Since so-called President Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University this past weekend it got me thinking about that University, and in particular the biology program there.
Why biology? Well, the cornerstone of modern biology is evolutionary theory, and of course the whole point of Liberty University is to train young people in a narrow biblically inspired fantasy world. Creation “Science” is a centerpiece of fundamentalist Christians’ attempts to counter what they view as the secular, anti-Christian, amoral and immoral theory of evolution.
So naturally Liberty University’s biology department promotes Creation “Science”. As their web page states: “Each program is taught within a Biblical worldview...”. This means that a biology degree from that University is virtually worthless for anyone who wants to pursue a higher degree at a mainstream university committed to serious science, since for that one needs to have a proper understanding of evolutionary theory, not a cartoon caricature of it. According to Jerry Falwell Jr., the Chancellor and President of Liberty, the University does teach evolution, but given the discussions of evolutionary theory in Creation “Science” publications dating from the 1970’s onwards, one can be fairly certain that Liberty’s treatment of this complex subject goes no deeper than misrepresenting a few high-level points about evolution, with a view to presenting (fallacious) counterarguments. Anyone who wants to get a sense of this should read Philip Kitcher's Abusing Science: The Case Against Creationism (1982, MIT Press). Sadly, nothing has changed since the 1980’s, despite the major setback for the Creationist cause in the 1982 ruling in McClean v Arkansas Board of Education.
I am not a biologist, but I have long had an interest in the Creation “Science” problem, and have written about it before, and it continues to baffle me that so many people in the United States (and elsewhere in the world) continue to believe that an adequate account of the complex world we live in can be found in the mythologies of illiterate sheepherders.
But enough on that. Let’s take a look at the biology department at Liberty. The best way to do that from the outside is to look at the qualifications of some of the senior faculty, which is to say the people listed as Full Professors on their website. And one way to evaluate a faculty member is in terms of their publication record. Even at a teaching college like Liberty, publications are supposed to be a factor in one’s tenure and promotion package, and while it clearly would not be fair to compare Liberty to a major research university like the University of Illinois, it would be fair to compare it to a decent liberal arts college, such as Swarthmore.
So how do the publication records at the Biology & Chemistry department at Liberty compare with the Biology Department at Swarthmore? The following is admittedly a bit spotty: on neither site do all faculty list their publications. When they do it’s not clear they are listing all their publications, though sometimes the faculty member will list just “major publications”, from which we could infer that there are more publications that they do not consider major. Since Liberty has a combined Biology & Chemistry department, I focused there on faculty who mostly teach biology, rather than chemistry.
Let us start, for example, with the Chairs of the two departments. At Liberty this would be Dr. David DeWitt, at Swarthmore Elizabeth Vallen. Before we even get started on the publications, note one thing: the “Dr.” before DeWitt’s name. Indeed every member of the Liberty Biology & Chemistry faculty who has a doctoral degree explicitly lists his or her title as “Dr.”. Nobody does that in the scientific world. Regular scientists who do use “Dr.” do so mostly when they are in business and trying to sell some product based on their scientific work, and presumably want to impress investors and customers with their credentials. And it is done all the time in the Creation “Science” world, presumably to impress the audience with the credentials of the title’s bearer.
DeWitt lists 16 articles between 1993 and the present. By odd coincidence Vallen also lists 16 articles between 1987 and the present. Vallen’s publications are in decent journals: Cell, Current Biology, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, among others. DeWitt’s publications tend to be in journals that are somewhat less top notch, though there are some that I’ve heard of (Brain Research, American Journal of Pathology). Note that whether I have heard of a journal or not is a pretty good indicator of whether it is well known and considered to be decent: since I am not in the field, I tend to know the more high profile journals. (Of course a journal’s status as “high profile” is no guarantee that they don’t publish crap, and Science is in fact a notorious instance of that, as I have discussed elsewhere; but that’s another topic.) DeWitt also lists one book, though the publisher for that book looks to be somewhat less than mainstream. But on balance DeWitt’s background looks okay for someone at a teaching college, though probably not as strong as Vallen’s.
Let’s take another pair of examples. Dr. Timothy Brophy at Liberty and Kathy Siwicki at Swarthmore. Siwicki lists 16 major publications since 1986 in journals like Neuron, and Brain Research. Brophy lists 12 publications since 2004, but most of these are poster presentations at regional conferences, or publications in minor (or one might more honestly say “fringe”) journals — including the Occasional Papers of the BSG (Creation Biology Society).
Finally one more pair of examples. Dr. Mark Blais at Liberty and Amy Vollmer at Swarthmore. Blais lists just 3 publications dating to 1987 including two in Answers in Genesis, the organization that runs the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Vollmer lists about 45 publications dating to 1985, including some in top-notch journals like Cell.
Okay so this isn’t a rigorous comparison: to do that would require not only looking at the publications of all of the faculty of both departments, but also their teaching records, professional service and so forth. It would essentially be like conducting a large set of tenure and promotion reviews. But this small sample does give an idea that, as one might have expected, the faculty who teach biology at Liberty do not generally measure up to the standard that one would expect at a decent teaching college like Swarthmore. In some cases the publication record is — to use the word that Trump used in his Liberty address to describe his critics — pathetic. Indeed it’s hard to see how it could be otherwise, because these people are not serious scientists. The obligatory use of the title “Dr.” before their names, as noted above, merely underscores this.
Every serious scientist accepts that evolution happened. There has been and continues to be serious debate about the mechanisms of evolution, but not about the fact of evolution. It is exactly the same for climate change: there is much that is unknown about climate change — particularly how fast it is happening and how quickly things will become seriously bad — but no serious scientist doubts that it is happening, and that human activity is largely to blame.
Or to take another political hot potato, the so-called “Aryan Invasion Theory” that explains the existence of Indo-Aryan languages like Hindi or Odia (all distantly related to English) in Northern India. No modern historical linguists accept the “Invasion” notion, but every serious historical linguist accepts that Indo-Aryan languages entered India (by migration and acculturation), probably somewhere around the end of the second millennium BCE, from the northwest, coming originally from the homeland of Indo-European languages, most likely somewhere in West Central Asia. But this theory does not sit well with Hindu nationalists, who have a vested interest in proving that India was the origin of all culture, and who therefore prefer a model whereby Indo-Aryan languages originated in India. To do this they, among other things, deride historical linguistics as a pseudoscience, which then gives them the freedom to create their own version.
All three of these enterprises — Creation “Science”, Climate Change Denial, and the “Out-of-India” Hypothesis — have in common two basic properties. First, they are founded first and foremost on an agenda that is political, or religious, or both, and where the conclusion that one must prove is not in question. Second, in order to “prove” that conclusion, they view science as a Chinese menu of options that one can pick and choose from at will. If you like something, stick with it (Creationists love the Second Law of Thermodynamics, for example); if it goes against your goal, deride it as pseudoscience, or simply ignore it.
But science does not and cannot work that way. Nothing in science is sacred, and everything can be shown to be wrong, given enough evidence. Would a Creation “Scientist” ever admit to the possibility that evidence could disprove Biblical Creation? I think we already know the answer to that. And so anyone who goes to Liberty University for a degree in Biology is not going to be learning science, as it is generally understood.
Given the breathtaking ignorance of anything to do with science displayed by our current “President”, it is only appropriate he should give a commencement address at Liberty. He and they deserve each other.