Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Intelligent Hire? From InsideHigherEd.

by Colleen Flaherty

Ball State University’s hiring of a high-profile supporter of intelligent design just weeks after it launched an investigation into another professor accused of teaching creationism has left First Amendment watchdogs scratching their heads. The university was within its rights in hiring Guillermo Gonzalez, but his lectures and writings will be subject to scrutiny throughout his probationary period, lest unscientific views be presented as fact in science courses, those watchdogs say.

At the same time, Gonzalez’s supporters say he’s a distinguished scholar who was denied tenure by Iowa State University in 2007 due to political pressures, and that they’ll be watching to see he gets a fair shot this time around.

While supporters of intelligent design like to describe it as a credible theory, most scientists disagree. “Intelligent design has been discredited by science,” said Jerry Coyne, a professor of evolution and ecology at the University of Chicago who writes about evolution and creationism in education on his blog, Why Evolution is True. “But if [Gonzalez] wants to talk about it in his writing and speeches, he has a right to do that. But he can’t pass that stuff off in a university classroom. He doesn’t have the right to get tenure working in discredited science.”


MORE.

40 comments:

  1. Discussions of creationism in academia are much more interesting than the usual "liberal indoctrination" complaints. Totally separate from that is this little gem from the article:

    "A co-author of the Iowa State faculty statement, Hector Avalos, professor of religious studies and atheist advocate, said the petition made no mention of Gonzalez, who was one of two intelligent design proponents working at Iowa State in 2005."

    Let me get this straight. Ball State hires creationists in their science departments and atheists in their religious studies department?



    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The syntax says that Avalos is a prof at Iowa State, not at Ball State.

      Delete
  2. Well, some of the most famous scholars of Puritan theology (Perry Miller, and Edmund Morgan, whom Tenured Radical just eulogized) were atheists. Probably helps with analytical distance, though some of us can switch from the faith to the analytical perspective (it helps to belong to a church which embraces the analytical perspective, I think; there's a point where faith comes in, but much of the thinking is similar).

    All I know is I don't want basic science courses being taught by people who don't "believe" in natural selection, because I don't want medical professionals who fail to take it into account. We've got enough problems with antibiotic overuse and superbugs already.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I suppose atheism is not really the issue but one's view of religion. I'm picturing some of the strident, anti-religion atheists I know trying to study religion, or "socially acceptable brainwashing," as they call it. That's a humorous situation.

      As I understand it, creationists don't discount changes within a species, such as developing a resistance to a drug. They just don't believe changes can occur to the extent that one species can develop into another.

      Delete
    2. Well, that last part is mildly comforting.

      And yes, militant atheists -- like others who believe so strongly in their own worldview that they can't really understand the nuances of others' -- wouldn't make good scholars of religion. It takes an open mind as well as the ability to maintain analytical distance.

      Delete
  3. My understanding was always that Intelligent Design wasn't "discredited science" but rather just straight up was "not science." As in, its not testable. Can someone clarify?

    ReplyDelete
  4. My understanding was always that Intelligent Design wasn't "discredited science" but rather just straight up was "not science." As in, its not testable. Can someone clarify?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're description is more accurate but I think that's splitting hairs. It is a theory of how the universe works based to some extent on observations. Since that's how scientific theories are developed, I suppose it could be a scientific theory, albeit a discredited one.

      Delete
    2. There are a number of "scientific" theories that don't seem to be testable; string theory leaps to mind. ID -- at least as promoted by the Discovery Institute -- is not one of them, and it has failed.

      Intelligent Design is not only poor science, it's lousy theology. See also Robert Pennock's book, Tower of Babel

      Delete
    3. I don't know about string theory, but I teach human evolution to religiously conservative students. I've been a foot soldier on the front lines of this "debate" for 18 years.

      Short version: ID started as a substitute wording for creationism in a deliberate attempt to sneak it past a Supreme Court precedent. Then a couple of scientific ideas were added, but didn't withstand testing and scrutiny. It's dead in the water.

      Long version:

      Intelligent Design is not, and never was, a "theory" in the scientific sense of a well-supported explanation of a complex set of relationships among observable data. Evolution is a theory in that sense, as are heliocentrism, plate tectonics, gravity, and the germ theory of disease transmission.

      The first use in print (to my knowledge) of the phrase "Intelligent Design" was in a 1987 draft edition of an alternative high school biology textbook called "Of Pandas and People." It replaced the term "creation," used in a previous draft, throughout, with even the same definition, following a Supreme Court ruling in 1987 that disallowed the teaching of creationism in public schools. This substitution of words was key evidence in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover case, in which the judge (a Republican appointee!) ruled that Intelligent Design was equivalent to creationism and that neither qualified as science (http://ncse.com/book/export/html/11798).

      There was some fol-de-rol at that trial about an idea called "irreducible complexity," which is that some structures at the molecular level are too complex to have evolved without the hand of a designer. In other words, there is no possible simpler version of that structure. It had to have appeared fully formed.

      That is a scientific idea, in that it's testable and falsifiable. You just have to find a simpler version of that structure operating in some other living thing. And that's how Ken Miller (for the prosecution, pro-evolution) pwned Michael Behe (for the defense,pro-ID) at the trial.

      Delete
    4. I think PBS made a documentary about the Delaware trial. It was very informative and entertaining.

      Delete
  5. Ball State will end up with scientists that don't have other options. Because why would any scientist teach at a university that hires proponents of Intelligent Design, if they have anywhere else to go?

    It's like going to teach in a history department staffed with Holocaust deniers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's sad, but the job situation in astronomy is so bad, I'm sure they'd have no problem getting all the faculty they want, either high quality or any other quality they want. Just dangle the magic words, "tenure track," and they will come.

      Also, isn't Ball State the alma mater of David Letterman?

      Delete
  6. Next up, an Astronomy department hires an Astrologist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe the geography department will start hiring flat-earthers. How about astronomers who still believe in a geocentric universe (which, of course, would mean that the celestial mechanics derived from the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton would simply be "theory")?

      One of the problems with situations like this is that not hiring someone with such views could lead to accusations of academic bias and intellectual closed-mindedness.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    4. The opponents of flat-earthers and geocentrists have evidence on their side that is long-accepted. Flat-earth ideas were discredited in antiquity; geocentrism ceased to be viable when stellar parallax was detected in 1729.

      Evolution hasn't been around that long, at least not in its present form, and it flies much more strongly in the face of literalist American Protestantism. Catholic thinkers have pretty well come to terms with it, with the exception of lightweights like Behe. It doesn't appear to be an issue for European Protestants, not even the theological conservatives.

      Delete
    5. "...geocentrism ceased to be viable when stellar parallax was detected in 1729."

      You mean the aberration of starlight, not stellar parallax. Stellar parallax wouldn't be detected and measured until 1838, only three years after the books of Copernicus and Galileo were taken off the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

      You are correct in that stellar parallax does invalidate geocentrism, although so does the aberration of starlight, which was the first proof that Earth does move. It always cracks me up how this wasn't discovered until just after Newton died, who was born the same year Galileo died.

      Delete
    6. That's what I get for trusting Wikipedia. 1729 is the date they gave for stellar parallax. Thanks for the correction; I thought 1729 sounded a little early.

      Delete
  7. Let me make the case for hiring a creationist in a biology department or a Holocaust denier in a history department.

    How much do you have to believe something before you can competently teach it? I think it's likely that a creationist could teach geology, biology, etc. in a way that covers all the facts and theories accepted by scientists. Proponents of one economic or political ideology could teach the opposing view.

    There are enough research areas within a subject field to allow a person to perform scientifically accepted research while that person still holds views that are at odds with the members of that academic community. A chemist doesn't have to believe that atoms exist in order to do chemical research. It probably won't be ground-breaking research but it's possible.

    If a department would not hire that such a person, is the hiring committee more concerned with not embarrassing themselves and their school? I think that reasoning is valid but rarely given as a justification. It certainly should not be relevant if the candidate is applying for a job in a field unrelated to his views, e.g. a historian who doesn't believe in evolution.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. A historian who doesn't believe in evolution...well that's also problematic, because that person would doubtless believe "history" began about six thousand years ago, when that is manifestly untrue.

      Now, a music professor who doesn't believe in evolution is another story.

      However, I would categorically be opposed to hiring a Holocaust denier in any capacity whatsoever on any university campus.

      Delete
    2. The other problem with hiring a Holocaust denier (or similar conspiracy theorist) is that one has to embrace a belief in the widespread *faking* of evidence that borders on paranoia to embrace such belief. Leaving aside the possible underlying motives/prejudices, it's just not a logical position (any more than, for instance, thinking that the relatives of a biracial infant in 1960s Hawaii and/or Kenya would have falsified his birth records in order to make him eligible to be President of the United States. At the time, the idea that he would be electable, let alone elected, was just too far-fetched to make the effort worthwhile.)

      Of course, some creationists believe that God created/falsified evidence of an older earth, as a test or something (as if the existence of disease and natural disasters weren't already a great enough test of faith). From my point of view, it makes more sense to view the evidence of age in the natural world as a pointer to how we should (and shouldn't) read the Bible (or perhaps a test of our tendency to make idols out of human-made things, including the Bible, which I believe to be the word of God but also appears to me to be very much influenced by human tendencies and frailties).

      Delete
    3. A historian who doesn't believe in evolution...well that's also problematic, because that person would doubtless believe "history" began about six thousand years ago, when that is manifestly untrue.

      Point of information, Stella: there are a fair number of old-earth creationists around. That version of creationism wouldn't be crippling for an historian.

      Delete
    4. Point taken! So long as the belief in creationism doesn't interfere with the discipline.

      Delete
    5. How much do you have to believe something before you can competently teach it?

      I'm sometimes asked whether I 'really believe' when I teach students about the evolutionary history of hamsters. It always amazes me that people think I would directly lie to students. So yes, I do have to believe something before I teach it to students.

      Proponents of one economic or political ideology could teach the opposing view.

      This is a little different - it implies there is a legitimate debate in a field. Whether hamster communities are structured by predation or resource limitation is an area of current investigation, and while I may have my leanings, neither side has definitive evidence. So in this case it makes sense to present legitimately opposing views. Unfortunately, creationists, holocaust deniers and others are always trying to pretend that there are real debates when the evidence has already decided the matter.

      Delete
    6. You're right that those are different scenarios. If I had to teach a course on ID or other topic, I would approach it as if I were teaching a class on religious doctrine that I didn't believe in. This is what experts in their field consider to be the facts and the interpretation of those facts. My opinions are irrelevant. I don't think it would be that hard, at least not at the undergrad level. Frankly, I could be making all this chemistry stuff up and the students wouldn't know the difference.

      Delete
    7. Well of course Cassandra has to bring Obama and politics into it.

      Delete
    8. If she hadn't raised the birther crackpots, I might have. It's a parallel issue to evolution denial and Holocaust denial. I might also have brought up global warming denial or moon landing denial. Not to mention 9/11 Al Qaeda involvement denial.

      In all these cases, certain partisans with a knack for media exposure claim that some sort of conspiracy calls a fact or event into question. They concoct an illogical scenario by disregarding congruent lines of evidence. In all these cases, there is no dispute about the facts from reputable, well-informed scholars.

      Delete
    9. I thought of 9/11 denial, too. I actually had a student last semester who believed in American involvement. Of course, it's worth remembering that we're getting to a point where 9/11 is history beyond their immediate memory for some students (but this one was older, of Arab descent, and generally a bit whifty. The last factor was probably the most important.)

      Delete
  8. Obviously, there are lots of crazy ideas out there - faked moon landing, Holocaust denial, flat earth, creationism and more - which would not affect my ability to teach or research chemistry. This discussion makes me wonder what criteria we should use, if any, to keep crackpots out of our schools. What if a colleague had demonstrated him/herself to be a good professor but you discovered now that he/she holds one of these ideas? Maybe it depends on how well the person publicizes those views. There are some viewpoints, like Holocaust denial, that could affect the way students view their professor which in turn would affect their ability to teach.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We had an example in the radiocarbon lab where I did my graduate work. An ABD grad student trained me, the newbie, very patiently and with close supervision even after I'd learned the ropes. He wrote well and tackled a rigorous topic for his dissertation (refining and testing an improved method). He also was a devout Seventh-Day Adventist who observed the sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday -- not that he publicized it, but he did explain why he never went to the local bar or anywhere else with us on Friday evenings.

      At that time, Adventists were young-earth creationists. (Apparently now there's less dogma and even relaxation about drinking caffeine and alcohol.)

      Someone asked at his dissertation defense about the implications of his dates, all over 5,000 years, for human evolution. He responded that he didn't believe evolution occurred, but that his results were both reliable (meaning he replicated them) and valid (i.e., consistent with the stratigraphy and an older method of dating).

      And that was that. No one followed up with a question about cognitive dissonance. He got his Ph.D. and was hired at an Adventist college.

      Delete
  9. This post made me think of this image: http://i.imgur.com/4JQhw21.jpg

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Took me a minute to get it! Very apropos.

      Delete
  10. When tenure-track positions are handed out like candy, then we can debate whether the odd crackpot should get a position.
    In the real world, where academia wastes a fantastic amount of potential, the contrarian position is just ridiculous.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dave, I don't follow your last statement. Can you elaborate?

      Delete
    2. Bluntly, it's stupid to even consider hiring a crackpot who believes in Intelligent Design when so many well-qualified people can't get a position.

      Delete
  11. I guess I believe that it's an academic's duty not to teach misinformation, even as I also think it's important to present practically everything as having the potential to be proven (not just asserted) false. The analogue to working on creationism in my field would be something like presenting a bunch of fraudulent documents as having been written by Shakespeare. Much lower stakes, obviously. But I would also say that a professor has the right to *believe* whatever he/she wants.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "...even as I also think it's important to present practically everything as having the potential to be proven (not just asserted) false."

      Yes. And if some discovery during the semester changes some known "fact", it's important to present it. In my field, that would be a new hominin discovered, or some milestone pushed back thousands of years, like the oldest known paint a few years ago.

      If it doesn't have the potential to be proven false, or if the person promoting it is not open to revision in the face of counter-evidence, then it's not science. That's something I cover with every class in the first week, along with Occam's Razor, peer review, and the issue of "fairness". (Gravity is just a theory. Why don't we teach both sides and let students decide?)

      We have some fun with articles from The Onion and the late, great Weekly World News. And thank gods for the Mythbusters. They've done more to teach the concept of falsifiability, and to make science accessible, than all the PBS shows put together.

      Delete