Beckwith’s tenure decision

More details are dribbling out about the decision to deny Francis Beckwith tenure. It’s a little bit odd, because these things are supposed to be confidential, and I will note that Beckwith, to his credit, is not commenting on the decision while trying to appeal it. I hope his appeal does not succeed, however. I agree completely with this fellow, Dr Jim Patton, who clearly states a legitimate reason for kicking Beckwith out (warning: Free Republic link):

When tenure time approached, the anti-Sloan [Sloan was the former Baylor president who had hired Dembski and Beckwith] interim president, William Underwood, appointed psychology professor Jim Patton, the chair of the anti-Sloan faculty senate, to Mr. Beckwith’s tenure committee. In an e-mail message about another faculty member shown to WORLD, Mr. Patton wrote, “I clearly do not think highly of anyone who claims ID theory is science.”

I get to vote on tenure decisions at my university, and I can assure you that if someone comes up who claims that ID ‘theory’ is science, I will vote against them. If someone thinks the sun orbits around the earth, I will vote against them. If someone thinks fairies live in their garden and pull up the flowers out of the ground every spring, I will vote against them. Tenure decisions are not pro forma games, but a process of evaluation, and I’d rather not have crackpots promoted. Beckwith may be a nice fellow with a commendable publication record, but when it gets right down to it, his untenable position on intelligent design puts him smack in the middle of the tinfoil hat brigade. And that position on ID is a focus of many of his publications, so it is certainly a legitimate criterion for judging him.

(Before the inevitable trollish twit starts claiming this is a sign of intolerance, I’ll short circuit that by stating that whether a person is Christian or Muslim or atheist, Republican or Democrat or Green, is not an issue in tenure decisions and would not be and has not been a factor in any tenure votes I’ve cast. I do not object to differences in opinion among my colleagues. I do object to keeping fools around.)


  1. JK says

    How do you distinguish between voting against a person for holding one non-rational belief (ID or geocentrism), and another (Christianity, Islam, etc.)?

  2. John C. Randolph says

    ID of course, isn’t a theory, it’s a dogma, and there’s no room for dogma in the academy. I only wish that the tenure committees that reviewed such applicants as Ward Churchill and Angela Davis cared as much about the integrity of their institutions.


  3. Jillian says

    JK, I would think that the difference between the two is that Christians who do not believe in ID or geocentrism or some other silliness are endorsing (whether they’re aware of it or not) some version of of Gould’s non overlapping magisteria thesis. There are things that science does, there are things that religion does, and life works better when you don’t mix the two of them up.

    It’s a crappy thesis, to be sure, but plenty of educated, literate, intelligent people disagree with me that it’s a crappy thesis. And these are people who are able to employ the tools of rationality pretty well in almost all aspects of their lives. Most importantly, they are able to keep their irrationality out of the areas that are directly related to their fields of study. Discriminating against them would be like discriminating against someone who smokes marijuana or enaages in some kind of kinky sex in their spare time – if it doesn’t affect their job performace, why should you?

    Discriminating against the IDers, though, is analogous to disriminating against people who smoke marijuana while they’re at work – it’s a totally different ballgame then.

  4. says

    If someone thinks fairies live in their garden and pull up the flowers out of the ground every spring, I will vote against them.

    No fairies? OK, then where did these come from? And if not from fairies, what about PYGMIES+DWARFS??

  5. says

    It’s a matter of whether it screws up their ability to do their job. People have a right to do any crazy damn thing that doesn’t harm others outside the workplace…but when they’re advocating lunacy in their profession, then it’s bye-bye time.

  6. Russell says

    I mostly agree with PZ’s comments. JK indicates where there is an important gap.

    It’s one thing to deny tenure to a biologist who thinks that ID is science, and quite another to deny tenure to a mathematician who attends palm readings. In the one case, the irrationality is part of the aspirant’s academic work. That also was the case with Beckwith, even though he isn’t in the sciences. In the second case, the irrationality has nothing to do with the academic work being evaluated.

    I think it’s important to focus on the academic work under evaluation, lest tenure decisions become more an inquisition of right thought. Of course, part of what is going on at Baylor is a reaction to an overt attempt to rechristianize the university. Those who were doing this failed to realize the extent to which that attempt directly conflicts with academic standards in a variety of fields.

  7. SEF says

    I do object to keeping fools around.

    Surely it’s not just fools. There’s incompetence and dishonesty to consider. Either is damning in a job requiring reality-based thinking. Whether the incompetence is down to stupidity, ignorance or insanity, or is largely a manifestation of dishonesty, makes little difference when considering that individual’s suitability. If they can’t do the job then they shouldn’t be given it to do.

  8. says

    I would be willing to vote for tenure for someone who believes in ID, if that belief plays no role in his teaching or publications, which are in areas unrelated to evo/bio. It’s possible to be quite good at what you do, and yet be an idiot in areas outside your expertise. Obviously that’s not the situation with Beckwith, though.

  9. says

    Dr. Myers,

    Beckwith also argues for the pro-life position. Presumably, his Christian religion has something to do with him taking that position. Would you consider this to be something that “screws up their ability to do their job?” A large part of his work involves arguing for the pro-life position, after all. Would you deny somebody tenure because of their Christianity if it affected whether they were pro-life or not (and thus affect whether they made arguments in favor of the pro-life position or not)?

  10. noahpoah says

    I’d like to think that intolerance of ignorance and dishonesty is just the right kind of intolerance.

    That and lactose intolerance.

  11. george cauldron says

    I would be willing to vote for tenure for someone who believes in ID, if that belief plays no role in his teaching or publications, which are in areas unrelated to evo/bio. It’s possible to be quite good at what you do, and yet be an idiot in areas outside your expertise. Obviously that’s not the situation with Beckwith, though.

    Well, yeah, if it was a professor of, I don’t know, math or French history who believed in ID, that belief presumably wouldn’t be relevant to whether they deserved tenure. If I knew they believed in ID, it might make me think a lot less of their intelligence, but if they had a firm track record of publishing in math or French history and didn’t look like they were positioning themselves to become a fulltime ID ‘researcher’ at any second, who cares?

    However, most academics who veer off into junk science or crackpottery do so after they’re safely tenured. Like, oh, I dunno, Behe.

  12. says

    If a biologist were using his biology ‘expertise’ to argue for nonsensical positions, such as that “life begins at conception”, that would put his competence in question, and I’d vote against him. If a biologist were anti-choice as a matter of personal and moral conviction, if she weren’t mangling the science to support her position, I wouldn’t find her position on abortion relevant to the decision.

    There are anti-choice people in academia, you know. I think they’re wrong and I’d argue with them, but it is possible to hold that position apart without inventing any scientific foundation.

  13. Dallas says

    And to think, my little brother onced threatened to burn this Dr. Patton guy at the stake. But that’s a whole different post (he was arrested).

  14. says

    Dr. Myers,

    So you have no problem with Beckwith’s legal argument’s regarding ID as long as they don’t rely on ID being science? That is, if he personally believed ID was science, but all his legal arguments didn’t rely on that fact, you wouldn’t have a problem? (This seems analogous to what I think you were saying above – that if someone was a Christian and pro-life, then you wouldn’t have a problem with them being pro-life as long as they didn’t have to invent a scientific foundation to hold that position or, I presume, that their Christianity played no part in their arguments.)

  15. Julia says

    “nonsensical positions, such as that ‘life begins at conception'”

    Are eggs and sperm not alive, then, either before or after they join? Does that mean there is some point at which this not-alive matter becomes alive? Or are you perhaps referring to something like “personhood” rather than life? I had thought that each cell in a human body is alive.

  16. windy says

    I don’t know what normally constitutes a good argument in Beckwith’s line of work, but what I found doesn’t seem too impressive. On gay marriage:

    Although we know of people who desire or willingly embrace ignorance, we believe these people ought to desire knowledge and wisdom. In fact, many gay rights activists attack their opponents by accusing them of being backward and ignorant, implying that the natural purpose of the human mind is to acquire knowledge and be wise. But if a
    human person is a socially constructed being with no overarching purpose or telos, why would ignorance be wrong if someone desired it and believed himself or herself to be “born that way”? So, if the natural teleology of the
    body (or person) is inadequate to convince the proponents of same-sex marriage that their position is incorrect, then they must abandon the natural teleology of the mind, which they consistently employ to scold their opposition, for the latter is as well-established philosophically as the former.

    Gay rights discriminate against bigoted people! I think the Daily Show did a bit on something similar this week.

  17. says

    Eggs and sperm are alive. There is no moment where the dead or inanimate become living in the process of conception.

    It’s one of those things about the anti-choice people that really bugs me. “Life begins at conception” is completely false, no matter how you look at it. I also can’t stand the stupid “My heart began to beat at 28 days” billboards all over my part of the country — so what?

  18. says

    PZ can speak for himself, Julia, though given that it is a truism that a fertilised egg is alive (as, for that matter are the sperm and the unfertilised ovum a few minutes earlier), I imagine by ‘life’ he means ‘something we’d call a human life in any meaningful sense’.

    As to that, as I say, PZ can enlighten us. What I want to emphasise, though, is that you are mixing categories. ‘Personhood’ is a concept from my world (the law), not PZ’s world of science. A person is simply something that the law recognises as capable of possessing rights and bearing duties. This is usually a human being but need not be. And, when it is a human being, it does not necessarily possess personhood from conception and, indeed, generally does not. For natural persons (i.e., H. sapiens), personhood is acquired at different points, varying with the applicable legal system. (Which should surprise nobody, as law is merely something we all made up, and different societies can make up different systems as they please.) In the western tradition, personhood has usually been recognised upon completion of birth. Under Jewish law, it was upon emergence of the head from the birth canal. And under both systems, personhood is not complete until majority, although Jewish law recognises majority at an earlier age. I have some vague notion that, under native American legal systems, personhood was accorded some time, perhaps some significant time, after birth, but then I am very ignorant of native American institutions. And conversely, personhood might be recognised at earlier points for certain specific purposes; thus under English common law a foetus was fully a person for purposes of inheritance (i.e., you’d count backwards nine months from the time the decedent died).

    The important thing in all this is that ‘personhood’ has nought to do with whether abortion is acceptable or not (or, more precisely, with whether the choice should left to the affected woman or to somebody else). Though I believe most antichoicers are vicious dismal people, it is theoretically possible to construct a plausible antichoice argument, and inded I have known people who’ve done it — an argument that I can respect, though one I ultimately reject. The point is, that argument has nothing to gain from dragging in notions of ‘personhood’, which are in this context no more relevant that notions of ‘purpleness’ or ‘threeness’.

  19. Ed Darrell says

    It’s not as clear a case as one might wish with Dr. Beckwith, since he is not teaching science classes. But the issue is exactly the same in what he claims as his own field. Beckwith writes, in law reviews and in his own publications on law and the public schools, that it is legal to teach ID in public school science classes. That is contrary to all case law and all legislation in the U.S. Beckwith is not a lawyer, of course, so he’s not liable to sanctions from any bar group, but his pieces are used to urge official policy actions that would get the policy makers in trouble — such as school boards, like the board in Dover, Pennsylvania, who acted to fuzz up Darwin and make ID available to dissenting students, at least partly on the promises of partisans that such an action would be legal. (Contrast this to the actions in Darby, Montana, where the school board followed their own counsel’s advice that litigation would result, despite assurances from the Thomas More Center that their defense of the board would be free.)

    This goes to the heart of the matter: Should the #2 guy at a school’s well-respected institute on church-state relations be urging legal positions that are contrary to U.S. law?

    I’ve had rather extended discussions on this issue with Dr. Beckwith on several blogs over the past two years. Most recently he has retreated to arguing that he is not passing judgment on the science of ID. Unfortunately, all of his writings assume the ID is good science. Otherwise, the policy urgings he makes would not be possible.

    It may be a fine point. When I served on a major university’s promotion and tenure committee, we had several cases where scholars pulled publications from their vita specifically because subsequent research, legal action, or history, had proved them wrong. The scholars were attempting to stick to a higher goal of passing on real learning, real research, rather than racking up publications.

    I think Beckwith is a nice guy, with a good smile and relatively good chops in scholarship. I hope for his sake and his kids’ he lands somewhere that he can teach and research, and that his teaching and research reflect reality in church-state relations as well as science. But when one puts one’s academic eggs in one basket, and it turns out to be the garbage basket, one may be expected to suffer the consequences. Think of Sir Frederick Hoyle, who was probably the leading advocate of Steady State theory. When Steady State was disproven by observations in nature, Hoyle did not petition the Nobel committee for a prize despite gross error. Neither did Hoyle petition local school boards to stop teaching Big Bang cosmology for any reason, nor did he encourage high school physics teachers to teach Steady State in order to keep a false controversy alive.

    We really can learn from history, if we pay attention.

  20. says

    A) I see that, in the interval, PZ has already spoken for himself.

    B) It occurs to me that one objection to what I have said above is that, if a national legislature were to enact a law prohibiting abortion, then a foetus would (under that legal system) be a person, at least for the limited purpose of bearing a right not to have its presence in its mother’s womb artificially terminated. But that just underscores my point. In that scenario, the foetus would be a person because the applicable law made it one, not because it possessed some eternal quality of person-ness. (And that would be so, even if the law in question purported to recognise some kind of eternal, necessary, a priori personhood.) Personhood is never — cannot be — prior to law; for it is the creature of law, which is the creature of you and me.

  21. Julia says

    PZ, Mrs. Tilton,

    Thanks! That’s very helpful. I did do a Google search before asking, but didn’t immediately turn up anything that really clarified for me. I do appreciate that busy people can get very tired of answering basic questions, so thanks for your patience in explaining.

  22. says


    should the #2 guy at a school’s well-respected institute on church-state relations be urging legal positions that are contrary to U.S. law?

    I carry no brief for Beckwith (and am not an academic and hence have nothing to say about the process and politics of tenure decisions). However, what you have written (cited above) strikes me as one very illegitimate reason to deny Beckwith tenure.

    Law changes; academic lawyers, and other academics whose disciplines touch upon the law, must of course be free to argue that the current state of the law is wrong.

    Furthermore, it is important to define precisely what it is that people are saying. There is an important difference between saying ‘ID is something other than great quivering bollocks’ and ‘ID may legally be taught in state schools in the USA’. Though I don’t think Beckwith does so, it is eminently possible to reject the former statement wholeheartedly whilst conceding the second. Until Kitzmiller, from a purely legal perspective the prudent stance would have been to reject the former with all the contempt it deserves whilst remaining agnostic on the second. Indeed, a measure of pessimistic agnosticism is still called for on the second statement, because (in the United States) federal law is, in the end, merely what five Supreme Court justices say it is, and they have thus far said nothing. (Delightful as Mr Jones’s smackdown was, it binds no court but his own).

    I suspect that, at the end of the day, this is all a manifestation of an intramural struggle at Baylor between those who want a university that happens to have a Baptist identity and those who want a Baptist school. Beckwith seems to support a conception of church-state relations that is in diametrical opposition to my own, but that is no reason to deny him tenure. Perhaps, if he had been up for it ten years ago or ten years hence, and had not hitched his waggon to IDism as he did, things would have been different. (To be clear: I agree with PZ that a biologist who advocates ID should be shot down in flames whilst belief in ID would be irrelevant in, say, a French literature scholar. Beckwith’s case seems to me closer to biology than Fr. lit., but I concede it might be a bit of a hard case.)

  23. 386sx says

    If someone thinks fairies live in their garden and pull up the flowers out of the ground every spring, I will vote against them.

    That reminded me of what is arguably the greatest song in all of history, the not so famous Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz. Spring time is in the air!

  24. calvinthecat says

    Readers should be aware that calvin is no longer at the academy. However, he still carries sharp claws, honed on campus politics. In calvin’s somewhat ignorant opinion, the academy thrives on a variety of philosophies, thoughts and ideas. Not all parts of the academy achieve the scientific rigor of mathematics (and it’s various branches) and the sciences in their various states. In those disciplines where “truth” can be established with fewer degrees of variability, there can be less deviance.

    ID may be justified in philosophy and theology. But, it is not science and cannot be justified being taught as science in any institution of higher education which wishes to maintain it’s standing as a bona fide institution of higher learning.

    Those seeking positions, tenured or not, need to know, up front, that if they bring ID into the classroom, they will soon be out of the classroom. As has been mentioned above, one would not tolerate the attempt to teach, as science, that the earth is flat, that the sun revolves around the earth and so on. There is NO difference between those who advocate such positions and ID. They are incompatible with our current state of knowledge and understanding of the universe and it’s functions.

    calvin would suggest that the only place ID has in the sciences is in a class devoted to the establishment of scientific principles and how to refute those who advocate unscientific principles as “science.”

  25. Great White Wonder says

    Jeebus jiminy folks: Beckwith is a lightweight freaking idiot who couldn’t argue his way out of a goddamn paper bag.

    That’s why he shouldn’t get tenure — anyfuckingwhere, not just as Baylor. His willingness to engage in apologetics for the mega-assholes of our time (i.e., creationism peddlers) is just a symptom of the Overarching Problem: Beckwith’s tiny stinky brain.

    Remember — Beckwith is the ignorant shill who argued that teaching ID “theory” in public schools was constitutional after he admitted that his understanding of what ID was not “fully formed”!

    Difficult to believe? Search the Panda’s Thumb and you’ll find a zillion examples of Beckwith’s inane “arguments”.

    Beckwith evidently believes that Christians have a constitutional right to be ignorant assholes — regardless of whether they are agents of the State when they are doing so.

    How does the song go? “What a wonderful wonderful world it would be …”

    Regarding the nixing of job propsects of morons who “believe” that life on earth was “created” by a Sky Fairy: I do this myself at every opportunity. Why wouldn’t I?

    I don’t want to work with an ass-backward bigot fuckhead in any capacity.

    You want to wear your crucifix at work? So do I.

    I hang mine upside down, though. And it’s bigger and it is studded with big fucking jewels.

  26. Ed Darrell says

    Mrs. Tilton makes a good point — tenure shouldn’t be based on whether one urges changes in laws. I agree.

    I may have not made the point as well as I should have. Beckwith’s writings do not urge that the laws be changed to allow ID — he argues, contrary to what the law is, that the law already allows ID to be taught. In short, he’s just wrong on what the law is. Consider his book, Law, Darwinism, and Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

    The definitive case in the U.S. was McLean vs. Arkansas, issued in 1982. The Supreme Court endorsed the effect of that ruling in 1987 in Edwards v. Aguillard,, which was an appeal of a summary judgment against a creationism equal-time bill, the summary judgment being based on the Arkansas decision. Kitzmiller really plows no new ground on the church-state issues. Dr. Beckwith’s reading of the Arkansas case is quite contrary to almost anyone else’s — he says it allows ID to be taught, with gratuitous and erroneous slaps at Judge William Overton, the legal system, and science. But in any case, the law is well defined by this point. Beckwith just refuses to recognize it for what it says; what it says is that evolution is science, and creationism is not science, but religious dogma. The state may offer science in public school classes, but the state may not offer religious dogma as science.

    Let me offer one example. On page 22 of the book I cited, Beckwith contrasts Judge Overton’s decision in the Arkansas case with ID. He quotes Judge Overton’s decision:

    The scientific community consists of individuals and groups, nationally and internationally, who work independently in such varied fields as biology, paleontology, geology and astronomy. Their work is published and subject to reveiw and testing by their peers. The journals for publication are both numerous and varied. There is, however, not one recognized scientific journal which has published an article espousing the creation science theory.

    Beckwith then states why, according to him, this case would not apply to intelligent design in the schools:

    It is interesting to note that this criticism would not apply to design theorists, for, as we have seen, ID proponents have developed highly sophisticated arguments, have had their works published by prestigious presses and in academic journals, have aired their views among critics in the corridors of major universities and other institutions, and have been recognized by leading periodicals, both academic and nonacademic.

    I find each of those statements by Dr. Beckwith to be in error, especially in 2003. Perhaps Dr. Beckwith’s short time studying in law school did not include a study of the rules and use of evidence, but as you no doubt know, the evidence presented in the Dover trial makes hash of each of those claims. Beckwith blithely writes on as if his claims have been tested in court, however, and that there is no problem for any school district to put ID in the curriculum, except, perhaps for a few crabby and legally-incorrect “Darwinists.”

    It is one thing to advocate change in the law. It is quite another to advocate that a client rely on such change, in court, when the change has not even been proposed. A lawyer offering such advice could be subject to malpractice suits. I’m not sure there is a good analogy in biolgy — perhaps it could be analogized to urging the use of an experimental pharmaceutical to treat a disease when the drug is tied up in approval processes before the FDA on a question of whether it does more harm than good. In such a case, one should not pretend the drug is readily available and proven to heal. And, how should a tenure process treat someone who does urge drug treatments that are illegal and potentially dangerous?

    Especially now, after the Dover decision, I would expect new chapters in these books noting that the ID case has lost in court. Dr. Beckwith is free to urge people to challenge the law, but with the caveat that such a challenge is likely to lose. Absent such changes, the work on ID remains, to me, a problem.

  27. SEF says

    Various replies on this (eg pro-life) are reminding me of another issue mentioned previously on this blog. Viz: pharmacists refusing to fill perfectly legal prescriptions for things of which they don’t approve, eg birth control pills. It seems similar to me. It’s not tenure but it is employment and licensing. I think their attitude does make them incompetent at their job.

    Now, many of them might not be employed by a big company but be independent. However, with the UK system limiting the number of competing pharmacies/chemist shops in an area, their presence would prevent a better person opening up nearby. So either way they are taking a job away from someone who could be more competent and denying the service to the community which they have a duty (as part of the licence) to supply.

    I would certainly hope that that sort of behaviour was illegal in the UK. It’s disturbing that (from the previous blog entry) it seems it isn’t illegal in the US. But perhaps you have no requirement for pharmacists not to overcrowd.

    Whereas, academics are restricted in the number of tenured positions? :-D

  28. Great White Wonder says


    It is interesting to note that this criticism would not apply to design theorists, for, as we have seen, ID proponents have developed highly sophisticated arguments

    A blatant falsehood. Intentional misrepresentation. Lie.

    Beckwith is a scientifically illiterate diptwit. When such a person fails to understand a scientific “argument,” that does not mean the “argument” is “highly sophisticated.”

  29. C.J.Colucci says

    The problem I’m having is that I’m not sure what Beckwith’s claimed expertise is, so I’m having trouble figuring out whether he meets professional standards for whatever it is he says he’s doing. Scientific ignorance isn’t usually important in a non-scientist. Disagreeing with, or “creatively” interpreting existing law isn’t usually a problem for a non-lawyer (or even much of one if you are a lawyer, as long as you do a good job of it). Beckwith’s Ph.D. is in philosophy, but his philosophical work involves issues at the intersection of law and science. The scientists here tell me Beckwith’s science is bad. I know myself that his law is bad. The question is, can you be a competent philosopher of “A+B” while getting both A and B wrong?

  30. says

    As a philosopher, C.J., I feel qualified to answer unequivocally, “No.”

    In fact, HELL NO!

  31. says

    Opponents of ID often state that they view ID as religion. PZ Myers is one of them….

    Judge Jones ruled in the Dover decision that ID is religion too, thus for legal purposes one’s views on ID must be considered religious. A candidate may not legally be denied tenure on the basis his or her position on ID.

    1. The litmus test PZ insists upon as a good reason for denying tenure is – even in his own mind – specifically religious.

    2. Discrimination in hiring and advancement at publicly funded institutions based on a candidate’s religious beliefs is against the law.

    3. PZ has publicly advertised that he will violate the law and the constitutional rights of teachers at his university because of their religious beliefs, thereby causing them direct professional and economic harm.

  32. says

    (Yes, I’m posting very late on this.)

    Phil, as much as I vociferously object to your verbal mistreatment of non-athiests, I completely agree with your position on this.

    Taking a stand in favor of Intelligent Design (a core tenant of which is that “evolution is wrong”) *is* taking a stand on a scientific issue, and is evidence of bad scientific judgement, and thus is a good reason to at the very least hesitate to grant tenure to a scientist.

    It is a dangerous road to start on, of course, for you will find some people who will say the same thing about string theory or other things that are outside the mainstream, but remain valid science. But there are clear reasons why Intelligent Design simply cannot be mistaken for science which makes it a good case. (String theory, for example, is not considered good science by some, by they all still consider it good math… and it *might* one day become good science, whereas Intelligent Design by its very nature is orthogonal to science.)