Monday, December 19, 2005

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?


At 8:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This is a well thought essay, and I appreciate it. I do have one question. You wrote:

"What is undeniable is that Mirecki was relieved of his position as department chair on the basis of some rude remarks about Christian fundamentalism that he made in an e-mail on what he thought was going out on a private list-serv."

That may very well be true. But given, if I have the timeline correct, that he resigned--or was asked to resign--after he was attacked--isn't there some chance that information that is not, at the moment, public, also played a role? Perhaps related to same information that played a part in PT's restraint?

I just don't see how you can say, with certainty, that his losing the chair was absolutely based on his intemperate comments.

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

'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.'

If it is *completely* untrue and called for, then why does PZ Myers agree with it?

Assuming for a moment that it is "untrue," there must be reasons for two different people to reach similar conclusions. Instead of getting defensive, perhaps you should take a look at what would cause people to reach what you think is such an erroneous position.

Just an idea.

At 1:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you being consistent? How can you be for good science while having contempt for creationism in all forms?

A good scientist has to acknowledge the possibility of design.

And then the question becomes, how does science demonstrate with some level of confidence that some artifact (living or non) was designed.

Science is always tentative, but lets be honest and admit that there is evidence of design while at the same time realizing that evolution does occur to some extent.

I would recommend that we hold in contempt scientists that teach in a dogmatic fashion, and who substitute logic with speculation.

At 1:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave S.

A good scientist does acknowledge the possibility of design. Ater all, design as we know it is a perfectly natural phenomena, and many scientists (archeologists, forensics people) spend their careers looking at designed artifacts.

As for biology, there simply is no evidence for design. None. Zero. Nada. All the ID arguments amount to attacks on evolution, as if this were enough to support design (even non-material design no less).

There is no evidence for design in biology, and no model from which to make testable hypothesis to even find that evidence.

Let's be honest about that.

But please, if you disagree, then tell us what the positive evidence is for design? How do we test it?

Do you anything to offer other than 'it's designed if it looks designed'? Even Kent Hovind has more to offer than that. Please tell me you have more.

At 3:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous @1:29 PM:

I'm sure scientists would be perfectly willing to consider a positive theory of design, if such a thing existed.

ID "theory", as it currently stands, is nothing but a collection of re-labeled creationist propaganda and a laundry list of things that evolution allegedly cannot explain (the bacterial flagellum, etc.). Yet ID offers no alternative explanations (other than, "that's how it was designed", which actually is useless as an explanation) and has no preditive usefulness.

In order for a theory of design to gain scientific credibilty, it would need to offer predictions and answers to questions like:

1. What structures were designed and when? ( Don't cite Dembksi- his methods are a failure.)

2. What is the metric for separating the designed features of an organism from the evolved features, i.e., where does "design" end and "evolution" begin?

3. How can we tell if the Designer is intervening in nature before our eyes?

4. When in the past has the Designer intervened? Was it on just one occasion, or several?

5. Can we predict if the Designer will intervene again in the future? If so, how can we detect it when it happens? If not, why not?

6. What kinds of problems was the Designer trying to overcome? What were the objectives of the intervention(s)? How effective was the intervention in addressing the issue?

These are but a few questions that come to mind - I'm sure many other, more rigorous questions could be posed.

Now if you can offer any design theory that addresses these questions, you might be on to something. Until then, ID "theory" is not science and has no place in the science classroom.

At 5:18 PM, Blogger Jay said...

Good comments. I particularly laughed at naming the anonymous poster Dave S.

Just one very quick quibble.

Your comment about being united in "our contempt for creationism in all its forms" isn't (or shouldn't be) entirely true.

There are some of us theistic evolution folks, evolutionary creationists as I like to call myself, that are as united as you in celebrating the beating that ID has just taken in Dover.

I and many like me fully recognize that our religious beliefs are not science, and have no place in our scientific research.

We hold them for thoroughly unscientific reasons.

Just a point.

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave S.

That post was written by me, Dave S. I write my name even though I post as Anonymous using the identity thing. I wasn't naming anyone there. Too lazy to get a password I guess. :)

Me, Dave S.

At 4:51 AM, Blogger nsfl said...

Dave Heddle does have a point, but I think it is important to realize that the statement he quoted is true regardless of whether or not Mirecki faked a beating (as of now I think there is no evidence to suppose that he faked it...). The beating, whether real or staged, was the result of the fallout from the original email. Personally, I don't agree that personal emails (yes I know this was a listserv) on personal opinions (big fat faces) should be able to be used against one in the way that this was. I am not excusing Mirecki, should it turn out he faked it, for choosing to do so, but I do want to point out that the beating is a symptom of an overarching illness--that an email submitted under a pretense of some confidence/privacy (that he didn't expect it to go outside the listserv) ought not end up causing the fiasco that it did. It's not like Mirecki published his opinions in a journal.

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For the record, I disagree with all of his major conclusions."

Gee, that's nice - but not only don't you explain why you think he is wrong, it still doesn't seem important to you to stop and ask why he, like Gary, would arrive at such conclusions.

I mean, do you think that these two are nutjobs, unable to properly discern reality from delusions? Surely not. Surely you think them to be generally level-headed guys whose opinions should be respected and considered when it comes to their fields.

Well, this i something at least close to their field. It's not like they are drawing conclusions on something they know nothing about. If you are going to say they are wrong, you should be willing to say why - analogous to how you should be able to back up your claim about UK caving if you are going to claim it.

Frankly, this sort of reaction does more to suggest that there really is osmething to their claims, not call them into question.


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