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    Can you be a biologist and not believe in Evolution?
    By Hank Campbell | March 25th 2008 10:00 PM | 5 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Nathaniel Abraham got a job as a biology post-doc at Woods Hole and then chose to disclose that he wasn't necessarily hip to every little aspect of evolutionary biology - like the whole evolution part.

    You all know me pretty well. I am middle of the road about anything not to do with the science aspects and the culture hoopie is way off my radar. Clearly the guy got a Ph.D. with his religious beliefs so they were not an impediment to him academically and that's where I would let it lay. Only the true atheist crazies can find a way to complain about Francis Collins because of his religion.

    But I think Woods Hole may lose $500,000 here and articles like this one in the Boston Globe don't clear much up because they actually muddy the issue. Woods Hole says, according to this article anyway, that they don't discriminate based on religion but that Abraham
    did not want to work on "evolutionary aspects" of the National Institutes of Health grant for which he was hired, even though the project clearly required scientists to use the principles of evolution in their analyses and writing.
    according to his boss, Mark E. Hahn. Well, that's a slam dunk issue if that were the extent of it. In the software industry, I do not much care what religion you are but if you tell me you can't work on some aspects of the code because of your religious beliefs - when I told you what the job is in advance - you are gone, and I'll pay the attorneys to defend that principle.

    On the other hand, let's hope people like this do not try too hard to defend Woods Hole in this issue:
    "I have a cleaning woman who is a Seventh-day Adventist and neither of us feel any tension," said Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science at Florida State University who has written extensively on creationism and evolutionary biology.
    If that's the general mentality Abraham was facing - you can be my cleaning lady but not a post-doc in biology - there is a real problem. Culture wars or not, we have to see individuals at face value and not through a political or cultural prism.

    I say this Boston Globe article muddies the issue because the reporter introduces odd sentences like He did not tell anyone his creationist views before being hired. Well why would he? They hired him because of his expertise with zebra fish and in toxicology and developmental biology. They didn't ask and it would have been a violation of every employment law in the land to do so and he didn't volunteer it (did the Boston Globe reporter disclose his religious beliefs in his job interview?) thus the odd chill that must have run down Hahn's spine when he found out his new post-doc only wanted to work on about 10% of the things the grant money was actually funding.

    I would loved to have been holding a milk when Abraham said he "was willing to discuss evolution as a theory" so I could have shot it out my nose. In that sense, what Hahn did next was the right choice. Two months after this all started Abraham was out. It should be pretty cut and dried. The guy didn't want to work on 90% of the projects they have and that were in the job description. He had to go.

    But that's not the sole issue. He says he was subjected to a hostile work environment after his disclosure. A much tougher claim to disprove. Especially over a two months period after the disclosure. A hostile work environment about religion is not going to resonate well with the 70% of the population that are religious if they are on the jury deciding the case. Worse, they may be witness to some of the manufactured hysteria over the "Expelled" movie that our more angry atheist brethren are using to add traffic to their websites and dollars and publicity for the producers of that film.

    A court date on a subjective issue like 'hostile work environment' could be a very bad thing. Woods Hole is saying that religion is not the issue. I believe that. But, after the fact, if at any time he was treated the way Ruse refers to his cleaning woman - fit for menial labor but not science because of her religious beliefs - then they are going to lose some money and some credibility.

    As an aside, in the private sector, we would have avoided this 'hostile work environment' claim and kept it to the facts by escorting him to the door the minute after he refused to work on the projects he was hired to work on.

    But my question remains; is developmental biology so different from evolutionary that you can get a whole PhD from Johns Hopkins and never have evolution come up?

    Comments

    adaptivecomplexity
    You can't seriously practice developmental biology these days without seriously getting into evolution - all 'devo' these days is to some degree 'evo-devo' (to use the latest nerd slang for the field).

    No doubt evolution came up at John Hopkins, but Abraham could have done what many creationists might do - learn the material, do the work, and not make his religious beliefs an issue. Apparently he decided to take a stand as a postdoc.

    A particular problem with a postdoc position is that you aren't the janitor - you basically come in and run a project with a lot of independence. If the adviser can't trust you to run a project largely on your own, then you're wasting his/her time and not fulfilling the pretty explicit job requirements of a postdoc. There usually isn't someone else around to do the 90%, 50%, or even 10% of the project you're unwilling to do yourself. That's the distinction between a postdoc and a research technician.

    I don't agree with people making a hostile work environment, but it's no exaggeration to say that this guy, in an evo-devo lab, claiming evolution didn't happen, was probably treated about the same way a software developer would be if he, in all seriousness, claimed UFOs came down at night and tweaked his code - you have to be unbelievably resistant to evidence to work in developmental biology and deny evolution.

    The other good reason Hahn had for letting Abraham go was so that Abraham wouldn't drag his reputation through the mud. Just like a chemistry professor wouldn't want to collaborate with a postdoc who thought homeopathy was real chemistry, or a physics professor wouldn't want to be known as the mentor of a postdoc who's developing a perpetual motion machine, a biologist will not want have a professional association with an anti-evolutionist.

    Who would want to write a book with a co-author you didn't agree with on the basic theme of the book? Your postdoc goes around giving presentations about your joint work; if he's going to go out to some conference and make anti-evolutionary statements, he uses your reputation to promote his crank ideas, and brings your reputation down with him.

    So I don't know what the law is regarding employers asking about someone's religious beliefs that might have an impact on a job - can a hospital ask potential nurses if they are Jehova's Witnesses who might refuse to assist with a blood transfusion? If a potential hire is not going to do much of the work on principle, do you have to waste all that time and money finding this out after you've hired him? NIH/NSF grants come in 5 year stints - now Hahn has to look for someone else, which puts his research behind and it puts him at risk for not getting funding the next time around if enough progress isn't made.

    Mike

    Mike
    Hank
    So I don't know what the law is regarding employers asking about someone's religious beliefs that might have an impact on a job - can a hospital ask potential nurses if they are Jehova's Witnesses who might refuse to assist with a blood transfusion? If a potential hire is not going to do much of the work on principle, do you have to waste all that time and money finding this out after you've hired him? NIH/NSF grants come in 5 year stints - now Hahn has to look for someone else, which puts his research behind and it puts him at risk for not getting funding the next time around if enough progress isn't made.

    I am pretty sure (because I don't think state laws can overrule this) that you can't ask about religion.

    You can ask a nurse, "you don't have any problems conducting all of the duties of a nurse, including X,Y,Z and probably others I left out" and then if they have a moral stand against it, they need to find a different job.

    I agree Hahn should have let him go, for just the reasons you list but (a) his general lack of interviewing or research diligence on employees (yeah, the guy knew about zebrafish but nothing he ever wrote discussed their evolution and that was not a red flag?) could cost Woods Hole $500K so he probably has some retribution coming, and (b) waiting two months to whack the guy is not something that would happen in any moderate to small sized company precisely because you add to the problem if you let him stay.

    'Hostile work environment' is a moving target. A sympathetic Indian guy could get in front of a jury and lament that his religion never made a difference in 16 years of school and a PhD but suddenly it does at Woods Hole. The "Expelled" guys couldn't ask for better PR and the Boston Globe reporter knew this would be timely so he wrote about it now.

    I know that schools and research institutions have any number of restrictions that prevent them from doing the obvious thing on a timely basis (because they take federal money) but I am surprised they didn't just send the guy home and eat the two months salary while they did the HR investigation. Then they lost two months salary but the $500K hostile work thing never had a chance to come into play.

    I sort of assumed the whole reason for zebrafish being used as “models” for humans in research was because of genetic similarity so I am comforted that my whole concept of developmental biology hasn't been thrown out the window. :)

    adaptivecomplexity
    I know that schools and research institutions have any number of restrictions that prevent them from doing the obvious thing on a timely basis (because they take federal money) but I am surprised they didn't just send the guy home and eat the two months salary while they did the HR investigation.

    That's the effect of having scientists run these places without any professional management training - not that I personally want to take any courses in management! I'm sure Woods Hole does have some administrative people with MBAs, but by the time the decision reaches them, the scientist is likely to have tried to handle things on his own and maybe screwed things up.

    Same thing with due diligence when interviewing prospective employees, although at this level in biology, anti-evolutionism is so rare that most people probably don't think it's worth asking about. Maybe it's something we should ask about more. Although there was that Texas professor who who did ask about that before writing letters of recommendation for pre-med students, and he ended up the subject of a Justice Dept. inquiry. He was asking about evolution and not religion, but the creationists screamed 'religious discrimination' loudly enough to get the Justice dept. interested. (It's funny that creationism can be either science or religion, depending on whatever is most legally convenient for creationists.)

    Legally, I agree it's right for it to be the employer's responsibility for exercising due diligence in the hiring process, but on a personal level, I think it's dishonest and really pathetic for people to try to get a job knowing they won't do some of the core tasks. It's lame to apply for a nursing job if you won't do blood transfusions, to apply to medical schools if you won't dissect cadavers, and to apply to a place like Woods Hole if you don't want to use evolutionary biology in your science.

    Mike

    Mike
    Hank
    (It's funny that creationism can be either science or religion, depending on whatever is most legally convenient for creationists.)

    Pleading the alternative is a time honored staple of British common law:

    1)I did not steal your cow.
    2)The cow was mine anyway.
    3)I gave it back.

    They may not know science but they know their legal history.

    adaptivecomplexity
    You've got to give them credit for that, I agree!

    By the way, that Michael Ruse quote is priceless. With friends like this...

    Mike

    Mike