Posted by: thediygeochemist | August 3, 2010

an open letter to PZ Myers

PZ Myers wrote a whole long blog entry about science and homeschooling. I started to address it in a comment, but it ended up too long. So here it is on my own blog.

Dear PZ:

Unlike you, I am the right person to address the email you posted on your blog. Why? Because I’m a scientist who was also, at one point, a homeschool mom. [Some may argue that I won’t be a real scientist until I get my Ph.D. I think these people are full of it. But I digress…]

In addition to educating my children, I spent the years between my undergrad and grad school deeply involved in the homeschool community: not just organizing social events and running classes for kids, but also speaking at homeschool conventions like the one you mention on your blog. Well, sort of like them, anyway…but I’ll get back to that in a moment.

For now, let’s just say I spoke at conferences from coast to coast, on the topic of teaching science at home. I also set myself up as a homeschool science vendor, selling only curriculum that met my exacting standards. And boy, was this ever hard to find. During the 6 years that I spent doing this I learned an awful lot about homeschool conventions–specifically, the business of how they work.

Speaking at a homeschool conference is very different from speaking at, say, an ACS meeting. For one thing, if you’re an invited speaker at one of these homeschool gigs, they not only pay your entrance fee, but also your hotel room, airfare, and meals. Large conferences will even pay you a speaker fee: modest amounts for people like me, but thousands of dollars for the really big names.

In order to cover the costs of putting on a conference, organizers will do whatever it takes to bring in the money. Most homeschoolers are living on a single income so charging a high entrance fee is only slightly practical. So the convention organizers tend to make most of their money by bringing in lots and lots of vendors. I should add that shopping in the vendor hall is most homeschooling parents’ favorite part of attending one of these conventions.

Now you need to remember that, while not all of the early homeschoolers were evangelical Christians, the most vocal–and the most united–did fall under this umbrella. So most of the large state homeschool organizations, and almost all of the state conventions, were organized by people of the 6-day-creationist sort. They were the ones who picked the speakers and the vendors who were allowed into the shindigs.

To give you an idea of what this means from a science educator’s viewpoint, let me say that I have never been invited to be a speaker at a Christian conference. I don’t teach either creationism or evolutionism–I teach very simple, how-to-teach principles. Like what the scientific method really is and how you get your child to use it in everyday life. I was allowed to hawk my wares at these conferences, and even give a vendor workshop–for a price, of course–but only under the condition that I not display any books mentioning evolution or an “old universe.”

Back to the story…Later, the secular homeschoolers (and those of us who are Christian, but not the sort “approved” by the Christian groups) started their own conferences. At first, these were relatively small, but even when they got to be medium-sized I heard of many, many secular homeschoolers who would skip them to go to the Christian conferences.

WHY??!! I asked. WHY??

Because, they said, the secular conferences don’t have a very big vendor hall. And they don’t have as many famous speakers as the Christian conferences. I can skip the Ken Ham talks, they said…there are plenty of other workshops to go to instead.

The upshot is that the state Christian conferences invariably remain much larger than the secular ones. For example, in California, the CHEA (Southern California) conference boasts 8,000-10,000 attendees annually while the 2 main secular conferences never get above 2,000. Vendors prefer going to the larger conference, and attendees prefer the conference with more vendors…and so the cycle perpetuates itself.

So what do we do? How do we stop it?

If you are a homeschool parent who reads this, PLEASE support your local secular conference. If you must go to the conference with a big vendor hall, just buy a vendor hall pass–pay the bulk of your money to the conference that needs your support more.

If you are a scientist, participate in outreach to the homeschool community. You will reach more children, teach them more about what science really is, than you would by posting diatribes on the internet.

As for me? I continue to hawk my book on teaching science. I am writing secular science curricula for homeschoolers. And I still hold out hope that someday I will be an invited speaker at a Christian conference. You see, if people realize that they could have speakers who would give them immediate help on how to teach science–instead of people who spout “facts” at them–they might insist on having people like me around more often. And that has to be a good thing.


  1. Great post. I think PZ took his anti-religious views and generalized them to the entire population of homeschoolers. But it brings up a good point, we as scientist should be trying to engage the homeschoolers more. Bring the kids in for a day to shadow, sit them down in the conference room and give a short lecture, or maybe just even have lunch with them.

  2. Hi, this is unrelated to the post. I saw your comment over at Isis’ place and was wondering if I could ask you a few things via email?

    Thanks, GMP

  3. Hey! Thanks for writing all this up. Care to link to your book? I poked around and didn’t see one. 🙂

    • The reason there’s no link to my book is because it’s in currently in limbo. I’m reformatting it and hope to have it on Amazon by the end of the month. But you can read about it here:

  4. How would we go about doing outreach for homeschoolers?

  5. Is the “Hands-On Science” your curriculum? It looks interesting.

    • No, but I wish it were! I love it. It is “vol. 1” and was supposed to be the first of a series, but sadly vol. 2 never appeared.

      There are few people in this world who would attempt to teach principles of thermodynamics to first graders. Even fewer would actually succeed. It is an incredible incredible incredible book.

  6. […] August: I wrote what has probably been my most-read blog post. […]

  7. I am coming a little late here, but I would like to tell you something about PZ Myers. Remember the Duke Lacrosse case, where a stripper (falsely) accused three Duke University students of raping her at a party? Well, long after it became clear that the ‘rape’ was a hoax, Myers sarcastically referred to the young men as the ‘nice boys at Duke.’ His basis? An email that another member of the Lacrosse team had written.

    It’s a little scary to think of someone with so little disregard for the truth having any say about how I educate my children (and no, if I homeschool, it’s not to get them away from ‘godless science’).

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