Remember that time the Pope backed me up?

Written by: Emily Weigel

Primary Source: Choice Words with Choosy_Female

Recently, I was quoted in an article about an upcoming event on campus. Although only my religious identity was used (ignoring that I’ve also done research and outreach in evolution education, as well as the other details I provided the journalist), I expressed that I was upset at the anti-academic way that the conference was taking place and that the organizers were attacking individuals.

I have gotten an unprecedented number of emails from across the nation and on campus thanking me for saying this. These came from those professing their faith, as both followers and Pastors, as well as fellow evolutionary biologists and evo-bio enthusiasts, and those that represent a mix of these. Interestingly, even the Pope’s recent statement advocated that evolution is not incompatible with faith (his serendipitous timing could not have helped more!). To be clear, because I understand that faith varies, and wonderfully so, I am not challenging this group’s beliefs, but the manner that they go about their efforts, particularly in academia.

Here’s the issue I have here: In academia, you acknowledge your sponsors, are explicit in who they are and are not, don’t use people’s names without permission, accurately represent the ideas you intend to refute, and don’t attack other scientists, but their ideas.

The overwhelming view within the scientific community is that evolution is the best explanation for the diversity of life on early, and the fact that this group does not advertise that they were brought in by a student group, rather than university-invited, misrepresents intentionally to give the impression that this is an equally-supported, well-evidenced, scientific view of the world. It is not. To see a respectful, concise response to the claims being made by this group, see this blog post.

Furthermore, it is anti-academic, charged language like this that I object to: “As an outspoken critic of intelligent design, Dr. Robert Pennock has written books and given speeches bashing the same.  But do his arguments hold water?  Can they withstand the scrutiny of debate?  Find out November 1st when Dr. Pennock debates Dr. Charles Jackson at MSU.  That is, if Pennock  accepts the invite. The challenge was made back in March and, as of to date, he has yet to reply.” If he hasn’t consented, it is unethical to use his name.

In addition, science is not settled in debate. It’s settled by evidence, so a debate is not the means by which science determines what is most accurate. In examining conflicting ideas, one of the basic principles in academia is that you present an argument accurately, then show why it is not applicable. A picture like the following does not do that:


Picture from Origin Summit Website

This photo (from spreads the misconception that humans arose directly from chimps, rather than both groups evolving from a common ancestor. Such a picture incorrectly represents the basic idea of how evolution from common ancestry works. In posting it, they are doing an academic disservice to the field and proliferating the use of arguments based on faulty understanding (and which are thereby inapplicable).

BEACONites consider MSU to be a free marketplace for ideas, and we would do nothing to jeopardize academic freedom on our campus. However, this is not a matter of academic freedom, but academic integrity. We are not in any way preventing this summit from happening, but I personally would like to encourage a more academic approach by this group, particularly if they are giving what you call academic (not religious) reasons to support Intelligent Design.

As far as my personal beliefs, here is one of the nicer comments I’m dealing with:


Screen Shot captured from UncommonDescent Blog

In this blog response, and the associated comments, my personal integrity and academic abilities are attacked as opposed to the ideas that I present (i.e., anti-academic nature of how it is being carried out or the attacking of specific individuals) or presenting the merit of having the event take place. Academic disagreements are not ad hominem, and note that I did not say the event should not take place, merely that the tactics by which it is being carried out (organized, promoted, advertised, etc.) are not academic in nature.

I am perfectly fine with people disagreeing, but I am not ok with people reportedly manipulating fellow Christian students into hosting an event, for which you do not give thanks or public acknowledgement. This makes an approach look bad, anti-academic, and creates a hassle for many Christian students on campus to clarify how one can profess Christianity, yet act in what most would consider very unchristian ways. The organizers have made this, unfortunately, a negative issue for many students, Christians and others alike, who are giving this group the benefit of the doubt to speak and be heard. Trying to defend the rights of those who attack your faith and work is quite difficult and draining, particularly when personal attacks continue.

If the goal is to get people to talk about faith, remember that you’d like for people to do this in a welcoming, not a negative or defensive way, thus how the issues are then approached is critical. Acknowledging the students who help might be a good first start to promote community and get these discussions going. I highly suggest that, to add credit to the campaign, that the words focus on what you feel the merits of your scientific ideas are, rather than on hurting the students on the campus you are visiting. Note that I am not the only student who harbors these feelings, but I am the one whose quote happened to appear in the media.

Please, if this is about academic pursuit of why we’re here, justify academically why you are here at MSU. You owe it to all Spartans and followers of your own cause.

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Emily Weigel
Emily Weigel (@Choosy_Female) is Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Zoology and in the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior Program at Michigan State University. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, she earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biology with a focus on interdisciplinary research from the Georgia Institute of Technology. At MSU, Weigel conducts research in the lab of Dr. Jenny Boughman and is affiliated with the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action. Her dissertation research focuses on how female choice and investment interact with male mating strategies. Additionally, Weigel’s education research asks how and why a background in genetics affects student performance in evolutionary biology. When not researching, Weigel enjoys playing soccer, surfing Netflix, and promoting STEM in the community.
Emily Weigel

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