For more than two years the biology program at La Sierra University (LSU) has been in the maelstrom of controversy over the teaching of evidence-based science as opposed to young-earth creationism. This conflict has gone so far, according to an Adventist Review article, that some believe that the university is teaching the “theory of evolution to biology students as the explanation for the origin of life.” This is an example of conflated polemics that arises when the worlds of science and religion collide and wash over each other. The assumption that one must exclude the other in part has been the failure to adequately analyze the characteristics of diverse ways of knowing. It is apparent that even in matters of religion, scientists enjoy great respect in the modern world. But for science to be respected truthfulness has to be an iron law not a vague aspiration, otherwise it becomes something else.
After listening to a welter of allegations swirling around the issues, the LSU Board of Trustees appointed a Creation-Evolution Study Group (hereafter the “Committee”) to summarize apprehensions they were hearing, often coming from outside aggregation, about the apparent reluctance to include creationism as science in the biology program at LSU. Three allegations emerged and the Committee decided to adopt these allegations and go directly to the students and seek their opinions.
A six-level Likert (1932) questionnaire was created and a quarter of the students in the biology program during the past four years participated in the survey. Sixty-seven percent had only taken freshman General Biology and the well-heeled four-year graduates represented 33 percent of the response. Twenty-nine percent were non-Adventists, largely from a Christian background. (see Jared Wright. Spectrum 13 May 2011.) The three allegations included in the Committee report will be examined in the context of the student’s responses in the survey.
In the 14-page paper embedded above, T. Joe Willey analyzes these three allegations. He concludes:
Despite the fact that the student survey revealed incompleteness in what the Committee had set out to determine, the survey reveals a treasure chest of insightful information. The students actually passed along important information about the biology program at LSU. Unfortunately, through the lens of fabrication, apparently valuable insights were misread, overlooked or lost. In this family feud, the responses in the survey said—that the LSU biology program was performing as expected in a university, and in fact the professors stepped out away from science and according to the survey were consistent in supporting student’s religious pilgrimage. Judging from this survey, as with most surveys when used as a tool for gathering opinions, the results can be said to have missed perfection (no filters were applied to the survey results). This is one reason for turning to statistics. How confident are we in the findings of a survey? Here we face the trouble that individuals who already have their minds made up, possessing motivated reasoning, will not be able to see or understand these reinterpreted results.
As the celebrated psychologist Leon Festinger points out. “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.”
Many students enter a biology program in preparation for medicine and dentistry, and other health professions. Science professors in Seventh-day Adventist colleges and universities introduce these students to critical thinking (as elsewhere) and begin by explaining that all scientific theories face potential disturbances, although much of what they will learn is factual and based on hard evidence (truth without certainty). This can all change by an ugly little fact or observation. The scientific method adheres rigidly to a set of rules (think of a game of tennis or soccer) based on the success of gaining and the growing accumulation of reliable knowledge. Students learn the sequence of creating hypothesis, gathering data or evidence, testing the validity of the ideas and attempting to falsify observations or the experiment. And they learn biology through the man-made rules of naturalistic methodology and inductive reasoning. Creationism (in the broad meaning that a supernatural force created) by its very nature cannot be falsified. This supernatural force is God, and thus special creationism is a theological doctrine, which through deductive reasoning becomes a belief.
The case study here is a classic example where a fundamentalist wedge of the church seems to be suffering from the “curse of the cult of certainty.” History is replete with similar examples of individuals who are convinced they know the truth and they must act as self-appointed “swords of the Lord.”
Of course now it is too late to unwind the damage by the Committee’s distortions and faulty interpretation of the student survey. This should remind us that people in contested issues sometimes may push faulty information and data out on the table and make supposedly sound declarations (but you already knew this). However, seeing this out in the open reminds us how beliefs rooted in emotions often treat facts and data as irrelevant. This constant nagging on the part of the fundamentalist in the Church against science is destructive and incredibly non- productive for LSU and the sciences in other Adventist educational institutions. Church sponsored educational institutions can fail because too much emphasis is placed upon controversial doctrines. Also, the tendency to indoctrinate rather than enlighten (educate) could cause Adventist education to lose intellectual respectability. What we see here is a case study of what appears to be an agenda- driven group in the Committee trying to forge a negative image of the science program at LSU by employing outright data biasing to serve a particular purpose or ambition. At the end of all of this conflict, we are likely to admire how these science teachers stood up to this challenge and maintained a strong naturalistic methodology in teaching biology in all of its forms to students where a good education made all the difference for success in the world.
T. Joe Willey, received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Berkeley and taught at Loma Linda University. He was a fellow with Sir John Eccles (Nobel Prize winner) at the State University of New York-Buffalo, and research fellow at the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, Los Angeles.