A modern-day David and Goliath story
|"Professor of Chemistry, John Scott, we request your presence to discuss the termination of your contract with the university." |
John Scott read the email with some dismay in the vegetable aisle of his local Edeka. They sent me a text to tell me I was fired! He felt gutted, and tears came to his eyes. He knew he would be angry later, but right now he just felt devastated.
A kindly white-haired old lady nearby noticed the tears and moved toward him,
"Are you OK?" She asked in hushed tones so as not to draw attention to him.
He thanked her for her concern and carried on with his shopping list. Keeping busy succeeded in distracting him from the devastating news but he felt hollow inside as he packed his shopping bags.
Sometime later, when he was home and had unpacked the shopping, he reread the mail. There were no extra details, just a cursory statement of intent to dismiss. But he knew what this was about and who was behind it, it was the consequence of his latest book examining the science of chemical evolution, or abiogenesis, as it was known in the scientific world. In it, he challenged one of the central pillars of modern science by suggesting that chemical evolution by purely naturalistic means was simply impossible, had insufficient supporting scientific evidence, and we needed to rethink it. The book's thesis was that the science was simply not there to support the notion of the spontaneous emergence of complex life, able to reproduce, from chemicals, however long you allowed for the process. Further, he suggested that since the scientific method could not support this theory, its explanatory power was unsupported and therefore untenable. Therefore, just saying "I do not know" was a more honest position than saying life emerged through this suggested process.
The German university was not a major scientific institution, and it did not want to be associated with the controversy that this professor had sparked. Furthermore, Heidrun Jürgens, Rectrix Magnifica of the university, was baying for his blood. Her ambitions to make her university the best in Germany was threatened by his presence there. She was a career woman and an outspoken feminist, leaving a trail of broken relationships in her wake. She was short, rather plain if the truth be told, with cropped, short, dyed red hair and thick-rimmed glasses. A clear desire to dominate those around her colored much of her life and actions. She had no kids and was a public supporter of abortion, claiming she had had several herself. She would fire him to preserve her credentials in the wider scientific community. He remembered his last encounter with this woman, whom his wife simply called the "Evil Bitch." She had been all smiles with him then while making very clear the consequences if he went ahead with publication. Now she no longer spoke with him directly and did everything behind his back to undermine and destroy his career. Clearly, she now thought she could dismiss him also.
Germany did not even have a real debate about the possibility of creationism as opposed to evolutionism, and its scientific community was completely closed to the possibility of alternatives to naturalism as the premise of modern science. From conversations he had already had, he knew how angry the university staff was with him for not towing the party line on this doctrine.
As one professor of geology put it: "The big bang, old universe, abiogenesis, and evolution are the foundations of modern science. You cannot remove any one of these without plunging us back into the Dark Ages of superstitious religious nonsense. If your theories get published and nothing happens to you, all of our reputations are on the line. We cannot stop you from publishing, but if you do, there will be consequences."
Karen, John's wife, was a lawyer and a Pentecostal Christian. She had no reservations about backing John in this matter and considered him a hero for taking the stand he did. They had legal insurance through the company she worked for, and her firm specialized in freedom of speech cases, in fact. She had the whole church praying for him, and they both knew that dismissal was a likely consequence of publication. She was a pure-blooded creationist and had a simpler explanation to fill the gap anyway.
When Karen came home, John was preparing the evening meal for her and his two kids. She came into the kitchen looking a little weary from her day, dressed smartly in a blue power suit. John greeted his beautiful blonde wife with a kiss. His hands were held wide to avoid staining her clothes.
"It happened," he said, "they are going to fire me."
"Fantastic," said Karen, her eyes gleaming as she hugged her husband, his hands still stretched wide. "So let the fight begin."
The lawyer for the plaintiff concluded his statement to the jury and sat down. John had expected the case to focus on university policy regarding conclusions, but instead, the prosecution built its case around an ad hominem attack on his personal competence and intellectual honesty. His own defense counsel, a lawyer friend of Karen from her university days, stood up, to sum up, his own defense statement.
"You have heard and seen evidence of John Scott's competence and achievements as a professor at this university. You have read the affirmations of colleagues over the years about his abilities, seen his impressive list of peer-reviewed publications, which have also been extensively quoted by colleagues, and seen that the university offered him tenure because of his competence and honesty with the facts. Indeed, he has held the position for ten years without complaint from them. He added to their reputation, so they were glad to welcome him into their fold.
"The ad hominem attack you have just heard from the Plaintiff's attorney contrasts sharply with this picture. They have argued that in the last six months, he has gone from being competent and respected to being incompetent and slightly mad. Psychologists have testified that there is no case to answer regarding mental illness and that Professor Scott is perfectly sane.
"Despite efforts of the university authorities to offer evidence supporting the credibility of abiogenesis as a scientific theory, you have not heard anything that corresponds to the emergence of life from the primordial soup. It is clear there is no overwhelming case for it. True, amino acids can be generated by passing electric currents through chemical mixtures, but that is not life. A long period of natural selection and the development of RNA techniques over millions of years have been proposed as to how life could evolve, but that remains speculative. But nothing like the complexity of a living cell that is able to reproduce has been demonstrated to simply emerge. An honest examination of the evidence reveals that the fundamental building blocks of life are irreducibly complex. The chemical path to microbes or, indeed, microbiologists remains unmapped, and any honest person can recognize this.
"Nor has John Scott argued an inappropriate supernatural methodology for the emergence of life, which would contradict university policy. All that he has said is that the theory of abiogenesis does not work, is unsupported by anything like concrete examples, and cannot be demonstrated by the scientific method. The plaintiff has argued that a scientist who says such things must argue an alternative model if he wants to challenge the explanatory power of an entrenched and widely accepted model, but where is this written, nothing resembling law? All Professor Scott has argued in his book is that the existing model does not work and that, scientifically, the best we can say is that we do not know how life emerged.
"It is this void of scientific explanation that angers the university and its legal team. John Scott can live honestly with the fact that he does not know something, but the case argued here is that a powerful lie that works and fits the naturalistic methodology of modern science is the only explanation worth considering. This is a David and Goliath-type struggle, as the scientific community as a whole hates to admit that their enterprise has a limited scope and cannot answer some questions with anything like the degree of certainty with which they advertise themselves. But that is the honest position. John Scott is an honest man in the middle of a world that would prefer pat answers to the cloud of unknowing. We need more people like him in the scientific community as a reality check on their worst pretensions. John Scott is the man for the job."
As his defense concluded, John Scott glanced at Karen, who was sitting behind him on the public benches, and she was beaming at him. Three rows back from her sat the "Evil Bitch," dressed in black, scowling. He saw in her eyes an understanding that she had lost, and she seemed very angry.
Winning his case had proven a Pyrrhic victory for his career. He had been reinstated but was then marginalized by his colleagues and the rest of the scientific community. He had no desire to continue to work for Heidrun Jürgens anymore. So he sat on a chair outside her office, waiting for her to buzz her secretary to let him see her.
She made him wait half an hour, finally emerging to usher him in.
Dressed in her full robes and regalia, she pointed to the visitor seat and reseated herself behind her desk.
"I was just in a video session with Harvard and Yale, hence the dress code." She waved her hand over her clothes, but her eyes gleamed with defiance, and yelled, I am still in charge. She continued, "So, Professor Scott, why have you asked for this meeting?"
John Scott reached inside his jacket pocket and put his resignation letter on the table.
"My book has sold almost a million copies, I no longer need this position, and so you have my resignation."
"A million..." The Rectrix Magnifica swallowed her words. But he could see the resentment of his success written all over her reddened face. "I guess pseudo-science sells better than the real thing." She quipped in response.
"Oh the evidence would suggest the opposite, " replied Professor Scott. "Real people, in my opinion, can spot a liar a mile off and are hungry for the truth."
The Rectrix Magnifica picked up his resignation letter and pointed to the door.
"Get out," she said.
John Scott looked grimly down at her, she looked so pathetic all togged up in her robes, hatred steaming out from her blackened soul. He left the room.