Saturday, December 10, 2005

REGARDING PAUL MIRECKI: I've been following this situation closely, but haven't said anything about it yet, partly because I've been busy, partly because it's tangential to my usual topics, and partly because the situation has been changing so fast and I've been taking notes and thinking about it. But here are my thoughts at present.

The basic story is that Paul Mirecki, Professor of Religion at the University of Kansas, has been heavily criticized for insulting e-mail comments he made about creationists and fundamentalists in connection with a course on creationism and "intelligent design." It seems that this was a private e-mail that someone then circulated approvingly. He also made intemperate comments about Catholics, Fundamentalist Zionists, etc. on a discussion board for the KU Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics. He ended up withdrawing the course, then earlier this week he reported that he was stopped on the road and beaten up by two men driving a pickup truck who specifically mentioned the controversy. Then, late in the week, he resigned as chair of the Department of Religion. Now he has hired a lawyer. There's also summary article from today here.

To start with, I think what he wrote (and he has acknowledged that he wrote it and has apologized) was unpleasant, unconstructive, and unfair. But, frankly, I've heard worse from some Democrats about President Bush and some Republicans about President Clinton, and in both cases the comments have been made in public and with no thought that anyone could be offended. Free speech includes free speech that other people don't like, or it's not worth much. Whether he should have canceled the course (and I'm sorry that, for whatever reason, it isn't going forward) or resigned as department chair are things best sorted out between him and his department.

It looks as though he spoke (i.e., wrote) too freely because he was under the impression that he was writing something in private, although he posted his e-mail comments on an archived list that seems to have been accessible to the public. One private message -- the one that started the controversy -- was also circulated by someone else. But however they were made public, this reinforces the principle that you should never put something in an e-mail if you don't want it to be read by pretty much everyone in the world.

The beating, of course, is appalling, and I can't say I'm encouraged to hear a number of people just saying they don't believe it happened. This article has a picture of the bruises, which look to me to have been administered with considerable enthusiasm. Are we really supposed to believe that he battered himself and then involved the media and the police just to get media sympathy? If that were true it would be quite reprehensible -- and also weird -- but people who make the claim had better back it up with some serious evidence or they could end up looking pretty bad themselves. I'm taking Mirecki at his word unless someone offers me strong evidence to do otherwise.

As for the wider issues that started the whole controversy, rude comments aside, Mirecki is right that creationism is not a viable scientific theory and "intelligent design" is a very weak philosophical argument. And it is perfectly legitimate to teach a class that explains why. Creationism is nonsense and flies in the face of both scientific method and the actual evidence. "Intelligent design" is a superficially plausible attempt to cast doubt on evolution and bring creationism in again through the back door, but its arguments simply don't hold up to anyone who knows anything about serious metaphysics or scientific cosmology. For example, the "fine-tuned universe" argument is based on the assumption that all of reality is contained in the visible universe, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt that this is the case. We don't even know the actual size of the universe we're in: all we can see is in our own past-light cone, which may be a very small part of the whole. The many-worlds theory of quantum physics holds that there are an infinite number of parallel universes. There are good physical arguments (involving both quantum computation and the "two-slit experiment") in favor of it and a fair number of physicists accept it. Moreover, the Big Bang itself may be just a small eddy in an infinite quantum-fluctuating vacuum. In other words, the fact that the parameters of our universe are set to many decimal places to produce life may just be an extremely unlikely coincidence that nevertheless is unremarkable among the infinity of other possibilities that are realized elsewhere. And once you grant that such a coincidence has to happen somewhere, it's no surprise that we find ourselves in a universe of the sort that produces intelligent life. Where else are we going to find ourselves? (The technical term for this general point is the "weak anthropic principle.") And so on.*

Back to Mirecki: the reaction of elements of the Kansas legislature to these events has been disappointing:
The university’s action wasn’t enough for conservative lawmakers, who said they want to know whether professors teaching other courses are letting their biases get in the way.

“This may show a bigger problem than just Professor Mirecki,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican. “It may show we’re not providing fair and balanced opportunities to our students.”

Landwehr has called for hearings when the Legislature resumes next month. She said she wants to know whether professors are exhibiting any intolerance, whether it’s religious, political or any other kind.

Landwehr also questioned whether Mirecki should be allowed to teach religious studies courses.

“It’s hard to teach religion if you don’t believe in it,” she said.

I've taught courses on Judaism, Asian religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions, Shinto, etc.), Islam, and early Christianity. Sorry, but it's pretty hard to believe in all of them, and any attempt to do so would fail to take any of them seriously on their own terms. One can teach about religious beliefs and practices accurately and fairly without believing in them. I imagine this was just a poorly thought-out, off-the-cuff comment, but the Balkanization it implies is chilling. If Kansas legislators are going to pressure universities to allow only adherents to teach a religion, and that only from an insider's faith perspective, Kansas has a problem.

Likewise, the zero tolerance of "any intolerance" of any kind is ill considered. Personally, I'm intolerant of, say, cannibalism, al-Qaeda, clitorectomies, Nazis, and Aztec human sacrifice, and I don't see why anyone should try to be tolerant of them in class, online, or elsewhere. I don't think Rep. Landwehr would disagree, but while she's criticizing Mirecki, she needs to think more carefully about statements she herself is making in public as an elected public official.

Professor Mirecki made some mistakes and has paid more for them than he ought to have. But that doesn't justify teaching creationism in public schools or using the incident to interfere with the academic freedom of professors of religion in Kansas. I hope that cooler heads speak up more about this and that they prevail in the long run.

*Just to be clear, I have nothing in principle against people making arguments for the existence of God from metaphysics or scientific cosmology. Theologians have been advancing these for a long time and continue to do so, joined by the occasional physicist. Some of what they've done is quite interesting, although I doubt that a great many people have been converted to theism via that route. But these theologians and scientists operate on a more sophisticated level than the proponents of "intelligent design" and -- crucially -- they don't promote their positions as alternatives to evolutionary theory. I have no problem with these arguments being studied in university courses, but these should be courses on theology and science or on the philosophy of religion (both of which would quickly reduce the "intelligent design" arguments to mincemeat), and not science courses.


David Deutsch, The Fabric of Reality (London: Penguin, 1997).

UPDATE: I suppose Rep. Landwehr could have been saying just that atheists and agnostics shouldn't teach religion rather than that only people who believe in a religion should teach it, which is how I first took her statement. But this is no better, pretty much for the reasons I've already given. It's possible to teach a religion at the university level fairly and accurately without believing in that religion or any religion. And if my second interpretation is what she meant, its both discriminatory and unconstitutional. Whatever she meant, it was out of line.

UPDATE (11 December): Rebecca Lesses comments.

UPDATE (12 December): More good commentary from Rebecca here. She also notes this article, in which Mirecki says that he was forced to resign as department chair.

UPDATE (13 December): The University of Kansas begs to differ: "KU: Mirecki left leadership post voluntarily".

UPDATE (22 December): Note this post on Loren Rosson's blog, The Busybody. In the comments I interact with an anonymous commenter and offer some corrections and expansions of this post. Also, the Religion Department of the University of Kansas now has a new acting chair.

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