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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I know I've given an opinion on this before...

Those of you who follow the creationism vs. science foolishness are probably already aware of the new court case that's brewing. For those who don't keep up with this, however, it appears that the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is being sued by a creationist biologist Nathaniel Abraham, who is now an Associate Professor of Biology at Liberty Baptist University.* The dispute is over Abraham's firing following his admission that he personally does not believe in the evolutionary explanation for the development of life on Earth. To quote an article on the subject:

The zebrafish specialist said his civil rights were violated when he was dismissed shortly after telling his superior he did not accept evolution because he believed the Bible presented a true account of human creation.

Creationists such as Abraham believe God made the world in six days, as the Bible's Book of Genesis says.

Woods Hole, a federally funded nonprofit research center on Cape Cod, said in a statement it firmly believed its actions and those of its employees in the case were "entirely lawful" and that it does not discriminate.

Abraham, who was dismissed eight months after he was hired, said he was willing to do research using evolutionary concepts but that he had been required to accept Darwin's theory of evolution as scientific fact or lose his job.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination dismissed the case this year, saying Abraham's request not to work on evolutionary aspects of research would be difficult for Woods Hole because its work is based on evolutionary theories.

Abraham said this condition was never spelled out in the advertisement for the job and that his dismissal led to severe economic losses, an injured reputation, emotional pain and suffering and mental anguish.

Needless to say, the kids at Conservapedia are reacting with their customary discretion:

So, on the one hand we have Abraham who says he is willing to use concepts that he believes are basically crap in order to perform his job** and, on the other hand, we have Woods Hole arguing that such ideas impose an unreasonable burden. Who is right here?

Previously, I have thought about an issue similar to this and argued that the employer can fire the employee. In that case, however, the employee's religious belief made it impossible for them to fully carry out the requirements of the job. In this case, Abraham is arguing that he is willing to behave as though he believes in evolution as an explanation for life of Earth, but that he does not personally adhere to any such belief. Does this change things?

Well, arguably, yes, it does. Realisitically a person should be free to believe what they want in their free time so long as those beliefs do not inhibit their job performance. Were Abraham applying to be a tour guide at a natural history museum, he might have a case. What he was attempting to do, however, was obtain a position doing scientific research, which is a little different. Academics are paid, more or less, to produce research. Good research solves problems extant in the literature and, as such, requires considerable determination, hard work, and creativity. Do we really believe that Abraham could set aside his personal convictions well enough to be as determined and creative in the pursuit of evolutionary explanations as an evolution-accepting scientist? If we do think he is capable of that then, by extension, I should be a perfectly valid candidate for sunday school leader at a fundamentalist church. Certainly I believe their doctrines are crap but, hey, I'm a good speaker and get along well with kids- I can totally do that job! Somehow, I doubt that I would be a reasonable candidate or that most people would argue I should be permitted to perform such a job.*** Likewise, vegans would probably not be so great as employees at meat packing plants and Greenpeace members probably wouldn't be too welcome at Exxon. The issue isn't that Abraham is totally unable to do the work but, rather, given his beliefs he would simply be a lackluster employee.

If he were a biology professor at a University, then sure, I would support his arguments. If we were a chemist, or a physicist, or a mathematician, then I would support his arguments. But disbelieving, right from the start, the theoretical core of the work you have been hired to do? And doing so on theological rather than scientific grounds? Well... I think Woods Hole has a point, much as it bothers me to argue such.

I, more than many folks, want people to be free to hold their own beliefs. That said, I just can't bring myself to believe that an employer should have to pay you to do a shitty job because of those beliefs.

* Yes sir, Liberty Baptist where the motto is: "If the science was good enough for the early 19th century, it's good enough for us!"

** As a side note: while it doesn't say so in the article, I'm forced to wonder how the issue came up. It's not as though academics routinely ask each other, "Hey, Nate, do you personally believe in evolution?" As best I can figure, either Abraham's work product gave him away or he brought it up on his own. Either way, his disbelief in evolution was apparently a significant enough issue that it came to the attention of his employers in the first place.

*** One might also reasonably ask why I would want a job teaching children things I believe to be dangerous falsehoods and, similarly, might wonder why Abraham wanted a job performing research on a theory he stridently disagrees with. I could suggest answers, but will decline at present.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Drek,

Didja hear about this?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007 3:24:00 PM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

I must say I agree with you - if he can do his job successfully while maintaining the appropriate cognitive dissonance, he shouldn't be fired.

However, he apparently has a PhD in philosophy (which begs the question of why he was hired in the first place), so my thinking is his performance as a biologist is unlikely to be great...

Wednesday, December 12, 2007 8:14:00 AM  

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