Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, February 13, 2006

A polite creationist and a polite reply

I recently received a surprisingly polite and well-presented argument against a post about the attack on Professor Mirecki on this blog from a creationist. I say "surprisingly" because like many pro-evolution bloggers, most of the creationist mail I get is hate mail, without the merest attempt to deal with the issues at hand in a rational manner. Most of them end up in my bitbucket, but when you get something that is actually worth responding to, you must, just to how that not all creationists are slathering fools.

Actually, I never thought that. Most creationists are ordinary decent people who have accepted what their authorities have told them. The general run of people don't have the time or inclination to follow through what looks like technical issues. Life always intervenes. But Mr Steven Dapra has tried. I owe him a response. Here it is. My comments in his quoted email (reproduced with his approval), are in small type.
Dear Dr. Wilkins:

I am writing about your comments at: <Evolving Thoughts post>. I found this link by reading the TalkOrigins feedback for December 2005.

You were commenting on the case of someone beating up Professor Mirecki. Has anyone considered the possibility that this criminal act was perpetrated by some drunken and unruly free-lance thugs who were out to cause a little mischief? I think that is as plausible an explanation as any. If the authorities have investigated this, I do not know what they concluded, if anything. I am offering this explanation as sheer speculation.
Yes, I considered this. But in the initial report, Mirecki said that one of them mentioned his email and the ID issue. This makes it unlikely to be a random act of thuggery. Of course, if he is lying, then all bets are off, but so far I have no reason to think that. But there has been no public followup to the police investigation of which I am aware.
I have copied three of the numbered comments in your blog, and would like to make some comments of my own. To get the context, I copied the entire point, not merely the sentence or phrase I wished to address.

2. Mirecki's email was obnoxious, but in no way unjustified or immoral or contrary to decent ethical standards. Religious people make much worse comments about "godless atheists" every day, and in America, they (and he) have that right constitutionally. The apology ought to have been enough to settle this, in a civilised nation. And it was in a private forum. He didn't broadcast it to the nation, Altevogt did. Is it a surprise that Mirecki thinks fundamentalists are often stupid bastards? I do, and many others, a lot of whom are Christians of a more reasonable kind, also do. So what is at issue? That he said to those he had a reasonable expectation shared those values what he thought? Bad man! Bad bad man!


Yes, it was obnoxious. What if a creationist had sent out an e-mail expressing similar sentiments about ‘monkey-descended so-and-so’s’? Would such a hypothetical e-mail also have not been “contrary to decent ethical standards”?

I agree with you about the “private forum” and the 'not broadcasting it' part. When Mirecki wrote that thing wasn’t he a “public servant”? Was he doing this on university time? That is, was he being paid by all taxpayers to vilify some taxpayers?

In case you are wondering, I happen to be a creationist and I will be glad to tell you (and anyone who will listen) that some of my fellow creationists are pretty lame. (I prefer not to use bad words, if you will pardon me for that.)
Creationists not only do send out such emails, they make public comments of that kind. They appear to think, in my experience, that being "right" means ordinary ethical standards do not apply to them. As I said above, I get hate mail all the time from creationists, and I'm halfway around the world from the US. My friend Paul Myers, and others, all get very nasty emails sent to them, and about them.

Academics are not paid by taxpayers, in your country or mine, to simply be nice quiet little mice. They are paid to think, research and teach about issues, ranging from economic and psychological to social and scientific. They are thus enabled to contribute to social discourse as they see fit (if they are tenured and funded).

They are not servants of the public. They are servants of the topic they study. And no public authority has the right to prevent them from studying, teaching or addressing their issues, subject to breaking laws or harming others directly. This works well enough to permit academic research to continue. If a lawmaker doesn't like it, the appropriate response is not to threaten to remove the person or course, but to address the matter in the academic domain. Anything else is bullying and demagoguery.
3. Mirecki has academic freedom, or ought to, to teach what he wants without interference from lobby groups or the majority. His peers - those who are professionals in his discipline - are the ones who are fit to judge his actions; not some politician or religious opponent. Threatening the freedom of academics by withholding funding is the reason why universities got out from under church control in the first place.


Don’t creationists or ID proponents also have academic freedom to teach what they want to without interference from lobby groups, politicians, or religious opponents; or from noisy well-funded left-wing extremist groups such as the ACLU or the NCSE?

What is your definition of “academic freedom”? Is it ‘your right to force people to pay taxes to hire teachers to teach students ideas the taxpayer(s) don’t believe it?’ Isn’t that similar to Stalin forcing Soviet citizens to pay taxes to hire Lysenko? In another of your linked articles (Inside Higher Ed.), John Hoopes, an associate professor of anthropology is alluded to as follows: "Hoopes said he was very concerned about the idea that university officials were reviewing Mirecki's course because of his posting to a listserv. 'I feel that the university should be very cautious about reviewing the content of any courses,' he said. "Academic freedom should assure the freedom of any faculty member to teach what they want to teach." What about the freedom of Dean Kenyon to teach whatever he wanted to teach? I'll bet Hoopes could give you an earful about how Kenyon should have been forced from his position. (I imagine you are familiar with Kenyon's case, so I will not go into detail. You can search either TalkOrigins.org, or http://www.natcenscied.org/.) There was no academic freedom for "faculty member" Kenyon to "teach what [he] want[ed] to teach."
Nobody is preventing ID advocates from presenting their ideas into the academic domain. Indeed, in my opinion it gets way more attention than it deserves. A while back I presented a paper at a conference on Dembski's "explanatory filter" (see the paper here, or here, coauthored with Wesley Elsberry). One of the comments made in the Q&A was "how sad that we still have to be discussing this in the 21st century", with which I agree. But the ideas are out there and nobody is stopping them from putting it out. Particularly not since they have way more public relations and advertising funding than do the equivalent bodies aimed at presenting evolution. The NCSE you mention here gets a fraction of the funding from donations that the Discovery Institute gets. It is not "well-funded". And the ACLU is a group that is also not publicly funded so much - the cases it has brought with regards to evolution have been done by lawyers pro bono, and for issues of teachhing science in publicly funded schools, not universities.

I am not familiar with the details of the Kenyon case, but the TalkOrigins page I presume you are referring to doesn't say he lost any academic job because he taught creationism. But suppose he or someone else did?

An academic is employed, in part, to teach the state of the subject, not the subject as some noisy minority wants to to be taught for reasons that have nothing to do with the topic or discipline. If you are employed to teach science, then substituting religion for science is grounds for dismisal (or at any rate non-renewal of contract). You are not doing what you are employed to do.

So what counts as the science one should teach? Well, the basic principle of science is that it is what we develop based on the data, as investigated by the experts of the discipline. If, and only if, those people find that the data supports creationism, or at the very least it becomes a viable hypothesis in the field, neither of which is true, can someone teach creation in a science class. So if I converted tomorrow and taught in a philosophy of science class (which is my field) that creation was a viable theory in biology, it would happen that I would not be allowed to teach that subject, as I would have shwn myself to be incompetent in the field. Eventually, when my contract is up, I would expect that I would not find a new position.

Academic science has standards, and these are set by the best researchers in the field concerned. None of them are creationists in the relevant sense. So teaching creationism in a university science course as anything but an antiscience political and religious movement would be to teach something other than science.

The Lysenko affair is actually a very good example of what happens when politics interferes in science. If the science goes a direction that a politician finds objectionable, too bad. Science, not politics, is lead by data. No democratic government mandates that evolution should be taught. They mandate that science should be taught. Science mandates that evolution should be taught because it is good science.
With respect to"witholding funding," on your blog you wrote: "One of the conservative politicians of that state threatened to remove funding from the department (no doubt the reason why he stepped down). She also said that Mirecki, who has a doctorate in theology from Harvard, hates Christians. Of course he does. That's why he is a Christian himself..."

Your assertion about a threat to "remove funding from the department" is false. The linked article [in the Lawrence (KS) Journal-World], was referring to a 1993 incident, and said, "Dennis Dailey, professor emeritus in KU's School of Social Welfare, said he recently sent e-mails to Mirecki and Hoopes.

"My opening line was: 'Welcome to the fray,' "Dailey said.

"As Dailey watches the current controversy, he sees a battle similar to the one that enveloped him and his human sexuality course in 2003.

"Dailey's course on human sexuality spurred State Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, to voice her concerns on the floor of the Kansas Senate and to take aim at KU's funding. An amendment, proposed by Wagle, to cut funding to the KU School of Social Welfare ultimately was vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius."

Although it is true that a funding revocation was proposed, it happened in 2003, and NOT in 2005, and NOT pertaining to anything about Intelligent Design.

I request that you make an acknowledgement of error, and place a correction in your blog.
The link I gave did not, as you show, link to what I thought it did. But it is true that one lawmaker in Kansas, Kay O'Connor, made a not-so-veiled threat in response to Mirecki's email to reduce funding:

Meanwhile, critics questioned the use of tax dollars on the course. State Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, called for Mirecki and Hemenway to appear before state lawmakers to answer questions about the course.

Sen. Kay O’Connor, R-Olathe, last week responded to the e-mail: “He wants me to say ‘thank you’ by giving more money. Who is the ignoramus here?”

Why should an academic need to come before a funding committee of the government to justify a course? This is pure intimidation.
Are suggesting that having a doctorate in theology (from anywhere) makes someone a Christian? If so, what is your basis for believing this?
Well, it's inference on my part from the comments about Mirecki that he attends a church. Perhaps he does so for sociological reasons, but having a PhD in Theology, rather than comparative religions or religious studies, implies a commitment to the subject. I had to withdraw from theological studies myself when I lost my faith.
In your blog you also said, "Sen. Kay O'Connor, Republican of course, says that there needs to be a standard in the US that prohibits criticism of Christianity..."
O'Connor says nothing of this nature in the Lawrence Journal-World article. What is your reason or primary source material for attributing this sentiment to O'Connor? (Nothing I have said here should be construed as in any way defending KS State Senator Kay O'Connor. I know nothing about her.)
I can't recall where I saw that, but a quick Google gives this from Karin Brownlee, another Republican State Senator:
"We have to set a standard that it's not culturally acceptable to mock Christianity in America," she said.
It appears I confused the two. From this distance, one Republican neo-conservative politician looks very like another.
5. There is no "persecution" of Christians going on in America. Christians form something like 90% of the population - they control or affect public life in every way. What is going on there, in this case as in others, is that they oppose any dissent from what they think the world ought to be like. They are the persecutors, not Mirecki, not SOMA. Altevogt, O'Connor and their ilk are the ones who are being anti-American.

And they will win so long as the religious right controls the social instruments of government, media, and law.


That depends on how one defines “persecution.” According to Webster, to persecute means, “to harass in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict; [specifically] to cause to suffer because of belief.” “To annoy with persistent or urgent approaches (as attacks, pleas, or importunities).” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1974)

Would you say it is plausible that Mirecki meant (“designed”) his e-mail to grieve some person or persons? Naturally I can’t assess his state of mind or his intent. I am certain he annoyed some creationists with his approach. Was that an act of persecution? What do you think?

What is the source of your claim that Christians form something like 90% of the population? Equally to the point, what is your definition of “Christian”?
I do not think that a private comment made in private email to a private group constitutes persecution. But eavesdropping on that sort of private communication in order to publicly denigrate someone certainly sounds like it.

As to the percentage of Americans who are Christian, I picked a figure. So let's go looking at actual census data: of 207.98 million Americans, 159.5 million describe themselves as Christian. OK, so it's around 76.6% of Americans (29.4 million, or around 14% have no religion). But of those who attend church regularly, 47.4% of the population are religious (according to table 69). Take whatever statistic you like, Christians are not the minority. Agnostics and atheists certainly are.
Permit me to inform you that the “religious right” does not control government, media, and law. Creationists are vilified somewhere every day in the secular press, and in a lot of the “religious” press too, for that matter. And controlling law?? That’s a laugh. Have you ever heard of Kitzmiller v Dover? Now there is a prime example of creationists (or, in this instance, ID proponents) controlling law.
The religious right does indeed have influence over the media and the law that it should not really have. The present administration and way too much of the Republican party have kowtowed to it for decades. American media is very biased in favour of the religious right, to the point that the venerable term "liberal" means something like "traitor". The only source of information in the mainstream media (i.e., excluding NPR and so on) of which I have been made aware that is reliable is The Daily Show. Or rather, Jon Stewart. He made a very good point when publicising his last book, when attacked by media pundits - why aren't you guys doing this? I'm a comedian, he said. My show follows puppets making crank calls. So why should it be me who has to call the emperor for his lack of clothing?

American media is so biased so broadly you can't see the wood for the trees. Media in my own country fares only slightly better.

Kitzmiller was a wonderful outcome - an independent judge (who shortly afterwards was informed in public that he had better not expect a promotion, from a ranking government official) who had never the less been appointed by BushII. I am not surprised there are men of principle amongst conservatives. I am pleased to see an example of it.
Since you are a self-described postdoctoral research fellow, I am confident you consider yourself to be an academic or a scholar, or both, so I look forward to receiving a reply that takes an academic or scholarly approach (such as the primary source material for your “90%” claim, and the one about O'Connor wanting to prohibit criticism of Christianity.

Sincerely yours,

Steven Dapra
Both claims were misattributed. Neither changes the argument. This is a blog, something I do between real work. I am sometimes sloppy. That is not an excuse, but an explanation.

I appreciate your civility, Steven. I hope I have replied accordingly.