Universities are supposed to stand for the highest ideals in science and scholarship. “Our mission is to advance knowledge and transform lives,” reads Michigan State University’s mission statement, by “conducting research of the highest caliber that seeks to answer questions and create solutions in order to expand human understanding and make a positive difference.” So what is a university like Michigan State supposed to do when it unwittingly lends its name and reputation to an organization that embodies the very opposite of the highest caliber scholarship?
The organization in this case is a Christian fundamentalist group that held an anti-science “Origin Summit” on the MSU campus last Saturday. The conference organizers managed to use a student religious group to book a room on campus. They then proceeded to emphasize in their advertising that the meeting was being held at a big-name research university and “bringing world renowned scientists before the students.” These scientists have “tangible proof and viable evidence” that science and the bible are “in total agreement.” To reconcile the Bible with science, the summit program—which has since been removed from the organization’s website, but can be found here—featured speakers who discussed the role of evolution in Hitler’s thinking, why “the Big Bang is FAKE,” why evolution is impossible, and the evidence for intelligent design in nature. One talk was devoted to criticizing a famous experiment by one of MSU’s own evolutionary biologists.
A campus is not a Marriott.
It’s hard not to see this conference for what it is—a meeting devoted to fake scholarship that utterly lacks any commitment to develop knowledge through an honest assessment of evidence. But the point of pseudoscience isn’t to convince the scientists; it’s to persuade the public. That’s what distinguishes pseudoscience from merely bad science, and it explains why organizations that push “creation science,” deny global warming, or oppose vaccines try to associate themselves with reputable scientists and universities in any way possible. Renting a room on a prestigious campus or drawing a famous scientist into a public debate doesn’t impress other scientists, but it’s a savvy PR play because, to the target audience, it looks like legitimate engagement with the best academics in the field.
These efforts to co-opt academic respectability pose a dilemma for universities. Giving cover to pseudoscience movements violates standards of good scholarship and can damage the institution’s reputation in the eyes of prospective students and faculty. Yet universities are also supposed to be committed to free inquiry; by canceling a speaker or conference booking, or firing a faculty member, they come across as biased or unwilling to confront evidence that contradicts mainstream viewpoints.
The results often get messy, as we can see in the case of intelligent design creationism. In 1999, Baylor University established the Michael Polanyi Center, a research institute that was supposedly devoted to exploring the relationship between science and religion. By itself, that’s a legitimate topic of scholarship, but Baylor hired a director who is one of the main figures in the intelligent design movement: William Dembski. Dembski clearly intended to use the center as an elite academic platform from which to promote intelligent design creationism. As a result, there was a very public and protracted conflict between Baylor’s faculty, who objected to giving pseudoscience an institutional home, and the university president, who had pushed to establish the Polanyi Center. An outside review committee finally expressed serious reservations about the center and its mission. Dembski was stripped of his directorship, and the center was folded into Baylor’s more mainstream Institute for Faith and Learning.
The University of Kentucky was even less fortunate. In 2007, astronomer Martin Gaskell had applied for the directorship of a new observatory at the university. His application was turned down, and the position was given to someone with less training and experience, in part because Gaskell had given public lectures endorsing intelligent design and claiming that there was little or no evidence for evolution. Though the job was in astronomy and not biology, the hiring committee was justifiably wary of hiring someone who rejected major elements of modern science. As one biology professor told his astronomy colleagues, “even though a person might be adequate in biology, if they basically believe that the sun revolves around the Earth, we wouldn’t hire them.” But Gaskell sued for religious discrimination. The University of Kentucky settled, agreeing to pay Gaskell $125,000.
So how should a university respond when its reputation is being misused to promote an anti-science movement? It depends on the situation and the risks involved, but there are some general principles. The first is that a campus is not a Marriott. Universities should recognize—as British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University did after it offered space to an anti-vaccine conference—that when you rent a room, you also implicitly rent your name and credibility. The second principle is that bad scholarship can be rooted out by conventional means, while pseudoscience cannot. Hiring a creationist as a science faculty member or hosting a debate with a figure from an anti-science movement runs the risk of misleading the students and the public, by giving such people air time under the university’s seal. When universities make a commitment to open inquiry, it doesn’t mean that they have to open their doors to fake science.
Campuses are big and complex places, and sometimes pseudoscientists manage to sneak through the ivy gates. Michigan State University’s biologists decided to largely ignore the creationist interlopers on their campus last Saturday. They made the best of a bad situation and sent the message that, despite the mistake, MSU remains committed to good science.