…but she wasn’t. She was allowed to continue her educational malpractice until her contract expired, and then was not rehired—something that happens to adjunct and assistant professors all the time, with no necessary implication of poor work.

Caroline Crocker, if you’ve never heard of her, is the lead topic in an article in the Washington Post today, and you may also have read an account of her situation in Nature. She’s a molecular biologist who believes in Intelligent Design, and who was released from her position at George Mason University. Now she wants to claim that her academic freedom was infringed.

Unfortunately for Dr Crocker, the article gives an account of her biology teaching. She’s peddling ignorant garbage in her classes, making this less an issue of academic freedom and more one of basic scientific competence.

She told the students there were two kinds of evolution: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is easily seen in any microbiology lab. … While such small changes are well established, Crocker said, they are quite different from macroevolution. No one has ever seen a dog turn into a cat in a laboratory.

There is an interesting debate on the micro/macro distinction in biology, but that ain’t it. That’s the creationist version, based on nothing at all but rhetoric and misconceptions. No one expects a dog to evolve into a cat, and if it did, we’d have to completely rework our ideas about evolution.

Crocker said that subsequent research had shown that chemicals used in the experiment [Miller’s] did not exist on Earth 4 billion years ago. “The experiment is irrelevant, but you still find it in your books,” she said.

This is not true; the issue is more complex than she lets on. Our understanding of the nature of the atmosphere has changed since Urey and Miller, but the experiment still stands as valid and interesting—it shows that complex chemical precursors to life can arise without intelligent guidance. Similar experiments have been done with different atmospheres, with similar results.

She cited another experiment, involving researcher Bernard Kettlewell, who produced pictures of variously colored peppered moths on tree trunks to show that when the moths were not well camouflaged, they were more likely to be eaten by birds — a process of natural selection that influenced the color of the moths. “This comes from your book — it is not actually true,” Crocker said. “The experiment was falsified. He glued his moths to the trees.”

Uh-oh. It looks like Crocker is rattling off Wells’ list of Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher. It’s a bad sign that they stump her—they aren’t that hard to address…or shouldn’t be, for a college level instructor in evolution.

The Kettlewell experiments are still good, if incomplete. The posed pictures are
illustrations of the camouflage, and are not part of the data.

…Crocker was not done. From this ill-conceived theory, she concluded, much harm had arisen. Nazi Germany had taken Darwin’s ideas about natural selection, the credo that only the fittest survive, and followed it to its extreme conclusions — anti-Semitism, eugenics and death camps. “What happened in Germany in World War II was based on science, that some genes and some people should be killed,” Crocker said quietly. “My grandfather had a genetic problem and was put in the hospital and killed.”

This is just contemptible. Hitler was not motivated by scientific ideas. Her grandfather was killed because of criminally racist attitudes that predated Darwin and were promoted by the religious—try reading about some of Luther’s ideas about the Jews sometime. Eugenics was and is a simple-minded abuse of science.

Before the class, Crocker had told me that she was going to teach “the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” Afterward, I asked her whether she was going to discuss the evidence for evolution in another class. She said no.

“There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution,” Crocker said. Besides, she added, she saw her role as trying to balance the “ad nauseum” pro-evolution accounts that students had long been force-fed.

“There really is not a lot of evidence for evolution.” That’s grounds for dismissal right there, I would hope. She’s been so busy reading Discovery Institute press releases and religious tracts that she has apparently never visited her university library, or even looked at an evolutionary biology textbook! I suggest she spend a little time in the stacks—books on evolution are in the QH’s—and otherwise get out of the classroom until she’s a little better qualified.

It looks like she’d rather spend her time whining.

…she described the attacks targeted at her career as a result of her views on evolution. Losing the faculty position at GMU had left Crocker worried about how she could support a son at school in England. Family members were asking why she was sticking her neck out. Crocker and her husband, Richard, who is associate rector at Truro, believe she has become the victim of scientific authoritarianism. It is one thing to believe his wife is wrong, Richard Crocker told me, and quite another to deprive her of her right to speak.

GMU spokesman Daniel Walsch denied that the school had fired Crocker. She was a part-time faculty member, he said, and was let go at the end of her contract period for reasons unrelated to her views on intelligent design. “We wholeheartedly support academic freedom,” he said. But teachers also have a responsibility to stick to subjects they were hired to teach, he added, and intelligent design belonged in a religion class, not biology. Does academic freedom “literally give you the right to talk about anything, whether it has anything to do with the subject matter or not? The answer is no.”

Exactly right. If you’re going to teach a subject, you are expected to know something about that subject—and Crocker clearly does not.

She has not been deprived of a right to speak. She can say whatever she want, she can teach that crap in her local Sunday School, she can work for the Discovery Institute and write screeds that will get sent to newspapers all over the country. However, universities have standards and are not under any compulsion to hire any unqualified bozo to jabber in front of a classroom. We have responsibilities, you know, to teach the current state of knowledge, not the opinions of muddle-brained theologians.

An unintended consequence of the scientific establishment’s exasperation with evolution’s critics is that supporters of intelligent design such as Crocker and Kamel are increasingly limiting their conversations to fellow sympathizers. Among themselves, these advocates believe the wheel has turned full circle: If Galileo and Copernicus were the scientific rebels who were once punished by the dogma and authority of the church, these advocates now believe that they are being punished by the dogma and authority of science.

“Just like they say you can’t discriminate against black people, or against gays, maybe they will say you can’t discriminate against Darwin-doubters,” Crocker told me.

I recommend the Crackpot Index. I’d score Dr Crocker well into the 50s.

Of course we should discriminate against “Darwin-doubters”. If an electrician came to your house and said he was an “electron-doubter”, didn’t hold with all that nonsense about “circuits” and “grounds”, and told you aluminum foil was the best insulator, you’d fire him on the spot, right? So why all this absurd insistence that biology is a matter of opinion, and that we need to hire to maximize the range of different opinions on largely settled issues?

Maybe this little anecdote from the article explains some of that.

Nancey Murphy, a religious scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said she faced a campaign to get her fired because she expressed the view that intelligent design was not only poor theology, but “so stupid, I don’t want to give them my time.”

Murphy, who believes in evolution, said she had to fight to keep her job after one of the founding members of the intelligent design movement, legal theorist Phillip Johnson, called a trustee at the seminary and tried to get her fired.

“His tactic has always been to fight dirty when anyone attacks his ideas,” she said. “For a long time afterward, I would tell reporters I don’t want to comment, and I don’t want you to say I don’t want to comment. I’m tired of being careful.”

This is exactly like Caroline Crocker’s case, because you see, there is all this evidence that specifically spells out the nature and details of God’s existence and there is near uniformity of opinion on all religious matters among all theists, so it is just plain wacky for anyone in theology to teach anything other than the Truth as Revealed to Phillip Johnson. And aren’t all fields of knowledge as subjective and fractured as theology?


  1. #1 SharonC
    February 6, 2006

    I think it’s a shame, really, because you can get such good learning/teaching from when you leave the realm of “obvious to a lay person” and “whoa, that’s amazing, can that really be true? how does THAT hang together?”.

    Speaking as an educated person but relatively ignorant in biology (I work in another field of science), evolution isn’t something that is immediately obvious. When you begin to grasp some of the complexities of the theory (perhaps with the aid of Dawkins’ books) and you begin to see the answers that evolutionary theory provides to the obvious “but surely not because….” objections, it is truly an awe-inspiring realisation, that evolution really can produce the intricate complex beings that inhabit the Earth today.

    It seems to me that the misunderstandings and mischaracterisations of the ID movement provide a wonderful rich seam of topics for biology teachers to choose from, to illustrate how powerful the theory of evolution really is.

  2. #2 Chuck
    February 24, 2008

    While I greatly respect your expertise as a biologist, I have a serious disagreement with you about this article:

    “Prof” Crocker’s CRACKPOT Index score is at least 95 points (though probably much more):

    -5 (beginning credit) + 30 (for comparison to Galileo) + 30 (for claiming that the scientific “man” is keeping her down) + 40 (for claiming to have a revolutionary theory with absolutely no testable predictions – ID) + … >= 95

  3. #3 Cyrus Deeken
    January 1, 2010

    It pprs tht y hv plcd lt f ffrt nt yr rtcl nd I rqr mr f ths n th nt ths dys. I sncrly gt kck t f yr pst. I dn’t rlly hv mch t sy n rspns, I nly wntd t cmmnt t rply wndrfl wrk.

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