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Friday, January 31, 2003



The Evolution Of A Bad Idea

Prof. Volokh began the fun with this post, and has MANY follow-ups; scroll up. The subject is the principled stand taken by a professor in Texas:

If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: "How do you think the human species originated?" If you cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation for admittance to further education in the biomedical sciences.

Emphasis added - it is not clear exactly what this means, but it seems to go beyond "understand", and require full acceptance, or endorsement. And, because life is art, the profesor is named "Dini", pronounced, pehaps, "De-ny". Dr. Deny - how about that?

Well, is Dr. Dini prof acting as an individual, free to say (or not say) what he chooses in letters of recommendation? Is he an agent of the university, forbidden to engage in religious discrimination? Is this religious discrimination, anyway - is there formal doctrine on this point amongst the major religions? These puzzles and more are addressed by E. Volokh and others.

And what is the motivation? Someone checked the professor's website, and found this:

Why do I ask this question? Let’s consider the situation of one wishing to enter medical school. Whereas medicine is historically rooted first in the practice of magic and later in religion, modern medicine is an endeavor that springs from the sciences, biology first among these. The central, unifying principle of biology is the theory of evolution, which includes both micro- and macro-evolution, and which extends to ALL species. How can someone who does not accept the most important theory in biology expect to properly practice in a field that is so heavily based on biology? It is hard to imagine how this can be so, but it is easy to imagine how physicians who ignore or neglect the Darwinian aspects of medicine or the evolutionary origin of humans can make bad clinical decisions. The current crisis in antibiotic resistance is the result of such decisions. For others, please read the citations below.

Good medicine, like good biology, is based on the collection and evaluation of physical evidence. So much physical evidence supports the evolution of humans from non-human ancestors that one can validly refer to the "fact" of human evolution, even if all of the details are not yet known. One can deny this evidence only at the risk of calling into question one’s understanding of science and of the method of science. Such an individual has committed malpractice regarding the method of science, for good scientists would never throw out data that do not conform to their expectations or beliefs. This is the situation of those who deny the evolution of humans; such a one is throwing out information because it seems to contradict his/her cherished beliefs. Can a physician ignore data that s/he does not like and remain a physician for long? No. If modern medicine is based on the method of science, then how can someone who denies the theory of evolution -- the very pinnacle of modern biological science -- ask to be recommended into a scientific profession by a professional scientist?


Random emphasis added.

Prof. Volokh has many interesting thoughts. The "Go, Prof - keep those close minded Creationists at bay!" side seems to have been taken by the CalPundit, who I am sure is very sensitive to possible religious discrimination in other contexts. Jesse at Pandagon is no fan of creationists either, and is finding support in his comments section.

Mark Kleiman weighs in on the side of tolerance, sensibly distinguishes between UNDERSTANDING a theory and BELIEVING it, and takes all the best lines. However, I have some thoughts as well.

Now, I don't even find this to be a difficult question. If the good Dr. Dini announced that he would not recommend anyone who was a table-pounding advocate for creationism, well, he would have a defensible point. But he seems to be saying something different - that understanding evolution is not enough, that you must renounce all alternatives. Is this really the scientific method in action? If "all the details" of man's evolution have not been established, who is going to be available to actually do the work needed to establish it - true believers in evolution, open minded skeptics, committed creationists, who? If this professor had his way, only true believers would be allowed into the halls of science, which seems odd.

SO, my hypothetical questions: suppose a candidate answers "The best available evidence indicates the following..."; presents a compelling, nay, brilliant, description of the theory of evolution as it relates to micro-organisms and humans; and closes with a stirring statement that, as a scientist, she will be guided by the best available science and diligently apply the scientific method. However, when asked if she actually believes in evolution, she replies, "As a casual Catholic, I am not deeply familiar with Church doctrine on ths point - pass". If I am reading the website correctly, she does not get a letter of recommendation.

How about if she answers: "Like many scientists, I separate my religious beliefs from day to day science, so I consider the question personal and irrelevant. As a matter of information, no, I believe that man was created in God's image. However, that belief is not helpful in understanding diseases, so I am guided by the theory of evolution in that area." Is there still a problem?

Or again: "I believe that humanity is inarguably a Divine creation, and that man was created in God's image. I also think that "in God's image" refers to the human soul, and I see no evidence whatsoever that the soul is evolving. I also think that most of Newtonian physics is "wrong", in the sense that it was later superseded by quantum physics. However, for practical problems here on Earth under normal conditions, Newtonian physics works fine, and I think the theory of evolution works fine too for understanding disease. However, I am open to the possibility, as I hope any scientist would be, that new evidence may emerge." Does she get a letter?

I am sure I could belabor this point further. As I said, the professor may have a more specific target in mind. Given our nation's glorious history with the Scopes Trial, and current efforts to modify or restrict the teaching of evolution in some schools, perhaps his objective is defensible. However, his criteria, as posted, seem to be hopelessly overbroad.

Now, as a final goad to those who argue that this is just about the science - that someone who believes in creationism clearly lacks the understanding of biology necessary to advance in the field - I suggest a few supplemental questions that the professor might want to review.

Basic Chemistry: explain the mechanism by which Jesus turned water into wine, or demonstrate that this is impossible;

Basic Physics - Conservation of Mass: explain the mechanism by which Jesus performed the miracle of the loaves and fishes, or explain that this is impossible;

Advanced Biology: explain the mechanism by which Jesus was dead for three days, and then came back to life, or explain why this is impossible;

Very Advanced Biology: explain where it is in the human form that we can find the soul, and describe its mass, physical properties, and mechanism by which it defies entropy and remains immortal; or explain why this is impossible.

I think it is not just Mary Poppins who tries to believe three impossible things before breakfast.

UPDATE: As I said, it is NOT just Mary Poppins, and I am embarrassed to have disclosed my personal conversation with her without permission; I thought her view was common knowledge. However, Google has a lot of support for the Red Queen from Alice in Wonderland, with some support for the White Queen, the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, and Alice herself. I stand uncorrected, and look to a glorious future posting lots of thoughts in the format of "Here's something this person didn't say." Sort of an Anti-Bartlett's.

UPDATE 2: We argue more and more about less and less. In an update, the CalPundit seems to move closer to M. Kleiman. He makes a strong case against the ardent creationists, but thinks that the thoughtful religious types should get recommendations. Well, OK, so do I. The missing piece of the puzzle - just what is Dr. Dini doing? But it is worth noting that he is a biologist, not a lawyer - he may not be accustomed to writing the sort of prose that can withstand a full pecking over by a flock of bloggers. My guess is that what he actually does is not as troubling as what he seems to have said, but who knows?


Comments:
nice articles.


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