Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Nathaniel Abraham Affair

 
Nathaniel Abraham was a post-doc in a lab working on zebrafish development. He was fired because he revealed after he was hired that he does not believe in evolution.

Almost every scientist agrees that this was proper [Slackjawed creationist surprised at his own incompetence at a scientific job]. You can't work in a field that requires an understanding of evolution if you don't accept the fundamental scientific fact of evolution.

However, knowing what's right scientifically isn't the same as winning a case in court. The creationists are more than happy to take this to court because they get a lot of traction from portraying the scientific establishment as a bunch of bigots who discriminate against religion.

John Pieret looks at the court case [The Other Guy's Court]. This may get complicated. It could easily turn into a situation where justice and the law turn out to be different things.

I don't think lawyers should be deciding what's proper science and what's not—that includes Dover—but I can't see any way out of this quagmire as long as there's confusion about the differences between science and religion.


27 comments :

  1. Suppose the person in question had tenure. I guess "scientifically speaking", he should fired too. Yes?

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  2. It seems clear that he was not willing to accept evolutionary tenets in his publications and so there was a conflict with his job. If he simply had believed in creation in his private time, it would not have been a problem, although I never understand such a severing from reality. I can never understand what exactly Francis Collins says too.

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  3. don asks,

    Suppose the person in question had tenure. I guess "scientifically speaking", he should fired too. Yes?

    No, once you've jumped all the hurdles successfully you gain the privilege of academic freedom. In that case you can be terribly wrong about the science but you can't be fired for being an IDiot.

    I support that concept. It's a concept invented by academics, not by lawyers.

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  4. I would have agreed with you about tenure until the infamous case ('70s) of a psychology prof at UWO whose lectures included disparaging remarks about the IQ of non-white ethnicities.

    Behe is another case in point -- Lehigh is stuck with him even though they clearly think that his IDiotic views reflect badly on their department's reputation.

    I suspect -- and you can all correct me if I'm wrong -- that the original intent of tenure was to afford academic freedom (and not freedom to promote assinine causes) to those who had won their intellectual laurels. That was an excellent idea in the days when scientific advances relied upon those who were willing to buck traditional thinking. Now, the tradition buckers too often include anti-science, anti-logic, religionists.

    Proponents of IDiocy have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to lie for God, and I can envisage the next phase of their campaign as being the planting of sleepers who lie about their actual anti-evolution beliefs until they have won the security of tenure. Religionists use their privileges against those who proffer freedoms and protections.

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  5. It's a concept invented by academics, not by lawyers.

    Yeah, but it is enforced through contracts we lawyers invented. You can thank us later.

    I don't think lawyers should be deciding what's proper science and what's not—that includes Dover ...

    Well, technically, the judge in Dover didn't. He found that, in so far as the school board's defense was that ID is science, it failed to establish that as a "fact". That failure, in turn, supported an inference that the board's motive for its policy was religious rather than scientific. His decision in no way determined what was "proper" in science, only what was proper in high school science classes under the U.S.'s peculiar Constitutional scheme. No scientists were harmed in the making of that decision.

    The Abraham case is a more complex problem for those with a liberal impulse towards protection of personal freedom. There is (at least potentially) a conflict between the promotion of good science and the freedom of individual conscience and liberty, as protected under civil rights laws intended to prevent economic discrimination based on race, gender and creed (or lack thereof).

    In short, whatever turns out to be right in this case, what is right scientifically may not always turn out to be right ethically.

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  6. I think the employer must take some of the blame on this one. He's employed someone on a post-doctoral position with a total of zero publications as far as I can see (how can you get a PhD without publishing? - come on the job market is saturated in biological PhDs and yet he managed to hire a non published creationist!). It doesn't appear that he made adequate background checks or interviewed the Abraham properly, otherwise the opposition to evolutionary theory would have been apparent (unless Abraham lied his head off).
    As for the main point, yes, its ludicrous expecting a creationist to work in a biological research lab. You might as well hire a Jehovahs Witness as a heart transplant surgeon ("sorry, no blood transfusions on my shift!").

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  7. John Pieret says,

    The Abraham case is a more complex problem for those with a liberal impulse towards protection of personal freedom. There is (at least potentially) a conflict between the promotion of good science and the freedom of individual conscience and liberty, as protected under civil rights laws intended to prevent economic discrimination based on race, gender and creed (or lack thereof).

    Yes, I understand that there is potentially a conflict. That's a problem. I fear that the potential for discrimination on the basis of religion might trump the science. It's been known to happen.

    In short, whatever turns out to be right in this case, what is right scientifically may not always turn out to be right ethically.

    And there's still the possibility that it could be right both ethically and scientifically to fire him but not legally.

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  8. And there's still the possibility that it could be right both ethically and scientifically to fire him but not legally.

    Yes, that's a given. Law does not pretend to deliver perfect justice.

    There is also the possiblity that there may be two or more ethical positions that are, nonetheless, conflicting. And there may be no ethical resolution of a conflict at all.

    Damned inconvenient this morality business.

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  9. arcanum says,

    I would have agreed with you about tenure until the infamous case ('70s) of a psychology prof at UWO whose lectures included disparaging remarks about the IQ of non-white ethnicities.

    That was a watershed case for me as well. When I saw people like David Suzuki calling for his dismissal I realized how dangerous it would be to otherthrow academic freedom on a case-by-case basis. That's the antithesis of academic freedom.

    Academic freedom is one of those things that has to be extended to everyone who qualifies. You can't make exceptions for those whose opinions are at the very fringes of society no matter how odious those opinions might be.

    Once you start making exceptions you've destroyed the very concept of academic freedom.

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  10. In my understanding, there are a range of responses that a university administrator could use in the case of a tenured professor suddenly becoming odious.

    I have met professors who were variously barred from having graduate students, barred from teaching undergraduate classes, and barred from using particular department-owned equipment or lab spaces. In all cases that I have heard of, these decisions were made in consideration of the professor's interpersonal behaviour - poor treatment of graduate students, abysmal teaching methods, and a lack of respect for other people's possessions and ongoing research, respectively.

    In the case of Behe, does he still teach? Does he have grad students? Does the department let him use the electron microscope, or the DNA sequencer, or any other bits of equipment costing $500 000 or more?

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  11. Once you start making exceptions you've destroyed the very concept of academic freedom.

    Now who is making a "slippery slope" argument. ;-)

    Besides, I don't think you are talking about "academic freedom," you seem to be talking about "tenure." You don't support Guillermo Gonzalez' academic freedom to spout any old nonsense without consequences, do you?

    Or does "academic" only refer to tenured faculty?

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  12. OK Larry you’d agree that although the decision to fire Abrahams might be scientifically and ethically right (and I tend to agree with that), when put into its wider social and legal context the decision isn’t so simple (?) In other words, socially speaking, we can’t be blinkered by what’s good scientific practice alone. The general principle here: Our world has an unknown number of degrees of freedom and so solutions to problems in this world might be some compromised, sub optimal or quick and dirty (sometimes slow and dirty) solutions. As an ‘evolutionist’ I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. (I wonder how many of my quick & dirty software solutions are still out there? If your computer crashes Larry, you might have found one.)

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  13. thebrummel says,

    In all cases that I have heard of, these decisions were made in consideration of the professor's interpersonal behaviour - poor treatment of graduate students, abysmal teaching methods, and a lack of respect for other people's possessions and ongoing research, respectively.

    Tenure does not protect you from being fired for other reasons.

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  14. john pieret asks,

    Or does "academic" only refer to tenured faculty?

    Yes.

    You only get the privilege of being protected by academic freedom after you get tenure. That's the whole point. That's what tenure means.

    Did you not understand this?

    You don't support Guillermo Gonzalez' academic freedom to spout any old nonsense without consequences, do you?

    Before he gets tenure, no; because he doesn't have academic freedom in the literal sense that we're discussing here.

    After he gets tenure, yes.

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  15. timothy v reeves asks,

    OK Larry you’d agree that although the decision to fire Abrahams might be scientifically and ethically right (and I tend to agree with that), when put into its wider social and legal context the decision isn’t so simple (?)

    Yes, it's not so simple because when the lawyers get hold of a case like this they can drag in all kinds of things to muddy the waters. In this case, it may be possible to convince a judge (or a jury) that Abraham was discriminated against because of his religion and not because we was incapable of doing his job adequately.

    This isn't right but it's a fact of life that we have to recognize. There may even be times when it's more prudent to keep a student or post-doc like Abraham than to see your name dragged through the mud and risk facing financial ruin.

    It's a sad state of affairs.

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  16. Lol! Not thinking of any lawyers in particular?

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  17. You only get the privilege of being protected by academic freedom after you get tenure. That's the whole point. That's what tenure means.

    Then a non-mealy-mouthed way of putting it is "entreched professor freedom", no? The rest of the people who work in "academia" aren't protected.

    There may even be times when it's more prudent to keep a student or post-doc like Abraham than to see your name dragged through the mud and risk facing financial ruin.

    That is pretty much the definition of social relations, isn't it? Benefits weighed against disadvantages? Do you suppose universities would be giving you those lifetime contracts without making that kind of cost-benefit analysis?

    It's a sad state of affairs.

    Hmmmm ...

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  18. Once you start making exceptions you've destroyed the very concept of academic freedom.

    Would it surprise you at all to learn that lawyers saw this a long time ago?

    [T]he safeguards of liberty have frequently been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.

    - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter from a 1950 dissenting opinion.

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  19. Once you start making exceptions you've destroyed the very concept of academic freedom.

    Would it surprise you at all to learn that lawyers saw this a long time ago?

    [T]he safeguards of liberty have frequently been forged in controversies involving not very nice people.

    - U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter from a 1950 dissenting opinion.

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  20. Tenure does not protect you from being fired for other reasons.

    In my examples, the professors concerned were not fired - they continued (or, in some cases, continue) to draw a salary from the university, the salary of a tenured professor (associate or full). They just weren't allowed to do some things that are part of other professors' jobs. They were not prevented from voicing and publishing opinions that other tenured faculty in the department might have disagreed with. They maintained offices and in some cases labs in the department on campus. Presumably (though I have no direct knowledge of this) they were also involved in other professor duties, such as serving on hiring committees, tenure review committees, perhaps the advisory committees of graduate students supervised by other professors, plus other activities associated with being a scientist rather than as a professor per se, like reviewing scientific manuscripts for journals.

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  21. You all call yourself scientists and yet just rant and babble without even trying to understand the case. Not surprising. Any creationist believes in microevolution...as does Nathaniel Abraham. Defining the terms is critical here. Micro and Macro evolution are not the same thing. There's widespread evidence for Micro evolution...no macro. Even the mainstream public does not believe that a worm can become a horse given enough time. Rubbish! That's basically what Abraham was fired for...not that he couldn't accept natural selection or microevolution...but rather that he would not accept the broader evolutionary inferences including abiogenesis. By the way all of you biologists. How do the basic biology books teach the cell theory of Schleiden and Schwann saying all cells come from pre-existing cells, but at the same time cram abiogenesis and the Urey-Miller crap down the throats of students. Isn't that just a bit inconsistent? All cells come from pre-existing cells...er except for the first ones. Or I especially like "origins" science. Get one of the year reviews on Evolution and read about the origin of the first cell and you'll find terminology accepted nowhere else in the scientific world. 23 times in the last article I read were statements such as...We posited...it must have been...we assume. What the heck is that? Science is about knowing...not guesswork. When it comes down to it...issues of origins are matters of faith. Abraham was fired because his faith didn't match up with the faith of his colleagues.

    Why don't you define the terms when you're speaking of evolution and not just act like Christian scientists are a bunch of morons.

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  22. I would have to agree with the last comment regarding micro to macroevolution. I obtained my degree in wildlife biology and had to endure a lot of nonsense on evolution. An outdated theory(not fact as sandwalk master says) based on an incomplete fossil record and a "scientist" named Darwin. Scientists are too afraid to look for alternatives or expand on what they have learned. If you think that evolution explains the complexity of life and organs(eyes, heart, lungs, etc.), you are oblivious. There was a designer. Are there unanswered questions. Sure. But the egotistic, inadequate human mind will never understand everything. I am grateful I am a teacher now and can show the younger students darwinism and creationism and let them make their own choice; instead of just grandpappys theory.

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  23. I gotta just say "Bravo!" to the previous two comments. They are right on the money.

    Watch that word "evolution." Its meaning keeps changing. In one sense (which we creationists deliniate as microevolution), it is a scientific fact. Living things do change and adapt to their environments. But there are limits to how much change is possible. In the other sense (macroevolution -- worm to man in six billion years), it's nothing more than a fairy tale for grownups who want to live as though there were no God in the universe.

    I know better.

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  24. swperry1 asks,

    Why don't you define the terms when you're speaking of evolution and not just act like Christian scientists are a bunch of morons.

    In this case we get the best of both worlds.

    1. We have a good definition of evolution [What Is Evolution? making it clear that the origin of life isn't part of it. We know differences between microevolution and macroevolution [Macroevolution]. We know the difference between fact and theory [Evolution Is a Fact and a Theory] so we know that it's a fact that chimps and humans share a common ancestor. We know all this and ....

    2. Christian scientists are still a bunch of morons.

    It's a wonderful life!

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  25. anonymous says,

    I am grateful I am a teacher now and can show the younger students darwinism and creationism and let them make their own choice; instead of just grandpappys theory.

    That's scary. What are the chances that you will present both sides fairly? Pretty close to zero I'd say because you are clearly one of those IDiots who don't understand evolution.

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  26. That's a shame Larry. When evidence isn't on your side you just resort to ad hominem.

    You should be crusading for Abraham. He was fired because he doesn't have an evolutionary perspective...including your wide definitions for evolution. That's why his lab fired him. It was a difference in faiths. He was fired based on his religion, not because he did not accept natural selection or that the frequency of alleles changes within a population.

    You're embarrassing to science. Your the sort of person that believes you have the answer before the question is asked. Your willing to force your lens for viewing the world over top of what the data says.

    If the world lasts long enough. The theory of life through evolution along with macroevolution will go the way of spontaneous generation.

    If you really think you have answers to evolutionary problems answer these 2 questions:

    1. Does macroevolution occur gradually or in the form of punctuated equilibrium. Why doesn't the fossil record support your answer. (I'll tell you if you don't know)

    2. Macroevolution must occur through mutation. List 3 beneficial mutations where genetic information was added to an organism.

    Why don't you get out of your micro-biochem world and take a lot at the big picture every now and then.

    You just kid yourself about being an atheist. You know how the bible starts. In the beginning God. God does not need to explain himself or make anyone believe him. He is self-evident. It's a shame to see a scientist with his eyes wide shut.

    And by the way. Just because you think you have a nice definition for "evolution". It is not widely accepted and is often used against Christians in a bait and switch type of game.

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