Update: I have decided to restore this post with some minor edits. I will write more about my decision to do so in another post, since I think the topic of self censorship in terms of the social structure of academia is an interesting topic.
I’m frustrated. As I talked about before, I’m working on my NSF Graduate Fellowship proposal. Part of this process is getting a ton of students and professors to critique your paper. I honestly shouldn’t be too annoyed, because overall the reviews of my proposal have been very good. But a critique that I got from many – but not the majority of – my reviewers happens to be a major pet peeve of mine.
I was too “dogmatic.”
The offending part was the opening paragraphs of my personal statement. I’ll post it here for full disclosure:
“College was a bit of a culture shock for me. I grew up in a nurturing environment that embraced science – Bill Nye the Science Guy was the program of choice, and competing in Science Olympiad was cool. But when I moved a tad farther south into the heartland of Indiana for my undergraduate education at Purdue University, I quickly realized this was not a universal truth. The attitude toward evolution was terrible amongst non-scientists on campus. One of the local churches was a major donor to the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky, activists handed out anti-evolution tracts on the main quad, and anti-evolution letters in the campus newspaper were commonplace. I was shocked to learn that even many of my fellow biology majors did not accept evolution.
The fact that so many people didn’t share my fascination with evolutionary theory troubled me on a personal level. This wasn’t simply someone disagreeing with how I earned a paycheck: Learning about evolution was the key event that led me to adopt a skeptical, naturalistic worldview. I felt like people were rejecting the ideals that shape my humanist ethics. I wanted others to understand my feelings of awe as I contemplate the universe, or how lucky I feel to have evolved the necessary traits to contemplate the universe in the first place. I quickly learned that many of these people still valued science, but never had the opportunity to become educated about evolution.
That realization motivated my passion for science communication and mentoring. [...]“
Now, I’m not claiming that’s perfect. It’s a draft that can obviously still do with some tweaking. And I realize I have to walk on egg shells and be politically correct if I actually want to get funded. It doesn’t matter if I’m being honest or if I’m technically right if I happen to get three Christian biologists who read this as a belligerent attack against their belief. Which is apparently how it came off to my reviewers.
Fine. Whatever. I don’t read it that way, but I guess I can see how you can read it to be negative. I thought I was being as diplomatic as I could possibly be, but apparently it’s still not diplomatic enough – I’ll have to change some of the wording.
If we would have stopped at “This could potentially be interpreted negatively,” I would not have been writing this post. But it didn’t. Some of my reviewers, including a professor, insisted that I was “dogmatic,” and “wanted people to believe in evolution just because that’s what you happen to believe in.” That rejecting evolution isn’t a “terrible” attitude. That I shouldn’t be “shocked” that some biology majors don’t believe in evolution, because not everyone has to be like me. That wanting to help people learn about evolution means I thought they were stupid.
That I came off as, I quote, “Dawkins-esque.”
I think that was supposed to be negative remark, but I took it as a compliment.
I fumed the whole bus ride home, wishing I could have responded then and there – but a meeting for a review of your work is not the place for a philosophical debate. But these are things I hear over and over – not just from professors and classmates I like and respect who accept evolution but think I’m too “dogmatic” about promoting it. Because they’re so common, I feel that it’s important that I address those types of ideas here.
1. Wanting people to adopt an evidence-based view of the universe is not dogmatic. In fact, it’s the very opposite of dogma. I want people to be able to change their minds when confronted with new evidence. Admitting you were wrong is one of the most intellectually honest things you can do. The only “dogmatic” thing about living in reality is that some things are true, and some things are not. You don’t get to flap your arms and start flying through the air just because you wish that was the way the universe works.
2. I don’t want people to “believe in evolution because that’s what I believe in.” I want people to accept evolution because there’s an insurmountable mountain of evidence supporting it. This isn’t a subjective opinion that’s up for debate. I’m not forcing people to think that chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls is the best flavor (though it totally is). To deny evolution is either based on ignorance or willful delusion. I know, what mean words. That doesn’t make them less true. People have either not learned about evolution or not had it explained to them well, or they’re people who go and build Creation Museums and think people walked with dinosaurs because of their religious convictions. There may be less hope at getting the latter to accept evolution, but being a science educator is important to me, and I want to tackle the “ignorance” side of that equation.
In my future draft, I plan to explicitly say that I accept evolution because of that mountain of evidence. I thought that would be self-evident to biologist NSF reviewers, but might as well be safe…
3. Rejecting evolution is certainly a “terrible” attitude. Again, why should we pat people on the back for ignoring scientific facts?
4. We don’t give chemistry degrees to people who believe in alchemy. We don’t give aerospace engineering degrees to people who think planes are held up by fairies. We don’t give geology degrees to people who think the Earth is made of chocolate pudding. But we have no problem giving biology degrees to people who think an invisible supernatural being created life, despite it having as much evidence as Puddingology. I should feel shocked that people who reject the fundamental concepts of their field can still successfully earn a degree.
5. I don’t think that everyone who rejects evolution is stupid. I do, however, think they are wrong. Those things are not equivalent. And when ignorance – the lack of information – is the cause of their rejection, that can be fixed. And should be fixed – but apparently it’s dogmatic to think people should be educated.
Why do I even need to have this discussion? Why, if I had proposed educating people about gravity or plate tectonics, would there have been no debate? Why would any other drive to educate be seen as positive, rather than dogmatic? Why are we expected to roll over and simply accept that some people are going to ignore the fact of evolution?
Because religion is protected in our culture. Telling someone they’re wrong is “dogmatic” if it’s contradicting their religious beliefs even if, you know, they’re wrong. Mincing words and avoiding hurt feelings is more important than education and reality.
Religion does not deserve this special status. We don’t have to tiptoe around, pretending the universe bends to their wishes when all of the evidence says otherwise.
Of course, I have to wonder if this whole “dogmatic” thing came up because later in my personal statement I mention my involvement with some secular organizations. They were relevent – I talk about various pro-science events we’ve done, and the organizational and leadership skills I’ve gained from them. Or if it came up because these people aren’t reading my proposal in a vacuum – they all know I’m a strident, outspoken atheist in my free time. Even if I don’t say that in my proposal and I mince words as much as possible, that knowledge still colors their interpretation. Without the atheism side, would my drive to educate about evolution have been a problem? Did my classmates who mentioned teaching students about evolution in their applications get called dogmatic?
I hate that I even have to wonder about it.