Thursday, February 25, 2010

Regarding Expelled

Someone recently suggested that I watch "Expelled: no intelligence allowed," the Ben Stein movie that supports creationism/intelligent design. This individual used this movie to support the dissolution of academic tenure. Here is my analysis and letter to this person:

Dear X,

I finally watched "Expelled." The movie was certainly a persuasive piece and not an in depth analysis. However, I'm quite surprised that the movie persuaded you on the evils of tenure. I have my doubts about tenure, but the movie really reinforced my desire to protect academic freedom by using job security! You may notice that the creationist scientists were all not-renewed except the one that had tenure (who was alternatively forced to remove a website). It's odd that we're on opposite sides of this issue, but I suppose we've imbibed our experience differently.

The best part of the movie was the comments about "hostile climate." I agree that popular evolutionists and creationists refuse to listen to one another. One of the interviewees made a very astute comment, a person who opposes any paradigm is met with hostility. By extension, any undue hostility is certainly problematic for science as a process. I really enjoyed this section of the movie. I cannot, however, follow Stein's implicit assumption that academicians (as a whole group) can be equated with the public response to creationism. Public understanding of science and the creation of scientific fact, while related, operate differently. The scientific community is NOT a democracy, as another interviewee commented. We can regulate the laws of our country, but we can't legislate scientific fact. We've seen what happens when that happens (look up the repercussions of Lysenkoism). One cannot equate public outcry at teaching creationism with "lack of free speech" in the academic community.

The academic community works off of rhetoric. We research new subjects and write papers (or give presentations) to convince others around us. The creationists have academic journals and are allowed to submit papers to any journal. Most people who submit to journals are denied. Most researchers fail to meet academic rhetorical standards. The creationist scientists are simply failing to convince other scientists. Perhaps they should consider why this happens. In fact, I think they are aware of this problem. I make my case with the birth of "intelligent design" as a rhetorical device for creationism.

Besides the faulty assumption that Stein makes, there are a few incorrect statements that he uses for evidence. Creationism is not a surpressed scientific theory that has never gotten its scientific moment. Creationism was the dominant theory until the turn of the 19th c. Both science and religion changed at this point. Biblical literalism reemerged as a prominent American/Western idea for the first time since the Middle Ages (with Aquinas). Science also gained new descriptionist ideologies. The religion and science conflict wasn't helped by the campaigns of T.H. Huxley, but research shows descriptionism was mostly started by the public reception of Maxwell's research. Creationism fell away in lieu of a differing ideology and set of evidence. One could almost make the comparison that creationism is much like the "flat earth" movement. Evidence supported another theory, but some members have decided to do a scientific move called "saving the theory." If the creationists cannot convince other scientists, perhaps they should examine their rhetorical structure instead of declaring a lack of freedom of speech. One has to remember that one is equally as free to believe something as to NOT believe something. Requesting that the academic process to go back to unpopular and reportedly disproven theories assumes the burden of proof. Circumventing this is infringing upon the academic freedom of others.

So, I'm left with a conclusion. The hostile environment towards creationism exists in tension with an unreasonable demand for "flat earther" groups to be heard. Frustration builds in unhealthy ways on both sides. I'll have to consider a plan of action over the next year, however, the dismissal of tenure is absolutely NOT the course that you would want to advocate, unless you want this controversy to disappear altogether (by eliminating the unpopular, untenured scientists). A little conflict and inefficiency is worth preserving freedom of thought.

Just some thoughts.

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At 9:08 PM, Blogger David Broadbent said...

Well-written piece. Like your observation that scientists have to convince other scientists.


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