Firing Creationist Scientists

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Can a scientist be fired for simply being a creationist? Or for teaching what Glenn Branch has called “zombie science?” In contrast to what sharp-tongued activists on both sides may say, the answer is not at all clear. The case of Mark Armitage in the California State University system brings these questions back to the fore.

Armitage, a microscopist formerly at Cal State Northridge, is suing his former employer for wrongful termination. Armitage had discovered some soft-tissue residue in a fossil from a Triceratops horn. Like many young-earth creationists, he took this as proof that the fossil layer was thousands of years old, not millions.

Though he left his creationist conclusions out of his peer-reviewed publications about the fossil, he did not leave those conclusions out of conversations with students. And, though Nature magazine could not get a satisfying answer from Cal State Northridge, it seems those conversations were the problem. Armitage was not accused of doing a bad job as a microscopist. That’s why he’s suing.

Armitage complains that he was fired for his religious beliefs. According to Armitage, he had always been open and forthcoming with his colleagues about his religious beliefs. He had always been praised for his work in the microscope labs. But he had also been open and forthright in sharing his views with students. And that seems to have been the problem. After one such conversation, Armitage claims that the department chair of biology “stormed” into Armitage’s microscope lab and roared, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!!”

Does Armitage have a case? Can a public university fire a scientist for being a creationist? Or for teaching students creationism?

It seems as if it would be easier to decide these issues at the K-12 level, but the case of John Freshwater demonstrates how complicated it can be even there. Freshwater was an Ohio middle-school teacher fired for teaching creationism in a public-school science class. Freshwater hoped to appeal the case all the way to the Supreme Court. He didn’t make it, but the lower courts didn’t give us the satisfying precedent we might hope for. The Ohio Supreme Court avoided any decision about Freshwater’s constitutional right to his religious and academic views. Instead, the Ohio court decided against him due to his insubordination.

When it comes to teaching creationism in public higher ed, the case is even more fudgy. Consider the case of Emerson McMullen at Georgia Southern University. McMullen attracted negative attention from the Freedom From Religion Foundation for his blatant preaching of creationist religion in his history of science classes. The FFRF asked GSU to discipline McMullen, but the issue raises difficult questions of academic freedom. Even staunch anti-creationists such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran worry about this kind of college crackdown on creationists.

Even more confounding, the federal government does not seem to have any qualms about employing young-earth creationists as scientists. As we noted a while back, Douglas Bennett and Brent Carter worked for decades as geologists for the US Bureau of Reclamation, all the while actively promoting young-earth creationism.

Maybe the long government careers of Bennett and Carter provide the central clue. Maybe the government can employ creationists as scientists, but it can’t pay them to teach creationism as science. As far as I can tell, neither Bennett nor Carter taught anyone anything. And Armitage was fired, it seems, not for believing creationist ideas, but for teaching them as science.

Which returns us to our central question: Should public universities get rid of creationist scientists? Should they only get rid of them if the creationists in question actually teach creationism as science? Or should there be a more energetic inquiry into the scientific thinking of publicly funded scientists?

Are creationists the victims of religious persecution?  Jerry Bergman says yes...

Are creationists the victims of religious persecution? Jerry Bergman says yes…

For their part, creationists have long complained, like Mark Armitage, that they have been persecuted for their religious beliefs. Over thirty years ago, Jerry Bergman insisted that he had been fired from Bowling Green State University solely for his religion. As he argued in his 1984 book The Criterion,

Several universities state it was their ‘right’ to protect students from creationists and, in one case, from ‘fundamentalist Christians.’ . . . This is all plainly illegal, but it is extremely difficult to bring redress against these common, gross injustices. This is due to the verbal ‘smoke-screen’ thrown up around the issue. But, a similar case might be if a black were fired on the suspicion that he had ‘talked to students about being black,’ or a woman being fired for having ‘talked to students about women’s issues.’

Creationists today are just as positive that Armitage is the victim of both religious and scientific persecution. As the Pacific Justice Institute put it,

It has become apparent that ‘diversity’ and ‘intellectual curiosity,’ so often touted as hallmarks of a university education, do not apply to those with a religious point of view. This suit was filed, in part, to vindicate those ideals.

Similarly, the headline in the ferociously conservative World Net Daily screamed, “Scientist Fired for Making Dinosaur Discovery.”

As Armitage’s lawsuit wends its way through the courts, I have a hunch that even the most conservative creationists might privately acknowledge that Armitage was not fired for his discovery. Rather, Armitage seems to have been fired for teaching students that the earth is likely only several thousand years old.

As Nature magazine concluded in its recent story about the affair, employers can’t legally fire someone for his or her religious beliefs. But employers can fire employees for conduct that goes against the mission of the institution. If radically dissenting visions of science undermine the assumptions of secular mainstream science, can a creationist scientist be fired?

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US Government Employs Creationist Scientists

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we learn of plans to open a new, enormous creation museum near Boise, Idaho.  But in exploring the announcement of this planned mega-museum, we came across an interesting tidbit: Two of the creationist scientists involved in this project worked for the US government as geologists.  Does this mean that the government is funding creation science?  And does it prove the creationist claim that their experts are engaged in “real” science?

As reported yesterday by the Boise Weekly, the Northwest Science Museum has big ambitions.  Its founders want to open an enormous display area, 300,000 to 450,000 square feet.  They hope to build a full-size replica Noah’s Ark that could rival the plans of the more-established Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Big Plans for Boise

Big Plans for Boise

Whether or not the Idaho creationists succeed in their lavish plans, they will likely end up adding another stop to those who want to tour the nation’s many creation museums.  More interesting, the announced plans also raise crucial questions about creationism and government support for religion.

In their attempt to raise funds for their new project, the leaders of the Boise museum published a prospectus that includes information about themselves.  According to this document, the leadership team includes two experienced geologists.

Douglas J. Bennett, founder of the museum, has degrees in geology and science education from Boise State University.  For the past eighteen years, Bennett has worked as a geologist for the US Bureau of Reclamation.  Similarly, museum founder Brent Carter earned a degree in geology from a large public university and worked for 42 years as a geologist for the same US Bureau, retiring with the title of Chief Geologist of the Pacific Northwest Region.

More than the opening of a new creation museum, these careers raise important questions for those of us interested in issues of evolution and creationism.

First, some might suggest that long governmental careers for these ardent and active creationists implies government support for religion.  But does it really?  After all, the government likely hired them to do specific jobs.  They had the necessary qualifications.  Whatever they chose to do in their private lives wouldn’t be any of the government’s business.  Nor would the government be supporting these men’s religious work, as long as each geologist didn’t do his creationist research while on the clock.

More interesting, we have to ask what these careers tell us about the intersection of mainstream science and creation science.  In the recent debate between leading creationist Ken Ham and leading science pundit Bill Nye, Nye repeated his charge that creationism blocked kids from learning science.  Ham retorted with several examples of successful creationist scientists and engineers.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to help the creationist case.  After all, if they have both had successful careers as geologists, how can we say that creationists can’t do science?  One might suggest that the sorts of engineering tasks these creationists engaged in were not primary science.  But it seems to me a stretch to say that these creationist geologists did not have careers specifically in the science that is contested.  In other words, both of these men worked as geologists, though their religious beliefs gave them very non-mainstream ideas about that geology.

Consider—again from the museum prospectus—the tasks Bennett claimed to have worked on for the US government.  As part of his job, Bennett

Performed surface and subsurface geotechnical studies and exploration programs utilizing diamond drill, power-auger, test pits, tunnels, and other processes to secure data for seismotectonic, ground-water, and other special studies of dams, reservoirs, canals, tunnels, spillways, power plants, and related structures.

One might say that none of this engineering work includes primary geological research.  And if it did, someone who believed in a young earth and a recent world-wide flood would be at a crippling disadvantage.  But anti-creationists sometimes make a different point.  Bill Nye, for instance, has warned that a creationist nation will soon fall behind in technology and engineering.

The careers of Bennett and Carter seem to demonstrate the weakness of that argument.  Indeed, Nye argues that creationism will turn kids away from science-related careers.  But in the case of these two men, at least, it was precisely their religious beliefs that led them to careers in geology.

So does this case show government support for creationism?  Not really.  But it does offer evidence that creationism does not necessarily deter young people from going into science-related careers.  Indeed, because of the tumult over the nature of biology and geology, perhaps creationist beliefs actually drive some young people into careers in science.