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Avoiding controversial debates with the public?

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#1 rsimpkins

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 03:01 PM

Last night at a very busy outreach event at a nearby public library a young man looked through my scope for about 2 seconds. Then he stood up on the step ladder and launched in to a short, apparently rehearsed, sermon on how the Universe was formed in 6,000 years according to his religious point of view. I believe his parents, who were standing behind him, may have prompted him to do it. I didn't challenge his opinions because I felt that might be viewed as antagonistic and might start an argument. Regardless, I don't have a habit of picking on kids.

Instead I said something like "oh, interesting" and changed the subject. Fortunately he chose not to pursue his points and his parents didn't push it. I'm really glad they didn't because they were looking at me like I was a criminal or murderer or something. I'm sure if I had said anything that might counteract that point of view it would have turned ugly. I'll call it a near miss. Next time I'd like to be ready with a more tactful way to handle these situations.

Has anyone had to deal with strong controversial points of view at public events before? Any tips on how to handle these potentially fun-draining experiences and turn the topic back to the stars? What bothers me in this case, I guess, is that this was a child. I think that adds an additional element. With an adult I might be able to point out that it is probably not appropriate to share religious points of view at a public event. With this child, however, I found myself wanting a more substantial and tactful response.

(I don't want to start a religious debate. I am only seeking advice regarding how to respond to children who may have views that are fundamentally controversial at public events.)
 

#2 RedLionNJ

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 03:17 PM

Well, one way (in retrospect it's always easier, of course) is to wax lyrical about the distances of objects in the sky, of course including some that are somewhat more than 6,000 light years away.

But when it comes down to dealing with a zealot who has no space in their heart or mind for scientific fact - there's really not much you can other than what you actually did. Leave it up to other visitors at the outreach to make their own judgments - hopefully most also left believing this individual was a bit of a nut-job.
 

#3 choran

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 03:41 PM

What makes you think there's anything to handle? If a guy walks by and says "The stars were put there by Allah" or "The stars were put there by Buddha" or whatever, there's nothing to handle. You were there performing astronomy outreach to the public at a public library, trying to get more people involved in the hobby, I presume. So, you take what shows up and deal with it. It's the public, visiting a tax supported institution. Worse thing you could do would be to get into an argument or discussion about it. What could possibly be gained?
 

#4 jrbarnett

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 04:43 PM

Know what I say to those kind of comments?

"Why you ingrate! That is absolutely the *last* time I create a Universe and everything in it, and allow you to live there!"

:grin:

- Jim
 

#5 S.Boerner

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 04:51 PM

One of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Outreach traing videos(http://www.astrosoci...h-training.html) is on Handling Difficult Questons (and Difficult People)
http://www.astrosoci.../questions.html

It's worth the time to watch. There's additional information on the website too.
 

#6 rsimpkins

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 04:53 PM

I see your point choran. Calling any attention to the behavior is probably making the problem worse no matter the approach. Even a tactful response could quickly be interpreted as antagonistic from someone looking for a fight. If it occurs again I will try ignoring the behavior and invite the next person to take a peek. Thanks for the advice. I think that's pretty solid feedback.
 

#7 choran

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 04:58 PM

Yeah Jim, but only the "Most Interesting Man in the World" could get away with that. "His personal magnetism is such that he cannot be photographed, as no light escapes from him. Black holes are sucked into him simply by the force he uses to drink a beer-which he doesn't often do, but when he does.. :lol:."
 

#8 choran

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 05:05 PM

Yep, I think that's the best approach. Nothing to be gained by a confrontation or debate--especially with a kid. You'd say "But..." and he'd say "But..." and on and on, and then more people would get involved, and at the end of the evening, everybody would be grumbling, and no one would have their mind changed in the least.
 

#9 csrlice12

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 05:09 PM

I'd just whisper into his ear, tell your parents your old enough now to read the gospel of Judas.....and all those other gospels that didn't "make it" into the Bible.....then let his parents deal with it....
 

#10 rsimpkins

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 05:23 PM

I'd just whisper into his ear, tell your parents your old enough now to read the gospel of Judas.....and all those other gospels that didn't "make it" into the Bible.....then let his parents deal with it....


Haha. Well I don't think they would have let me anywhere close to their son. It was pretty clear they thought I was the godless evil heathen scientist. If only they knew the truth... I'm just a dope with a scope. :)
 

#11 Ed Holland

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 06:15 PM

I think you dealt with that situation as well as ever I could, especially given the attention-seeking "performance" aspect.

Luckily I haven't had to face anything like this, but I'm sure, just as with any personal interaction, there is no definitive tactic - it depends on the exact circumstances of the situation. Of course it is best not to be disrespectful or antagonistic, and challenging people's beliefs can be taken as just that.

Ed
 

#12 choran

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 06:32 PM

What did they say to lead you to believe that? And what sort of discussions do you felt put them off, if that was the case?
 

#13 Jon Isaacs

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 07:01 PM

My thinking:

There is no need to do anything more than just say thank you and welcome the next person in line. Consider the situation:

This poor fellow has just made a fool of himself, everyone in line saw it, they know it, you do not need to point it out, Just take the high road and move on graciously.


Jon
 

#14 cpsTN

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 07:07 PM

I am a Christian, and it bothers me when people do things like what this religious family did. We are to approach the world with compassion and gentleness. We have enough people in the world who discount us as uneducated wacos as it is. As to your question, just ignore the display, which is what that was. If this is disruptive, he should be told so and asked to calm down or leave. The same goes for a humanist disrupting a religious function.
 

#15 keithlt

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 08:43 PM

you did great, the parents my have had a premeditated script
for there child but you gave him 2 seconds of ancient light.
 

#16 jrbarnett

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Posted 10 June 2014 - 08:50 PM

I think what you describe (compassion and gentleness) are admirable values, but are in no way shape or form limited to any particular belief system. I would say, though, that folks who practice those values (rather than merely paying lip service to them) are enlightened and pretty much the polar opposite of "uneducated wackos". There are plenty of uneducated wackos of every stripe, whether with faith or without.

To me there is NOTHING ruder or more intrusive than imposing your beliefs or lack thereof on others in any context other than at the listener's invitation. Prostheletizing is perhaps the greatest sin in any civilized society. If folks would just believe what they choose and quit worrying about what their neighbor believes or doesn't, the world would be a much better, calmer place for everyone concerned.

I was once at a dark sky multi-night star party that I organized. Out of the blue one of the attendees starts spouting his extreme brand of Catholic dogma. I would *never* volunteer my own beliefs in such a setting; as you suggest that is NOT an appropriate context for pushing one's beliefs on others. However, on the other hand when such a faux pas is committed, I lack sufficient compassion and gentleness (and probably maturity) to just let it go. I'm working on it though. Sadly, I don't think he ever recovered from the encounter. :grin:

- Jim
 

#17 areyoukiddingme

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 12:44 AM

I agree best to leave him alone. But given the chance for a quiet word in his ear: there's lots of interesting evidence about how long the light takes to get here from the stars.

Perhaps suggest he google it. . .

(slavering athiest)
 

#18 core

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 01:17 AM

One of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Outreach traing videos


I'll second that, lots of good resource (along with NASA's Night Sky Network).

Fiwi here's the youtube link to the same video.
 

#19 Rick Woods

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 01:28 AM

I agree with the "you handled it just right" group. Anything else, and you would have just made it worse. Jon's right; he did himself better than you could have.
 

#20 freestar8n

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 03:10 AM

I have had this situation a few times and I just say something like - no matter how you think these objects came about, we can all appreciate the amazingness of this stuff by actually looking at it in a telescope and seeing more of what's up there.

This seemed to have the right effect - at least in the circumstances I encountered.

Frank
 

#21 Vondragonnoggin

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 06:15 AM

I have had this situation a few times and I just say something like - no matter how you think these objects came about, we can all appreciate the amazingness of this stuff by actually looking at it in a telescope and seeing more of what's up there.

This seemed to have the right effect - at least in the circumstances I encountered.

Frank


I like this answer combined with Jon's suggestion of thanks and looking to next in line and helping usher up.
 

#22 csrlice12

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 08:52 AM

I'm of the opinion if you dish it out, be prepared to eat a bowl full...after all, its only your opinion...and you're in my neighborhood. I don't come to your church and start spouting off the fact that the universe is older then 6000 years, so don't come to my backyard and spout off inconsequential dribble. If you came to look at the wonders of the universe, fine. I don't care what your beliefs are, but there is a time and proper place for everything.
 

#23 Footbag

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 09:03 AM

I usually listen and respectfully nod.

If I'm pushed, I go into the difference between faith and science. Faith is belief with the lack of proof. Science is belief with the support of proof.

Then just say, I'd rather not discuss stuff that I cannot prove.
 

#24 Ed Wiley

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 09:47 AM

I have faced similar situations. You did the right thing because you were ambushed. The person who made this comment was not interested in looking through your telescope but having the opportunity to "give his testimony." You simply acted to gather a crowd to hear the testimony. Interestingly, the crowd usually has a negative reaction to such extemporaneous "testimony" because they, like you, find it out of place.

Ed
 

#25 John Miele

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Posted 11 June 2014 - 11:32 AM

Wow! It sounds like you were ambushed in the worst possible and cowardly way by those parents. By putting their child up to it, they had a foolproof way to shove out their opinions, knowing you could not come back against a child. Forget the religious arguments, it is just wrong to use a child to fight an adult's battle...sheesh! :(...John
 






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