Pharyngula

Carlos Cerna will someday demand his Ph.D.

When you tie a university to a religious ideology, you create stresses that show that the modern search for knowledge is the antithesis of religious dogma. I keep telling people that science and religion are in opposition, and here’s a perfect example: La Sierra University is a Seventh Day Adventist college. SDAs are fundamentalists and literalists (although, isn’t it strange how different literalist sects all seem to come up with different…aheminterpretations of the Bible?) who as a point of doctrine believe in a young earth and seven day creation. La Sierra has a biology department, as well as teaching other science disciplines.

Let that sink in. Science departments. Six thousand year old earth.

Does not compute. Error. Abort, retry, fail?

How do they do that? Well, a recent controversy has exposed what goes on there, and as it turns out…they teach pretty good mainstream science. From that story, the faculty in their biology department seem to know what they are doing, and they teach that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and they go over the evidence for it in considerable detail. The professor who teaches one of the courses seems to be no-nonsense and on the ball.

Bradley says he’s felt no pressure to change anything about his course, and says bluntly that he doesn’t plan to turn his class into a theological seminar, or to present evolutionary theory only to then dismantle it for students. While he’s fine with helping students work through struggles of faith, Bradley says he won’t undercut decades of peer reviewed scientific research in the interest of religious consistency.

“I am not OK with getting up in a science course and saying most science is bullshit,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Seventh Day Advent church and the administrators of the college have a different agenda in mind. They want the scientific evidence taught to the students so they can oppose it, and the whole mission of the college is to eventually lead them back into the worship of dogma and superstition — they are plainly going to undermine the teaching of Bradley and get the students to believe that most science is bullshit.

By June 19, the president of the worldwide church had written a letter affirming the church’s belief in a “literal, recent, six-day creation” and that “the Flood was global in nature.” Jay Paulsen, the church’s president, went on to say that church-sponsored colleges and universities should teach students about evolution, but mindfully steer them back toward the church’s contrary view.

“As part of that exercise [in teaching] you will also expose them to elements and concepts of evolution. That is understood,” he wrote. “As your pastor, however, I appeal to you that when you take your students out on the journey, you bring them safely back home before the day is over. And their home must always be in the world of faith. You owe it to the students, you owe it to God, you owe it to their parents, you owe it to the church, and you owe it to yourself as a believer to safely guide them through difficult moments on their journey.”

Oh, and by the way, you cannot get tenure at La Sierra unless you are a member of the Seventh Day Adventist church. The mind boggles. I know this kind of restriction is fairly common at fundie colleges, but it is such an imposition of ideology on the faculty — it turns academic freedom into a joke.

One thing I cannot understand is how Gary Bradley can stomach investing so much of his career in such a place…but he says he is a practicing Adventist.

This exposure of the slimy underbelly of a religious institution came to light as a consequence of an angry student with a sense of entitlement (I’ve run into a few of those — we have them even at secular universities). He took one of Bradley’s courses which taught the real scientific evidence for the age of the earth, and was expected to understand it and be able to explain it in a five page term paper. He couldn’t. In fact, his paper is more concerned with presenting a superficial discussion of a few dating methods and then bringing up creationist objections to them, contrary to the instructions he was given.

You can read Carlos Cerna’s paper online. It’s not very good; it’s 13 pages long, but the treatment is incredibly shallow, it has only 5 references, all of which are used to weakly bolster contrarian claims, and simply regurgitates (with skeptical caveats) what he was told in class as representations of standard scientific opinion. For that, he got an incredibly generous C. I would have wobbled between outright flunking the kid or giving him a pity D for being able to type up sentences that are mostly grammatically correct.

You can also read the post-grading exchanges between the student and professor. He’s “flabbergasted” that he only got a C. Yeah, I know those students — the ones who think the grade they should get is the one they want, not the one they earned. Bradley’s comments are actually very cogent and helpful; he explains what he expected, and that the included apologetics are inappropriate. Here’s Bradley’s summary; the student was following standard creationist tactics.

As I said, this paper is unacceptable. When I reluctantly agreed that you could insert paragraphs [single paragraphs!] taking issue with the mainstream data I fully expected you to do a good job with that mainstream data. Instead you have largely ignored it and generated yet another creation apologetic piece that “mines quotes” and ignores volumes of data. You can and must do better than this.

It’s a valid criticism. I don’t quite know why an unacceptable paper was given a C, but I know grade inflation is rampant everywhere.

Meanwhile, the Seventh Day Adventists are freaking out, and protesting that kids are actually exposed to good science in the biology program at “their” university, which they think ought to be teaching only the dogma of their religion. If you ask me, their kids look to be getting a far better education than they deserve.


WARNING TO BIOLOGY PROGRAMS EVERYWHERE: The student, Carlos Cerna, has announced his intention to get a Ph.D. in molecular biology. If you take him on, be aware that he’s going to need a lot of remedial instruction, that he has an attitude, and that he probably just wants a degree from your institution so he can use it to peddle creationism to the ignorant. Don’t let him slip through your program without thoroughly grilling him on the basics of biology, or he’s going to bring some shame on your program.