Cafe Scientifique was great fun last night, although I admit that I’m feeling it this morning: I didn’t get home until after 1am, and I still had to get up at 6. It was a huge crowd, we got lots of questions and discussion. There were a few criticisms, too: we got one comment that there wasn’t enough evolution presented (these open discussions always get sucked into the culture wars issue), and there were a few criticisms that I was too harsh on religion. What? Moi? I think the people on the panel covered the full range of reasonable rational thought, from an atheist who was accepting of some degree of religious expression (Scott) to an agnostic (Mark) to the atheist who regards all religion with some degree of contempt (guess who).

Here we are. You can see that the Varsity Theater is a wonderfully funky place for these kinds of discussions—we had a beat-up couch on the stage, and the audience had tables and a bar at the back.


Many thanks to Shanai Matteson, the sparkplug who keeps Cafe Scientifique going in the Twin Cities.


Also thanks to John Ward, who took the pictures. I saw a few familiar faces there—any other Pharynguloids want to comment? My perspective was obviously skewed.


  1. says

    Yes, indeed I was there (if you look at my blog you can figure out where I was sitting at a small table … with my wife … by tracing backwards in a forensic manner). I would have charged the stage to say hello but I did not want to be a distraction of interfere with the fans.

    I think you did a great job, in fact, all the speakers did. The Radical Spirituality (looks like a fundementalist, shops at The Wedge Coop) was there in greater numbers than I expected.

    The theme of dueling degree of arrogance was interesting. Our arrogance wins and their loses because we are right and they are wrong.

    I do note also the lack of attention (among biologists in general) to behavioral theory. It is the third revolution (making EvoDevo the fourth, chronologically). But that issue only really came up once.

  2. Bruce Odegaard says

    I was there. Yes, it was mostly good, interesting fun, but yes, I would have liked more science. Perhaps these sorts of affairs should lay out some ground rules: half the time for culture war issues (which are hard to ignore) and half to actually educate folks on the really cool science that underlies the scientific perspective on the issues. One of PZ’s (and Scott’s and Mark’s) main points in the introduction last night was that a large challenge in the culture wars is ignorance of the science. More discussion of the science would be just as entertaining and perhaps more effective in the long run of the culture issues. It’s a challenge to do crowd control, but maybe the speakers should gently but firmly nudge the audience back to science.

    “Discussing the science” brings up a central issue: how does one present the sometimes esoteric concepts of evolution at a level that the general population can indeed understand? Just what does an evolutionary scientist do that looks like the real science of forming hypotheses and designing and carrying out experiments. How does it look like the science that physicists and chemists and medical researchers do? How can this be communicated at the level of a 3rd grader? an adult with high school education? a 6th grader looking for a science project? an elementary ed teacher looking for a modicum of understanding as she or he teaches the 3rd grader? etc. If PZ and friends can work on the “presentation at an appropriate level”, maybe general folks will slowly buy into evolutionary science being real science and not just some people making up stories about fossils.

  3. says


    All good points.

    I think the panel style discussion actually lends itself more to a discussion of issues and controversies than it does to scientific research. Even working in teams scientists tend be work alone and do best explaining things their own way rather than bouncing off others.

    There is consideration at the Bell of having a Cafe Scientifique format for school age kids.

  4. April says


    Totally agree. When you get that many people together, many of whom have kids and may or may not be struggling with the evolution-creation thing themselves, I think it’s a very hard thing to get actual discussion about the science. I got two vibes from the questions: one of “I have an opinion, confirm or deny” and one of “I know about evolution, how do we solve the creation movement problem.”

    But then again, my boyfriend and I had to duck out at 7:30 in order to find some food and get back to Northfield at a decent time, so I didn’t catch all the questions.

    I had a great time, though. I had a hard time gauging the crowd and what they needed to hear. It seemed like it was split between people who wanted to come learn about evolution and people who had a decent background and wanted to discuss society.

  5. says

    We had some very brief discussions on how to split this topic, and it ended up emphasizing the cultural controversy. I like Greg’s idea: if we’d, for instance, had as a theme the “Four Revolutions in Evolutionary Thought”, we would have had very different presentations, and the discussion would have gone off in a very different direction. I hope you made that suggestion to Shanai for next year!

    Also, I’m up for a high school version. That would be one where I definitely think we should avoid the religion/creationism wars altogether.

  6. Greg Peterson says

    My partner Lynn and I were there and we had a fantastic time. As easy as it is to get discouraged over a general scientific illiteracy, it is extremely uplifting to see people come out to a funky theater on a chilly Tuesday night to drink indifferent wine at rickety tables and see science done up right. I know the real stuff goes on in labs and fields and offices and classrooms, but I always loved those scenes in old movies of the renegade scientist with the crazy notion presenting at the Royal Academy, and the other scientists are all shouting him down. That’s the sort of messy science I can relate to, and love. And that’s pretty much what we had last night.

    As far as the panel itself went, I might see things a little differently on a few points, but overall it was superb. I guess my biggest question is whether most creationism is really the result of arrogance–but perhaps you, PZ, are referring primarily to the “leadership” in saying that. There can be little debate that people like James Kennedy and Duane T. Gish and Michael Behe are being merely arrogant as they refuse to accept reality because they like their ideas better than brute facts. That is not only arrogant, but delusional on the level with someone who insists that he is Napoleon. But the average “creationist” in the pew is not so much arrogant as scared and cowed. She has been convinced that the fact of evolution means she doesn’t matter, she is “just an animal,” her children will have no basis for morality, that her live, their lives, have no “meaning.” So being right about biology seems like a mess of pottage compared to the spiritual riches her priest or pastor promises her. Known and beloved of God, under His protection, justice and mercy in a glorious life to come, and on and on. Arrogant? The guy who sold her that wagon train of bullshit is probably arrogant, and a lying sack to boot. But she’s probably just scared.

    So…along with presenting good, accurate, accessible science, some thought must be given to addressing the existential issues the science raises. In other words, we need good, secular, Enlightenment philosophy, a rational and compassionate form of humanism, to accompany the pro-science klaxon. Otherwise I’m afraid the mass of folks who are more concerned about reducing anxiety than they are about knowing the truth about reality will just run farther away rather than gathering around to take part in the exciting, fantastic discoveries and advances being made.

  7. Sockpuppet says

    Erk, PZ, you look like my father. (I’m still deciding whether or not that’s an insult.) (My father reads Pharyngula, so I didn’t use my main posting name.) (I hope he doesn’t recognize my writing style.) (The sequential parentheses kind of give me away, though.)