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Why Dini's 'Affirmation' Requirement Was Flawed

Michael Drake

The U.S. Justice Department has now officially closed its religious discrimination inquiry regarding Texas Tech biology professor Michael Dini. No indictment will be brought.

Dini, you may recall, had posted on his Website a requirement that any student who wanted a medical school recommendation from him "truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer" to the question "How do you think the human species originated?"

Although I believe a full-scale federal investigation was partisan overkill, I also happen to think that Dini's initial requirement was a huge mistake. My view seems to be quite out of the skeptic mainstream, however, so I thought it might be worth sharing.

Dini's argument

Dini offered the following rationale to justify his "affirmation" requirement:

The central, unifying principle of biology is the theory of evolution.... Someone who ignores the most important theory in biology cannot expect to properly practice in a field [medicine] that is now so heavily based on biology. It is easy to imagine how physicians who ignore or neglect the Darwinian aspects of medicine or the evolutionary origin of humans can make poor clinical decisions. The current crisis in antibiotic resistance may partly be the result of such decisions.

Modern medicine relies heavily on the method of science. In my opinion, modern physicians do best when their practice is scientifically based.

Dini's requirement is mistaken as a matter of educational philosophy.

Given Dini's expressed concerns, it seems to me that the only relevant educational question is competent knowledge of consensus theories and objective mastery of related praxis. Such "knowledge" would not merely include rote memorization of theory and related facts, but the ability to properly explicate "the case" for a given consensus theory. At all events, whether a candidate believes in those consensus theories should be irrelevant. (Compare: If a similar shibboleth had been set in the field of geology back in 1900, Alfred Wegener might have been denied the opportunity to go to grad school.)

Granted, the professor's stated concern in the context of medicine has a plausible ring about it. After all, it could be that in order to practice medicine, you really need to understand evolution and interpolate its theory into medical practice.

Yes, that could be the case. But is it, in fact, the case? If it is, Dini certainly fails to provide concrete evidence for it. Granted, he does cite one example of a purported failure to appreciate evolutionary principles, viz., "the current crisis in antibiotic resistance." But this example fails: even young-earth creationists can be comfortable with, say, the idea of "evolution" across bacterial species. (Of course, they'll want to call it "microevolution," but the underlying concepts are effectively the same in this context.) So then if that narrow field of bacterial evolution is the relevant concern, being a young-earther is no barrier whatever to relevant professional competence.

Despite the alleged "ease" of imagining "poor clinical decisions" based on ignorance of evolutionary principles, then, Dini is wanting for even a single plausible example of such.

A fortiori, Dini certainly does not show that creationist beliefs would have a professionally deleterious effect in even a small minority of medical subspecialties. Such a showing would seem to be a minimum if the harm to be prevented is ostensible harm to the medical profession at large. As far as I can tell, the vast majority of medical practice does not concern itself with evolutionary concepts even at the fringes. I'm not a medical expert, but do you need to understand evolution to set a fracture? To remove an appendix? To suture a wound? To run an MRI? And if by chance certain medical subspecialties do require mastery of evolutionary concepts, it would be a job for the relevant licensing boards to weed out doctors whose operant beliefs would defeat the practical import of those concepts and thereby impair practical competence. Either way, surely it should be neither an educator's duty nor privilege to weed out students whose prospective specialty has yet to be determined.

On this score, it's important to note that Dini's emphasis--the evolution of modern homo sapiens--is extraordinarily narrow. One could easily run afoul of Dini's criterion and still do excellent work in biology proper. For instance, a modern Catholic could take the view that natural selection governs the development of life generally, but in the special case of modern sapiens a divine nudge did the trick (perhaps as a matter of historical contingency rather than a matter of physical necessity). Sure, this is a vague idea, based utterly on a nonrational conviction, and is therefore far from being a scientific belief, but I fail to see how such a belief in any way speaks to general (in)competence in biology research or praxis.

For these reasons, it seems to me that the professor had at least a general duty to make and withhold recommendations based on sound, immediate, pedagogical grounds rather than on speculative, prospective, professional grounds. While the inability to articulate relevant, well-established theories would be a legitimate reason to withhold a recommendation, then, a failure to state how one personally "accounts" for the phenomenon to be explained (consensus theories notwithstanding) would not. There is simply no good pedagogical ground to abjure recommending a student who gives a competent analysis of the relevant consensus theory but expresses nonrational agnosticism about the factual status of that theory.

Dini's requirement is pragmatically flawed even on it's own terms.

Dini objects to rewarding students who merely recite the theory by rote while at the same time "ignoring ... [the] abundant scientific evidence" that supports the theory. I'm sure all readers here will agree that students should not be rewarded for ignoring scientific evidence, and will want to endorse the goal of enhancing student understanding of science in general and of evolution in particular.

But Dini's requirement doesn't advance that goal; it thwarts it. To see how, compare two approaches purportedly designed to ensure mastery of the relevant material:

1. Student receives recommendation upon "affirming" a scientific answer to the question (Dini's approach); vs.

2. Student receives recommendation upon articulating and defending the scientific answer to the question.

Under approach (1), a young-earther could simply recite the theory by rote, ignore the evidence for the theory, and then dishonestly affirm his or her answer.

But under approach (2), the young-earther has no opportunity to be dishonest--for the simple reason that he or she is not asked to state a belief. Furthermore, the student would have to show a mastery of the material not required under (1), because the student can only defend the theory by appeal to the relevant evidence and argument (quod erat ignoratum).

How many young-earthers do you know who could pass that test?

In sum, then, while the first approach--Dini's approach--actually increases the risk that a student will merely "parrot" the correct answer and fail to understand the scientific theory being discussed, the second approach forecloses that risk.

Dini's requirement is probably unconstitutional and definitely illiberal.

A fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution is the freedom to hold beliefs and not be penalized for such.[1] Texas Tech is a public institution, and thus subject to First Amendment restrictions. As such, Dini's requirement--a requirement to "affirm" a belief in a selected scientific theory--was very probably unconstitutional.

Besides which, Dini's requirement is a clear invasion of his students' freedom of conscience. This freedom is given effect in law by the First Amendment, of course, but the underlying policy of protecting free thought extends beyond the merely legal protections of the Constitution. So even if one were to argue that the Constitution allows tests like Dini's, one might still want to criticize such tests as illiberal and unwise.

Conclusion

Dini's decision to eliminate his "affirmation" requirement was not a capitulation to irrational political pressure so much as it was an accession to good sense. Compared to a requirement for "analysis and explication of the theory," Dini's original "affirmation" requirement is seen as flawed under the pragmatic, legal, and philosophical goals and principles that most skeptics and evolutionists themselves presuppose.

NOTES

[1] See, e.g., Dawson v. Delaware, 503 U.S. 159 (1992).


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Published:
  2003-05-02

Categories:
  Evolution, Skepticism

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