Georgia Southern University launches investigation of creationist professor

I’ve written several times before about how Professor Emerson T. McMullen, in the history department of Georgia Southern University (a public school) has been foisting creationism—blatantly stupid young-earth creationism—on students in his classes on science and the history of science. Following a student complaint, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a formal complaint with Georgia Southern (See my posts on this issue here, here, and here. In the interest of self-aggrandizement, and in receiving the Discovery Institute’s Censor of the Year award an unprecedented twice in a row, I have to add that I helped the FFRF demolish McMullen’s scientific claims).

The University has decided to investigate this issue, and on the highest level. Yesterday FFRF lawyer Andrew Seidel received the following email from Maura Copeland, the chief legal counsel for Georgia Southern University, which I reproduce with the FFRF’s permission.

Dear Mr. Seidel,

In the interest of keeping you updated, I am writing to let you know that the Dean has gathered information regarding this complaint and we are attempting set a meeting with the Dean, Provost and myself to review the results and discuss appropriate next steps. This being “search season” on campus and with holidays approaching, it is proving to be no easy task to find a time where we are all available. I am working with the secretaries to set the meeting (ideally next week, but I cannot confirm yet that next week is possible). I did not want you to think that I had forgotten about the complaint. Please let me know if you have any further questions or concerns. Have a great day!
Maura
I can’t take this as anything other than a good sign. McMullen’s days of teaching lies about science to Georgia Southern students are, I think, coming to an end. For if the school allows this to continue, and there’s a student willing to complain, there would also be a lawsuit on the horizon.
The issue of teaching creationism in public universities (unlike teaching it in public high schools or elementary schools) has never been legally adjudicated per se, but if the First Amendment applies in universities, such teaching must surely be illegal. Georgia Southern is a state school, its professors are agents of the government, and therefore they cannot promulgate one religious viewpoint in their classes if—as is the case for McMullen—it has no secular purpose. I find the arguments that exempt public universities (as opposed to “lower” schools) from First Amendment restrictions to be totally unconvincing.

48 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted November 14, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Even if it were legal, it’s not factual. How can a university just teach made up stuff and be taken seriously. What students would want to go to such a place? If they can’t attract students, they can’t make money and they will fade away. It’s in their best interest to squelch this bad teaching.

    • Sastra
      Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:11 am | Permalink

      That’s the dilemma. It’s not against the law to teach wrong things. But if the issue is then the separation of church and state, it leaves the impression that certain things can’t be taught because they’re true, but fall into a forbidden category.

      Damned if we do;damned if we don’t.

      • nickswearsky
        Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        It is not against the law to teach wrong things. Well, yes. but Georgia Southern may feel it is not appropriate and take action. There are standards in higher education.

        • Sastra
          Posted November 14, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

          I agree. That’s the best route to take when eliminating religion from science. We do have the law — but that can be problematic, partly because the religious will protest that the law is interfering in science. High irony, there.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted November 14, 2014 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

        Why isn’t it against the law to, knowingly, teach wrong things?

        I thought US liked litigation, and this should be a no-brainer. Don’t hit people; don’t teach falsehoods; don’t cheat on contracts.

        • Sastra
          Posted November 14, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

          Because people who teach error usually think they’re right. That makes ‘fraud’ harder to prove.

          • Posted November 14, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

            That, and the whole pesky First Amendment….

            b&

      • Brygida Berse
        Posted November 14, 2014 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        It’s not against the law to teach wrong things.

        Even if it’s not against the law, it can be viewed as a breach of contract. Can a university teach in an astronomy class that the Earth is flat or in chemistry that burning releases phlogiston? Can it have an illiterate person teach a course in creative writing?

        I really wish situations like these were resolved through adherence to professional standards, so the appeal to the Constitution wouldn’t be necessary.

      • Mark Joseph
        Posted November 14, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

        But, as Jo Ann Gora stated, “it’s not a question of academic freedom; it’s a question of academic competence.”

        If he’s teaching creationism, he should be fired (almost said “expelled” 😉 ) not for his beliefs, but for the same reason they would fire a chemistry prof who taught alchemy, an astronomy prof who taught astrology, or a psych prof who taught phrenology.

  2. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted November 14, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    ESA probably has some diamond-tipped drill bits made as flight spares which might penetrate the dense, hard material of this professor’s skull. They’re hollow, so the demons might get let out. Meanwhile, and much more usefully, the flight drill is drilling holes in a comet.
    I wonder if they’ll strike oil?
    No, not quite entirely jokingly – hydrocarbons are a possibility, which is why they’ve got GCMS and other tools up there, the big brothers of the machines we have a rack full of in the workshop.

    • Kevin
      Posted November 14, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

      Methane ices…the precursors to life. Smashed by highly charged low energy solar winds…boom and there’s an amino acid.

      I’ld like to bath all creationists in solar wind and see if they can go back to organic muck.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 14, 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        That is an insult to organic muck. I type, one – thumbed, as a former shit-shoveller.
        In other news, “ach phtffpttt” it sounds as if the battery on Philae gave out while doing the analyses of drilled material. Some data returned, but did they get to the dregs of the GC column (I. e. The interesting high molecular weight bits?)
        If I chose to exercise my vocabulary, I would have some very rude words for Eris (full of discord), who seems to have put her boots on before getting to work on this one. Last twitch of a dying anthropomorphism, I say, tempting the lightening bolt and Furies.
        They certainly attempted to drill, but without motor torque vs bit position, it’s hard to know if the surface was penetrated. [EXTREMELY RUDE WORDS]
        [FRUSTRATING ]

        • Posted November 14, 2014 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

          Damn.

          Obviously, the proper response is to send another probe to another comet.

          Hell, the real proper response is to send dozens of probes to dozens of comets, but we’d much rather spend the money killing brown people, so that’s clearly off the table.

          Damn.

          b&

          • Kevin
            Posted November 14, 2014 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

            It’s not like a huge cost. Building four is not equal to one x four, its more like 1.2 times to build four. NASA is imbued with heavy managment costs…of course, the double checking and the over-the-shoulder is arguably what keeps success higher than >95% (depending on whose really interested in seeing success, i.e., other unnamed organizations sometimes look over NASA’s shoulders to see what games to play of their own).

            • Posted November 14, 2014 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

              Yeah…but just think of not only how many brown people we can kill with that $1.2x, but how many secret military contracts we can so-profitably funnel into consultancies for retired Congressmen with it.

              Clearly, your priorities aren’t properly aligned with those of K Street.

              b&

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted November 16, 2014 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

              i.e., other unnamed organizations sometimes look over NASA’s shoulders to see what games to play of their own).

              Some of those other unnamed organisations need to slacken their tongues perhaps?
              Hubble was not the first telescope to go into space with mis-polished optics. There are persistent rumours of other avoidable errors that first happened in spooky programmes and were later re-learned in civilian programmes.

        • Diane G.
          Posted November 14, 2014 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

          “That is an insult to organic muck.”

          LOL!

          & sub

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 14, 2014 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

        That is an insult to organic muck. I type, one – thumbed, as a former shit-shoveller.
        In other news, “ach phtffpttt” it sounds as if the battery on Philae gave out while doing the analyses of drilled material. Some data returned, but did they get to the dregs of the GC column (I. e. The interesting high molecular weight bits?)
        If I chose to exercise my vocabulary, I would have some very rude words for Eris (full of discord), who seems to have put her boots on before getting to work on this one. Last twitch of a dying anthropomorphism, I say, tempting the lightening bolt and Furies.
        They certainly attempted to drill, but without motor torque vs bit position, it’s hard to know if the surface was penetrated. [EXTREMELY RUDE WORDS]
        [FRUSTRATING ]

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted November 16, 2014 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

          Getting too many double-posts off that phone. No visual feedback when you hit the post button.

  3. Randy Schenck
    Posted November 14, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    There are a couple of things about this matter that just seem strange. The first that comes to mind is — How could the high ups in the School not know full well what this guy has been doing? The second — why since we do have laws against this don’t they just have law enforcement come in, check it out and then hit them with an appropriate action. A fine, jail time, etc. There should not be a requirement that a student make a complaint before legal action can be taken.

    • Posted November 14, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      It makes me wonder about all kinds of things – like how many people are getting away with proselytizing because there are no complaints? And how much review is there of curricula for non-core classes? If preaching from the lecturn is overlooked, how much terrible teaching (religion-y or otherwise) must be going on in state schools? Some of the best classes I took were breadth electives; it’s a shame to think there could be so little concern for quality instruction at the undergrad level.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 14, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        I feel a little guilty about questioning why “god” would go with the pilot/engineer who impacted in a Virgin plane last week.A personal tragedy for the family, but why do people invoke a god to exculpate what is clearly an engineering issue …. I pass.

  4. Posted November 14, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mad4science’s Blog.

  5. Sastra
    Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I think this is an especially strong case because as I recall McMullen didn’t just flirt with inserting religion and pseudoscience into his class, he made a real donkey of himself and shoved them in with both fists and a flourish. He’s very likely to be dismissed or at least censured — and another positive precedent is added to the pile. Perfect.

  6. Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    When I was an employee in a State school I was legally a civil servant, with appropriate benefits package and insurance.

    I am sure that if this were to go to court, this or any other State University would be told that it must abide by the First Amendment, in the same way as a High School and for the same reasons.

    • Posted November 14, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      As a faculty associate at Arizona State University and later as adjunct faculty at Maricopa Community College, I had to take the same loyalty oath to the Arizona and United States Constitutions as every other state employee (including, amusingly enough, a pledge to not join the Communist Party, something just begging for a court challenge). I was every bit as much an official of the state then as I am at election times as the inspector of the local precinct’s election board.

      I don’t know what the situation is like at GSU, but I have a difficult time imagining it being substantively different.

      b&

      • Posted November 14, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        I had professors in Urban Planning at the University of California who were Marxists. I assume they did not have to take that pledge.

        • Posted November 14, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          The anti-Communist line is infamously Arizonan. I’m not familiar with the oaths of offices in any other states, but I’d be quite surprised if California had any such line.

          Hmpf. I just checked and discovered that the current version doesn’t have the reference any more:

          http://www.azsos.gov/Info/LOYALTY_OATH_OF_OFFICE.pdf

          Somebody must have sued, after all.

          b&

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted November 16, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

        (including, amusingly enough, a pledge to not join the Communist Party, something just begging for a court challenge)

        So, you weren’t allowed to join, but could maintain your existing membership?

        • Posted November 17, 2014 at 9:41 am | Permalink

          As I remember, the wording was inspired by Indecent Joe and left no wiggle room…it was one of those “renounce all past, present, and future” sorts of deals.

          b&

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted November 17, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

            I’d like to say that America used to have some really horrible politicians. Unfortunately, the implication that things are different now would be false.

  7. Sean
    Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I just took a quick look at his website:
    http://class.georgiasouthern.edu/history/faculty/mcmullen/

    This is an honest question: Why would a history teacher host a class titled: “Dinosaurs and Extinction” ?

    Would this not normally fall into one of natural sciences like biology or paleontology?

    It just seems odd to me that the a professor who offers third and fourth year courses in the History of Flight and American Military History would also have the expertise to teach a 4th year course titled: about Dinosaurs.

    (I am assuming that the 1st digit of the course number is the year in the curriculum, like most schools that I have been involved with)

    • Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

      He claims expertise in both military history and history of science. The class is billed as a course on the history of the subject, and so would fall into the history department.

      But I’m surprised that nobody in the biology or geology departments seems to have noticed.

      • Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        They know now, for both the FFRF and I have told the Biology Department.

        • Posted November 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

          But did you tell the geology department? That’s where the vertebrate paleontologist is.

        • Michael Hart
          Posted November 14, 2014 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          A couple weeks ago I asked a friend of mine at GSU (a professor in the Biology department) about McMullen, and she had never heard of him or his courses. So maybe he really is that obscure.

          • Posted November 14, 2014 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

            Maybe the science faculty should start paying attention to what goes on around them.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted November 16, 2014 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

              I don’t know the physical layout of Georgia (I’d have to check to see if it was coastal, for example), but I could well imagine that if this guy were operating in HoS when I were an undergraduate, the Geology, Genetics, and Anatomy departments wouldn’t have known what he was up to. Those departments – and physiology – were in a separate building in the centre of town.History of Science – history in General was up the road at New Kings.

    • Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      This is perhaps interesting. There is at least one vertebrate paleontologist at the university: Kathlyn Smith. I wonder if she knows about that course.

  8. Posted November 14, 2014 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Aha. I would bet that he is a graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. That place is a hot-bed of evangelical BS. If the University wanted to play nice, all they would have to do is have him teach a class in comparative religions. I was fascinated with that class a zillion years ago, and HE might learn something. Well, probably not.

  9. Jeff Rankin
    Posted November 14, 2014 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    I recommend taking a look at his Google page:

    https://sites.google.com/a/georgiasouthern.edu/etmcmull/

    It’s just flat out creationism and reality denial. It’s embarrassing that this guy is teaching any aspect of science, including history of science.


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