The gold-star creationist?

2010.02.15 - Life Sciences South

The Life Sciences building at the University of Idaho. Photo by jby.

Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of higher education—part of the point of having classes taught by working scholars is that, at the university level, students should be exposed to the interplay of ideas at the cutting edge of each field of study, and so professors should have latitude to explore controversial topics and defend their own perspectives.

But there are limits to that principle. Common sense, and the need to organize prerequisites across a multi-year curriculum, dictates that even a tenured professor would get into trouble if she devoted her entire introductory chemistry course to a critical reading of The Lord of the Rings. In a (maybe) less extreme example, a professor who spent an astronomy class arguing that there is a scientific basis to the Zodiac would, at the very least, get a talking-to from his department chair. In order to meaningfully teach a given class, there are topics that need to be covered—and there is material that has no legitimate place in the syllabus.

This is why I was so surprised to learn, a few weeks ago, that the University of Idaho—the institution where I earned my Ph.D., where Noah earned his Master’s degree and Sarah earned both her B.S. and Master’s—has hired someone who believes that the Earth was created over the course of six days about six thousand years ago, to teach an introductory microbiology course.

The course in question is MMBB 154, “Introductory Microbiology,” and the young-Earth creationist in question is Gordon Wilson. Wilson is notorious, among biologists at the U of I, as the “senior fellow of natural history” at New Saint Andrews College, a small, extremely conservative Christian institution located in downtown Moscow, Idaho, just a few blocks from the University campus.

Wilson is very much on the record in believing that life on Earth was created by direct divine intervention, according to a take-the-text-at-face-value reading of English translations of the first chapter of Genesis. For a sample of the mental gymnastics involved in creationist “science,” look no further than Wilson’s contribution [PDF] to a 2004 conference, in which he posits that God created every living thing with extra “gene sets” for carnivory, venom, pathogenicity, and other “natural evils,” which were, metaphorically, stored under glass to be activated by the Deity in the event of human malfeasance. Maybe more worryingly, Wilson has described [PDF] the conflict between his theology and empirical fact in terms of religious persecution:

God-fearing or Darwin-questioning scientists employed by the state are now in danger of persecution if they allow their religious views or doubts about Darwin to affect their scientific research and/or classroom discussion.

Can someone with those views teach a basic biology course at a public university?

The National Academy of Sciences describes evolution as the “central unifying theme of biology,” and the American Society of Microbiologists has formally stated that “It is important that society and future generations recognize the legitimacy of testable, verified, fact-based learning about the origins and diversity of life.” You simply can’t have a comprehensive introductory biology (or microbiology) course without covering evolution, and describing it as the extensively verified empirical fact that it is.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that young-Earth creationism is an unambiguously religious position, a doctrine held by a particular subset of Christians—Wilson himself criticizes the “Intelligent Design” movement for “Avoiding the word ‘God’ in their rhetoric.” And advocating for the views of particular religious sect in the capacity of an employee at a public university is a clear-cut violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

All together, that sounds like a pretty straightforward “no.”

But this isn’t the first time the U of I took a chance on Gordon Wilson. The colleague at Idaho who alerted me to Wilson’s new teaching job (whose identity I’ll choose not to disclose) noted that Wilson was hired once before, years ago, on a one-semester gig to teach the same course. I haven’t been able to confirm any description of how he taught the first time around. Then, as now, the task of finding a lecturer to cover the course was probably hampered by the fact that there aren’t a lot of microbiologists willing to move to a small town in northern Idaho for a one-semester “Temporary Lecturer” position—so that, even though the job description [Edit, 18 March 2014: Looks like this page is no longer up even as a Google cache. Fortunately I saved a copy.] calls for a graduate degree in microbiology that Gordon Wilson doesn’t have, the hiring committee may not have had any alternative candidates.

Can a creationist teaching a public university biology class keep his beliefs out of the lectures?

Can a creationist teaching biology at a public university keep his beliefs out of the classroom?

But so maybe Wilson did an acceptable job, that last time around. The ASM statement on the importance of evolution also says, “A fundamental aspect of the practice of science is to separate one’s personal beliefs from the pursuit of understanding of the natural world.” I can, at least in principle, imagine a creationist professor who taught the contents of a microbiology curriculum, complete with the common descent of life on Earth, and never breathed a word of his personal beliefs in the classroom. Could Gordon Wilson—of all people—be that “gold-star” creationist?

I decided the only way to answer that question was to ask Gordon Wilson.

I e-mailed Wilson last week, at his University of Idaho address. I gave him a sketch of my thinking for this article, and asked what he planned to teach about the origins and relationships among the diversity of life on Earth, and about his previous experience teaching Introductory Microbiology at U of I. Wilson wrote back promptly to say that he’d need a few days to respond to my questions in full (he is, after all, midway through teaching a big introductory biology course!) but he noted right away:

I made it clear 9 years ago and this semester that I wasn’t going to promote my views or disparage evolutionary views in class. That said, I have stated that I do not share the views of common descent held by the main stream scientific community. Which is well with in my rights to do. The only thing that I have presented (briefly) is a distinction between historical science and empirical science, and that conclusions drawn from the former don’t have the high level of certainty as conclusions drawn from the latter. This distinction is not a creationist invention. Ernst Mayr holds to this as well. The conclusions drawn from historical science are as good as the presuppositions on which they are based. This was simply a moment to encourage students to exercise some critical thinking skills in assessing truth claims of the scientific community.

In spite of Wilson’s assurance that he wouldn’t “disparage evolutionary views,” that’s not exactly an encouraging answer. The separation between “historical” science and “empirical” science he mentions here is a classic Creationist tactic—boiling down to “we weren’t there, so how can we know except via ancient texts?”—which doesn’t begin to accurately reflect how the overwhelming majority of scientists weigh different forms of evidence. (Readers may recall that this came up in Bill Nye’s recent debate with Ken Ham.)

I wrote back,

Thanks, Gordon. I do appreciate the time pressures of teaching a big mid-semester class, and I’m glad you’re willing to provide some answers. With regard to your response … that gets, I think, at exactly the tension I’m hoping to explore in the article. I certainly do think that you, personally, have the right to come to whatever conclusion you care to about the common descent of life on Earth—but it is one thing to hold a personal belief, and quite another to teach it with the authority of a university lecturer.

To which Wilson replied,

You’re very welcome, Jeremy.

By the way, I’m not teaching my personal beliefs; I am simply going on record as not holding to the consensus viewpoint. I don’t teach why I don’t hold to the consensus view. Why is that not OK? Is it because the scientific academy doesn’t want undergraduates to know that there are scientists that have non-religious reasons for dissenting from Darwinism?

Taking a word of advice from a recent NiB contribution, I elected not to respond to this; several days later, on the date I’d set as a deadline for his answers, Wilson e-mailed to say that he simply didn’t have time to provide any further response.

The evidence I have, short of attending every “Introduction to Microbiology” lecture, is incomplete. But what I do know is not at all encouraging. Wilson’s public record pretty clearly shows that he considers it his sacred duty to oppose sound scientific reasoning in any venue possible. And in his brief correspondence with me, he admits to using a creationist rhetorical trick in class—and indicates that he can’t (or won’t) “separate [his] personal beliefs from the pursuit of understanding of the natural world.”

No gold star for Gordon Wilson, then—and here’s hoping this semester will be the last one he spends teaching any biology course at my alma mater.

Considering the subject matter of this post, we’re going to keep a particularly tight rein on the comments. Keep it polite, and on-topic, if you please.

16 comments on “The gold-star creationist?

  1. Hird says:

    i think “holding to the consensus viewpoint” on foundational subject matter is exactly why we require professors to have certain credentials!

  2. Noah Reid says:

    I actually think that

    “That said, I have stated that I do not share the views of common descent held by the main stream scientific community. Which is well with in my rights to do. The only thing that I have presented (briefly) is a distinction between historical science and empirical science, and that conclusions drawn from the former don’t have the high level of certainty as conclusions drawn from the latter.”

    is tantamount to an admission that he has attempted to cast doubt on evolution in favor of creationism, contrary to what he says.

    • Jeremy Yoder says:

      That’s my reading of it as well.

    • Cathy Newman says:

      That was my understanding of that comment, as well. “Historical science vs. empirical science” is one of those red-flag terms like “teach the controversy” that indicates an underhanded move (whether intentional or not) to sneak religious belief into science classes. If that wasn’t obvious before, it should be after Bill Nye took down Ken Ham’s rant about that topic. Also, “exercise some critical thinking skills in assessing truth claims of the scientific community” makes me itch. Very similar language is being used in creationist laws and bills all over the country.

  3. Dan Davidson says:

    Can any of us entirely leave our “personal” views behind when we teach? I enjoyed MMBB 154 from Dr. Bohach, and I don’t remember covering much about evolution in that course. So maybe it won’t play much into his teaching.

    • Noah Reid says:

      Dan,
      It may be that you weren’t taught much evolution in that course per se, and I could see how an old school intro microbiology course might not make much reference to evolution, but I think microbiology has been revolutionized over the past decade by the incorporation of high throughput DNA sequencing data. These data can only be interpreted using evolutionary theory assuming common descent. Analyses ranging from the simple identification of microbial species (such as they are) to understanding disease transmission and antibiotic resistance are fundamentally premised on evolutionary biology. I do not want to disparage Dr. Bohach’s course, but it seems to me these topics are of such central importance that they ought to be touched upon in an intro micro course, and any description of them that does not make explicit their evolutionary basis would be counterproductive. So I guess Gordon Wilson’s options are that he can teach a course that avoids evolutionary issues and fails to educate students on some of the hottest current topics in microbiology, he can be our “gold star creationist” and cover them accurately, or he can violate his students first amendment rights by proselytizing for his personal religious views.

    • Chris Smith says:

      Here is what the American Society of Microbiology says about the extent to which evolution should be taught in Microbiology:

      “Evolution is the foundation of modern biology, and this is certainly true for microbiology. The fundamental principles of evolution are critical to our understanding of microbial processes in agriculture, chemistry, ecology, geology, health and medicine, and industry”

      It is perplexing then, that evolution would not be covered much in a basic microbiology course. Regardless of who was teaching it, the omission of this ‘fundamental’ concept seems like a significant gap.

  4. Cathy Newman says:

    FWIW, my former cardiologist in Alabama was a young earth creationist and tried to tell me that antibiotic resistance was bogus (and couldn’t even accurately explain the concept when I pressed him). I never took a microbiology class, but wouldn’t the curriculum cover topics like evolution of antibiotic resistance, evolution of viruses like HIV, etc.? I would be most interested to know Wilson’s opinions about such relevant concepts — does YEC extend to microbiota, or is that “okay evolution” because we can see it happen in real time?

    • Reid Brennan says:

      Generally “microevolutionary” processes such as antibiotic resistance are accepted by YEC. They claim that these processes cannot result in speciation. So yes, it is ok. Even galapagos finches are generally ok by YECs. However, ignoring broader concepts of evolution in explaining how microbiology works would make things very, very difficult (and inaccurate/misleading)….

  5. Perhaps you could direct WIlson to this article by Carol Cleland (2001): Historical science, experimental science, and the scientific method. PDf also here.

  6. I also think Mayr is wrong about the distinction between physics and chemistry vs. evolutionary biology. In both physics and chemistry – in all natural sciences – we use models to infer something about the physical world that cannot be seen directly, whether this is because it is in the past, or because it is too small to observe directly, or because it is otherwise hidden from our view.

    The common theme is i) obtain data, ii) posit model, and iii) infer something about a hidden state (past or present or future).

    Examples:

    We cannot see into the center of stars, but we can observe radiation from it (i), we can make a model about solar physics (ii) (and validate that model with other data and other experiments), which enables us to say something about events that must necessarily take place in the core of the sun.

    We cannot observe elementary particles directly, but we can observe byproducts of events that together with a model shows that they must exist. These two examples are not historical science but they function exactly the same way as:

    Observing radioactive decay in fossils together with a model of how radioactive materials are incorporated into living materials can be used to infer when those organisms lived, and

    Finding fossils that are millions of years old and using a model of how the skeleton enables animals to walk enables us to infer how they lived in the past.

    In other words, the distinction between “historical” and “observational” science is completely false. If we could only learn what we can directly see, then we would be nowhere, and would not be able to do all the science that Ken Ham et al. claim can be done without believing in evolution. On top of that, Ken Ham’s insistence that because something is observed by other humans and then written down in a book then that is something we can trust and therefore know is demonstratively false, as scholars of both history and psychology have known for ages.

  7. […] “I can, at least in principle, imagine a creationist professor who taught the contents of a microbiology curriculum, complete with the common descent of life on Earth, and never breathed a word of his personal beliefs in the classroom.” —Can a young-Earth creationist be trusted to teach an introductory biology course at Jeremy’s alma mater? […]

  8. “Is it because the scientific academy doesn’t want undergraduates to know that there are scientists that have non-religious reasons for dissenting from Darwinism?”

    I appreciate that you didn’t respond to this comment, but it does lead to the question of “what scientists are these?” Clearly he is not one of those scientists. I mean, as you said, Bible-literalist creationism is, by definition, a religious viewpoint.

  9. […] response to this, I want to use a recent post at this blog to highlight a slightly less well covered aspect of the issue and the other side of […]

  10. […] right. The University of Idaho has just hired a young earth creationist, biblical literalist, and racist evange…. UI biology students: you are getting ripped […]

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