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?

How Far Should the Creationist Purge Go?

Is a creationist historian worse than a socialist one? That’s the question science pundit Jerry Coyne is not asking. But he should be.

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Jerry Coyne. His tenacious attacks on all things religious are witty and smart. But in this case, his historical short-sightedness has caused him to blunder into dangerous terrain.

Here’s the story: In his continuing campaign against creationism, Coyne and his allies have singled out the creationist activism of Professor Emerson T. McMullen. McMullen teaches history classes at Georgia Southern University. Based on Coyne’s evidence, it does seem as if McMullen injects a good deal of proselytization into his classes.

McMullen teaches classes about the history of science and evolution. And, as one student noted in her evaluation, he gives extra credit if students attend religious films. As she warned, “most of it is trying to convert you, but hey, free points!”

Coyne and his allies in the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to the administration of Georgia Southern. They urged GSU to “investigate” McMullen’s teaching. They did not object to teaching about religious views, especially in a history class, but they did object to McMullen’s practice of pushing those views on students.

This presents us with a difficult question: How far do we want to go in purging creationists from college faculties? We agree that McMullen’s teaching seems to cross over into preaching. But there are a couple of ominous historical parallels that Professor Coyne seems to dismiss too breezily.

So, first, as Coyne and Co. acknowledge, there is no constitutional ban on teaching religion in publicly funded schools. As Justice Tom Clark made clear in his landmark 1963 opinion in the Schempp case,

Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

As Justice Clark specified, and as Professor Coyne acknowledged, the issue is not the teaching of religion, but the preaching of religion. As subsequent SCOTUS rulings have specified, public schools must not lend their imprimatur to religious preaching by either students or teachers. McMullen seems to be doing more than teaching about creationism. He appears to be using his authority as a teacher—dispensing grades and extra credit—to encourage students to repeat creationist-friendly ideas.

Does this mean we should actively “investigate” all such teaching? That universities have a constitutional duty to get rid of any professors or classes that move from teaching about religious ideas to preaching the ideas themselves? I think not, for two reasons.

First, university teaching is fundamentally different from K-12 teaching. The SCOTUS decisions about teaching and preaching have mostly dealt with younger students at public schools. Though Georgia Southern is a school that receives tax funding, its status as a university makes it a substantially different case from a high school, middle school, or elementary. The main issue in the Schempp verdict was that school prayer was something students could not evade. Such students were coerced, in effect, into listening to preaching. If, like the young Schempp himself, they have a pass to leave the classroom during prayers, they are still singled out by that action.  In contrast, students in college have enormous freedom to select classes. The faculties, in most cases, are much broader and more diverse. In most public high schools, students are assigned to a teacher without much input. In college, on the other hand, students put together their own schedules.

More important, Coyne doesn’t seem to grasp the tradition he would be joining if his McMullen campaign were successful, though Coyne nods to the importance of academic freedom. As I detail in my upcoming book, conservatives have conducted similar campaigns against leftist professors for decades. I doubt Professor Coyne wants to open up universities to allegations and investigations of ideologically suspicious professors.

In 1941, for example, a group of conservative leaders from the American Legion and the Advertising Federation of America teamed up to encourage Coyne-like investigations of college professors. Their main target was Professor Harold Rugg of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Should we guard the gate?

Should we guard the gate?

As the Guardians of American Education, they investigated Rugg’s teaching. They polled students and obtained copies of syllabi and course descriptions. One of Rugg’s courses, they alleged, featured what they called the “denial of certain natural and inalienable rights of man.” They gave specific examples of the way Rugg used his position as a professor to proselytize. On page 59 of Rugg’s syllabus for a course in Educational Foundations, for instance, Rugg pushed students to “admit the far too rottenness in our social, political, and financial life.”

Is this the sort of club Professor Coyne wants to join? In his earlier campaign against Eric Hedin at Ball State, Coyne alienated allies such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran. Both Moran and Myers thought that Coyne had gone too far in ignoring the sometimes-uncomfortable need to respect academic freedom. And that case was stronger than this one, since Hedin was teaching intelligent design as if it were mainstream science.

So, back to our main question: How far do we want to go to punish professors for their views? What should we do?

The purge is not the right approach. Instead, we should follow the model of Portland parents. When secular parents found out about preaching in an after-school club, they did not shut the club down. They couldn’t. The “Good News Club” had every constitutional right to do what it was doing. But the Portland parents realized that free speech and academic freedom cut both ways. They conducted a campaign to warn their fellow parents about the activities of the Good News Clubs.

That should be our model here. We do not want to slide into witch hunts and creationist-baiting. We do not want to encourage universities to investigate and purge faculty for their beliefs. Instead, we can let students at Georgia Southern know what goes on in McMullen’s classes. The publicity campaign should not be targeted at the administration of Georgia Southern, but rather at its students.

How far do we want to go in purging professors? In this case, Coyne goes too far.