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Promoting Evolution Considered “Dogmatic” — In University Biology Department

There is so much that’s appallingly wrong in the story Jen McCreight tells here, I can’t even tell you. But here’s what makes me keep screaming and throwing fits.

I’m more or less used to the idea that, in grade schools and high schools in the Midwest and South, teaching evolution is still controversial. I passionately loathe it, but I’m used to it. I shouldn’t be, but I am. It isn’t news.

But the idea that — in a biology department at a highly reputable state university on the West Coast — caring about teaching the theory of evolution should be considered “dogmatic”? The idea that — in a biology department at a highly reputable state university on the West Coast — a biology grad student who cares about evolution education “wanted people to believe in evolution just because that’s what you happen to believe in”? The idea that — in a biology department at a highly reputable state university on the West Coast — rejecting evolution isn’t a “terrible” attitude? The idea that — in a biology department at a highly reputable state university on the West Coast — a biology grad student’s advisors biology professor would counsel her to revise her grant proposal by playing down the whole evolution thing, and not make such a big deal about caring about evolution education?

In a biology department, at a highly reputable state university on the West Coast?

This shocks me to my core. And I thought I was beyond being shocked.

Comments

  1. Enkidum says

    Agh – this will be an unpopular opinion, but I think you’re reading this the wrong way. She was at a meeting to discuss a piece of writing that will be used as part of a grant application. In such an application, it is critical that the ideas expressed are valid, but their validity is not anywhere near the most important aspect of the application. Far more important is whether this is likely to be successful at convincing reviewers to give her good grades. This is rhetoric, not logic. And from a rhetorical perspective, her proposal simply isn’t that good. I think anyone who does a lot of reviews will tell you that that proposal reduces her chances of getting money. So it needs to be changed. And one critical aspect of that change will be making it appear less “dogmatic”.

    Note that we don’t have a full transcript of the conversation, but I would be willing to bet that a lot of the quotations she gives were actually preceded by things like “A reviewer might think that…” or “This comes across as…” or something like that. The context matters: these comments were made in the spirit of improving rhetoric, not of critiquing an argument.

    And frankly, it was terrible judgement to make the post in the first place, and even worse to re-post it. When someone is trying to help your career in private, publicly arguing with them is not necessarily the best idea.

  2. Doug says

    As a university researcher and frequent reviewer of grant proposals (including the type of award this student was applying for), I can vouch for what Enkidum is saying. Had I read that initial paragraph, I probably would not have bothered to even finish the proposal. The student’s mentors did them a favor by applying this critique. Also, I live in a small town in the midwest where teaching evolution is not controversial at all (granted, it’s a small town dominated by a major university, but still…). My sister lives in a large west coast metropolis, where local parent groups initiated a court case to try to have evolution deemphasized in the high school biology curriculum. Stereotyping is considered a logical error for good reasons, sometimes.

  3. says

    Greta – This is matter of semantics, but my advisor is not the person who said those things. Advisor means different things in the colloquial vs academic sense.

    Enkidum – I think you missed the whole part where I said I’m going to change my application to make it “appear less dogmatic.” My problem is the further statements were not preceded by things like “A reviewer might think that” or “This comes across as.” The fact that people within academia feel this way is important to me. I want to be able to educate people about my field just like any other scientists can.

  4. Enkidum says

    Jen – fair enough, and I really should have posted this on your blog instead of here. FWIW, I think you can take “this comes across as” as implicit, given the context, but I could be wrong.

    And I don’t want to argue that it’s ok that people think this way. Note that I put “dogmatic” in scare quotes: what you’re saying isn’t dogmatic, Greta’s right about that. It’s just that people think that it is. And that is a huge problem – Greta and you are both correct. It’s just that I would be very careful of the human factor here: you are building relationships with people who can help or hinder your career, and you want to be careful about how those are built. But obviously you’re aware of that, so I’ll shut up now.

  5. Japheree says

    Reading what she wrote I couldn’t help thinking that someone like her would be welcomed with open arms over here should she be fed up with the attitude met with in her current situation.

    That said, I hope Jen has the fortitude to fight where she is (I might not be able to but I’m not Jen and tbh I think I compromised myself a little too much during my PhD, albeit in different ways).

  6. NotHerTheOtherOne says

    For the people who say this is a terrible research proposal:

    The quoted but is from the Personal Statement, not the research proposal. It’s supposed to be about the applicant’s general goals and history as a scientist, and, in Jen’s case, as a science communicator. Since the ideas are important to Jen’s central motivation, it’s pretty important that she include them. Sure, there are phrasing issues, and if I were writing it I might shorten it a little, but it’s just a draft.

  7. says

    NotHerTheOtherOne: Exactly. I’m supposed to be talking about exactly this. And it is a draft, so it’s still crummy, heh.

  8. Azkyroth says

    Jen – fair enough, and I really should have posted this on your blog instead of here. FWIW, I think you can take “this comes across as” as implicit, given the context, but I could be wrong.

    And I think you’re bending over backwards to be generous to them. Why?

  9. Mr Fnortner says

    I never did like the whole probability theory thing either. It’s amply apparent that the invisible hand of the Deity controls so-called random events. Those in academia who dogmatically force their one-sided view of the origin of randomness on vulnerable statistics students are doing society a disservice. Both sides of this controversy should be explored and taught in schools, as just who is to say where the truth lies?

  10. RandomReason says

    Sigh. Beginning to really regret that you moved to the ironically named freethoughtblogs.com, Greta. You are in danger of becoming infected with the shoddy, non-critical, non-empirical, bias-confirming ideologically dogmatic thinking culture here.

    You are so much better than this, I have learned so much from you over the years, precisely because you think for yourself and don’t follow the herd.

    Please don’t stop applying a critical eye to anecdotes (particularly when they appeal to your beliefs) and to your own thinking. It is what has made you an exceptionally clear intellectual voice among actual free thinkers.

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