Total Drek

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Warning: This post contains a terrible pun!

Yesterday I posted about a pending court case where a creationist Xientist* is suing the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution over their decision to fire him. He claims that the firing was due to his disbelief in evolution and, as such, it violates his civil liberties. Woods Hole is arguing, in contrast, that his beliefs make it impossible to carry out his job duties adequately. The argument that I made at the time was, effectively, that I wanted to support the creationist since I think people should be able to believe whatever the hell they want on their own time but that I doubt strongly that he would have been able to perform his job adequately. There's just something about being asked to perform work that violently clashes with your own beliefs that takes some of the wind out of one's sails.

Not content to leave it at that, astute reader Bookmobile decided to mention a similar case. Similar except that, this time, it appears to be the creationists who are doing the firing. I refer, of course, to the forced resignation of Chris Comer, the Director of Science Curriculum for the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The NCSE has a nice press release on the subject, but an excerpt should bring you more or less up to speed:

Chris Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency, was forced to resign after forwarding a short e-mail message announcing a presentation in Austin by Barbara Forrest. The Austin American-Statesman (November 29, 2007) reported, "Comer sent the e-mail to several individuals and a few online communities, saying, 'FYI.'" Less than two hours later, Lizzette Reynolds, the TEA's senior adviser on statewide initiatives, complained to Comer's supervisors, writing, "This is highly inappropriate ... I believe this is an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities ... it assumes this is a subject that the agency supports."

The e-mail was then cited in a memorandum (PDF) recommending Comer's termination, the American-Statesman noted: "They said forwarding the e-mail not only violated a directive for her not to communicate in writing or otherwise with anyone outside the agency regarding an upcoming science curriculum review, 'it directly conflicts with her responsibilities as the Director of Science.' The memo adds, 'Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral.'" Other reasons for recommending her termination were listed in addition.

But Comer told the newspaper that she thought that the long-standing political controversy over evolution education in Texas was responsible: "None of the other reasons they gave are, in and of themselves, firing offenses," she said. NCSE's executive director Eugenie C. Scott suggested that Comer's termination seemed to be a warning to TEA employees. "This just underscores the politicization of science education in Texas," Scott said. "In most states, the department of education takes a leadership role in fostering sound science education. Apparently TEA employees are supposed to be kept in the closet and only let out to do the bidding of the board."


For those who don't know, Barbara Forrest is a philosopher of some repute who has spent a great deal of time analyzing the intelligent design fiasco. Particularly, she testified in the landmark Kitzmiller et al. vs. Dover Area School District et al. case and wrote a fascinating account of it which can be found elsewhere. So, basically, Comer was passing along knowledge of a talk to be given by a participant in one of the major court cases between science and religious extremism to take place during the early 21st century.

So, given my views, was this firing justified? Well, first off, did Comer's beliefs interfere with her ability to do her job? My first answer would be: it's hard to say. We don't know, based on this information, what Comer's beliefs are. She could be a Christian, or a Buddhist, or an Atheist- we simply don't know. If we don't know her beliefs, it's difficult to conclude that they were the problem. My second answer, however, would be "no." Comer's job was to deal with issues related to science education and informing groups of a public lecture by an important and eminently qualified figure in this area is fully appropriate. Moreover, there appears to be no implied support in the e-mail unless you are determined to find same- more or less in the spirit of our old pal, Connie Morris. Do I think this firing was justified? No, I do not.

That said, Comer probably should have been a little more careful. I don't think there's much of an implication of "support" from the TEA in her actions BUT as a public servant it's important to treat the views of your constituents with respect, even if those views are brain-meltingly irrational. She probably should have been disciplined in some way- TEA-bagged, if you will- but firing is too extreme a response to someone who was basically doing her job, but with perhaps a smidge too much gusto.

Even in a fundamentalist state like Texas, if you hire someone to promote science education, you should probably be prepared for the possibility that they might... you know... promote science education.


* I'm debating making "Xientist" my new way of referring to those who claim to be scientists but who have strong ideological commitments that really make this impossible. Thus, William Dembski, Michael Behe, and many species of post-modernist would all qualify as xientists rather than scientists.

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4 Comments:

Anonymous bookmobile said...

What the press release doesn't say (and I learned by listening to NPR's Science Friday last weekend) was that Ms. Comer made the announcement of the science presentation in question via a private e-mail.

Drek? "Astute reader"? I fooled you again!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007 1:26:00 PM  
Blogger tina said...

I really like the term xientist. did you coin that?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007 6:52:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Bookmobile: Was the e-mail private or was it sent from a private account? It does make a difference.

Tina: So far as I know I coined "xientist" but I wouldn't say it's impossible that I picked it up somewhere and don't remember it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous bookmobile said...

As far as I understand, it was sent from a private account, that is, not from an account owned by the TEA. If I remember correctly, Ms. Comer sent the email to a number of people throughout Texas who she believed would be interested in the state of science education. So, she was probably acting in a professional capacity in a non-professional forum.

Thursday, December 13, 2007 1:58:00 PM  

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