Sunday, February 18, 2007

Barring Creationists

I have another question from the studio audience.

Ed writes to ask, "Would it be ethical to dismiss or reject applicants to a graduate program in the biological sciences if it is found out that they are creationists?"

The Definition of Creationist

The first problem that I am going to run into with this question concerns what it means to be a ‘creationist’. Typically, in this context, it refers to somebody who intentionally stranded DNA in a particular way to get the various forms of life. In another sense, all God created was reality and the fundamental laws of physics that make up that reality.

It would not be too much of a stretch of the term to say that God created the universe and gave it the set of laws that he did because he knew that those rules working on the matter he created would result in the evolution of a human race.

So, there are even some definitions of ‘creationism’ that are compatible with evolution. These are simply versions that hold that God created a universe in which evolution can concur.

As such, there is no particular reason to refuse somebody employment or an appointment to graduate school based on the fact that he is a creationist. What matters is whether he is able to display a proper understanding of the rules of science and an ability to pass that knowledge o to others. Merely being a creationist is not a disqualification.

Presumption of Innocence

As a general rule, I advocate the principle of presuming a person innocent unless proven guilty. Being a creationist is not “proof” that the individual is guilty of anything. It does not prove his inability to contribute to biological research, or his ability to become a good teacher of biological fact.

The reason for the presumption of innocence is that we should all have an aversion to doing harm to others – an aversion that requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the harm is necessary. To deny a person entry into his chosen profession is to do harm. It is up to the individual to make sure that the harm is inflicted for good reason. Thus, we have the presumption of innocence.

“Being a creationist” is not a proof of any type of wrongdoing. As such, it cannot override the presumption of innocence. One needs something more substantive in terms of evidence that the individual does not actually understand the material and is merely seeking some type of authority to “teach” claims that are not true and widely rejected within the profession.

Mistakes of Fact

However, the situation changes the instant the individual does something – commits some overt act – that experts in the field have reason to condemn.

We would certainly have reason to fire a math teacher who is caught teaching his students that 2 + 2 = 5. We would also be quick to dismiss the history teacher who told her students that the Holocaust never took place - that it was all a part of a cleaver plot by some Jewish cabal interested in world domination. And no university has reason to keep a teacher who fills his astronomy lectures with claims about how the planets influence our lives.

Certainly, there are going to be disputes within a discipline as to what the facts are. Yet, even these disputes have an affect on who gets hired and who gets fired – who passes and who gets held back. Students and teachers are required to defend their work and the selection committee has a right to refuse admittance to anybody who does not demonstrate a sufficient grasp of the subject under consideration.

If I were a part of such a selection committee, I would look for the best teacher available - that would be my job. This means that I want to hire a teacher (or accept a graduate student) who can display and who will teach an understanding of the facts.

Asking the Right Questions

The type of people Ed is worried about are those who memorize answers they do not agree with, but which biologists seem to accept as “the right answers”, in order to give all of the visible signs of understanding the material. They give those in the selection process no clear reason to reject them.

On this matter, I think it is quite reasonable for interviewers to make sure that they ask the right and relevant questions. In the realm of biology, an acceptable candidate for graduate school or a teaching post should know how to answer creationist assertions – be able to explain why they are not science or, at least, why they are not good science. He should be able to explain what science is and why it takes that particular structure. If a selection company is not asking these types of questions, they should not be surprised to discover that they have selected people who do not know the answers.

Of course, even here it would be possible for such a person to slip through the system. Here, we may add the condition that the organization has a right to periodically review the work of any student or teacher. The instant the student turns in a paper or any other document defending ideas held to be absurd among professionals in the field, those professors have reason to give a student a grade that represents his lack of knowledge, or to be rid of the teacher and replace her with somebody who actually understands the subject she is teaching. At that point it would be necessary to wait until the individual committed some infraction as a teacher or a student.

Other Objectives

There are those who want the credentials who do not have the slightest intention of entering into the field. Once they get the credentials, they then enter the public world to express their opinions in a way that others in the field cannot directly challenge them. They do not hold any traditional job as teacher or student within the industry.

The real question is whether an organization can permissibly deny giving them these credentials in order to minimize the harm that these types of people inflict on others.

Ultimately, again, I would argue that they do not unless and until they find some overt act that suggests that the teacher is teaching falsehoods or the student does not actually understand the material.

Without the overt act there is no proof of wrongdoing.


Ultimately, I hold that the answer is no, institutions cannot permissibly exclude others simply because those others have a different religion. There must be an overt act of teaching falsehoods that is strong enough to substantiate the accusation of wrongdoing. Those who cannot (or will not) teach the truth about the biological sciences have shown themselves contemptible.


Martin Freedman said...

I made a similar argument to yours in an online forum thread which was triggered by the following news item.
A creationist takes a place in the world of fossils

Larry Hamelin said...

I have a different view.

We can't be absolutely certain that Young Earth Creationism isn't actually true.

I think it's important to maintain almost absolute ideological neutrality in granting science credentials; if a candidate can do the work, he deserves entry to--and credentials from--the academic program.

More at Marcus R. Ross, Creationist "Scientist"