Ethical Debate: Evolution, the big easy, and putting your money where your mouth is

One of my favorite parts of being a scientist is attending conferences. In addition to getting feedback on your research from leaders in your field and staying current on other people’s work, conferences are a lot of fun. When the daily sessions end, it’s basically a bunch of cool people who share your interests looking to have a good time after a long day. While most people (including myself) care more about the knowledge transfer than the celebrations (exhibit A- I’m going to a conference in Minnesota next summer) , I’ve known more than a few people who have chosen not to go to certain conferences because the host city was “boring”. This makes it all the more surprising that the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB), one of the largest scientific societies in the United States, announced that their 2011 conference would be held in Salt Lake City and not New Orleans (as had originally been proposed).

Guess which city this celebration took place in? Image from

Many SICB members had been looking forward to another New Orleans conference for years. Salt Lake City is harder to get to for East Coast residents and isn’t exactly on anyone’s list of the most fun cities on the planet. What was new SICB President Richard Satterlie thinking?

Rich, who I had the privilege to meet last spring, explains his reasoning in a public letter to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (once a Republican rising star before his train wreck of a State of the Union response):

“We will not hold the Society’s 2011 annual meeting in New Orleans…the Executive Committee voted to hold the 2011 meeting in Salt Lake City in large part because of legislation SB 561, which you signed into law in June 2008….the SICB leadership could not support New Orleans as our meeting venue because of the official position of the state in weakening science education and specifically attacking evolution in science curricula”

What is this SB 561 that Rich refers to? The National Center for Science  Education explains:

“Senate Bill 561, styled the ‘Louisiana Academic Freedom Act’…evidently based on a string of similar bills in Alabama as well as on a model bill that the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the institutional home of “intelligent design” creationism…Contending that “the teaching of some scientific subjects, such as biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects,” the bill extends permission to Louisiana’s teachers to “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.”

In other words, SB 561 encourages science teachers in Louisiana public schools to teach intelligent design. In fact, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “State Sen. Ben Nevers, who introduced the measure, is known for repeatedly trying to push legislation promoting creationism. In 2002, he even voted in favor of a measure declaring Charles Darwin and the theory of evolution to be the cause for racism.”

Rich Satterlie chose to move the SICB conference from a state whose government is against teaching evolution in schools to a state whose government “recently passed a resolution that states that evolution is central to any science curriculum”. Scientists often complain about anti-science and anti-evolution policies, and Rich is using his authority as SICB President to put approximately 2,000 scientists’ money where our collective mouths are. 2,000 people spending several days in a city can have a major economic impact (those people have to stay in a hotel, eat at restaurants, etc), and Rich chose to move this impact elsewhere.

This decision made quite a splash, getting coverage in the local press, the  New York Times and the editorial pages of several leading scientific journals.

National creationist groups like the Discovery Institute slammed Satterlie, saying “SICB’s censorship is the real “anti-science initiative” that ‘weakens science education.’…You guys are utterly dependent on taxpayers, most of whom are creationists of one stripe or another, and most of whom rank Darwinists on an ethical scale somewhere below Caribbean hedge fund operators. They think you’re a bunch of atheist brownshirts…Your arrogance and disrespect for academic freedom demeans the scientific profession, and your boycott of people who don’t capitulate to your censorship is risible.”

Rich told me that he received letters from New Orleans residents asking  him to reconsider his stance. The  city is still reeling economically from Hurricane Katrina, and the boycott hurts people who live in the city much more than it hurts the state government.

One group that didn’t react very much was the Louisiana state government. The only reaction I could find was this snarky quote (as reported in the New Orleans Times Picayune)- “‘That’s too bad,’ Jindal spokesman Kyle Plotkin said of the group’s decision. ‘New Orleans is a first-class city for a convention.’ Plotkin said the governor did not respond to Satterlie’s letter.”

Do you think that Rich Satterlie and SICB made the right move?

Will moving scientific conferences away from places whose governments attack science discourage those attacks?

Would science education have been better served by a SICB meeting in New Orleans complete with open-to-the-public lectures about evolution?

Should the fact that New Orleans was already hurting economically have played a role in their decision?

Is the Discovery Institute correct that scientists shouldn’t do things like this as long as we take grant money from tax-paying creationists?

Bonus question for any SICB members who read this- how did you feel about learning that your 2011 meeting would be in Salt Lake City instead of New Orleans?



  1. Patric Douglas · November 8, 2010

    I heard tell that a whopping 30% of Americans actually believe in Evolution…how to you reach a majority?

    • WhySharksMatter · November 8, 2010

      That’s actually higher than numbers I’ve heard…

  2. Glendon Mellow · November 8, 2010

    Absolutely conferences should pull out of cities/states hostile to science. And certainly, New Orleans’ current economic state should be considered. Being considered doesn’t mean the conference should have gone there in the end though.

    It’s not just about “punishing” anti-science communities or governments. It’s also about highlighting and rewarding areas that make science an important part of the community and agenda.

    Satterlie made the right call.

  3. Zen Faulkes · November 8, 2010

    “You can’t encourage ignorance while trying to reap the benefits of knowledge for long.” – P.Z. Myers,

  4. Miriam Goldstein · November 8, 2010

    I also think it’s the right call. But as a far more important point on the “fun” aspect – SLC has world-class skiing, and you’re going to be there in January! I’m super jealous!

    (course AGU Ocean Sciences is actually in SLC next Feb…so I’ll get my ski on then.)

    • WhySharksMatter · November 8, 2010

      Actually, I’m not going to the SICB conference. I’m already going to 5 in 2011 and the College of Charleston stopped giving me travel funds four conferences ago…

      I won’t mind missing the skiing. I’ve always been a warm weather kind of guy.

  5. Alan Dove · November 8, 2010

    Scientific societies should absolutely boycott states and/or nations that are hostile to science, so SICB made the right call. It is unfortunate that the brunt of the impact will be on New Orleans. Like most cities, the Big Easy is politically much more progressive than the state to which it is attached, but there’s no way to have a conference there without providing substantial support to the state’s ignorant government. New Orleans is collateral damage.

    As for taxpayers being creationists, that’s a bit of rhetorical sleight-of-hand by the Discovery Institute. Sure, a majority of Americans claim that they believe in a divine Creator, but if you ask them specifically how that process worked, you’ll get a whole slew of incompatible answers. Only a tiny minority would agree with the Discovery Institute’s hard-core creationist teachings. Any Catholic, for example, would say “yes” to the Creator question and “absolutely not” to the Discovery Institute’s agenda – the Pope sided with Darwin years ago.

    A huge majority of Americans also support strong science education, and confusing students about the central organizing principle of all biology is clearly at odds with that.

  6. Sam · November 8, 2010

    Though I think I agree with everyone that they probably made the right move by moving the conference, I’m curious to explore what effect the conference has on ordinary citizens.

    Does having the conference in a city/state that’s not exactly got a great science policy influence voters to vote for someone less like Bobby Jindal? What about, for example, if the conference did offer open-to-the-public lectures on topics like (but not limited to) evolution?

    We’ve kind of been neglecting this other side of the discussion, methinks.

    So, in the interest of exploring this.

    The SCIB took the cowardly way out. The state of Louisiana has made it clear that the SCIB isn’t wanted there, through their ridiculous science curriculum policies and flippant attitude toward the moving away for the conference, and the SCIB simply laid down and took it. The people of New Orleans have made it clear that the conference is wanted, regardless of how the state handles it, and the SCIB is letting these people down.

    A better way to handle it would have been to expand the conference some, to allow open-to-the-public lectures and advertise them through the businesses and private citizens that wrote to them to stay in New Orleans. This both sends the message to the government that the scientists involved in this conference are committed to educating the public and sends the message to the people that science, as an institution, is committed to good public education even when government is not.

  7. Ted · November 10, 2010

    I can see the point of boycotting, but then again, isn’t there something to be said for being able to operate behind enemy lines? Couldn’t it be like a mission? Who’s starving for science more than Louisianans? I wish there was a way for them to convene in NO and embarrass the backward legislation at the same time.

  8. CofC123 · November 14, 2010

    I think the SCIB should have kept the conference in New Orleans.
    1.Because it is way more fun than Salt Lake City and people have to spend there money travelling there so might as well make it worthwhile (sorry Salt Lake)
    2.Just because some legislature was passed about not teaching evolution should not happen does NOT mean all of the citizens of New Orleans feel that way. I am sure many people were upset by the bill and just because a government passes a bill does not mean that the American people are behind it. Like David said it actually hurts the people living there who make money off of tourism MUCH more than it hurts the politicians.
    Also, I am pretty surprised to hear that so few people believe in evolution. I went to 12 years of catholic school so I can speak to the fact that nowadays teachers are not pushing creationism in schools. If anything they are teaching some form of hybrid creationism evolution in catholic schools under which God created all things but worked though processes like evolution.

    • WhySharksMatter · November 14, 2010

      “If anything they are teaching some form of hybrid creationism evolution in catholic schools under which God created all things but worked though processes like evolution. ”

      That’s the way that Catholic schools have been dealing with this issue for some time, but many Evangelical protestants in the U.S. do not agree.

  9. sue · November 18, 2010

    By moving conferences away from places whose government attacks science just seems like an attempt to run away from the issue. Understandably, who would want to be surrounded by a community that does not have the same beliefs but then again, when does everybody always agree? With the conference being held in Salt Lake rather than New Orleans, SICB members will face less controversy but doesn’t any scientist want a good challenge?

  10. anvbio102 · November 22, 2010

    Ironically, I am reading this debate following a rather heated discussion on “Racism and Social Darwinism” in my history class. We were assigned Count Joseph-Arthur Gobineau’s “The Inequality of Human Races,” to read prior to coming to class. It’s safe to say that we were, collectively, outraged by Gobineau’s off-handed, racist remarks. This is what sparked my interest in this particular ethical debate.

    I came through the South Carolina public school system and can remember evolution being a “taboo,” subject that was not discussed in any of my science classes. Based on my personal experiences and prior to reading this article, I would have assumed that this was a consent regulation along the “bible belt.” I guess this is why I feel relatively unmoved by Louisiana’s bill. I don’t really feel that this should be the sole determinant preventing New Orleans from hosting the conference. Not only would it provide a more exciting overall experience, but it would definitely benefit the local economy. I feel that Rich Satterlie and SICB were just looking to make a statement.

  11. AlexaBio102 · November 28, 2010

    Rich Satterlie was making an important and bold statement by moving the SICB from New Orleans to Salt Lake City. Revoking the decision has upset more of New Orleans residents than legislators. Listed in the discussion, the New Orleans representatives had little to no remark stating, “That’s too bad.” This response, although ridiculous, reflects the ignorance of the legislators. The ones however that matter in this issue will be affected by the decision change and that is the residents. If New Orleans residents are hit in their pockets then they will begin to ask questions. This will cause a trickle effect by sparking conversations. Hopefully many will learn of the current conflict between Louisiana and evolution. Although it seems unfair to make the New Orleans citizens pay for legislative decisions, I would hope current laws are only in effect because a majority of people are unaware. By making such a change based solely on this issue of evolution, I think Rich Satterlie will bring a great deal of awareness to once unaware citizens. Hopefully this change will spark conversations not only in the city of New Orleans but also across the state of Louisiana and hopefully will enlighten many on the issues surrounding the suppression of evolution. Children are malleable and what we feed them they eat, we must make sure we do not feed them garbage. By bashing the theory evolution we are downgrading the value of freethinking, which is undeniably imperative for all young children.

  12. ThatGuy · November 29, 2010

    I am not quite sure if SCIB’s actions were warranted. Holding a conference about evolution would have been a great resource and provided much needed publicity about Louisiana’s school system. It also sounds like this move put more of a strain on the actual attendees, and it’s never a good thing to alienate your target audience.

    “help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories pertinent to the course being taught.”

    When I first read this, I thought to myself, what could be wrong with this? But the doors that this kind of language opens up allows for pseudo-science in our school’s curriculum. I guess we’ll see in the coming years whether or not shunning Louisiana through political and economical means will help to strengthen their science curriculum.

  13. figtree · November 29, 2010

    A state’s government’s stance on evolution should have nothing to do with where SCIB holds their conference. Isn’t it a prime focus of conferences to enlighten others of different views and engage the public in new ideas? Preaching to a public that only believes what “you” believe can only make your message seem weak. Satterlie should have stayed with plan A and kept the conference in New Orleans, despite Louisiana’s new bill allowing educators to teach intelligent design in the school systems. Not only would it be a hot debate, but to see the clash between two theories would be enlightening to a state lagging behind in the scientific curriculum.

    • WhySharksMatter · November 30, 2010

      “Preaching to a public that only believes what “you” believe can only make your message seem weak. ”

      No one at conferences preaches to the public. They’re primarily talking to colleagues. For the most part, the public doesn’t even attend.

    • WhySharksMatter · November 30, 2010

      “Isn’t it a prime focus of conferences to enlighten others of different views and engage the public in new ideas?”

      Nope. Not even a secondary or tertiary or quaternary focus.

  14. CA'S FAV · November 29, 2010

    I think that Rich Satterlie and SICB did not make the right move. They changed cities about a state law, not a city law, and the city is suffering due to a decision by the state. It also places more strain on people attending the conference from the East Coast, because now they have to pay more in travel expenses only for the sole reason that the president was displeased with a law the state made.

    Moving scientific conferences away from places where governments attack science will not make a difference to the attacks. It will only make a difference if the affected city is trying to portray a progressive image, or if their only source of revenue is the revenue made during the conference.

    I don’t believe having open-to-the-public lectures will make that big a difference. It wasn’t the residents of New Orleans who put the law in place, it was the state government. If anything, they should have a lecture inside the state capitol building. Not to mention adding all those lectures will just add to the cost of the conference.

    The fact that New Orleans was already hurting should not have made a difference. One conference is not going to economically save the city. Another conference will come along if that’s all they’re worried about. It’s unfortunate that they will suffer, but that should not be the deciding factor.

    The Institute is correct. The decision will affect the participants in the conference as well, not just the residents of the host city. As long as taxpayers are paying for the Institute to survive, one cannot bad-mouth the taxpayers’ beliefs. They can only provide the information objectively and not try to teach the state a lesson.

  15. WhySharksMatter · November 30, 2010

    “As long as taxpayers are paying for the Institute to survive, one cannot bad-mouth the taxpayers’ beliefs.”

    The Institute is not funded by tax-payers (for that matter, neither is SICB, though many members receive grants from the government).

  16. CofCBio102 · November 30, 2010

    I think that Rich Satterlie and SICB did make the right move. I think about this debate as if it was another conference at hand. “What if this was gay rights?” I know this is an off-the-wall thought but it lends a unique insight. If the president of LBGT were planning a conference in a city that began an outcry against gays, this president would probably take his business elsewhere, to a more gay-friendly city. This president would not keep his convention in a hateful environment in hopes that a few individuals would begin to understand and respect gay lifestyles.

    Moving scientific conferences away from places whose government attacks science will not discourage those attacks. If anything, moving this conference away from New Orleans may have encouraged some of these attacks. People in this city want to have their cake and eat it too. They do not agree with evolution, however, they want to generate the benefits of hosting the conference. No matter where conferences are held, people still have their opinions about evolution, it is just that the placement of a conference may surface attacks. Either way, I believe it should not be about the attacks, it should be about rewarding a city, as someone mentioned previously.

    I agree with past comments that New Orleans economic struggle should not influence a decision nor render any guilt from Satterlie. New Orleans was hurting before this conference, and New Orleans will be hurting after this conference. If the New Orleans government would be more helpful to science, than maybe science would help them out!

    This should not be about who pays taxes. I don’t believe this should be about money. This is about science and whose there to learn and support it.

  17. grassfed · November 30, 2010

    It’s possible that Rich Satterlie made the wrong move here. New Orleans is one of the most vibrant cities and could be hindered by the state and government in place. Bobby Jindal, formally Piyush Amrit Jindal, who authorized chemical castration to repeat sex offenders and has voted against public funding of embryonic stem cell research, should be at fault for opposing the SCIB conference being held in New Orleans. I agree with David, this city could only benefit from 2,000 plus people spending money in a place that is still recovering from Katrina. I think that Governor Jindal could benefit from going to such a conference. Moving the SCIB conference because of the governor’s personal beliefs is a disgrace and unfortunate to the citizens of New Orleans.

  18. J. Smalls · November 30, 2010

    As spoken similarily in my Bio class about the regulation of intelligent design and evolution. I do not believe that the movement of lectures to the public is the best thing due to the various opinions that may transpire that could cause a larger spread of confusion. Whether it be New Orlean, Salt Lake City, or even Charleston 🙂 the point of the matter is that the issue is being regulated on a more consecutive idea forming progress within public schools and the community. I do not believe that one can be spoken without the other yet I do feel that if evolution is being spoken there will also bring a larger notage of religious aspects to be consulted as well. Every decision being made will have a major effect of each individual.

  19. ztagirl11 · April 5, 2011

    I think that Rich made the right move in changing the city that the conference would be held in. He is president of the organization and must make executive decisions. The state was not supporting what the people in this group believe and teach so why should they give to the community that is discouraging the very values they are built on. It is okay that they are not going to have open-to-the-public lectures because the purpose of the group is not to inform the public. The meeting will be just as good because what really matters is what is talked about at the conference, not where it is held. Why not reward a city/state that encourages the same thing that SICB believes. The fact that New Orleans is already hurting is not SICB’s fault. yes it would help the city out if they had more tourists because money would be spent, but SICB should not feel guilty because they did not choose the city. I do not believe that the Discovery Institute is correct because the fact that the city location has changed is because of the difference in beliefs. Nothing says that all of the money came from that location. Rich did nothing wrong. He showed that he is committed to his organization and wants to reward a city that is encouraging what SICB believes.

    Is the Discovery Institute correct that scientists shouldn’t do things like this as long as we take grant money from tax-paying creationists?

  20. AW · April 6, 2011

    I think that it would have been more beneficial for the SCIB to stay in New Orleans. This would allow the SCIB the chance to explain the importance of teaching evolution and how they are weakening the science curriculum. By the conference being switched to Salt Lake City it seems as if all it has done is turn some New Orleans people against the SCIB which just gives them more reason to turn away from science. Clearly they are a state that is in need of a science conference more than many others. I do believe that the fact that they are hurting economically should play a part in the decision making. As you stated it would be the people suffering from the convention being held elsewhere not the government. However, I do not agree with the Discovery Institute, and their hypocritical statements. Rich Satterlie had all the power to do what he did but taking into consideration the people that he actually affected by the move, such as people suffering from Katrina, it was not a very productive decision.

  21. Cameron · April 28, 2011

    The SCIB’s decision to relocate the conference, originally planed to be held in New Orleans, however moved to Salt Lake City was rather unnecessary. Yes, as stated in the article the main intent of the decision to move the conference was to steer clear of a location who’s government and city members were not in favor of the conference or support of all issues being discussed. When there is a conference of any sort you are getting a wide variety of people from all over the country who all have different opinions. No matter where the location of the conference may be you are still bound to run into some type of conflict. there may have been a chance for more of an issue if the Conference had been located in New Orleans however as the author of this article stated “I’ve known more than a few people who have chosen not to go to certain conferences because the host city was “boring.” With the decision to relocate to Salt Lake City there is a possibility that the total outcome of participants could be significantly lower than it would have been if located in a more appealing location such as New Orleans. You never know, but if the conference had been held in New Orleans there could have also been the possibility in changing or influencing others toward a new outlook on science. Unfortunately What’s done is done however, I feel strongly that the next time the SCIB make the bold decision to relocate that they spend more time to review whether or not its completely beneficial.

Comments are closed.