Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Science and Censorship

This is my inaugural blog, so I'd like to write something profound and memorable. Instead, I'll probably ramble a bit. But I guess that's what blogs are for . . .

I do have a topic. But I almost got sidetracked by the Blogger profile page I filled out this weekend. One of the questions was about my astrological sign, which struck me as ironic (we're talking about non-fiction, right?). I know, it's all in good fun and I should just lighten up. But still.

If I didn't have the suspicion that more adults in the U.S. can name the signs of the zodiac than the names and order of the planets I'd be more amused. This is pure speculation, unsupported by any data, but we've seen enough depressing surveys about what percentage of people believe the sun orbits the earth or that humans and dinosaurs co-existed — 18% and 63% , respectively, in recent polls — that I believe pessimism about our astronomical knowledge is not unwarranted. Interestingly (and encouragingly?) more children probably get the planet question correct, since they've just made a paper mache model of Saturn. Another poll found that 40% of our citizens believe astrology is scientifically valid. And most astoundingly, 66% (2007 Gallup poll) agree with the statement "God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years."

This segues into my original topic — censorship. Specifically, self-censorship. Recently, my frequent co-author Robin Page and I made a presentation at a local school. It was part of an all-day workshop in which we talked about making books, research, the writing process, and so on. It was a lovely school. The kids were bright and interested, and the teachers were clearly passionate about education. It's a school with no religious affiliation in one of the most liberal small cities in the country (Boulder, CO), with a mission statement affirming a commitment to high academic standards in language arts and the sciences. As we were discussing (via email) what books the school would have on hand for the parents to buy and Robin and me to sign, one of the administrators mentioned that they'd have all my books from the past few years except for Life on Earth: The Story of Evolution. There was a concern that some parents might take offense. I wrote back expressing surprise and disappointment, and they graciously changed their mind and included the book. I signed quite a few copies, apparently without any drama.

The exchange made me realize, however, how easy it is for all of us who are in the business of teaching kids about the way the world actually works to avoid subjects or language, however accurate, that might make our lives more complicated. I'm not advocating confrontation, since I don't think that helps. It's like yelling at your teenager — once you go there, it's no longer about their behavior, it's about the fact that they are being attacked. Lose lose.

But I think we have to be vigilant about not distorting reality by omission. Outright censorship is easy to recognize and resist — banned books are celebrated, and probably more widely read than they would be otherwise. It's the more subtle forms of censorship that are really insidious. When I watched March of the Penguins a few years ago, I was struck by the complete absence of the word 'evolution,' even though the subject begged for it's inclusion (how did those birds adapt themselves to such an environment?). It was clearly a marketing decision, and probably financially acute, but it was also sad. Such a beautiful example of natural selection, and such a great opportunity to introduce children one of the most elegant (and accurate) theories in all of science.

I'll try to lighten up next time. And, with luck and persistence, maybe I'll figure out how to get images to go where I want them to go (suggestions welcome).


Suzanne Lieurance said...


Interesting post. I think it's a delicate balance for schools. They want to educate children, yet not have angry parents show up at their doorstep and create unnecessary conflict, so they often avoid books that have even a hint of controversy.

As a children's nonfiction writer myself, I'm glad to have found your blog. I'll be back often.

Suzanne Lieurance
The Working Writer's Coach
"When Your Pen Won't Budge: Read The Morning Nudge"

Bob Raczka said...

Here's what I don't get. Schools are for learning about the world we live in. Churches (temples, synagogues, etc.) are for practicing your faith. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Why can't we keep it that way?

If someone's religion doesn't allow for a belief in evolution, fine, they can talk to their kids about it in their church, temple, synagogue or home. But for a school not to carry a book about evolution because they're afraid of upsetting a few parents isn't fair to the majority of kids who would benefit from having that book available.

There was an article in the Chicago Tribune just this morning about the lack of kids who are seriously interested in science, and how one man, a scientist, is addressing the issue through a club with a very hands-on approach. Author/illustrators like Steve Jenkins also make science fun and approachable. To not make one of his books available in a SCHOOL (not a church, temple, synagogue) out of fear is just plain wrong.

Bob Raczka
Children's Author

Becky said...

I think the topic is bang on, especially since today is the anniversary of the births of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln -- evolution and freedom.

It's one of the reasons we home school; the other is that the local public school -- we live in the boonies of rural western Canada and we have only two small public school, both with the same curriculum, to choose from -- is dismal. I know that many evangelical Christians in North America who home school for religious reasons do so because creation isn't taught in the schools, but I've noticed that in the considerable number of years since I attended (a very expensive New York City private) school that biology in general and evolution in particular aren't given the unequivocal support they require. Hard to believe that in 2008, more than 80 years after Scopes, the subject is handled in such wishy-washy fashion by schools.

Schools in particular and education in general shouldn't protect children. Education should expose them to new ideas and teach them to think for themselves. I'm especially grateful for the recent generation of picture books, which I think do that for younger and younger children. And if they're not getting that education in school, well, read to your children at home in the evenings, during holidays, and on weekends.

By the way, my kids adore your "Evolution" book -- it's on the coffee table right now -- and I included it in my Darwin Day round-up.

Becky at Farm School

steve jenkins said...

It is a tough call for educators. They have enough on their hands without getting sucked into the culture wars. I'm not sure what the solution is - maybe if science writers can provide really clear, rational explanations for things like evolution the teachers and administrators who do go there will at least have persuasive arguments to support what they're doing. Though in many cases reason has nothing to do with it.

Unknown said...

Excellent post, Steve. I find the astrology stuff to be absurd, something I outgrew in middle school. It has been a drag over the years to run across so many adults who apparently believe the never-in-the-same-spot-twice constellations and planets have some sort of magical effect on them, even some with a high level of education (though not in the sciences, obviously.) I left the "what's your sign" question blank.

I've run across the school censors on occasion, usually due to my Halloween books. The least they can do is to mention their objections up front, so authors can decide whether to go to a school or not. It's great that the Boulder school decided to carry your evolution book. If another school tries that again, perhaps the question should be asked whether they allow books on dinosaurs or gravity for that matter, since the process of scientific inquiry is the same regardless of the topic.
"But I think we have to be vigilant about not distorting reality by omission." Hear, hear! Indeed, the thing to do is to work scientific concepts into all sorts of books, not just those specifically about a particular topic.

My husband is a scientist, and his favorite question along this line is "If Earth was being abandoned and you had two spaceships to choose from, would you get on the one with the doctors, the engineers, and the scientists, OR the one with the faith-healers, the TV evangelists, and the astologers?" I know which spaceship we'd get on!

Loreen Leedy

Alison Ashley Formento said...

These comments are as intriguing as the post. Great approach to a controversial subject.

Gloria McQueen Stockstill said...

I don't know if you are aware there are numerous scientists who feel Darwin's "theory" has many holes in it. These scientists are not religious people.

Just thought I would present another side of the coin.

Ojalanpoika said...

Regarding the "sun orbits the Earth" 18%, you should recall that at least 10% of the people always take the polls as an avenue for jokes.

But the 68% toll that man saw dinosaurs is well established. You see, in some countries it is still possible for the media to show the evidence. Have you ever seen "dinoglyf"

Pauli Ojala
Biochemist, Finland