Monday, 3 February 2003

Dini and Evolution

Susanna, Jane Galt, Kevin Drum (CalPundit) and the Volokh Conspiracy (principally Eugene) have been posting about the Texas Tech professor, Michael Dini, whose policy is not to write letters of recommendation for students who refuse to acknowledge the Theory of Evolution. Or, as Dini explains:

If you set up an appointment to discuss the writing of a letter of recommendation, I will ask you: "How do you think the human species originated?" If you cannot truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer to this question, then you should not seek my recommendation for admittance to further education in the biomedical sciences.

Now, there are a few questions to be asked here:

  1. Does Dini have the right to set this condition? Yes. He's a professor, and he has the sole right to decide who he wants to write letters of recommendation for; it's not like he's promising to go back and give the students an “F” in the class.

  2. Is it a valid condition? Well, the Theory of Evolution is pretty fundamental to modern biology. On the other hand, I'm not convinced you need subscribe to the Theory of Evolution to be a successful doctor or dentist. But, it's Dini's condition, not mine, so he's the appropriate judge of the relative merits.

  3. Is the Theory of Evolution a “belief”? I don't think so, in the sense that like all scientific theories, it is falsifiable; the presence of evidence to the contrary, like evidence that humans existed before other mammals existed on Earth, would show it to be invalid. Creationism, however, isn't falsifiable; any piece of evidence against it can simply be rationalized as something created by God (to what end, however, is a mystery: why would God deliberately create evidence that would place doubts in the minds of men about the biblical account of creation?).

The bottom line, for me at least, is I'm glad I don't teach biology; it's hard enough trying to explain the scientific method when you're talking about political science, which has no theories anywhere near as politically controversial as evolution. (We have our own internal debates over whether or not people who call themselves “political scientists” ought to use the scientific method, but nobody outside the discipline cares.)

I somehow forgot to link to Mark Kleiman's excellent discussion. And my personal policy on the matter — not that I get a lot of requests for recommendations — is equivalent to that expressed by Mark:

My job as a teacher is to supply my students with the facts, the skills, and the ideas required for them to be able to form serious opinions on whatever it is I'm trying to teach them about. It's not my job to make their opinions coincide with mine. That's the difference between a university and a fundamentalist seminary. And I happily write enthusiastic recommendations for students whose political beliefs differ radically from mine.

It also happens to be representative of my teaching policy in general. I've shot down students who've spouted pure ignorant drivel on essay exams (I vividly recall a particular student who alleged that blacks were treated equally in the U.S. before the 1960s, but then started demanding all sorts of special privileges), but only because they've been factually wrong.