The Mirecki Situation
Update: December 20, 2005
In my original version of this post I included a sentence in which I accused the University of Kansas of caving in to outside pressure in relieving Prof. Mirecki of his chairmanship. While I suspect that sentence was accurate, I have decided upon further reflection that I can not back up that statement at this time. Consequently, I decided to remove it. This change does not alter the point I was making: that Kansas is currently a very inhospitable place for scholars to do their work.
Also, P. Z. Myers has offered his take on the issue. For the record, I disagree with all of his major conclusions.
Ed Brayton has an important post up about the Paul Mirecki situation. For those who do not know what I am referring to, here is Ed's introduction:
For those who may not know, Mirecki was, until recently, the chairman of the religious studies department at Kansas University. He was planning to teach a class there next year about ID as mythology, which caused quite a bit of controversy, especially when someone released several emails that he had written on the listserv of a campus skeptic's group that were rather crude and unprofessional. The ensuing brouhaha hit its crescendo when Mirecki ended up in the hospital after getting beaten up, and claimed it was done by two men who told him it was because of his views on intelligent design.
After learning the basic facts I was all set to do a bare-knuckles post about the evils of religious fundamentalism. But then I was told by people closer to the situation than I that there were some plausible reasons to be skeptical of Mirecki's account. Since I like having my facts straight before maligning large groups of people, I decided to hold off.
By now it has become clear that Mirecki was, indeed, attacked (some irresponsible bloggers had suggested, based on nothing, that Mirecki had faked his injuries). But whether the motive for the attack was his anti-creationist views or something else entirely is still obscure. At the moment I am not optimistic that this question will ever be resolved to my satisfaction.
Readers of this blog are aware that I am a contributor to The Panda's Thumb. As Ed describes, there was a great deal of discussion among the contributors about how PT should address the situation. Roughly speaking, one camp argued that the murkiness of things warranted a moderate approach, while the other argued that we should be coming to the aid of someone who was an ally in the fight against ID and creationism. I was in the moderate camp.
One person who was on the other side was Gary Hurd, who posted this mixed-bag of an essay on the subject. Hurd opens his post well, gathering together some of the more incendiary statements, particularly from those on the right, that had been made against Mirecki. Most notable was his collection of anti-Mirecki quotations coming from various Kansas politicians. These statements were infinitely more disturbing than any prattling in the blogosphere, and the speak volumes about the current environment in Kansas.
Sadly, Hurd then went a bit crazy, calling Mirecki a sissy for not making a better show of himself during the attack, and then launching into a groundless conspiracy theory about people in Kansas law enforcement being implicated in Mirecki's beating. Furthermore, Hurd was so incensed that other PT contributors would deign to disagree with him on this issue, that he has decided to end his association with the blog. His parting shot that, “There are contributors to PT whose personal politics are far closer to the rightist mob revealed above than to people with whom I will remain associated.” is completely untrue and uncalled for.
In comments left at other blogs I have seen some people wondering why PT would leave this post up, when so many contributors do not agree with it. The answer is simple. PT is a confederation of individual bloggers. There is no central authority, and no contributor has ever been censored in any way. We are united solely by our love of science, our concern for good science education, and our contempt for creationism in all its forms. As a group we agree on little else. Despite the heated exchange of e-mails on this issue, I still regard this as one of PT's great strengths.
On potentially incendiary issues we often have some discussion among ourselves about the best way to handle things. But in the end, the decision about what to say in a given blog entry lies entirely with the author of the post. As much as I dislike Gary's post, I think the precedent of having some central authority vote to take it down would be far worse than simply leaving it up.
Let me end on a personal note. My first job out of graduate school was a post-doc in the Mathematics Department at Kansas State University (not to be confused with The University of Kansas, where Mirecki works). I spent three very happy years there. But the fact remains that I would not even consider accepting a permanent position at a Kansas university right now. In fact, it's hard to imagine any young scientist accepting a position at KU if he or she had any options at all (and anyone KU is likely to find attractive will almost certainly have options). Regardless of whether the religious right has any culpability in Mirecki's beating, the fact remains that the current environment in Kansas is so right-wing and so hostile to science that I don't see how a scientist of any sort could feel comfortable working there. Apparently, merely being impolite towards the religious right is enough to get you condemned by high government officials in Kansas. Is there a scholar in the world who would consider Kansas a congenial place to work?