Monday, 31 January 2011

Why Evolution Can Be A Deal Breaker, And Why It's Not About Belief.

Over at Historiann there's an epic comment thread in which netizens far and wide have been bringing to light their most catastrophic interview experiences, and it's really worth the read if you have the time. But one thread of the discussion has prompted me to write this. The issue of the diverse beliefs of job candidates came up, and one commenter suggested that discussions of "belief" in evolution should be avoided.

Well, if you don't "believe in" evolution (and I'll explain the scare quotes in a minute), I'd strongly advise that you keep that to yourself during any kind of interaction that may affect your hiring. I know that I am not the only person in academia for whom that could be a deal breaker, and here's why:

Depending on your variety of skepticism, I might not be able to trust you to teach.

Modern academia rests squarely on the shoulders of a rational process: hypothesis, evidence, examination, conclusion, repeat (with occasional switch-ups, like new evidence, new hypothesis, new examination, new.. uhm.. repetition, I guess, too. Anyway.). The only way to rationally reach the conclusion that evolution is an invalid theory is to present scientific evidence which indicates that that is the case.

And let's be clear: you don't get to be a part of the debate if you haven't studied evolution. If you can't state how the theory of evolution accounts for the present-day existence of both humans and monkeys, you don't get to be a part of the debate. If you confuse abiogenesis with evolutionary theory (this isn't about the spontaneous generation of life, it's about evolution) you don't get to be a part of the debate. These are the absolute basics of the theory, and if you're not familiar with them, you haven't done any research or critical analysis.

And that's the point: this isn't about freedom of/from religion, it's about critical thinking. Analysis, the ability to think critically about evidence, is the single most important skill an academic possesses. If you said something, anything, that led me to believe that your critical thinking skills were in question, then I couldn't in good conscience recommend you to a hiring committee.

Evolution does not require belief. Scientists don't "believe in" evolution, to them it is the process that best fits the evidence that has been amassed (and yes, there is a Metric F**kton of evidence). Scientists don't "believe in" evolution any more than they "believe in" gravity, atoms, magnetic fields, or any of a hundred other not readily visible things you need to rely on evidence to prove. If good, solid evidence surfaced tomorrow that atoms didn't exist, and that rather than atoms we were composed instead of tiny, tiny cheesecakes, scientists would reassess their theories and come up with new ones. That's what it's about.

If you refused to accept the existence of the process of evolution in totality, then no, I couldn't recommend you. If you understood how the theory of evolution works, but took issue with some minutiae of the theory, I'd suggest writing a paper and entering the academic discussion.

Otherwise, here's the deal: if you will accept that, based on the evidence, evolution is a currently existing and ongoing phenomenon, and that, again according to all evidence, homo sapiens (a misnomer if I ever heard one) shares a common ancestor with other primates, then I will consider it a possibility -- however unlikely -- that the world is in fact only 6,000 years old, and its accompanying understanding that there exists a god with one weird as hell sense of humour.

The reason this isn't about belief is this: if your response is "current scientific consensus is that evolution is the best fit for the evidence" then I don't give a damn what you believe. If you accept that all the evidence seems to point to evolution, but think there's some very powerful being or beings who are pulling the strings to make it just seem to any rational human being that that's the case, then who am I to judge? So long as you accept that there is evidence and that for the time being it points in one very specific direction, you could believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster and all His Noodley Appendages for all I care.

But if your response, on the other hand, is that you "didn't come from monkeys," then Houston, we're going to have a problem.


Janice said...

Hear, hear!

I have a relative who's an academic biologist and found that holding to the scientific truth was incompatible with staying employed at an evangelical institution. They'd say that they wanted to hire scientists, but what they really wanted were credentialed people who'd give students a "pass" on having to understand evolutionary theory and its applications.

I'm a historian and not qualified to debate and tests ideas in biology, theoretical physics or geochemistry. Sadly, and this is an unrelated rant, as a historian, I don't always get that professional respect returned!

Bardiac said...

I think there's more like TWO metric F*tons of evidence.

I, too, want colleagues who consider evidence in making decisions, whether about evolution or personnel, even when the evidence is discomfiting to what some authority figure says.

I can't imagine being in the position Janice relates about her relative. What a nightmare!