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A creationist mole and a sorry mess

by Donald Prothero, Sep 04 2014
CSUN lab technician Mark Armitage, who was fired after publishing creationist ideas and preaching creationism in his Biology Department job

CSUN lab technician Mark Armitage, was fired after publishing creationist ideas and preaching creationism in his Biology Department job

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 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.

28 Responses to “A creationist mole and a sorry mess”

  1. Joe Richardson says:

    Great Article, Donald; although, didn’t Mary Schweitzer publish research last year which showed that soft tissue in a tyrannosaurus Rex femur had survived to the present due to the presence of iron?

  2. starskeptic says:

    As a lab tech – I resent the use of the word ‘simple’, some of us are extremely complicated – others, nearly impossible;)

  3. kl green says:

    Creationists are really big on credential inflation and credential misdirection. Lots of PhDs from diploma mills (Hovind and Baugh, e.g.). Others have legit PhDs, but also have additional degrees that are from diploma mills. Example, Jerry Bergman has a legit PhD in one subject, but his highest relevant degree in evolution was granted by Columbia Pacific University.

    Creationists often have a habit of referring to their scientists as “eminent” and comparing them to Galileo (as has been claimed of Dembski).

    Even the guys who DO have degrees are often writing far, FAR afield from anything they have any extensive training or professional experience in (like, Meyer wrt to paleontology).

    Then there’s the guys like Ron Wyatt who IIRC was trained as a nurse anaesthetist. He’s more like the modern crop of ghost “researcher” or big foot hunter.

    Wyatt is an extreme example of the exaggerators – technicians, engineers and doctors who claim they are scientists. Yes, doctors can be scientists. yes, engineers can be scientists. But you aren’t a scientist simply because you have an MD or a PE. Even unrelated to evolution, there is a tendency for engineers to call themselves scientists and for technicians to call themselves engineers.

    I repeat, it’s entirely possible to be both an engineer and a scientist, or to have training as a technician, but to be a practicing engineer.

    I guess the last case is just the case by rough affiliation and / or implication. This is the way David Brat kind of implied on his web page that he attended The Princeton. (Though he’s not a creationist that I’m aware.) That’s what this technician did when he put down his affiliation on the paper – and allowed himself to be identified as a biologist at the university.

    • Yes, credential mongering is one of their big strategies to sound legit to the masses of believers who don’t know any better. I wrote a whole section on it in my Evolution book

  4. Peter Henderson says:

    I spent a lot of time looking down a microscope as a chemist (lab tech ?) at asbestos fibres. I think it ruined my eyesight.

    Excellent post Don.

  5. Jason Loxton says:

    I think that your characterization of his credentials is a little unfair. He has genuine peer-reviewed publications in biology and microscopy, and his undergraduate and graduate degrees in education (you don’t mention the latter) are legitimate, despite the fact that they are from a school with an extreme Christian agenda. He also appears to have extensive experience in microscopy, e.g., [from his biography] “his experience in the business sector includes Olympus Corporation of America and Carl Zeiss. In 1984 he founded a microscope sales and service company and has been in business for 29 years. He was awarded a US patent for an optical inspection device in 1993. Mark’s micrographs have appeared on the covers of eleven scientific journals, and he has many technical publications on microscopic phenomena in such journals as American Laboratory, Southern California Academy of Sciences Bulletin, Parasitology Research, Microscopy and Microanalysis, Microscopy Today and Acta Histochemica, among others.”

    My understanding is that CSUN jumped at him as being super qualified for the position, and that–and this is a main contested point, I guess–the assumption was that his position was to be reoccurring (until the new Chair discovered his beliefs).

    I think that this is actually a really problematic case (much more so than the others you outline). Certainly, affiliation with academic depts. is something that is sought cynically by creationists, but it is also dangerous–and illegal!–to suggest applying a test of religious convictions for applicants for positions to which those views are not relevant. When someone’s science is on the extreme fringe you could well not hire them for a teaching or research position based on those beliefs (they make that person unqualified for the position), with no consideration of *why* they believe them, but that doesn’t apply in this case. His creationist beliefs really have nothing directly to do with his capacity to perform his job (apparently people were very happy with his performance, and he wasn’t preachy).

    As much as I personally wouldn’t want him in my dept. (or any secular dept.), and might secretly pass him over on a hiring committee for the reasons you outline, I think that legally the university might be in some serious trouble here if it went down as he suggests . CSUN played this very poorly, in my opinion.

    • wscott says:

      “…the assumption was that his position was to be reoccurring”
      Religion aside, this is a pretty common issue. Limited-term positions are pretty common in places that rely heavily on grant funding, and it’s not uncommon for the employee to assume that the position will be reoccurring, and then sue when it’s not renewed. Been there, done that, didn’t enjoy it.

  6. Mobius says:

    Just to point out, the “” website gets a red (the worst) rating from Web of Trust (WOT – a Firefox AddOn) based on reports of abuse (such as downloading unwanted malware) by viewers. My advice is to avoid the site even if you are curious in what they have to say.

  7. Mobius says:

    I agree that the department definitely dropped the ball in hiring Armitage initially. If he was honest and put down Liberty U and IRC as the sources of his “degrees” then someone should have picked up on the fact his academic credentials were lacking. Even if they didn’t know what these “schools” were, someone should have researched them before approving the resume.

  8. Rich Wedemeyer says:

    As a tenured faculty member who has served on hiring recommendation committees, I can tell you emphatically that credential problems are increasing. Verifying credentials, inspecting a candidates course work, verifying diplomas and publications, and checking international and national schools regarding their degree construction is now paramount. It didn’t use to be this way.

  9. vaelez says:

    While I am not expert, this sounds very much like the recent David Coppedge case, which also arose in California.

    Coppedge alleged he was fired because of his creationist views while his employer said it was because he repeatedly, and despite warnings, forced his views on co-workers. Coppedge lost.

    While it is early days in terms of fact development, if it is ultimately found that Armitage represented himself such that a reasonable person would have thought that Armitage held a position in CSUN he did not actually hold, represented as views of CSUN views CSUN did not have, etc., then this sounds to me like a stronger case for the employer than Coppedge.

  10. William Ivey says:

    At my former school (Central Oregon Community College, in Bend, Oregon), a tenured duly-credentialed biology instructor was dismissed for two reasons, one of them being presenting creationism in a general biology course. He was only there for 1 school year (fall thru spring)and he did present evolution but he also presented creationism and defended it as “being fair and balanced”. Some of his students rallied to his defense, contending it was an academic freedom issue; it turns out that these students were born-again Christians who had been home-schooled.
    Oh, and the other reason? Well, female staff complained that his attitude toward them was condescending and rude.

  11. kl green says:

    In retrospect, I wonder if universities have or would consider adding a clause in their hiring contracts (assuming it’s legal) along the lines of:

    “As an academic university, XYZU’s reputation for academic integrity is important. Misrepresenting your qualifications or relationship with this university will result in immediate dismissal.”

    I don’t know what the legal requirements would be, but it seems like a UNI would be justified in including some kind of protection like this.

  12. Max says:

    If the guy is qualified for the job he applied for, then rejecting his application just because he’s a Creationist would probably be religious discrimination. It’s religious discrimination to assume that because he’s a Creationist he must be a mole.
    But when he proves that he’s a mole by preaching Creationism to students, it’s legal to fire him for his inappropriate behavior rather than for his beliefs.

    • Max says:

      Though if he was doing all these things on his own personal time and speaking only for himself, then it’s probably religious discrimination to fire him for that.

      • eric berendt says:

        Yes, it is important for us to maintain the integrity of of our core values. However, we must also acknowledge the existence of stupidity and evil it can cause ini society. A “creationist” has no place in a high school, college, or university science department. In the theology department, maybe, depending on how low they want to go.
        Just because the artists of “hip hop” and the Kardashians are the main focus of current society doesn’t mean that those of us dedicated to intellectual integrity and advancement need to accept the stupid premises of their existence. Let it be?

  13. Theodore Cyrene says:

    Awesome summary of what really happened, Donald. I’ve been watching and waiting for the University to respond to the lawsuit.

    Creationists, how do you like your crow prepared?

  14. cipher says:

    Ball-dropping on the part of academic institutions is becoming a problem. Another example: several years ago, a young earth creationist graduated from Harvard with a PhD in biology. I heard him give a public talk soon after, and it was pitiful. I contacted his advisor, who told me he had been marginally aware of the young man’s views, but hadn’t really been paying much attention. Apparently, he runs a large research lab at Harvard with corporate funding and has a lot on his plate, and this fellow slipped underneath his radar. I suspect this is happening more and more.

    Increasingly, creationists are coming out of legitimate academic institutions with graduate degrees in the sciences. I feel very strongly they don’t belong there (and I’ve used something akin to your astronomy argument myself). They’re taking away slots in graduate science programs from people who could be taking proper advantage of those programs and making contributions to society later on, as well as cheapening the degrees for those who come after. They have their Christian clown colleges; let them go to those.

  15. James Bishop says:

    >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.<

    A not easily enforced doctrine, me thinks. As it is science in this case, thus easier to sort 'right' and 'incorrect,' it may be a marginally useful concept, although, in a department fixed on 'Steady State' a 'Big Banger' might get fired. But, that is evidence based termination, so I'll give it a pass. However, in the Art, Music, Political Science, Economics, Philosophy, and History Departments such a fixed idea of 'mission' may well be counter productive. A variety of points of view, even to include some that seem to be obviously wrong, is essential to sparking a genuine debate. Oh, sorry, we're talking about contemporary American education? 'Genuine debate?' I take it all back. Today, it's line up and kiss the dean's ass.

  16. Rick M says:

    To work in defense-related jobs your are subject to a background check that not only review your crime record, but also your political views. Any company with a project funded by DoD is not going to recruit a pacifist. Why we can’t just adopt a similar criteria?

    • Max says:

      Never heard of any such political background check, and a religious background check would surely be illegal religious discrimination.
      Pacifists probably wouldn’t apply to the DoD in the first place.
      The government can do some other things that other employers can’t, like administer polygraphs.

  17. Fred Rickson says:

    A bit of history. I was a biology major at Cal-Northridge in one of its first years (1961-62). When the biology department was formed, the faculty were new Ph.Ds from the likes of Stanford, Michigan, Yale, and a couple of “oldies” from Cal Tech and the Smithsonian. This was a great group who knew their science, passed it on, and made sure you knew it as well. In my case a Ph.D. at Cal-Berkeley followed. Now we have this mess; what a shame.

  18. BobM says:

    Just a quick question, why does the link about his output link to a site repudiating the idea that his output was not good enough? I was expecting something that showed us evidence to the effect that it was poor :-).

  19. madscientist says:

    Soft tissue in a horn – oh, those creationists are so funny.

    Well, hopefully CSUN have learned their lesson and in the future will cease to hire creationists in the science labs.

  20. eric berendt says:

    “The laws say you cannot discriminate based on race or gender or sexual orientation,…”

    But the law seems eloquently silent on stupidity. It should attempt a little more volume, no?

  21. wscott says:

    [sidebar] Having read quite a bit about the Italian earthquake case you mention, I think your characterization is inaccurate and unfair. The news headlines (at least in the US) claimed the scientists were prosecuted for failing to predict the earthquake, but the reality is more complicated. The quack you mention was claiming the cluster of little tremors the region had experienced meant that a large quake was more likely. The scientists rightly disputed that. But an Italian government official sent to calm the residents went further, and publicly claimed that lots of little tremors meant a big quake was LESS likely – which is also untrue. He claimed to be representing what the scientists he’d just met with had said, which the scientists deny; the meeting minutes weren’t published until weeks later after the quake hit, so we’re stuck with he-said-she-said on this point. But they also didn’t issue any correction to his false statement…

    Rightly or wrongly, they were prosecuted for giving false reassurances that went beyond the scientific consensus, not because they called a quack a quack. [/sidebar]