February 23, 2009

Evolution (“Darwinism”) at the University

Posted in Atheism, Creationism, Science, The Universe tagged , , , at 12:19 pm by Andrew

In a prior comment, Victor Reppert offers this interesting assertion:

Someone who starts doubting aspects of Darwinian biology might have similar fears about their status at their own institutions of learning. I don’t want to uphold the whole “Expelled” claim, but I think there is considerable pressure within many academic biology departments not to stray from Darwinism.

I appreciate Reppert’s repudiation of Expelled — which combined wildly hyperbolic conspiracy theories with Nazi name-calling — so I’m willing to entertain arguments that there is real pressure within academic biology departments to not deviate from the standard scientific debates over the modern evolutionary synthesis.

I changed Reppert’s word “Darwinism” (a) because of the creationist overtones associated with it, and, more importantly (b) because modern “Darwinism” is itself rife with real controversies that are nevertheless not controversial among scientists. I don’t think Reppert would argue that there is any stigma associated with being more or less persuaded by punctuated equilibrium, for example. (This is why the New Scientist can have “Darwin Was Wrong!” on the cover, and have it not mean what creationists think it means.) No, I presume Reppert’s contention is that there is pressure at the university level for biology professors to not deny things like the age of the earth and common descent and to not affiliate oneself with concepts such as irreducible complexity.

I don’t know if that’s true or not — I took one bio class at the university level more than 15 years ago, and I don’t really run in those circles today. But it wouldn’t surprise me if it were, and I would think that sort of pressure — if it exists — would be perfectly reasonable in the same way that there is and should be pressure at university history departments not to employ Holocaust deniers as professors of history.

First, virtually everything that’s done by intelligent design advocates — even those with “real” credentials, like Michael Behe and William Dembski — is pseudoscience. Worse, it’s pseudoscience propaganda funded by more than $4 million per year in PR by the Discovery Institute. Real scientists don’t have multi-million-dollar PR campaigns backed by crazy Dominionists; they do actual research in actual labs and toil away in obscurity publishing in actual journals.

Some quick links:

a) Here’s a terrific take-down of the very concept of Behe’s “irreducible complexity” using Behe’s own (and now, of course, abandoned) “mousetrap” analogy. Behe’s favorite examples of supposed irreducible complexity all have plausible evolutionary pathways, from the bacterial flagellum (also expertly discussed here) to the blood-clotting system. Worse, Behe perjured himself on the stand in Kitzmiller when he claimed that there was nothing in the scientific literature on the evolution of molecules.

Of course, the ‘beauty’ of Behe’s ‘theory’ is its whack-a-mole quality: whenever scientists answer one objection, Behe can always throw out another complicated cellular structure, demand a step-by-step accounting for its evolution, and then smugly assert that whatever answers are in the literature are simply (to paraphrase Behe’s Kitzmiller cross-examination testimony) “not good enough.”

Richard Dawkins put it best:

Creationists mine ignorance and uncertainty, not as a spur to honest research but in order to exploit and abuse Darwin’s challenge. “Bet you can’t tell me how the elbow joint of the lesser spotted weasel frog evolved by slow gradual degrees?” If the scientist fails to give an immediate and comprehensive answer, a default conclusion is drawn: “Right then, the alternative theory, ‘intelligent design’, wins by default.”

b) Similarly, William Dembski is a legitimate mathematician, but he displays all the hallmarks of crankery. Fellow creationists call him the Isaac Newton of Information Theory, which seems a bit rich. Dembski’s self-described “Law of Conservation of Information” is deliberately obfuscating jargon that appears in no other academic journals. He blatantly misused David Wolpert’s “No Free Lunch” theorems in information theory to the point where Wolpert himself felt compelled to issue a stinging rebuttal, concluding that Dembski’s treatment of the mathematics was “written in jello” (!) And so on.

In short: these guys are con artists and cranks. It seems reasonable to me for institutions of higher learning to discourage faculty involvement and support with anti-science crankery.

2. Moreover, universities have a second reason to discourage crankery among the faculty, because cranks rapidly turn into zealots. Here’s how Robert Nozick put it (in Socratic Puzzles, talking about animal rights): “The mark of cranks is disproportionateness. lt is not merely that they devote great energy to their issue . . . They view the issue as far more important than it is, more pressing than others that, in fact, are more significant.” In other words: if your bio professor starts to display an interest in irreducible complexity, you should be worried that he’s not going to take his day job as seriously as his hobby.

Consider the case (highlighted in Expelled) of Guillermo Gonzalez, an associate professor of astronomy who was denied tenure at Iowa State University despite creationist claims that he had a “stellar publication record,” with the inference being that his work on intelligent design (including co-authorship of the laughably preposterous The Privileged Planet) played a factor in ISU’s decision to deny tenure. As vividly illustrated here, there was essentially an inverse relationship between Gonzalez’s descent into crankdom and negligence of his duties as a professor of astronomy.

In other words: once Gonzalez started hanging around with the Discovery Institute crew, he stopped writing astronomy papers, collaborating with new astronomers, mentoring students, or bringing in grants — you know, the job of an astronomy professor! Instead, he worked almost exclusively on creationist materials with creationist co-authors, and the sole research grant he brought in was — you guessed it — from the Templeton Foundation for more creationist research.

Under these conditions, I would not be surprised — nor would I find it unjustified — if universities exerted some pressure on their professors to avoid being sucked into creationist black holes.



  1. I certainly think that a young-earth creationist, for instance, would find it hard getting a job teaching geology at most universities. I would expect the same to be true regarding intelligent design and biology. I suppose the relevant question is whether this is an instance of “discrimination” or of upholding standards.

    At smaller universities, which have relatively small endowments and which normally would find it burdensome to carry out more faculty searches than absolutely necessary, the hope is to be able to tenure someone who is hired for a tenure-track position. And in general, those working in the intelligent design paradigm regularly neglect research, or do “research” that is unpublishable because it does not meet the requirements for publication in scholarly journals, which might well lead them to fail to get tenure.

    In short, I suspect that there is indeed “bias”, but it is no more inappropriate than a chemistry department opting to not hire someone researching phlogiston. Philip Kitcher has suggested that ID is “old science” rather than simply “non-science”. The same might be said of flood geology. The point is not to argue about the definition of science. But there is a reason why previous understandings were abandoned, and while it is not in principle impossible that an older paradigm may have been abandoned prematurely, in each instance mentioned in this comment, the evidence has consistently pointed away from older understandings towards newer ones. And so I have no problem with universities choosing not to hire someone who has a relevant degree but who seems to be focusing on fringe areas of dubious academic value. Doing cutting edge work, and work that one hoped to be cutting edge but turned out to be worthless, is presumably best left to the already-tenured. Without a strong career and strong institutional support, one is unlikely to have much success in undertaking research intended to overturn a paradigm, unless one devote’s one’s own finances and spare time to it. And so, a person seeking employment at a mainstream institution, yet choosing to neither research nor teach on the subjects that most universities are hiring people to focus on, is creating problems for oneself as an academic that are wholly self-inflicted.

  2. Anonymous said,

    Behe accepts common descent, the evolution of all living things from one Last Universal Common Ancestor.

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