June 23, 2009

A Poor Reflection

I got the latest issue of LeTourneau's in-house news magazine in the mail yesterday, and found it fuller than usual of interesting tidbits. Among those was a blurb that mentioned that Dr. Jarstfer, who is a biology professor and serves as the dean of both Arts (which includes both departments from which I earned my degree) and Sciences, had testified before the Texas State Board of Education and recommended that critical thinking be encouraged among high school students, specifically by continuing to require that science teachers include information about weaknesses in the theory of evolution.

The single paragraph did not, of course, mention that the board ultimately voted to drop this requirement a few days later, but it did note that Jarstfer was quoted in a "Christianity Today" article about the "controversy." That blurb, and the article it cites (which can be found here), raised all sorts of conflicting thoughts and emotions for me which I shall attempt to work through here. And, yes, the title is a pun.

Of course, for starters I am always surprised whenever I see LeTourneau mentioned in any sort of larger state or national context. I am still getting used to attending a university that is widely-recognized by name, and which regularly crops up in all sorts of places (including the above article, where I was not at all surprised to find it). I hope that's not taken as a knock on LeTourneau, but let's face it . . . my undergraduate alma mater is a little fish in a big ocean.

It's probably that fact more than any other that elicited any response at all from me in regards to this issue. When an institution that I still feel so intimately connected to garners a little attention, and when that attention is so rare, I am naturally interested in the sort of attention it is getting. In this case, I have to say I'm distressed, and I feel that Dr. Jarstfer's stand reflects poorly on the university and its academic chops (which is the sort of reflection it can ill-afford). However, I remain somewhat conflicted about whether I am correct in feeling this way.

My first impulse just upon reading the blurb from LeTourneau was one of annoyance. It seemed to me that Jarstfer was attempting to "strike a blow for Creationism" (and whatever the reality, I remain convinced that the piece was crafted to give that impression). However, after skimming the "Christianity Today" article, I vascillated a bit and began to charitably consider that perhaps Dr. Jarstfer really is willing to give evolutionary theory a fair hearing and was just advocating a "good science" which is willing to question everything. Upon closer reading, not only of the article but of the several links that it includes, I have to return to my previous opinion.

This isn't about good science (although I don't know whether Jarstfer recognizes that); it's about scoring political and religious points in an increasingly destructive debate. And, in this case specifically, I'd say it's about very publicly scoring points with the university's financial base while members of the department with less acceptable views wisely keep their heads down.

Now, I can't say with any certainty precisely what Dr. Jarstfer's opinions on evolution are, or how he arrived at them, but at the very least he is guilty of keeping bad company. As the article notes, Jarstfer has signed the famous "scientific dissent from Darwinism" document which is associated with the infamous Discovery Institute. The purpose of this document is (and here I am grossly mischaracterizing its actual purpose) to create the illusion that there is significant and genuine scientific dissent to the theory of evolution. That is probably a terribly unfair accusation to make, and if I were one of the signers, I would be outraged at . . . myself. Here's why I made it:

The list of scientists that have signed off on this dissent are from all over the world. That is, most of them are from the United States, but in terms of representation, this gives the appearance of being a global list of scientists who are opposed to evolution. There are somewhere in the general neighborhood of 750 names on the list, including 2 from LeTourneau (Jarstfer and my former chemistry professor, who just retired after 40 years of teaching) and 5 from Baylor (one of whom, incidentally, teaches my Sunday school class . . . I have a great deal of respect for the guy, lest it be thought that I am displaying an unthinking bias here).

Meanwhile, the CT article links to another list. This is a list of Texan scientists (that is, scientists who are living and working in the state) who are opposed to what they (in my opinion rightly) view as a "teach the weaknesses" red herring. Part of their statement reads, "Evolution is an easily observable phenomenon and has been documented beyond any reasonable doubt." There are, as I say, only Texas scientists on this list. And it contains 1550 names, including 41 from Baylor.

Of further interest to me: There are no names from LeTourneau on the list, although I happen to know that some of the science faculty there hold opinions which would align them with this statement. I have to wonder, did they willingly choose not to sign, or do they just know better given the institution they work for? After all, LeTourneau is a Christian technical school, and there are quite a few faculty members who meet the qualifications required to sign the dissent, and yet there are only two that chose to do so.

This is pretty much pure speculation on my part, but is it possible that Jarstfer, and LeTourneau, aren't quite as favorable towards asking questions and thinking critically as they say? Feel free to note here the cheap tactic of asking a very leading question. I'm not trying to be disingenuous or slyly give the impression that this is definitely going on. I'll just conclude with option #3, presented by at the end of the CT article by Jim Nichols, biology chair and Abilene Christian. He summarizes my own position on the matter rather nicely, and that makes him the logical place to end this:

"[Petitions] too often oversimplify causes. I suspect [the curriculum debate] is really more of a political/religious showcase than something that will really affect public education. I and many others live relatively comfortably in both camps and tire from attacks from both sides. With all the real problems in the world, this is a serious waste of energy to keep beating on this topic."

Posted by Jared at June 23, 2009 07:15 PM | TrackBack