The Issue of a Professor’s Prerogative

The Issue of a Professor’s Prerogative

Should a biology professor be allowed to not write a letter of recommendation to a premedical student who doesn’t believe in the theory of evolution?
The topic came from an article a participant read in the New York Times in which a professor states on his web page that he would not write a letter in the above circumstance. Was the professor’s full and fair disclosure perfectly fair or are there other significant issues involved, such a merit and even “deed before creed?”
Should one’s private belief’s, especially if unpopular and counter to the prevailing wisdom of the majority of authorities, be kept secret for fear of reprisals and recriminations? This argument was deeply concerning to those who believe in freedom of expression, especially in the halls of liberal education.
Is creationism even relevant to becoming a competent physician? Is it fair to penalize those with a deep commitment to their patients’ welfare just because they believe in creationism? Most felt it was not, although evolution is a key pillar of scientific theory.
Ultimately, some in the group discerned at the core of the question an attack on a liberal society, and this related to Joe Chuman’s recent platform on the rise of attacks on Enlightenment principles and the importance of a belief in the critical foundation of the sciences. Others focused on the political issue underlying the conflict: the student was being supported by creationist advocates and their legal counsel and wanted to make a statement about creationism being a competing “scientific” theory to evolution.
The group tried to identify the characteristics of scientific theory and how it establishes fact, in contrast with creationist “theory.” Scientific theories are subject to modification and new evidence is sought to either reproduce or refute existing theories. Experiments are used to duplicate others’ work and to verify or contradict their findings. In such a manner, biases and error are minimized. While evolutionary theory isn’t subject to experiment, since it is largely based on evidence from fossil life and therefore retrospective, as a scientific theory, any theory is expected to be modified or even rejected over time, whereas religious creationism is absolute and unchanging, despite evidence that may be contradictory.
Despite the different approaches of science and religious, the group noted that many great scientists were deeply religious. It was observed that this religiosity was related to their awe of nature’s majesty and mystery and not necessarily an allegiance to orthopraxy (right practice) and orthodoxy (right belief) of traditional religions. Nonetheless, some scientists are religious in these traditional senses, suggesting that they had found a way to reconcile religion and scientific into separate and mutually compatible domains.
It was also mentioned that, when science comes in conflict with religion, state laws tend to favor science, especially when innocent victims are involved. For example, children of Jehovah Witnesses may be ordered to receive blood if no medical alternative is feasible, even if their parents object.
While there was a question whether belief in evolution should be a litmus test for becoming a physician, most felt that licensed doctors shouldn’t loose their licenses or medical degrees just because they don’t believe in or deeply question the validity of evolutionary theory. Nonetheless, there were concerns that a questioning of evolution was a reflection on an individual’s ability to evaluate evidence critically and objectively, uncontaminated by particular interpretations of the Bible’s meaning. In this sense, the professor’s judgment and “line-in-the-sand approach” to evolution’s non-believers would be different than a teacher who discriminated on the basis of mere prejudice, such as race, ethnicity or gender. From this perspective the professor did receive support from most by the time our two hour’s ended.
Now, with the bad weather behind us, join us on the 1st and 3rd Monday evenings of each month from 7-9 pm and watch how your own thoughts evolve.
Richard B.

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