March 05, 2008

Making Stuff Up About the Abraham/Woods Hole Case: D.C. Rice in the Frederick, MD News-Post

The Nathaniel Abraham/Woods Hole Creationist case hasn't exactly been in the news lately; it isn't scheduled to go to trial until next year. Nonetheless, a newspaper-sponsored blogger, D.C. Rice of the Frederick, MD News-Post Online, has written a piece today about it. Rice appears to be a Creationist himself, so we might forgive him if he seems to have a problem with factual reality and a profound lack of knowledge of evolutionary biology. Nonetheless, he also goes about making things up, drawing unwarranted conclusions, and generally taking advantage of people who might not remember the circumstances of this situation. I feel like doing a quick dissection of his misrepresentations, both about evolutionary theory and the Abraham/WHOI case. To begin at the beginning:

D.C Rice: The Bottom Line - You're fired!

The equal opportunity laws that are supposedly in place in this country protect potential employees against discrimination based on race, sex, religion and even lifestyle choices. But, when it comes down to it, are these protections really in place?

A few years ago, Nathaniel Abraham was fired from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Abraham, an expert in toxicology and developmental biology, also happens to be a “Bible-believing Christian.” His religious beliefs never came up in the interview, and rightfully so. No one gets grilled over other lifestyle choices since many of those are protected. Theoretically, then, a person’s religious beliefs should get the same respect.
Except that, in this case, his insistence on religious belief over scientific inquiry was a direct and pertinent conflict in regard to the job he was hired to do. It was tantamount to a rabbi demanding a position at a sausage factory and then refusing to handle pork. One cannot work in developmental biology and refuse to deal with evolutionary theory; the two fields are inextricably entwined, as is the case with most biological disciplines in the modern world. Creationists can work in most fields; there isn't an underlying conflict between their beliefs and being a police officer, a poultry inspector or an English professor. It becomes a lot more problematic in the physical sciences, and particularly so in biology.
...About eight months later, in a casual conversation with the lead researcher Mark Hahn, Abraham mentioned his pro-creationist views. Those views weren’t any of Hahn’s business, though Abraham apparently wasn’t ashamed to share them. And, for the period of time he was employed at the institute, Abraham must not have let them get in his way because those views didn’t become an issue until he happened to mention them.
As Rice doesn't know the content of that casual conversation, he's drawing a conclusion based on his interpretation of the word "casual" here. Casual can simply mean informal as well; it doesn't mean unimportant or friendly. The fact that Abraham did make his beliefs known begs the question of why he would do that if it weren't an issue for him to begin with. Religious beliefs are not typically slipped into a discussion of some unrelated subject; there was a reason, some intent, to letting this Creationist cat out of the bag.
...he was hired based on his knowledge in biological studies. He was clearly fully qualified when he was offered the job or else Hahn wouldn't have hired him in the first place.
Professional qualification isn't the only reason for keeping someone in a job for which they've been hired. Personalities matter, too. In research, as in many occupations, one is expected to work as a member of a team, and that entails getting along with one's co-workers. Qualified people are let go from jobs every day on the basis of interpersonal problems, unprofessional conduct, and any number of other reasons that have nothing to do with having a given degree of experience and skill. The sort of argument Rice is making sounds cogent when given only superficial consideration, but it doesn't hold up at all with a few moments of thought. Sound familiar?
Abraham claims he was more than willing to work within the system even though he didn’t agree with parts of it...

Hahn, on the other hand, believed Abraham’s religious beliefs would’ve been a hindrance to the institute’s ongoing projects. Hahn further indicated that Abraham’s refusal to include any evolutionary mentions in co-authored publications would be "incompatible with the work as proposed to NIH and with [Hahn's] own vision of how it should be carried out and interpreted."

Each side has a guess as to what was going to happen, but those assumptions are rather moot at this point since Abraham will never have the chance to prove himself.
And here's where Rice flies right off the track of anything resembling reason and into some sort of religiously-inspired pretense. When Abraham stated that he wouldn't "...recognize the concept of biological evolution and you would not agree to include a full discussion of the evolutionary implications and interpretations of our research in any co-authored publications resulting from this work," (see this entry), he had already proven himself. He stated, in no uncertain terms, that he wouldn't perform the job that a post doc is hired to perform. To use an analogy again, this is like hiring someone to work weekends and then having them tell you that they refuse to come in on Saturdays. Whether or not he was qualified to work in a particular lab became moot at this point; he refused to publish anything that didn't suit his beliefs. Not only does this make his work useless to his primary investigator, it raises an issue of ethics. If Abraham found something that contradicted his beliefs, would the PI even find out about it? Could he be trusted to the extent that he would report the findings from his work in an accurate and timely manner? If this was in serious doubt, then there would be no choice but to get rid of him or else risk compromising the integrity of the entire study. That is the extent to which Abraham proved himself; any other issue becomes a distant secondary consideration in light of this.
But, with this debate, here’s where things can get a little tricky. Abraham, I’m fairly certain, doesn’t believe the entire theory of evolution. Frankly, I wouldn’t blame him.

The planet’s first creature, allegedly some kind of single-cell organism, just managed to appear one day which is absolutely incredible on its own. But we have to add that to the “fact” that this single cell, through luck and the slimmest of chances, somehow morphed into other, more complex creatures. And people say a creationist’s views are too implausible to believe.
First off, as is so often the case with Creationists, Rice is here conflating evolution and abiogenesis again. Evolutionary theory makes no a priori assumption as to the nature of the first organism and, in fact, it's evidence resulting from inquiry that has led almost every biologist on the planet to conclude that not only was the first organism a single cell, it was a relatively simple one that almost certainly lacked membrane-bound organelles. It most probably resembled a modern prokaryote or archaean more than a protistan. Still, this wasn't simply a given, and if new evidence came to light that supported some other conclusion about a universal common ancestor, it would have to be taken into consideration. Even if it turned out to be true, that would mean nothing for evolutionary theory itself, though, because that theory deals with how diversity arises. It doesn't need to pin one sort of organism or another as the first one to exist.

Moreover, this only seems "incredible" to someone who doesn't understand evolutionary biology in the first place, as Rice demonstrates is his situation when he claims that evolutionary theory thinks a single cell morphed into more complex organisms. News flash for ya, DC, but evolution affects populations, not individuals. A single-celled organism isn't going to "morph" into anything. There's good reason such an assertion should seem unbelievable; it is. Evolutionary theory, however, never predicts that we should find such a thing. Rice is apparently having trouble believing in the stories he is making up himself. So am I.
Like many creationists, however, Abraham's disbelief may only be limited to macro-evolution, not micro-evolution. Scientific observations can, and have, proven that changes within different species do occur thanks to adaptation or some other external variable.

But creationists run into a problem with blindly accepting macro-evolution as a scientific fact since we don’t see it happening today. Single-celled organisms aren’t turning into fish, and birds still aren’t turning into lizards, though that would certainly be a neat trick to see firsthand.
Here, again, Rice makes assumptions about what Abraham believed based on nothing at all except that Rice thinks Abraham must be in agreement with Rice's own misguided views. Luckily for us, we have a statement that Abraham signed when he took his position at Liberty University that tells us exactly what views he supported. As reported in this entry of December 10, 2007, that statement included that "The universe was created in six historical days." It's sheer Biblical literalism, not some quibbling over "micro" and "macro."

Not to be outdone by his imaginary hero, though, Rice goes on to spew some more of the usual Creationist misrepresentation. The distinction between micro- and macroevolution is a canard, of course. The latter is simply the cumulative effect of the former over a very long period of time, and we don't see it in the conventional sense because of the timescale. It takes place over thousands or millions of years, so we can't kick back and watch it happening like we might watch a football game. We have to look backwards through time to see the long-term effects of evolutionary processes. Nor would we expect to see a unicellular organism turn into a fish or other such nonsense. Again, this is a strawman. If anything, evolutionary theory predicts that we shouldn't see such a disorganized progression of wholesale character changes. If we ever did see such a thing, and if we ever saw it happening in a length of time compatible with a single human lifetime or two, then all of evolutionary theory would be called into question. The fact that we don't see such things actually supports the theory. Rice, of course, doesn't know what the theory says, so he can just make stuff up, counter it, and pretend that he's offered the reader reason to not "believe" in what science predicts and then demonstrates to be factual.

None of this stops Rice and those like him from believing in someone who is purported to have risen from the dead, turned water into wine, split the Red Sea, or any number of other "miraculous" occurrences, even though nobody has ever seen any of that happen, either, even though none of those things have ever been independently confirmed.
Believing in such an abnormal phenomenon takes a certain amount of faith. An “intellectual,” however, would never admit such a thing. Instead, he manages to convince himself that he and his science are correct and everybody else is wrong. Oddly, that’s the same kind of arrogant behavior most fundamental Christians are accused of having. In a world where religious individuals are often characterized as zealots, fundamentalists or extremists, what does that make the non-religious when they’re the ones acting the same way?
Behold the power of evidence! We "intellectuals" look at well over a century of investigation and its results and come to conclusions about what the evidence shows us. It's not too terribly different from the way forensic evidence works in criminal cases. There's nothing "abnormal" about the phenomenon; in fact, the evidence tells us that evolution is normal. It's what's expected. It only seems unusual to someone like Rice who hasn't looked at any line of evidence in any depth, let alone seeing how many lines of evidence support one another. That's the difference between an extremist and a non-extremist. An extremist will insist that the world is the way he/she believes it is no matter what contradictory evidence appears; a non-extremist can modify his or her views as new evidence comes to light rather than setting up strawmen or denying that the evidence exists at all, as Rice is doing in his entirely benighted editorial.
But, I digress. Regardless of the differences in Abraham’s and Hahn’s assumptions, we do know that Hahn fired Abraham over his religious beliefs and not his professional record...
We do? That's funny, because just a few paragraphs before Rice started his hand-waving about evolutionary theory, I could swear I saw a statement to the effect that he refused to be an author on any research reliant on evolution, and that, too, is part of his professional record. Not knowing what scientists do, of course, Rice is taking the liberty of simply making things up. We know no such thing, in fact. This is an egregious twisting of fact bordering on slanderous, and the News-Post should disavow such a statement if it's any better than the National Enquirer.
...Sadly, even in a society where some are promoting tolerance, we still find some educated individuals who are ostracized, insulted or, in Abraham’s case, even fired for their beliefs.

For those who would have us believe that Christians are the real uncompromising fanatics in the world, it’s scenarios like this that should make us all think twice.
Rice continues on here with his mischaracterization of the circumstances in this case. He also misdirects his readers as to what the argument is here; nobody has said that all Christians are uncompromising fanatics. That would be ludicrous considering the existence of such campaigns as The Clergy Letter Project, which includes a letter in support of evolutionary biology signed by over 11,000 clergymen to date. No, the problem is that people like Rice set themselves up as moderators in this conflict, having invented it and now continuing to stoke the fires of contention with falsehoods such as those of which his editorial is entirely composed.

It's Rice and people with whom he shares an agenda that are the problem in all of this. From his legerdemain regarding the Abraham/WHOI case to his strawmen about the content of evolutionary theory to his recasting of the conflict between solid science and religious literalism — all of which he manages to squeeze into a surprisingly small space, no doubt aided by a thorough lack of content — this column shows us all we need to know about the commentator. He's just one more small Creationist voice willing to lie for DA LAWD. The question is, will the reader be willing to close his mind to what actually is, discarding it in favor of what a deceiver like Rice tells him?

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