in the same sense as numbers (its an abstract entity, not a “non-physical” substance).

    Whether there is “free will” or not, well define “free will” in an empirically testable manner, and I’ll tell you if we got it or not. Otherwise, its just semantics or conceptualization.

    “the mind is what the brain does”–that is pretty weird. The brain seems to be a communication relay center, where neural stimulation comes in and out.

    “Mind” is often used as a verb in the sense of “mind your manners” or “mind the time” which is as a direction of focus. If you “mind the time”, you look frequently at the clock, not sure how the brain fits uniquely in here (necessary but not sufficient).

    People become unconscious due to intoxicants or trauma or they fall asleep or got into trances or are “out of their minds” but there is brain activity. Clearly, if you stub your toe, what you feel has something to do with nerve cells in your toe, up your spine, and in your brain. I’m not sure what your brain actually “does”, but I’m pretty sure its not “minding” things.

  13. I’ve basically been using Evolution as a kind of litmus test. If one rejects it, or in any way advocates for ID and/or creationism, I know I can safely reject their views on any and all topics.

        1. I have a cousin who is married to christian lawyer, a creationist. She is a superb lawyer, a partner in her firm and a former clerk for a US Federal judge.

          Should I contact the Connecticut Bar to tell them she hasn’t passed this litmus test? So as to warn others of her obvious incompetence, you understand.

          1. See clarification below. Certainly creationists can exhibit expertise in certain areas, whether law, engineering, carpentry, architecture etc. I was thinking more in terms of religion, philosophy, science, and politics
            And since your cousin’s spouse is delusional, it couldnt hurt!

          2. Dictatorships?? Not at all. Every nation puts some restrictions on who can vote. Here in the U.S. you must be 18, for example. In some states you cant be a convicted felon. I would say that creationists exhibit a type of cognitive impairment, a willful ignorance of reality.

          3. In 1872 Susan B Anthony was arrested for voting and found guilty – simply because of her gender. Just say’n…

      1. For most of these people, their religious delusion is the basis of their worldview.

        The problem is not finding evidence—there’s mountains of it. The problem is that no amount of evidence will ever be enough. The disconnect is not in the scientific or historical record, it is in the brains of anti-evolutionists. Their desperate psychological need to manufacture arguments against what they perceive to be attack on their faith where none exists overrides all other concerns.

        That which is not created by reason, can’t be defeated with reason.

    1. I agree to an extent. But, humans are pretty good at compartmentalizing. He or she might be an expert in auto repair or dentistry.

  14. I don’t think you will entirely change anyones’ minds with this approach, but I admire her for going out there. The non-confrontational approach is certainly the way to go when having these discussions in person. But of course these conversations are easily a bit less cordial when done online.

  15. While we may think religion vs rational thought is the argument, I suspect that it is really rational thought vs not thinking too hard. I would keep religion, free will, and morality out of it. Or, perhaps, they are discussions for a later day.

    Rather than challenging the tenets held by their “team”, religious or otherwise, leverage their own beliefs that conflict with evolution. Most people are pretty familiar with the wonders of modern medicine and medical technology. There must be no end of stories that could tie what they know to be true to evolution. The breeding of dogs might be a good one to start. The closing of cold cases by matching unknown human DNA to the DNA of relatives using genome databases is another. I’m sure people are interested in such stories.

    I also doubt that face-to-face challenges will work. As soon as they understand that you are there to “sell” them on evolution, you’ve lost. Better that they can consume information without someone judging them.

    I also suspect that Maggie Sanford didn’t convince anyone.

    1. I think its helpful to view religion as “picture”.

      You can imagine Monty Python hand coming down and touching the pool of molecular goop and *poof* life begins. Its a picture.

      Frankly, unless your a molecular biologist or a renaissance person, do you actually need more than that picture? The reality is that most people at most times in history don’t need anything more. Further, many lack the band width to understand the scientific explanation even if they wanted to.

      Further, people are pretty attached to their pictures, they give them comfort, meaning, reassurance in a hostile and unfriendly world.

      I’m not saying this as justification so much as what someone is up against trying to impart a scientific worldview on someone else.

  16. The seeds of doubt point is very important. I suspect the best you can ever do in a real-time conversation is plant some seeds of doubt. You might not even succeed in doing that, but there’s pretty remote odds against accomplishing much more, such as getting people to change their minds on the spot. That’s unfortunate, but I think it’s what we’re stuck with. So, the question then becomes how to talk to people in a way that might actually plant those seeds. I don’t claim to be an expert on this – e.g. I don’t know that I’ve ever had much, or any, success, myself – but we do at least know a fair bit about what *doesn’t* work and even creates a backfire effect.

    1. Human behavior is complicated, plus there is variation. What plants a seed of doubt today in an individual might not work tomorrow because they are in a different state of mind. Seeds of doubt vary in their potency. Some may fade completely away within minutes, some may lie dormant for a long time and then suddenly coalesce with others to cause a change.

      And then of course there are the people watching, listening to the interaction. A method that is highly probable to fail with the individual primary target may be quite successful with observers.

      Seems to be one of those things that you can’t predict with any precision. At best you play the odds. It seems a safe bet that there are several methods that work some of the time, but figuring out which method has the best chance in a particular situation is a much more difficult problem.

  17. I once had a student enrolled in an environmental biology subject in a Diploma of Environmental Management who objected to my discussion of groups of living things. I had at that time (quite a long time ago) of plants, animals, fungi, protists and microbes. He asked what about people? We are animals, I answer. He objects since in his view we were created in the image of god! I suggest that his religious views are his business, but for the purposes of the course, could we stick to the five groups above? Thankfully I never saw him again!

  18. Were you to run into “Evolutionary Eve” (Ms Sanford) what would you ask her? (While I can’t imagine not accepting evolution as true, I’d want to ask.) I guess I’d ask how did altruism evolve? (tho there are plenty of explanations I’ve read). I’d be tempted to ask whether belief, even if contrived or pretend, in fictions is an acceptable human characteristic. Seems ubiquitous: e.g. Santa Claus. And sometimes is “good” in the sense of human happiness optimized. Small step to religion? Need truth always be the supreme value? **What would others ask?**

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