Another god-infused science class at a public university?

Yesterday I wrote about the case of Dr. Ned Bowden, an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Iowa, who had written a letter to the University magazine calling out evolutionary biology for its gaping holes, and insisting, at the same time, that evolutionary biology comports perfectly with Genesis (that is, if you construe “Genesis” as chapter 1 but not chapter 2). In a comment to an Inside Higher Education piece about his letter, Bowden also accused his colleagues in evolutionary biology of lying about their field:

Picture 1I wonder if Bowden has a wee bit of regret about his remarks.  I’m sure some of his colleagues do, including the 25 who responded to his claim that there are “holes in the theory of evolution that are big enough to drive a semi-truck through.” (Bowden didn’t identify the holes.)

Well, a few minutes of Googling revealed more than just Bowden’s effusive Christianity.  It seems that he also teaches a seminar at his university that mixes science with God.  Have a look at the description of Chemistry 1000:

004:029:003 (CHEM:1000:0003)    First-Year Seminar

19 of 20 enrolledGeneral Catalog:

Small discussion class taught by a faculty member; topics chosen by instructor; may include outside activities (e.g., films, lectures, performances, readings, visits to research facilities).

Subtitle: What Does Science Say about the Big Bang, Evolution, and Genesis?
Description:

A conflict between evolution and genesis has existed ever since Darwin wrote his book that first explained the case for evolution. In 1925 the famous Scopes Monkey Trial brought this conflict to a wider attention that has not gone away.  Many people are firmly entrenched in their beliefs on both sides. Some folks believe that the Big Bang and evolution explain everything and eliminate the need for a god because science has all of the answers. Does science negate the need for a god? Others believe that the earth is 6,000 years old or they believe a maker that has guided and continuous to guide the universe by intelligent design. In this course we will examine these different viewpoints from the perspective of science.  What does science say about the current theory of evolution and the Big Bang? How does science explain the origin of life on this planet and the “descent of man” from simpler species? How similar are the events described by scientists and Genesis, chapter 1?  No assumptions about what is right or wrong will be used, we will study the current scientific understanding about the Big Bang and evolution to gain an understanding about the differences and similarities between what was written in the Bible and what scientists believe.

In this course we will read a series of short articles written for a general audience to provide a basis for discussion about different topics. For instance, we will discuss the fossil record and what it says about the current theory of evolution and what is left to be discovered.  On another day we will discuss how life might have evolved on earth and what makes earth conducive to life (and has for over four billion years).  All faiths and creeds will be respected; we will examine the science behind the origin of life rather than the differences between faiths.  An interest in science will certainly benefit the discussions in class.

There will be short weekly readings to cover a topic, and we will discuss these readings in class.  You will be expected to do the readings and come prepared with opinions and a willingness to discuss or debate what was read. Some weeks the class will be broken into two groups who will debate a topic.  At the end of the course, a short 5 page paper will be assigned and form part of the basis for your grade.

The reference material and textbooks for the course are not given, though there’s a space for them on the syllabus.

Now this all seems fine—like a “let’s examine all viewpoints” course, but knowing Bowden’s views I strongly doubt whether pure naturalism will be given the same play as his view that “our salvation comes from Christ” (see his Inside Higher Ed comment on my previous post).  And, given Bowden view that Genesis comports nicely with what we know about evolution (despite the “big holes” in the latter), I suspect he’s going to point that out in his section about “the differences and similarities between what was written in the Bible and what scientists believe.” Note as well that Bowden’s magazine piece says this:

If we throw out our modern definition of a day as a 24-hour period, Genesis tells us that on the first day, “God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void…”

When this story was written 4,000 years ago, they didn’t have the language to talk about things like the Big Bang theory and subatomic particles. But whether you take the Big Bang or “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ ” it says the same thing.

So is he going to argue that in his class? If so, it’s not science, but Bowden imposing his Christian views on students.  Are they going to read The God Delusion, or Victor Stenger, or Lawrence Krauss?  If “all faiths and creeds will be respected”, will atheism be among them? All I can say is that I’ll write to Bowden’s chairman and ask for a syllabus.  Odds are that I’ll fail, even though, since his school is a public one, that information is available via the Freedom of Information act.

This whole thing smells fishy—fishy enough that I’ll try to get more information. The University of Iowa should be deeply concerned about this course, and while Bowden is free to publish his views that science proves God in their campus magazine, he’s not free to teach that to students at a public university. The school should also be concerned that a chemistry professor wants to teach about evolution and the “descent of man”, and wonder why he’s doing this. Is he qualified to do so? Maybe Bowden’s course is on the up-and-up, but there’s enough concern to warrant a bit more digging.

What makes me extra worried is an interview with Bowden that appeared in the October 3 issue of Worldmag.com.: “Denying holes in evolution makes science appear arrogant.” Here’s a bit of it (my emphasis):

Some of Bowden’s colleagues went as far as calling into question his credentials for teaching a class on Genesis and Evolution.But Bowden said the professors failed to notice that he was not arguing against evolution, only pointing out unresolved holes in the theory.

“Denying that these gaps exist is embarrassing and makes science appear as arrogant,” the associate professor told me. He believes it is important for scientists to admit they don’t know everything about how the world came into being.

The faculty members also disapproved of Bowden’s acknowledgement of the existence of God. This shows the intolerance of science, Bowden said: “When you come out so strongly saying evolution has to be accepted and no one has a right to question it, people are going to be offended.”

. . .Not everyone at the university opposed the article. Faculty members contacted Bowden personally in support of his views, but said they don’t talk about what they believe because they don’t want to “stick their necks out.”

. . . But his colleagues’ reaction shows it’s not enough to embrace the theory of evolution, holes and all. To be accepted, scientists must deny any belief in a creator who brought the world into existence. Bowden wishes the scientific community would just admit that there is much they don’t know about the origin of the world: “When talking about evolution it’s 10 percent science and 90 percent creative writing.”

That’s wrong, and it’s insulting.  “Creative writing,” really? How much does Bowden really know about evolution, anyway? Is he speaking from a deep acquaintance with the field, or is he, infused with his Christianity, simply buying the talking points of intelligent design creationists? What would he think if a biologist said the same thing about his field, or about physics?

Bowden is an embarrassment to his department and to the University of Iowa.  Please note that I am not calling for him to be fired, or for his course to be eliminated. I just want to know what he’s teaching impressionable Iowa students, and I’d like him to either point out what those “gaping holes” are in evolutionary theory, or stop implying that the field is mostly creative writing, promulgated by biologists who lie about their field.

68 Comments

  1. Posted October 11, 2013 at 5:49 am | Permalink

    It sounds to me as if he is conflating abiogenesis with evolution, though ordinarily I’d be surprised to see a scientist make that sort of mistake.

    • Posted October 11, 2013 at 5:56 am | Permalink

      Less surprised when it’s a religious scientist… 

      /@

    • Posted October 11, 2013 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      I’d bet good money that abiogenesis is primarily what he’s thinking of when he cites “gaping holes” in the theory of evolution.

      In addition to abiogenesis having nothing to do with the theory of evolution, has no one explained to him the weakness of “gap” arguments?

  2. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I find it bleeding obvious that this guy is trying to sneak christianity into science class and that this is a blatant attempt to give christian scripture the same value of truth as evolution and the big bang.

    Notice that he doesn’t even feel the need to explain that he is talking about the christian version of a god and the christian version of genesis. Apparently in his mind it’s a given, and it doesn’t seem to concern him that there are no evidence whatsoever for his god or genesis.

    This is not teaching science, this is proselytising.

    • darrelle
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:06 am | Permalink

      Ah, but there is evidence for his god and genesis. Some really uber strong evidence.

      From his point of view. I think that is the real problem. Telling them they have no good evidence is true, but has no affect if their ideas about what constitutes good evidence are erroneous.

      But scientists really have no excuse compared to non scientists. No need to cut this guy any slack.

      • RFW
        Posted October 11, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        People like that need to be locked up with nothing to do but read Hume, Spinoza, and Tom Paine (one of the Founding Fathers!) until they finally grok that their religious beliefs are based on mere n-th hand hearsay.

  3. Dominic
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    It would be all very well denying the accepted view of evolution by natural selection IF they actually offered a scientifically rigorous alternative, but they do not & they cannot as THERE IS NONE!

    We might as well, as has been said, have the world created yesterday morning & made to look old, & us created with false memories, as created 4,000 years ago or whatever bollocks it is they joyously assert based on their silly bible.

    • Brygida Berse
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

      We might as well, as has been said, have the world created yesterday morning

      And yesterday was, indeed, Thursday.

      • Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:17 am | Permalink

        People like him are bad for my blood pressure! ;)

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:20 am | Permalink

        Thor is realz!

        • darrelle
          Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:15 am | Permalink

          There are so many much more interesting deities than the xian dog.

  4. Brygida Berse
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    So it looks like the “let’s teach the (assumed) controversy” strategy, having muddied the waters of high school education, is making its way into university classrooms now. Appauling.

    • Posted October 11, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

      I think that should be spelled a-Paul-ling. Which is short for a-Paul-of-Tarsus-ling.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

        Just as well you explained that, I was wondering where Linus came into it. ;)

  5. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    At a minimum this course is horribly mislabelled (what the heck has all this to do with chemistry?) and should be taught as a social science and at the worst it’s out & outright proselytizing. Either way, it’s wrong. Jeez, these religious scientists are the worst!

    • Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:36 am | Permalink

      It has been my impression that the fields of chemistry and astronomy are a bit more laced with the highly religious.

      • Diane G.
        Posted October 12, 2013 at 1:06 am | Permalink

        Same here.

    • Spirula
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      I had the same thought when I saw it was categorized as a Chemistry class. Where is the chemistry? There is no way I’d accept this course as fulfilling any chemistry credits.

      I’m an adjunct at a small college here in FL. I have to have taken at least 18 credit hours of courses at the graduate level in biology to be qualified to teach biology courses. I find it hard to believe he has had that many graduate level courses in biology (or especially evolution) if his PhD is in chemistry. So how is he even qualified to teach anything about biology?

      • Jesper Both Pedersen
        Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        …or cosmology for that matter.

      • RFW
        Posted October 11, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        Betcha one jelly-filled donut that this fool has no qualifications to be discussing evolution or religion.

        No degree in biology, no degree in theology. (As though the latter is worth anything.)

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    My private alma mater had plenty of religion infused courses… In the literature and philosophy departments!!! In lit, you could take a course on “the Christian novel” , the formation of the King James Bible, and on John Milton. The first two of these were taught by openly professing Christians who nonetheless never proselytized!! The philosophy class offered “philosophy of religion” in which the readings included both C.S. Lewis and Friedrich Nietzsche!! C’mon! There are quite legit ways to get religion into the classroom. Why resort to the subterfuge of a science course?

    In related news, I recently saw Meyers’ new ID book in a local bookstore…in the religion section!!

    • darrelle
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:17 am | Permalink

      That’s easy. If the product your selling sucks your only choice is to resort to subterfuge.

  7. Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    As Dr. Coyne and many others in this web site say over and over, it is possible to leave personal religious beliefs at the door when operating as a scientist or science teacher. Ken Miller comes close to being a role model showing that methodological naturalism is possible among the religious. But given Dr. Bowden’s many ignorant declarations in public forums, I am right now finding it hard to assume that he would still be strictly balanced and neutral in this classroom. Unfortunately, his classroom activities need to be reviewed.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      I think it has been said that it is necessary to leave magic thinking when doing science. Maybe you should give references to “possible”, which was demonstrated so long ago as it can be taken as a given.

      And Miller is no role model for a scientist and educator, he promotes evolutionary creationism instead of evolutionary theory. (As magic action through quantum fluctuations, despite it being forbidden by physics.) If that is the best the religious can do, it is better they abstain science. (Note, I’m considering the group, not the individual.)

  8. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    To be accepted, scientists must deny any belief in a creator who brought the world into existence.

    Not at all, but admitting that your religious belief isn’t scientfic would be a great start.

  9. ladyatheist
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    wow this post got worse and worse as it went on… 90% creative writing? Considering how much psychological projection is behind the accusations of anti-science nutters, I have to wonder about his own research activities.

    As a former T.A. in the humanities who had to grade the papers of umndergraduate science & engineering majors, I can attest to the lack of creative writing ability of most of them.

  10. Richard Olson
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    ‘If “all faiths and creeds will be respected”, will atheism be among them?’ – JAC

    I read the sentence quoted as questioning whether atheism will be accorded regard & respect equivalent to that traditionally/routinely bestowed upon religious doctrinal statements and claims.

    Christian Righty’s do not interpret the sentence this way. Not even close.

    Christian Righty’s read will this sentence as worded as a demand by an evolutionist that his atheism ought to be respected, like all other faiths and creeds are respected. As if his atheist beliefs are comparable in any way to Christianity, the blasphemer! Well, they may not say that last part out loud. Publicly. In a mic’d church, at any rate.

    The fearful and angry apologist (and ordinary True Believer that is about half the US population)says, “So, the famous evolutionist atheist egghead scientist publicly admits (like we’ve been sayin’ all along, duh!) atheism is only a belief, and it requires faith to be true. In other words, a religion. A false religion to be sure, because it excludes God, but still just another religion*. Told ya’.”

    I think people are not nearly careful enough about what they say to religionists. You gotta watch how you word things when it comes to them and, say, children. Both are always on the lookout for the slightest ambivalence to turn to their advantage and trip you up.

    *Religious types utilize this argument against their case as support for their case all the time, which is well known. Luke Galen or somebody can maybe explain why; I don’t get it.

  11. Subramanya
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I want to attend one of these classes and keep asking why the scientologists are wrong..

  12. gbjames
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    attempting to subscribe.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

      was it successful?

  13. Robert Bray
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    At my university, we had a professor of chemistry so ignorant concerning the incompatibility of science with his rather lugubrious christianity that he finally left his department to become the registrar![which he regarded as a step upward on the stairway to heaven]

  14. Morg
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    Oh Jesus…ouch!
    U got me Bowden! Damn u!

  15. Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I totally agree that the “creative writing” comment is very insulting. I wonder how the evolutionary biologists at his university feel about a colleague judging their work in this manner. He should be given the opportunity to choose three articles in the field of evolutionary biology in a respectable journal and identify the 90%. If he can’t he should make a public apology.

  16. Hempenstein
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    A first-year course like this ought to be a vehicle for steering freshmen toward the course leader’s department for their major.

    If, like Bowden, I had degree in Chemistry from Harvard, I’d surely devote at least some of the time to presenting Jack Szostak’s work on abiogenic origins (like, as noted yesterday, this in the current PNAS) in simple enough terms to be understandable to non-majors.

    If I was his chair and found that instead he was teaching Sunday School, I would not be pleased.

  17. Michael Fugate
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Why is the only creation myth mentioned in the course the OT one? Especially when he claims in the outline:

    “All faiths and creeds will be respected; we will examine the science behind the origin of life rather than the differences between faiths.”

    The only way evolution is compatible with a creation myth is if those myths are viewed solely as fables with a moral attached – not as an attempt to explain the origin and development of life.

  18. Brian
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Honestly, as long as there’s adequate time for debate and my opposing views are not penalized, I’d take that class. However, I may be hypocritical; if I was leading that class and a religious person said evolution was 90% creative writing in an essay, I’d fail it without hesitation. Because, as we all know, evolution is true.

    • gbjames
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

      More importantly, we know WHY evolution is true.

      • Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

        Because it is compatible with Genesis. Do I get an “A”?

      • RFW
        Posted October 11, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        There’s even a book of that exact title, “Why Evolution is True”, written by a well-informed savant at the University of Chicago, some guy named “Coyne”.

    • Erik Verbruggen
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:43 am | Permalink

      Or just to be fair ANY person, if not giveing any proof to to that claim.

  19. Kurt Lewis Helf
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    They’ve got trouble at the University of Iowa! Trouble with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “Behe” and that stands for “Tool”!

    • Richard Olson
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Love that song from musicman; great that it is useful for any critical thinking employment, including this clever ryhme.

      • Richard Olson
        Posted October 11, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        ‘rhyme’ instead, maybe – I somehow failed to notice the little orange line beneath the word until the instant I pressed the post button

  20. Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    The guy is a Chemistry Professor teaching a CHEM curriculum course? How did a course like that end up in a SCIENCE class? Bizarre!

    • Jesper Both Pedersen
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      I think my irony-meter is broken.

      What does the christian story of genesis have to do with chemistry?

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted October 11, 2013 at 9:19 am | Permalink

        Because Bibles are made out of paper and ink, and paper and ink are made out of molecules. It’s obvious!

        • Jesper Both Pedersen
          Posted October 11, 2013 at 11:42 am | Permalink

          Ah, but of course. My bad. :-)

  21. Posted October 11, 2013 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Oh, no. Not again.

    b&

    • Diane G.
      Posted October 12, 2013 at 1:11 am | Permalink

      Sounds so familiar one has to think there’s an underlying conspiracy here…

  22. John
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    Based upon what I have read, I would question Bowden’s qualifications for teaching a course on evolution, especially a small seminar where the professor has to respond the really probing questions, not just stand there and
    lecture. I certainly wouldn’t pose any qualifications to teach his chemistry classes.

  23. Posted October 11, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    I am amazed that school administrators keep falling for these bogus religion courses and allowing them to be taught. This is sneaky stuff that is being smuggled into college classrooms. Shame on the university president, deans, and dept heads for allowing it.

  24. eric
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Now this all seems fine—like a “let’s examine all viewpoints” course

    It seems legal, not fine. IMO to get to “fine” would require, at a minimum, having it be dual-taught, with a religious studies professor being the one to cover what genesis means and says.

    That’s at a bare minimum. Several other steps would make it finer:

    -Taking it out of the Chemistry department and teaching it under philosophy

    -Changing the course so that it covers more than just Genesis (let’s broaden the students’ horizons by looking at other religions, yes?)

    • Kevin
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

      The chemistry should not allow this course to be taught as a seminar wihin their department. There is no other department a course like this could fall except the theology department.

  25. Daryl
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Where does he get the notion that Genesis was written 4000 years ago? I’m not familiar with such an early date. I’ve always considered that when it comes to Mesopotamian creation myths the ones found in Genesis are relatively young and most likely derived from earlier works.

    • RFW
      Posted October 11, 2013 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      A considerable part of the OT appears to express ideas and attitudes that were the common stock of Semitic paganism along the eastern Mediterranean littoral. Other sources are Egypt and Mesopotamia, the latter well known as the source of the Flood myth and Noah’s ark. Google Utnapishtim.

  26. Posted October 11, 2013 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    No assumptions about what is right or wrong will be used, we will study the current scientific understanding about the Big Bang and evolution…

    Because, as we all know, there is no right or wrong in science — only narrative, interpretation and social constructs. Nothing is ever really “proooven” because everything is provisional, and, and… mmm.. slobber, splurt, splut-splut… (mommy)… suckle, suckle…

  27. Posted October 11, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    He says he’ll compare Genesis with the evolutionary account.

    Genesis says whales (and birds) were created before the land animals. Science says no way. Therefore Genesis, whatever else it may be, is not a scientific account.

    end of story.

  28. Matthew
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    What about the weeks and weeks that God spent fiddling with prokaryotes? And if God thought that these people were too ignorant to understand what he was talking about, why didn’t he just explain it a little more clearly? “It was a lot of years. How many? Fill a house with grains of wheat. That’s about a billion grains. Then imagine fourteen of those houses. If each grain in those houses is a year, that’s how long ago I created the Universe.”

    How hard was that?

  29. Leigh Jackson
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Looks like the course is a cosy little corner for worried religious types to be reassured that the bible and modern science are blissfully harmonious. Mainly on account of great, gaping, God-shaped holes in science.

    “CHEM”. JEEZ…

  30. Posted October 11, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if he explains how god made benzene rings in the organic chem course.

  31. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted October 11, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    “If we throw out our modern definition of a day as a 24-hour period,”

    ..whereas in Bibulous times, as any fule kno, a day meant almost exactly.. the.. same… oh, wait…

  32. jimroberts
    Posted October 12, 2013 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    To keep the course relevant for Chemistry 1000, he could explain the chemistry of Lot’s wife turning to salt.

    • ladyatheist
      Posted October 12, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

      And to give a nod to muslims, explain how salt water and fresh water can’t mix

  33. Chance
    Posted October 12, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I have a friend currently enrolled in this course. I’ll try to get you a syllabus. My friend and I are both in SecSI (Secular Students of Iowa), a group on campus that formed at the beginning of this semester, whose goal is to promote critical thinking, secular values, and provide an alternative to the dozen or so (impeccably well funded) religious groups here on campus.

  34. Marcel Volker
    Posted October 13, 2013 at 4:19 am | Permalink

    “Bowden wishes the scientific community would just admit that there is much they don’t know about the origin of the world”

    Dara O’Briain said it best:
    “Science knows it doesn’t know everything; otherwise, it’d stop.”


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