Open letter on the Emory commencement speaker controversy

This year, Emory University has invited Dr. Ben Carson to speak at the commencement ceremony. He’s an accomplished humanitarian and neurosurgeon who is highly respected as an authority on medical science, but he is also an evolution-denier who has made some false and controversial statements on the topic.

In this interview, he implies that evolution occurs by random chance (which, as I addressed in my last post, is not true).  He states that we haven’t found intermediate fossils in the transition from ape to human (Not true.  As usual, Wikipedia is a good start to your search for more information on that).  He also said “Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes.” Adding that if you accept evolution, “you have no reason for things such as selfless love”.

Naturally, this didn’t sit right with many science professors and students at Emory.  A group of faculty members penned a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper, the Emory Wheel, and the letter was signed by ~500 students, faculty members, and alumni over the course of only a of couple days. The letter and its subsequent comments can be found here.  In the letter, it was made clear that this was not a letter of protest or one seeking to have Dr. Carson barred from speaking.  It was merely to call attention to these false and divisive statements and to present the facts regarding evolution.

But when the faculty and students spoke out to call attention to Carson’s comments, a wave of opinion and media interest emerged redefining the issue as one of religious persecution and scientific bullying.  I wish to address these two topics, as there appears to be some widespread misconceptions about the scientific community, particularly at Emory.

1.  The concerns about Dr. Carson’s statements regarding evolution were raised entirely irrespective of his religion.  This is absolutely not a religious issue.  The authors of the original letter even explicitly state that accepting evolution is not at odds with being religious, as evidenced by many religious scientists that accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution.   It is clear from his comments that Carson’s dismissal of this overwhelming evidence comes from his religious beliefs, but it is entirely irrelevant why he chooses to be misinformed on the topic of evolution.  As scientists and educators, we simply ask that he be open to the mountains of evidence in support of evolution and that he not continue spreading false information on the topic.

2.  A prevalent theme has emerged among media articles and its subsequent comments that this letter represents a warning for all young scientists to fall in line with the mantra of Darwinism or face repercussion.  In reality, a scientist producing solid documentation of irrefutable evidence which disproves evolution would not only be welcomed by the scientific community, it would elevate that scientist to elite academic status.  This is because in science, much praise is placed on those who view things differently.  In fact, this is precisely the reason Darwin is so well respected in the scientific community.  His ideas broke the mold, but simply breaking the mold and viewing things differently is not enough, and this is key: one must produce valid incontrovertible evidence to back one’s ideas.  Darwin did so over 200 years ago and has yet to be disproved; in fact his idea of evolution by natural selection is constantly confirmed in areas such as paleontology, biology, and genetics to this day.

The fact that Dr. Carson’s stance on evolution is against the norm among scientists is not worthy of concern.  What is concerning is when Carson, acting as a respected authority on medical science, makes inaccurate and false statements that misinform the general public on the facts regarding evolution and discourage inquiry by conflating the acceptance of this scientific knowledge with having repercussions on one’s morality or ethics.

Misinformation and dogmatic rejection of valid credible science are what scientists rally to publicly condemn, not diversity of ideas.

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One thought on “Open letter on the Emory commencement speaker controversy

  1. Amy Anderson says:

    I agree with you completely. What I don’t understand about Dr. Carson is why he thinks that believing in evolution means that you have to give up on the idea of ethics and morals.I believe the exact opposite – that evolution is one of the things that has made humans ethical, moral, and loving towards one another. We are a pro-social species, so it makes sense that morality would be ingrained in our DNA as well as a product of social and cultural conventions.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_of_morality
    Great blog,
    Amy Anderson

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