As we’ve noted already (here and here), UK paleontologist Russell Garwood recently took to the pages of the journal Nature to sound the alarm about the enactment of an academic freedom law in Tennessee. It’s no huge deal, but he missed the ball a couple of times in ways that bear another look.
First, Garwood says:
… the US state of Tennessee passed a creationist bill…
Yes, Tennessee is a state in the US. But, no, Tennessee did not pass a creationist bill. It passed an academic freedom bill. (The sky may or may not fall as a result. It is probably too soon for climatologists to tell.) Garwood would have caught this had he read the bill. Policy people usually read first. It’s standard operating procedure.
Academic freedom is basically the idea that teachers should be free from fear of administrative retaliation (it happens, unfortunately) to objectively teach both sides of a legitimate scientific controversy, including those centered on Darwin’s theory, climate change, and human cloning, to name a few.
Conversely, creationism is the idea that God made the world and all in it as written in the book of Genesis.
True, academic freedom and creationism are words in the English language, which is spoken in both the US and the UK, but that’s about the extent of the overlap between academic freedom and creationism. A non-paleontologist with a policy background would have probably caught this. You’d hope, anyway.
After hitting the nail on the head regarding Tennessee’s statehood, while somehow botching the distinction between creationism and academic freedom, Garwood goes on to talk about Answers in Genesis, a creationist group, because at that point he’s still on a creationist kick.
So then he talks about uncertainty within paleontology, his field, and how the creationists take uncertainty over, e.g., the “morphological stasis” of harvestman, ancient arachnids, to count as evidence for “a designer,” and as evidence against evolution.
After committing that weird dichotomy to print, Garwood wrings his hands over future creationist attempts to interpret the paleontological literature. To beat the bad guys to the punch, Garwood urges publishers to post non-technical interpretations of research to public outreach websites (i.e., blogs) before the research shows up in the technical literature.
Then, in another weird move out of nowhere, Garwood ends by talking about Tennessee again. He says:
Ignoring the creationist threat will not make it go away. As scientists, we owe it to the schoolchildren of Tennessee and elsewhere to find another way to beat it.
Now, I’ve not seen Garwood’s employment agreement with the University of Manchester, where he works, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say he probably didn’t undertake a contractual obligation to do anything one way or the other for the kids of Tennessee. That would be pretty non-standard if he did. So if he ignores the “creationist threat” and it doesn’t “go away,” those kids probably can’t go after him in court.
He’s also off the hook with respect to his dual status as a paleontologist and scientist. There’s no reason that the nature of that work would require him to advise the state of Tennessee on any subject. In fact, he should probably just leave the policy talk to the policy people, and instead write about his paleontological research in Nature, which used to be about nature.