ontroversy over creation and evolution has long been a part of the American political landscape. Recently, however, this controversy took a new turn with the revelation that Scientific American, America's leading science magazine, refused to hire a superbly qualified science writer because the writer disbelieved in Darwin's theory of evolution. Not that discrimination based on belief is anything new. But this time it has attracted national attention, and has greatly raised the stakes in the controversy--not only for the disputants, but for everyone.
The Scientific American affair began in May 1988 when
science writer Forrest Mims submitted a proposal to Scientific
American to write the magazine's "Amateur Scientist"
column. Mims, a respected science writer with 70 books and several
hundred articles to his credit, had long dreamed of writing the
"Amateur Scientist," and in late July that dream seemed
to come true when the magazine's editor, Jonathan Piel, asked
Mims if he would like to take over the column. Piel then invited
Mims to come to New York to discuss the details.
It was in New York that things turned sour. According to Mims,
Piel at first praised Mims' work and expressed considerable enthusiasm
for the topics that Mims proposed to cover. But later on, as Mims'
was listing off the various periodicals in which he had published
articles, he happened to mention that he had written for some
Christian magazines. The editor stopped him, and asked him what
he had written for the Christian magazines. He then asked Mims,
"Do you accept Darwin's theory of evolution?" Mims responded
that he did not. From then on, Mims says, Piel's attitude toward
him changed dramatically.
Piel expressed great concern about Mims beliefs, and told him
that he would not be permitted to write anything for any publication
that might embarrass Scientific American. To ensure this,
all of Mims' outside writings would have to be reviewed prior
to publication. Piel warned Mims that if an outside article was
published without review, and caused subsequent embarrassment
to Scientific American, Mims would face a pay cut or dismissal.
Inquiries about Mims' beliefs were not limited to the interview
with Piel. In phone conversations that took place during August,
September, and October, different editors from Scientific American
asked him several such questions, including whether he was a fundamentalist,
and whether he believed in the sanctity of life. The editors also
told Mims that his religious beliefs were a major area of concern.
It eventually became clear that Mims would not get the column.
Meanwhile, Scientific American on August 30 assigned
Mims a trial column for $2000. Mims submitted two articles on
September 23, and another one later on. Piel's response to the
three articles was very positive. In a phone converstation--which
Mims taped, after determining it was legal to do so--Piel said
"There's no question that on their own merits the columns
are fabulous...they're great...What you've written is first rate...Give
me three of them and I'll run them...I'll buy them from you."
During the call, however, Piel expressed concern about Mims'
religious views being exploited by third parties, or linked with
Scientific American, thereby embarrassing "the good
name of this magazine." When Mims tried to reassure Piel
that he would never use the column to promote his beliefs, Piel
replied "I trust you. You're a man of honor and integrity...It's
the public relations nightmare that's keeping me awake."
On October 8, 1990, Jonathan Piel's public relations nightmare
became horribly real when the Houston Chronicle broke Mims'
story to the public. The reality, though, was much worse than
Piel could have ever dreamt. After two weeks, the Wall Street
Journal picked up the story, followed by the New York Times,
the Washington Post, and coutless other newspapers across
the country. Scientific American was now fully in the public
eye, caught in a most unflattering light.
Many of those interviewed for the newspaper articles issued
ringing condemnations of the magazine's actions. Even worse, two
former editors, who had been with Scientific American when
Mims was turned down, admitted to reporters that Mims' beliefs
were the reason he wasn't hired. Former managing editor, Armand
Schwab Jr., said "Scientific American is a science
magazine; it's largely written by scientists. We're completely
dependent on the good will of working scientists for those articles,
so there's a question of whether or not this could conceivably
threaten the credibility of the magazine. You have to understand
that creationism is sort of a shibboleth for scientists."
Schwab added, "My own conclusion after some time was that
the creationist beliefs did not militate against his doing a column
for us. I just assumed Mims was smart enough that if he dealt
with animals to not say 'all of whom were created and survived
the flood,' etc."
Tim Appenzeller, former associate editor for the magazine and
now senior editor for The Sciences, said to the Houston
Chronicle "There was concern that Scientific American
might be linked to a Flat Earther or something. There was no question
in anyone's mind that he would have been a good columnist for
the Amateur Scientist....I was one of several people on the staff
who thought he should be taken on. Without a doubt, (Christianity)
led to his not being offered the job of the Amateur Scientist
column, and specifically it was creationism."
In the wake of these and other revelations, opinion has run
hard against Scientific American. Editorialists, liberal
and conservative alike, have lambasted the magazine for its treatment
of Mims. The ACLU has offered Mims its help, and, in a letter
to the president of Scientific American, characterized
the actions of the magazine as belonging to another era, if not
another century. In short, there has been a gathering consensus
that the magazine has simply gone too far, and has done Mims a
A Chilling Effect
Despite the support Forrest Mims has received in the national
media, Mims' story does not yet have a happy ending. For one thing,
Scientific American has not recanted its actions, and this
has raised concerns that the magazine's position will hinder the
freedom of scientists to express their personal beliefs. Lamar
Hankins, acting director of the Texas office of the ACLU, stated,
"Every scientist who hears about this is going to wind up
saying, 'Boy, I'd better not let anyone find out what I believe
or I'll end up not getting published again.' It's certainly the
type of thing that has a chilling effect."
Mims asserts that he has seen the chill begin to spread: "I'm
hearing that in phone calls already, not only from scientists,
but from newspapers and magazine writers, and from radio people.
An unexpected aspect of the controversy is that many members of
the media have expressed sympathy because they may someday be
asked questions about their personal beliefs."
Thus, although Scientific American has indeed experienced
a public relations nightmare, the long-term result of their action
could harm not only creationism, but freedom of expression as
Another disturbing development is the way in which some Darwinists
have chosen to justify the magazine's actions, resorting to libelous
ad hominems and displaying distressing attitudes toward
freedom of conscience. One of the more egregious examples of this
occurred on October 31, when Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director
of the National Center for Science Education, appeared with Forrest
Mims on the CNN's Crossfire. During the broadcast, Dr.
Scott made some astonishing comments.
Early in the broadcast, co-host Cal Thomas asked Eugenie Scott:
"Dr. Scott in San Francisco, let me jump in here and ask
you a question. There are an awful lot of Americans, not only
religious Americans, who believe that you evolutionists are trying
to censor and silence people who don't agree with you. Isn't the
essence of scientific inquiry free and open access and debate?"
Eugenie Scott replied, "It is indeed, but I think what
we have to look at is what are we--what are giving--what are we
calling equally valid ideas? We're not dealing with political
speech, we're not dealing with opinions on art. We're dealing
with what science is..."
In essence, Dr. Scott seemed to be saying that freedom of conscience
doesn't extend to science, because science deals in matters of
truth--as opposed to .matters of opinion. Such a viewpoint indicates
a grave misunderstanding of both the nature of science and the
meaning of freedom of conscience.
Dr. Scott's manner of contrasting science with "opinion"
is strikingly similar to certain passages from the California
Science Framework, a document on which her organization had substantial
input. In that document, the authors asserted that science was
distinct from other disciplines, like history, literary criticism,
and philosophy, because science aims to be objective, testable,
and consistent. This is a seriously misguided view, aptly called
scientism. As philosopher of science Nicholas Rescher points
The theorist who maintains that science is the be-all and
end- all--that what is not in science books is not worth knowing--is
an ideologist with a peculiar and distorted doctrine of his own.
For him, science is no longer a sector of the cognitive enterprise
but an all-inclusive world-view. This is the doctrine not of
science but of scientism. To take this stance is
not to celebrate science but to distort it....
Objectivity, testability, and consistency are the hallmark
of all scholarly activity. They separate good scholarship
from bad scholarship, not science from everything else. And it
is troubling when an organization ostensibly dedicated to science
education does not recognize this fact.
Even more troubling, however, is the apparent implication that
First Amemement protections are somehow irrelevant to science,
the idea being that free speech and freedom of conscience should
apply to areas in which truth is relative--i.e. in matters of
opinion. But freedom of conscience is not something meant to apply
only (or even primarily) to matters of simple opinion. It was
intended to protect people from the tyranny of "unassailable
truths" imposed by those in power. After all, how many inquisitions,
religious or secular, ever bothered with matters that the authorities
deemed to be merely matters of opinion? What needed protecting
was not "opinion," but "truth." By implying
otherwise, Dr. Scott has identified herself and her organization
with a viewpoint that should give everyone cause for great concern.
In addition to her disturbing remarks on science and freedom
of speech, Dr. Scott also made a libelous attack on Forrest Mims.
Her attack occurred during the latter part of the broadcast, in
answer to another query by Cal Thomas:
Thomas: Let's put the shoe on the other foot for the
moment. Let's say that you were applying to a prestigious magazine
or to a university for a research or teaching position and you
were asked to put down your religious preference and let's say
the head of the personnel department who was deciding on which
person should be hired saw that you were of a religious faith
or no religious faith that was different from his or her own
and decided that you should not get that position because they
were afraid that your religious faith or nonreligious faith might
impact upon the university of magazine. Would you be upset? Would
you be angry? Would you sue?
Dr. Scott: No, I'd have to talk to a lawyer about that,
but I think the issue here has been unfortunately framed in terms
of science versus religion and it's not that at all. It's really
a matter of scientific competency. What you might consider is
that evolution is not just that man descended from apes. Evolution
is a theme. It's a grand unifying principle that runs across
all scientific fields. Now, I'm not defending--
Thomas: But scientific--excuse me--
Scott: Let me finish. Let me finish.
Thomas: All right.
Scott: I am not an employee of Scientific American,
so, you know, I am not defending them. They can defend themselves
but what I would consider if I were in this--in their position
is whether you would be--whether they would be limiting the scope
of this column by hiring somebody who is so far out of the scientific
mainstream. This man would not be able to write about a wide
variety of scientific topics because of his views which are basically
The point that Dr. Scott tried to make is one that has surfaced
repeatedly in the creation/evolution debate: evolution is so integral
to science and so well established that disbelievers cannot possibly
be competent as scientists--or science writers.
This view, however, trades on equivocation and vagueness. As
Dr. Scott uses the term, evolution is a "grand unifying principle
that runs across all scientific fields." Or, as she stated
earlier in the broadcast, "Evolution means that change has
taken place in the history of the universe." But evolution
in this vague sense is irrelevant to Mims' beliefs. What Mims
had difficulty accepting was not the fact that change has taken
place in the history of the universe. (How could anyone
object to such a trivial statement?) His objection was to a theory
of biological change that is much more controversial, and
much less central to science--even biological science -- than
Dr. Scott and others would have us believe.
Dr. Scott's remarks, therefore, amount to little more than
a libelous, and irrational, attack on Mims. Given Mims' credentials,
and the fact that his competence was never an issue with the staff
at Scientific American, Dr. Scott's remarks tell us more
about herself than Forrest Mims and show just how far some people
will go to protect a cherished "grand theme."
Dr. Scott's ad hominem is particularly unsettling in
light of her conspicuous involvement in science education. Recent
reform efforts in science education have strongly emphasized teaching
science as a way of knowing, and have laid great stress on getting
students to apply scientific skills and attitudes to everyday
situations. By eschewing a scientific attitude in favor of an
ill-founded ad hominem attack, Dr. Scott has become an
unfortunate role-model and has perhaps even damaged the credibility
of her organization as a promoter of scientific literacy.
Although the general support for Forrest Mims in the media
is an encouraging sign, the actions of Scientific American
and its supporters are still a source of genuine concern. In these
actions one can see a troubling disregard for important principles
and ideals. In this context, the following warning seems particularly
Recent controversies over religion and public life have
too often become a form of warfare in which individuals, motives,
and reputations have been impugned. The intensity of the debate
is commensurate with the importance of the issues debated, but
to those engaged in this warfare we present two arguments for
reappraisal and restraint.
The lesser argument is one of expediency and is based on
the ironic fact that each side has become the best argument for
the other. One side's excesses have become the other side's arguments;
one side's extremists the other side's recruiters. The danger
is that, as the ideological warfare becomes self-perpetuating,
more serious issues and broader national interests will be forgotten
and the bitterness deepened.
The more important argument is one of principle and is
based on the fact that the several sides have pursued their objectives
in ways which contradict their own best ideals. Too often, for
example, religious believers have been uncharitable, liberals
have been illiberal, conservatives have been insensitive to tradition,
champions of tolerance have been intolerant, defenders of free
speech have been censorious, and citizens of a republic based
on democratic accommodation have succumbed to a habit of relentless
Whatever we debate, then, let us do so as vigorously as the
issues demand. But let us never sacrifice those things that are
Rescher, N. (1984). The Limits of Science. Berkeley:
University of California Press.[RETURN TO TEXT]
"Until only a few years ago, the 'synthetic' or 'neo-
Darwinist' theory of evolution stood virtually unchallenged as
the basis of our understanding of the organic world. There were,
to be sure, a few who held out against the consensus, but they
had very little influence on the majority of biologists. Almost
all the research that was undertaken in evolution was designed
to investigate the operation of natural selection, and was seen
as confirming the theory. "Today, however, the picture is
entirely different. More and more workers are showing signs of
dissatisfaction with the synthetic theory. Some are attacking
its philosophical foundations, arguing that the reason that is
has been so amply confirmed is simply that is is unfalsifiable:
with a little ingenuity any observation can be made to appear
consistent with it. Others have deliberately setting out to work
in just those areas in which neo-Darwinism is least comfortable,
like the problem of gaps in the fossil record or the mechanisms
of non-Mendelian inheritance. Still others, notably some systematists,
have decided to ignore the theory altogether, and to carry on
their research without any a priori assumption about how evolution
has occurred. Perhaps most significantly of all, there is now
appearing a stream of articles and books defending the synthetic
theory. "It is not so long ago that hardly anyone thought
this was necessary." Ho, M.-W. & Saunders, P.T. (1984).
Preface. Beyond Neo-Darwinism. (M.-W. Ho & P.T. Saunders
eds.), p. ix.[RETURN TO TEXT]
"While evolution may well be the thread that ties
all of biology together, concern about the fabric of the subject
seems to have had little play in much of modern biology. There
are professional biologists who would be indifferent ot the title
and substance of Theodosious Dobzhansky's 1973 essay "Nothing
in Biology Makes Sense Except in Light of Evolution." Indeed,
as I found the other day, when speaking with a bright, and not-that-young,
molecular geneticist, there are biologists out there who have
never heard of Professor Dobzhansky. One can be a successful practitioner
of many areas of contemporary biology without considering how
organisms, molecules or phenomena came to be or their descent
relationships. A relative absence of interest in evolution prevails
in a number of areas of biology, with high-tech molecular biology
being the most prominent of them." Levin, B.R. (1984). Science
as a Way of Knowing--Molecular Evolution. American Zoologist,
24, pp. 451-464. (p. 451).[RETURN TO TEXT]
From The Williamsburg Charter, presented to the
nation on June 25, 1988, the 200th anniversary of Virginia's call
for the Bill of Rights.[RETURN TO TEXT]
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