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Defend Science Commentary

Prof. Paul Mirecki (Univ. of Kansas) attacked for planning a course teaching "Intelligent Design" as religious myth.

Prof. Paul Mirecki, the head of the Religious Studies department at the University of Kansas, had planned to teach a course this coming semester on "intelligent design" in the context of studying religious myths. He had the support of the administration, a number of other faculty and a planned enrollment of 120. The chancellor of the university had openly written in support of defending evolution. It would have been a very popular course!

Instead, within a few short weeks, these actions triggered death threats and a national campaign from Christian Fundamentalist right wing forces inside and outside of government calling for his resignation. He was then reportedly hunted down and beaten by two attackers angered by his course. He reports he was forced to resign from his post as the Chair of the Religious Studies Department and he has ended up with his career ruined.

We would like to share with all of you a few more comments from the perspective of "Defend Science" on this and to make a special call.

1. Paul Mirecki is a respected tenured professor at the University of Kansas since 1989 and for the last three years, until pushed out of office, the Chairman of the Religious Studies department. Among his most significant academic work was the discovery and deciphering of an ancient manuscript containing a lost gospel, a document that sheds new light on the origins of early Christianity.

2. He has taken a courageous stand in defence of science. A key part of the political methodology of the "Intelligent Design" political operatives, one of their main planks has been the seemingly oh-so-democratic call to "teach the controversy". Of course, they mean "in the science classroom". Prof. Mirecki took up their challenge and planned a course to teach ID in its proper context, as the scientific community has long correctly called for, in the Religious Studies department:

REL 602 Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies

Prof. Mirecki described the course: "Of course, I won't actually be teaching I.D. and creationisms, but rather I'll be teaching ABOUT I.D. and creationisms as modern mythologies, indicating that these ideas have no place in a public school science class, but can certainly be analyzed in humanities classes for their function in society. Basic approach is my usual: anthropology with a focus on religious thought and behavior."

3. The overall attacks that Mirecki has faced came from a politically organized force. Mirecki said in his press statement: "I see the religious right as an extremely organized national political movement." An article in the Lawrence Journal-World describes how they operated:

"If not for John Altevogt, an Edwardsville real estate broker, many of the people who became outraged by Kansas University professor Paul Mirecki’s comments might never have learned of them. Altevogt ... is the conservative activist and Internet discussion board contributor who compiled and spread Mirecki’s remarks across the online Kansas Conservative Network mailing list. Within hours, conservative Kansas lawmakers were raging. Some called for public hearings about Mirecki’s plan to teach a religious studies course on the controversial topic of intelligent design. Mirecki pledged to teach creationism and intelligent design as mythology. 'John is very effective at what he does,' said Cindy Duckett, founder of Kansas Conservative Network. 'I think he has voiced an opinion that is shared with very, very many on this particular issue.'"

This was quickly followed by:

"State Sen. Karin Brownlee, R-Olathe, met with KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway for more than an hour Monday, and some lawmakers are calling for full-blown hearings when the Legislature convenes in January." (Lawrence Journal-World, Dec. 10, 2005)

This overall attack reveals the fanatical absolutist world-view behind those honey-soaked words about "teaching the controversy" - this is a continuing central part of the overall attack on critical reasoning, the scientific method and on science as science.

As our Defend Science statement says:


The signs of this are everywhere. The attacks are coming at an accelerating pace, and include frequent interventions by powerful forces, in and out of the Bush Administration, who seem all too willing to deny scientific truths, disrupt scientific investigations, block scientific progress, undermine scientific education, and sacrifice the very integrity of the scientific process itself -- all in the pursuit of implementing their particular political agenda. And today this dominant political agenda is profoundly allied and intertwined with an extremist (and extremely anti-science) ideological agenda put forward by powerful fundamentalist religious forces commonly known as the Religious Right. These fundamentalists now have extensive influence and representatives in major institutions of the U.S. government, including Congress and the White House. This itself goes a long way towards explaining why science itself is under such unprecedented attack.

4. The Christian Fundamentalist right has been working overtime to justify and add to the attack on Prof. Mirecki by trying to smear his name. Part of this is saying he was attacking religion.

The stand of the Defend Science initiative is very clear on this question, as expressed in our statement as follows:

"To be clear: Many who continue to hold religious beliefs can and should rally to this call to DEFEND SCIENCE. This is not about science trying to destroy religion. It is about defending science from a specific right-wing political agenda which, coupled with a fundamentalist, Biblical-literalist religious ideology, is setting out to implement a program that will fundamentally pervert and undermine science and the scientific process itself."

Whatever one's opinion about some of Prof. Mirecki's reported comments about "fundies", comments ripped out of emails on a private university listserv, it is clear that he was not intending to attack religion in general, but the same "specific right-wing political agenda ... coupled with a fundamentalist, Biblical-literalist religious ideology". In this he must be supported.

5. It is shameful that the University of Kansas has not fully supported Prof. Mirecki and has apparently capitulated to the Christian Fundamentalist right in pressuring Prof. Mirecki to resign from his post as Chairman of the Religious Studies Department. This is particularly distressing given that the university board has been generally supportive of academic freedom and the Chancellor has openly written in support of evolution. The university should reverse these bad decisions. And given that Prof. Mirecki has been beaten and subjected to death threats he remains in danger and all of us who stand in defence of science must "have his back".

Finally, a call.

In the wake of the recent welcome victory against those pushing ID in Dover, PA - in the court and in the school board election - we must understand well that these forces attacking science in our society are not going to rest - they are not going away - they are not going to "heed the wise words of the judge (in the Dover case)" as some would have it.

The attack on Prof. Mirecki should make that quite clear. And the drumbeat of attacks on science is in no way letting up or confined to issues of science education and evolution. Just to give one of many attacks we have learned of since our original statement was first issued: Susan Wood, the Bush-appointed director of FDA's Office of Women's Health resigned in protest after the FDA postponed indefinitely its decision on whether to allow the morning-after pill, called Plan B, to sell without a prescription. Dr. Wood's resignation letter read (in part):

"I can no longer serve as staff when scientific and clinical evidence, fully evaluated and recommended for approval by the professional staff here, has been overruled, ... The recent decision announced by the Commissioner about emergency contraception, which continues to limit women's access to a product that would reduce unintended pregnancies and reduce abortions, is contrary to my core commitment to improving and advancing women's health."

So we ask as a one part of an appropriate response to this attack on Prof. Mirecki:

1. All of you who are educators or part of the scientific community or concerned as we are to Defend Science to read the Defend Science statement and add your name to the list of over 500 signatories.

2. Spread the Defend Science statement everywhere. Send it to colleagues, get it published wherever you can, put it on bulletin boards, etc. We especially need more prominent voices in the scientific community to join these efforts (e.g. senior faculty, department heads, National Academy of Science members, etc.)

3. Funds are needed to publish the Defend Science statement in major newspapers in the U.S. Please go to the donate link. Secure donations via PayPal are available now.

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