A few weeks ago, a story broke in the news about a creationist working in the Biology Department at California State University Northridge (CSUN), who was fired for pushing creationism in the department. The story exploded across the internet, especially among the creationist organizations who are once again claiming persecution by scientists. CSUN apparently botched both the hiring of this guy, and now his dismissal, so they’ve been sued and this is going to play out badly for them in the courts. But the entire case raises larger issues that are not easily resolved.
First, the facts of the case. The plaintiff is Mark H. Armitage, a microscope technician (not a professional biologist). He did some undergrad work in Biology at University of Florida, but didn’t graduate. Then he got his B.S. in Education from Jerry Falwell’s fundamentalist Liberty University, and his M.S. in Biology (parasitology) from the Institute of Creation Research, an unaccredited fundamentalist organization that has since left California and closed down its graduate program. As many others have shown, the ICR “Master’s Degree” was a sham, consisting of little more that incompetently done book reports and quote-mining from legitimate scientific literature with a creationist spin, not legitimate scientific research. I’ve seen a number of “master’s theses” from there—they are so bad they wouldn’t even pass for a freshman book report. Prior to his employment at CSUN, he was employed as a microscope technician at a variety of Christian schools. But he has no Ph.D., no formal training or peer-reviewed published research in the histology he was working on. He’s just a humble lab tech on a 2-day a week part-time gig, with no guarantee of employment from one semester to the next. His sole job is to maintain and keep track of the microscopes in a big department with hundreds of them, not to teach courses or do research.
It all started in late 2009, when he applied for the lab tech job at CSUN. He was interviewed by two biology faculty and the head of technical services. He claims to have mentioned that he was a young-earth creationist, but they hired him anyway. In his deposition, he mentions that his creationist views were kept hidden from most of the staff for years. In May 2012 he went out on a dig with some other young-earth creationists explicitly to find dinosaur bone so he could do his own analysis and see if they contained soft tissue in them, as originally reported by Dr. Mary Schweitzer almost 20 years ago. (Her work continues to be used by creationists to claim that the earth is only 6000 years old, even though she herself does not support this view—and there are lots of critics who don’t believe it’s really original dinosaur tissue, but various bacterial biofilms and other contaminants). Sure enough, he finds what he claims is “soft tissue” inside a piece of Triceratops horn.
In June 2012, he reported on his preliminary results at a creationist meeting, was interviewed in a creationist podcast about it, and then started telling CSUN biology students that the earth was only 6000 years old because of the soft tissues in dinosaur bones. This is reported to the faculty, and then to the new Department Chair, Dr. Ernest Kwok, and soon the entire department is in an uproar. The day that Armitage’s paper is published on line (Feb. 13, 2013), they have a meeting about his activities, and on Feb. 27 he is let go. (Keep in mind that he was only on a part-time temporary lab tech job, not a tenure-track job where there are very strict rules about hiring and firing. As a part-timer in academia myself now, I know that my job standing is very fragile, and they can let me go or reduce my part-time course load—and my income—at any time with minimal notice). In July 2013 he filed a complaint with the State of California, and on July 24, 2014, his lawsuit was filed.
The creationists are making Armitage out to be a big martyr, persecuted by scientific censorship, and comparing him to others mentioned in Ben Stein’s crappy movie, “Expelled.” However, as many have shown, the supposedly “persecuted” people in that movie were in fact let go for legitimate reasons having nothing to do with their beliefs. Richard Sternberg was just a part-time museum associate at the Smithsonian, with no formal position or institutional salary. Those positions are temporary, and his was due to end before he got embroiled in publishing a creationist paper (without peer review) in the obscure journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, where he was a part-time editor. Guillermo Gonzalez was up for tenure at Iowa State University, but his record of publication and grantsmanship was well below the current standards for tenure in modern science faculty, so he would have been denied tenure even if he weren’t a creationist. Thus, the alleged “martyrdom” of these creationists is largely a myth.
So what happened here? It seems clear that Armitage was implying that he was a biologist at CSUN and that he was qualified to study histology and publish on it—all claims which are false, and abuse of his part-time position in an unrelated field. It is credential mongering and trying to get false credibility for expertise he does not have. That might be sufficient grounds for dismissal right there, even if Armitage hadn’t been a creationist, but just another employee using his CSUN Biology affiliation to promote himself and imply that CSUN Biology endorsed his views.
But what should they have done? In my view, the committee that originally hired him dropped the ball when he revealed his creationist agenda. If they were aware of what that really meant, they should have quietly but firmly rejected him as “not qualified.” It’s not enough that he was a simple lab tech with no teaching or research responsibilities. He was also a mole, with an agenda to undermine the teaching of science at a major university science department. If someone is dedicating his life to undercutting and destroying part of the mission of your department or institution, they are not qualified to hold a job in that department or institution. If you hire them, at the very least you are inviting them to use their affiliation to falsely imply that your department endorses anti-science, or even worse, to create turmoil in the department. Those are things you do not want from any employee, no matter what other qualifications they might have.
Let’s look at a similar case. A few years ago, a lab tech in a seismology lab in Italy began making unauthorized “earthquake predictions” using his affiliation with that lab to gain credibility, and scaring people unnecessarily. As all geologists know, short-term quake prediction is impossible still, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a quack or a fraud. But the public bought in to this fake “prediction” nonsense, just because he was “with” a seismology lab. The real scientists in the lab then had to send out notices saying they did not endorse his “predictions”, and that he did not speak for them or the lab. Then a twist of fate: an earthquake happened (although not one the lab tech “predicted”). The lab and its scientists are sued for doing the responsible thing and telling the public that his “predictions” are fake—and they are now serving time in Italian prison for it.
If you were in a college astronomy department or research lab, would you want employees using your institution to claim that the earth is flat, or that geocentrism is right, as the Galileowaswrong.com crew are still advocating? If you were in a medical department, would you want an anti-vaxxer or an AIDS denier or a faith healer or a Christian Scientist in the department, undermining the health of your patients by peddling quackery? We’ve already had an example where creationist Dr. Leonard Bailey performed an unethical experiment in transplanting a baboon heart into infant “Baby Fae”, who promptly died. When asked why he didn’t use a more closely related animal like a chimpanzee and minimize immune rejection, he admitted he didn’t believe in evolution—and “Baby Fae” paid the price for his anti-science views.
The laws say you cannot discriminate based on race or gender or sexual orientation, but I’m not so sure belief systems are irrelevant. Science departments are not just like any other job, where you hire anyone who has the minimal qualifications on paper. Science departments and institutes also have a mission, and are dedicated to finding scientific reality. Anyone who subscribes to a anti-science belief system, or belongs to an anti-science group working in that department is automatically a threat to undermine the department, even if they are in a humble position like a lab tech. Heck, even a secretary with anti-science beliefs could be a threat if he/she had access to sensitive documents, and decided to embarrass or discredit your department by leaking those documents.
When people are hiring for jobs like this, they are not just looking to see if you have the qualifications specified in the job listing. They are also looking to see if you are a human being who can been a trusted and collegial co-worker and employee, not a deranged psychopath or someone with issues that would disrupt the workplace. Subscribing to an activist anti-science agenda should disqualify you from a job in a science department as well. But what do the laws say? Do federal or state laws against religious discrimination apply here? I’m interested to see what those of you who know employment law might say.