Caroline Crocker holds a Ph.D. in cell biology. Her passion is to promote good science, based on impartial evaluation of evidence rather than mere adherence to consensus. According to her, it is vital to the health, prosperity, and even faith of our nation that science be freed from the constraints of financial, political, and religious motives. For this reason, she founded American Institute for Technology and Science Education (AITSE), a non-profit educational foundation with the aim of enhancing scientific understanding and integrity. This interview first appeared at TheBestSchools.org in November of 2011.
TBS: Dr. Crocker, you came to our attention through your role in the Ben Stein documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, which was released in 2008. Can you tell us how you came to be part of that documentary? What happened to you that was so important that Ben Stein wanted to make it public?
ICC: I came to the attention of the producers of the documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed as a result of the 2005 publication of an article by Geoff Brumfield in Nature magazine. Briefly, soon after receiving my PhD in immunopharmacology, I began teaching cell biology at George Mason University (GMU). But when I gave students information on the scientific questions surrounding the theory of evolution, I found myself banned from lecturing, my three-year contract switched for a one-year, and my job over. Amazingly, it did not end there! GMU found a way to deprive me of legal representation by offering the law firm that was representing me a more lucrative contract. There is much misinformation about me and my situation on the Internet simply because, even during the filming of the movie, I chose not to reveal all the incredible facts surrounding my case.
According to the documentary, Ben Stein was concerned that those who dare to question aspects of evolutionary theory and give credence to the scientific theory of Intelligent Design were finding themselves ostracized and penalized in the academy. Unfortunately, this situation is quite normal for anyone who questions the status quo. This can be seen in the stories of Dr. Dan Shechtman, the recent Nobel Prize--winning scientist who was ridiculed for entertaining theories that did not fit with the current consensus in chemistry, Dr. Jim Enstrom, a scientist who recently lost his position at UCLA after questioning the consensus on diesel emissions, or even Nobel Prize--winning physicist Dr. Ivar Giaever, who resigned from the American Physical Society over their claim that the evidence for global climate change is incontrovertible. Ben wanted to highlight the plight of three scientists who were being penalized for suggesting that the mechanism of evolution, being random mutations and natural selection, may in fact not lead to increased information and that ID may have something to contribute to the scientific discussion. Despite the fact that, as Dr. Shechtman said, "…a good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he reads in the textbooks," questioning evolution leads to job loss.
TBS: Tell us a bit about your life before your difficulties at George Mason University and their exposure in Expelled. Where did you get your degrees? In what fields of study? What sort of career as a biologist had you envisioned? When did you start entertaining "politically incorrect" views and what were the first glimmers that they were going to get you into trouble?
ICC: I started university at a community college in Ankeny, Iowa, when I was 16 yrs old. After I obtained my Associate Degree, my family moved to England and I went with them. I then studied at Warwick University for a Bachelor of Science in microbiology and virology, graduating with a 4.0 grade average (when translated to the American system). Then, after a break to have my children, I did a Master's in medical microbiology at Birmingham University. Finally, my PhD was in immunopharmacology; the thesis was on an evaluation of the effect of glucocorticoids on T-cell function and phosphodiesterase activity. To accomplish the work for a doctorate from Southampton University under Martin Church, PhD, DSc, I had to bring in my own funding, so I had a nice foretaste of what work as a professor would involve. I generated ideas, wrote proposals, contacted and corresponded with potential sponsors, planned and performed experiments, organized and interpreted data, wrote reports, published numerous peer-reviewed articles, presented the work at scientific meetings, and brought in grants—thus funding my own PhD and a significant amount of the work of the department where I was based, Creighton University Allergic Disease Center.
My goal and dream was to be a tenured professor at a major university—after all, I already had proven myself able to bring in grants, do research, and write. However, because I was based at a medical school, the only teaching experience I received was when I taught part of an immunology class for allergy fellows, co-organized and implemented a basic immunology course for our department, and supervised and trained graduate students. For this reason, when my family and I moved to the DC area, I decided to spend some time teaching, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I taught a variety of biology courses until 2006, when the pressures resulting from my Darwin-doubting ways meant I had to leave teaching. In 2006 I began a postdoctoral fellowship investigating the signal transduction pathway from the T-cell receptor to activation of NF-κB using molecular biological techniques, confocal microscopy, and Fluorescence Resonance Energy Transfer analysis.
I began to entertain "politically incorrect views" while I was studying for my PhD. Basically, I did not see how evolution by random mutation and natural selection could lead to the kind of intricate nanotechnology that I was seeing inside a cell. Aspects of evolutionary theory conflicted with what I knew of science. I've heard people say that eventually we will figure out how mistakes in copying lead to increased information, but that belief takes more faith than I have. I think that it might make more sense to just evaluate the scientific evidence and follow where it leads rather than try to fit the new evidence about the copious amounts of information found in cells into a theory that was suggested over 150 years ago when cells were thought to be simple blobs of protoplasm.
When I began to teach, I noticed that the assigned textbooks were written in a way so as to encourage students to memorize, rather than critically assess, some of the information. I did not think this practice would lead to their success in future biology classes nor in their chosen careers in science. Therefore, in keeping with Yale recommendations on teaching controversial subjects, my habit was to teach students "not to argue from authority and to link their claims and assertions to appropriate evidence whenever possible."
For example, when teaching about the function of steroids in cellular communication, I had the students go beyond the text and encouraged them to speculate on the possible side effects of hydrocortisone. In the same way, in the single cell biology lecture where I presented the information the textbook provided on evolution and the origin of life, I suggested that the students critically assess the claims made. I asked questions like, "Is microevolution is a legitimate ‘proof' of macroevolution?" or "How much does the synthesis of a racemic mixture of individual amino acids in a closed system add to a discussion of the origin of life?" I encouraged them to think about what they were being taught, making it clear that disagreeing with the professor was okay—provided they backed their opinions up with science. The students enjoyed this method of teaching and clamored to get into my classes. Their letters can be found in my book Free to Think: Why Scientific Integrity Matters.
My first inkling of trouble was the day that my supervisor called me into his office and told me that I was going to be disciplined for allegedly "teaching creationism." That was not true. In fact, I had not even given the offending lecture during the previous semester. My supervisor was acting on a report from one student who refused to put the complaint in writing. A copy of the document where he admits this fact is in my book. A week after Free to Think was published I found out that the student who made the false allegations about me had been previously suspended from GMU for intimidating other students and for cheating—perhaps this is why she did not put anything in writing. Nonetheless, the grievance procedure, which is fully documented in my book, was a farce, my three-year contract was switched for a one-year, and my job at GMU was over.
TBS: After George Mason University, what happened next? Describe going on the job market once your unorthodox views about biological origins became known. What obstacles did you face? How did you cope?
ICC: After I lost my job at GMU, I taught part-time at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) where the departmental supervisor is a lovely lady who does not discriminate based on one's personal views on evolution. However, one day, soon after a story about my situation came out on NPR, I overheard some administrators instructing my supervisor there to get rid of me. "We don't want her type here." She objected and defended me to them, but I did not want to take advantage of her kindness.
I resigned my position at NVCC in December 2006 and started a postdoctoral fellowship conducting cell biology research for the Department of Defense. After only a year, that job was terminated due to "lack of funding," despite the fact that I was hired to work on a three-year NIH grant-funded project. I tried to find other research and/or teaching positions and did get interviews but, perhaps because the Washington Post published an article about my plight, even when I got offers they were withdrawn within a couple of weeks. An employee at the National Institutes of Health later told me that I am blacklisted, so I gave up on my dreams of being a professor and turned my attention to other endeavors.
Now I do a variety of things: working for American Institute for Technology and Science Education, a nonprofit focused on integrity in science, speaking, publishing various articles, writing a new book, tutoring medical students, helping professors author their papers, and serving as an independent biology consultant for Rice University. I am not bored!
TBS: There's much talk at colleges and universities about academic freedom. How has your perspective on academic freedom changed in the last ten years? How do you now envision genuine academic freedom?
ICC: Ten years ago I thought we had academic freedom. Now I know I was wrong. The GMU handbook says that faculty members have "the right to unrestricted expositions of subjects (including controversial questions) within one's field … in a professionally responsible manner … without fear of censorship or penalty." But, they nonetheless used state funding to deprive me of legal representation as is documented in the preface to my book, which was written by Edward Sisson, former partner at Arnold and Porter, a big law firm in Washington DC. He points out that any university could use the precedent set by GMU against one of their faculty members. Say a professor files a lawsuit against their employer. The university could hire the law firm that is also representing the professor, claim a conflict of interest and state that a condition of working with the law firm is to have the professor fired as a client. That is what GMU did. Obviously, this opens the door to the potential for any university to deprive their politically-incorrect professors of legal representation—after all, professors are not usually as well funded as universities.
Academic freedom requires that the professor's right to "unrestricted expositions of subjects, [etc.] … without fear of censorship or penalty" is genuine, not just theoretical. However, since I am a biologist, not a political scientist, a historian or a philosopher, I tend to use a different term to describe what this looks like. Scientific integrity. To explain, imagine a tree of science. The roots represent the scientific knowledge we have to date. The trunk corresponds to science education from elementary school at the bottom to post-graduate education at the top. The branches are analogous to professions that are dependent on science: medicine, industry, teaching, etc. The leaves are the benefits for the public. It's a great tree -- one that we all depend upon.
Unfortunately, the tree of science has become infected. The infection started in the trunk in education and may cause problems in the root system. It has also worked its way up the tree, spreading from branch to branch. Even now some leaves are turning brown and falling off. It is to be expected that as science progresses there will be normal turnover in the tree, but in modern science there is also an infection called "lack of scientific integrity."
The word "integrity" means honesty, completeness, or wholeness. Therefore, scientific integrity (and true academic freedom) happens when students honestly do their own work, industry and research institutions publish the complete story about their work and products, and scientists and teachers are encouraged to consider and teach the whole picture, even scientific evidence that challenges the current consensus. This is not happening in many areas of science today—we do not have academic freedom, and this threatens our health, prosperity, and scientific progress as a nation.
TBS: You've written a book titled Free to Think: Why Scientific Integrity Matters. Why did you write this book and what were you trying to accomplish with it? Ben Stein wrote the foreword. How did you swing that?
ICC: There are many reasons why I wrote this book, all of which are explained in the author's introduction. However, the most important one is simply as the subtitle says: because scientific integrity matters. To explain further, I wrote the book because:
- Suppression of unpopular scientific viewpoints and lack of scientific integrity have many consequences beyond just the loss of one person's career: financial, religious, health, and social. Through the writing of this book, I wanted to make a contribution to bringing about change so that scientific data and interpretations are evaluated on their merit, not on how well they fit with the politically-correct or financially-beneficial consensus.
- I believe that freedom (a foundational American value) requires one to have choices. If a person is not made aware of the options, then they do not have a choice; thus they have less freedom. So I wrote Free to Think and started American Institute for Technology and Science Education (AITSE) to give people clear and balanced information so that they can be just that---free to think.
- I wanted to set the record straight about my story and address the misleading or incomplete information found about me on the Internet. Free to Think contains the entire story of both what I taught and what happened as a result of teaching it, complete with extensive documentation.
- Finally, I thoroughly enjoyed working with students and was happy to have a chance to inspire others by sharing their stories. Many have told me that this is their favorite aspect of the book: the tales of my wonderful students.
Norman Geisler, a prolific author and culture critic, said this about the book: "As an expert witness at the Scopes II Trial in Little Rock Arkansas (1981) and author of five books on the topic, I can say with confidence that Dr. Crocker's book is one of the best stories of the tragic violation of free speech in the University classrooms that I have encountered. Jefferson was right: 'Taxation without representation is tyranny.' And if he were to return today to discover that public institutions will not even allow the principles of The Declaration of Independence (such as Creator and creation) to be taught in our classrooms, I have no doubt he would start a second American revolution."
It would be great if this book would add to the growing movement in our country towards scientific openness, freedom, and integrity. We have such a long way to go. Of course, I am very aware most scientists went into science because they desire to explore and discover truth in their area of specialization. Scientists are not terrible people, but they are also not infallible. Financial considerations (will publication of these results or interpretation of the data lead to a grant?), peer-pressure (if I raise questions will my colleagues make sure I do not get tenure?), and pre-conceived ideas (this is the way I was taught and furthermore it is what everyone thinks) may cause many to ignore inconvenient results, or unduly emphasize conventional wisdom. Free to Think draws attention to this problem and, hopefully, will contribute to the move to reverse this unhealthy situation. Finally, I hope this book will help people to accurately distinguish between scientific data, interpretation of that data, and imaginative extrapolation, an extremely important skill if one is to cut through the bunk.
In all my interactions with Ben Stein I have found him to be kind, gracious, and supportive. I did not have to twist his arm to help with the book; I am very grateful that he answered my emails about the foreword within 24 hours. I am impressed by his willingness to face opposition for his stance on truth in science—and often think about our conversation the first time I met him. "Caroline, how do you like being a movie star?" "Well, I'm not sure yet, Ben." "There is nothing about it not to like!" Amazing when you consider the opposition he has endured as a result of his involvement in the movie Expelled. The foreword he contributed can be read online.
TBS: How would you characterize your views on biological origins? How do you respond to someone who claims that your views are religiously motivated and not properly part of science? Why do you think your views may legitimately be incorporated into biology curricula at the college level?
ICC: I see myself as an evolutionary agnostic because I am quite comfortable with saying, "I don't know," simply because my worldview is based neither on science nor on the need to prove the accuracy of a theory based on materialistic presuppositions. That microevolution occurs is not controversial. I openly admit that there is intriguing scientific evidence that could be interpreted as indicating common descent. However, I am also aware that there are gaps in our knowledge of how this might have happened, if indeed we are interpreting the data accurately in the first place. After all, two cars may have very similar parts, but that does not mean one descended from the other. Rather, both were designed by the same intelligent being. To get back to the biology, there are many theories about how random mutations and natural selection might lead to increasing information content, but few are anywhere near convincing. In the future, the neo-Darwinian mechanism may be shown sufficient to explain macroevolution and the specified complexity of life—or not. I do not have the faith that some people exhibit in "science of the gaps." But, as a cell biologist, I am well aware that, contrary to what some would claim, evolution is not a fact yet.
As to whether my views are religiously motivated, I can only point out that I made a personal commitment to Jesus when I was 18, but did not begin to question evolution until over 20 years later. This was when I was studying for my doctorate—the questioning was because of the science. I do not have a problem with the idea that God could have created the diversity of life through the evolutionary processes of random mutation and natural selection, but my question remains whether He did. That is a scientific question with a scientific answer.
When I was teaching, I used a common word-picture to help my beginning biology students understand the inner functioning of a cell: I compared cells to factories. The cellular processes of transcription, translation, and intracellular transport would be the ways that the factory uses information from the head office to build parts and assemble all the machines, get them to the right place, and make the factory work. In both factories and cells these processes require huge amounts of information. Based on my understanding of cell biology, I do not think that these information-laden systems could result from random DNA mutation and natural selection. But, we do have past experience as to where information originates—it is with intelligent beings. As an example, let's take an iPhone. It is a wonder of technology and no one would suggest that it did not have some (very) intelligent designers. But, the information that went into making an iPhone is nothing compared to that in a single human cell. Human experience suggests that, if we see evidence of engineering, there was an engineer, if we see a painting, there was a painter. To me, this is simple logic. Therefore, when we find complex and specified information in the cell, this points to the idea that life also had an intelligent designer. The information science of intelligent design (ID) cannot tell us how the designer accomplished the design, why the designer did it, nor who the designer is. But, it can and does lead to profitable research, both at Biologic Institute and elsewhere.
The reason why my ideas about evolution should be permissible as part of a college course is simply that they are not based on religion but on a genuine questioning of the interpretation of scientific data. On a wider level, I would consider scientific integrity in college education to be giving the students all the basic information (in cell biology, just teaching about the chemistry, structure, and function took over 95% of the time), but also allowing and encouraging them to be free to think about the possible interpretations and alternative explanations of the information they are given. Actually, I believe that teaching students to assess scientific claims is a vital, and often missing, part of education. I am aware that most of my students far preferred answering multiple-choice questions to writing a logically constructed essay that required application of the knowledge gained in class. But lasting benefit from education can only be achieved if the students learn to apply the knowledge they gain. We all know that memorized information is gone within a few weeks.
A person who opposes teaching the controversy about evolution once asked me if I would support hiring a PhD who questions heliocentrism. I assume the questioner had not thought of what is readily apparent—we have photos. But, taking the question seriously, I would think that scientific integrity would demand that, if this person (let's call him Fred) were teaching, he teach all the astronomy basics—whether they support his personal views or not. If there is data that is a problem for the heliocentric view, why not include that? Of course, Fred should also include the information that supports the view of the scientific community and honestly tell the students that the consensus among scientists is heliocentrism. But I do not see any reason why, at the college level, Fred could not also briefly let the students know that he disagrees with the consensus view. If he taught the rest of the course accurately, the students should be able to figure out for themselves whether Fred's ideas are worth considering. As I said before, even Yale University acknowledges the value of controversy in learning. At the college level, one should be encouraging students to think about and apply what they learn, not just memorize everything they are told.
Of course, there are problems with this idealized approach. It is never possible to give students ALL the information—after all, even the professor doesn't know everything. This is compounded by the fact that some perfectly valid work is never published, and not for scientific reasons. Taking an example that is more familiar to me than heliocentrism, a 2008 study by Turner et al. found that in an analysis of 74 FDA-registered studies on anti-depressants, 97% of those that the FDA judged had positive results were published. But, of those that the FDA found had negative results for the study, only 8% were published as negative and 30% were skewed to look positive. This is very consistent with my experience while doing research in asthma. If the medication did not work as well as the company funding the studies hoped, we were not allowed to publish. Unfortunately, it appears that this problem is not unique to my field, making providing students with all the information practically impossible—it is just not available. But, we can at least train them to think critically and be able to evaluate "scientific" claims.
Another issue, and one that I am coming up against more and more, is that some people abdicate their responsibility to think and just believe what they are told or what they want to believe. Maybe this is because many colleges train students to memorize instead of think, but it is a dangerous situation: there are a lot of "quacks" out there. How does one distinguish between a theory that may be scientifically valid but not yet accepted and a theory that is just crazy or confused? For example, I recently read Stop Inflammation Now, a book written by an Iowan cardiologist who expounds on how his lifestyle plan will prevent inflammation and heart attacks. The book contained a combination of truth, lies, and ignorance. Some aspects of his program did make sense; reducing carbohydrates and fat in our diet does lead to increased cardiovascular health. But the cardiologist confused interleukins and leukotrienes, a sure red flag for an immunologist like me, so the book certainly contained scientific inaccuracies. Other aspects of his recommendations were just plain dangerous and would lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis, etc. The problem is how do we protect folks who do not know the science from some of the more outlandish assertions out there? A related problem is that, even when I told the person who sent me the book that it was full of inaccuracies, she did not believe me because she "feels better." How can one argue with that kind of logic, which is akin to Fred saying that it looks like the sun is going around the earth? We need to encourage and enable people to think critically. This is why AITSE published its principles for detecting scientific bunk.
Finally, we all know that science "evolves." What is accepted as true changes over time and, theoretically, mistakes will eventually be corrected. But this process is delayed when we are not allowed to challenge the current consensus view. Allowing questioning is not comfortable because ensuring that integrity in science is maintained will then be complicated—especially given that the peer review system is very fallible. Take the recent exposure of cheating by the Dutch scientist, Diederik Stapel, who published over 30 peer-reviewed articles containing falsified data. Personally, I think the potential scientific progress that may be accomplished by people who are taught and encouraged to think critically makes it worth striving for a system that honors the work that has been done, acknowledges the scientific consensus, and allows dissenters a voice. After all, it was said that the light bulb would never catch on!
TBS: You are a sought-after speaker on scientific integrity. What are the typical sorts of "gigs" that you do? What is your main take-home message? How can you be contacted if someone wants you to speak for them?
ICC: Right now I offer a variety of single talks surrounding the topic of integrity in science (see some of them below). I also do weekend conferences, which include a package of several talks, small group readings and questions, and more. My main goal is to provide education to enhance scientific understanding and integrity, but since I am a Christian, I am also very willing to address Christian groups about the proper relationship between science and faith. I have spoken in all kinds of venues, addressing university groups, professional groups, church groups, youth groups, and even Congressmen. I can be contacted via the booking form that can be accessed on the AITSE website.
Integrity in Science and Medicine: Why Does it Matter? "Why should I care about integrity in science and medicine? I'm a … business person, lawyer, homemaker, teacher, pastor, student. This is just not relevant to my life." In this enlightening lecture, Dr. Crocker shows how lack of scientific integrity jeopardizes our health, prosperity and even faith as a nation. Cheating is endemic in schools so that students neither learn the facts nor are able to apply what they learn. Censorship is rife in academia so that educators are not allowed to teach both sides of controversial subjects. The financial interests of the funders control research and publication so that healthcare providers are limited in their search for accurate information. Politics drive much of what is considered valid science so that the public rarely has access to the complete story. A return to scientific integrity is vital.
Science and Medicine in a Crisis of Integrity. Are the medications you are taking beneficial or harmful to your health? Can you trust the expertise of your physician? What about your pharmacist? Where can one go to obtain accurate information about this important subject? The fact is that Americans are losing their trust in science and medicine—with reason. Science has been corrupted for political, financial and ideological reasons, and the result is devastating. In this serious talk, Dr. Crocker presents frightening statistics on common medications and shows how lack of integrity in science jeopardizes our health as a nation. The facts are grim, but she does not leave the audience in despair, going on to outline the work of American Institute for Technology and Science Education in bringing positive change to science by increasing awareness of the need for integrity—so we will once again be able to trust the "experts".
Cheating and Censorship in Science—Where is the Integrity in Academia? First presented at a legislative briefing in Washington DC, this lecture gives unequivocal evidence that, starting with elementary school and following all the way through postgraduate education, academia is being corrupted by a crisis of integrity. Student cheating, from full-blown plagiarism to sharing homework answers to passing out stolen exams, is tolerated all the way through school and even beyond. The restriction of educators to only teaching politically correct, financially beneficial, or ideologically attractive "facts" exacerbates this problem. In this enlightening talk, Dr. Crocker asserts that the solution to this problem is surprisingly simple. Cheating is decreased when students are encouraged to learn, understand and evaluate what they are taught. We need to allow students to learn, educators to teach, and the public to be free to think!
Free to Think--or Not? This informative talk is suited for all audiences; no science background is necessary. Beginning with an exploration of the nature of freedom, Dr. Crocker shows that science in America is no longer free. We have been taken hostage by politics, finance and false religion. After giving much evidence of how those who question the scientific "consensus" view are persecuted, Dr. Crocker then explores the consequences of this stranglehold on science for our health, economic success, and religious views as a society. She ends with a plea for a return to scientific integrity, leaving the audience with hope for the future as she gives information on how they can help make this happen: a call to action for the good of our nation.
Evolution and Intelligent Design: What's the Fuss? Have you ever wondered why people get so angry about evolution, creation, intelligent design, etc.? In this fascinating presentation, the reason for the antagonism is explored and questions are asked: Is evolution fact, fiction or religion? What is neoDarwinism? What is intelligent design? Is it fact, fiction, or religion? What is science anyway? What about religion? Dr. Crocker carefully disentangles the religion from the science and invites the audience to think through these matters for themselves. Although this talk does include some science, participant surveys indicate that it is highly accessible and suitable for high school, university, and church audiences.
The Evolution and Extinction of a Teacher. Illustrated with highly-entertaining cartoons by talented teen Ayden Lopez, this presentation has a serious side. Dr. Crocker begins by describing her journey to becoming a teacher recognized for teaching excellence using amusing anecdotes from Free to Think. However, the talk then takes a sober turn when she explains how giving one lecture that impartially provided both evidence for evolution and some of the problems with that evidence resulted in the loss of her job, her legal representation, and her career. Since hers is not an isolated case and lack of scientific integrity affects all our lives, this talk is a must for teachers, church audiences, and indeed anyone who is interested in academic freedom.
TBS: You head up an organization called AITSE (American Institute for Technology and Science Education). Tell us what moved you to start AITSE? Your concern with AITSE is scientific integrity generally rather than just focusing on certain hot-button topics. How big a problem is scientific integrity (or the lack thereof)? Most scientists will tell you that science is self-correcting and that scientists can by-and-large be trusted. Is that true across the board? How are scientists subject to temptation?
ICC: The slogan for AITSE is "Good science: based on evidence, not consensus." But this intentionally short phrase does need a little bit of unpacking. After all, science is not just evidence, but also interpretation of that evidence—and many scientists together—a consensus—decide the value of the interpretation. However, it is important for people to realize that this system has inherent problems. For example, some scientists fail to distinguish between interpretation of data and speculation about or extrapolation from data (which can be and often is inaccurate). Others are so desperate for their papers to fit with the consensus views that they ignore or bury inconsistent data. As I said earlier, what a scientist reports will affect whether they get grants, tenure, and are published. Even though most scientists are genuine people sincerely seeking advances in their area of science, they are human: subject to the same temptations, errors in judgment, and even deliberate closed-mindedness as the rest of us. But the consequences of lapses in integrity are exponentially larger when they occur in science, engineering, and medicine.
I have experience as a medical research scientist working on grants from pharmaceutical companies, a professor working with students, an expelled scientist, and just a citizen. I know that when data are not favorable to the company funding the work, some companies use a confidentiality clause to prevent publication. I have seen numerous students cheat in their classes—undergraduates, postgraduates, and medical students, and am aware that many professors do not report or even discourage this practice. In some cases, they are cheating, too. Of course, the subject of Free to Think is that a more intentional breach of scientific integrity is also active in the schools, namely the suppression of information that might allow students to critically assess the evidence for controversial subjects. Finally, as an observant and concerned citizen, I see breaches in scientific integrity when companies make their product seem better than it is in order to get as large a market share as possible. There is a great, if trivial, example in many supermarkets: cotton candy being advertised as a low fat and cholesterol-free food. Well, it is. But the intended message for the consumer was that it is a healthy product—even though clearly it is not!
Most people are aware that science, like most human endeavors, is influenced by politics, financial considerations, power, etc. This is amply demonstrated by the global warming debate, the controversy on the relationship between autism and vaccination, and in the delays in dealing with Duke University's Dr. Anil Potti, whose cancer research went unchallenged for years because he and two firms to which his university had ties stood to benefit from his work. Obviously, we cannot completely reverse this situation, but I believe it is important that the public be aware that science is not infallible and scientists are not gods. When the television authoritatively asserts, "Experts agree, Physicians recommend, Scientists say," the public needs to know that these powers can be and often are wrong. For their part in this, scientists need to assess and present data impartially, not giving undue weight to what may be outdated theories, politics, financial considerations, and even religious preferences.
American Institute for Technology and Science Education (AITSE) was founded in 2009 with the goal of helping to liberate science and technology in general from ideology, politics, and the illusion that consensus views are as reliable as many people believe them to be. We have now gathered a group of first-rate scientists, physicians, and engineers (about 30 to date) to work together to improve science education and increase awareness about the need for more scientific integrity. This number is increasing as more and more science professionals become aware of our work and concerned about breaches in scientific integrity. AITSE seeks to advance honest, ethical, and beneficial scientific progress and give people accurate information and the tools to assess scientific claims for themselves. If anyone wants to know more, they can check us out on our website, on Facebook, or on Twitter. Or they could sign up for our monthly newsletter by texting AITSE to 22828.
TBS: AITSE, in its very name, mirrors the premier organization promoting biological evolution, namely, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Did you choose the name AITSE as a challenge to the NCSE? How would you contrast AITSE with the NCSE?
ICC: The purpose of AITSE is to promote good science, based on impartial evaluation of evidence, not mere consensus. The purpose of NCSE is to promote the consensus view on evolution and squash any hint of dissension—no impartial evaluation of evidence allowed. As such, there is really no commonality between our goals. The only possible similarity between AITSE and NCSE would be in our mutual focus on education. But, again, NCSE has a very narrow educational focus since they want to educate on one subject and on only one point of view about that issue. In comparison, AITSE encourages people to think about the scientific evidence on a range of topics. We have solicited input from scientists, physicians, and engineers coming from a variety of viewpoints on controversial matters—not that all actually contribute. But, since scientific integrity requires telling the whole story, our doors are open. Our goal is for the evidence to be evaluated, not to fit scientific evidence into a prior worldview which, in the case of NCSE's president Eugenie Scott, is humanistic naturalism.
TBS: You are a Christian, and yet recently you've had disagreements with two Christian groups that promote biological evolution: the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA) and Francis Collins's BioLogos. Can you tell us what your concerns are with these organizations?
ICC: Well, I would not put it quite so strongly as to call them disagreements, but I do admit that I have challenged both organizations.
My concern with the ASA was that at their July 2011 conference the speakers were not practicing what the organization preaches. Basically, ASA says that they have "no official position on evolution," but the content of several of the talks and the attitude of some of the speakers at the conference failed to embrace this commitment. For example, a speaker at the ASA meeting is on record as saying that anyone who does not accept all aspects of evolutionary theory is "scientifically and theologically illiterate." His paper was on how 15 Christian students moved from an "immature Young Earth perspective" with "little tolerance for ambiguity" to an "adult faith" that can "accommodate degrees of dissonance" after accepting the "authority" of the "trained evolutionist" professor. Take home message: If one questions aspects of evolution or thinks outside the box delineated by authoritative figures, one is an immature Christian and, of course, a scientific moron!
In fact, the ASA appeared to be ostracizing scientists who question all kinds of consensus science. As a result, science-based reservations about evolution and other controversial topics were not openly discussed. My suggestion was that this incivility from the podium be curbed so that the ASA will provide, as they claim they already do, an "open forum" where ideas can be "discussed without fear of unjust condemnation." After all, where the leaders lead, the flock soon follows. One of the responders to my post, Timaeus, summarized my position very accurately: "Dr. Crocker is concerned less about the nominal beliefs of the organization and more about the attitudes which she finds among some of its members [and leaders], attitudes which in her view are affecting the institution's behavior and hence its mission."
One of my primary concerns with BioLogos has little to do with AITSE and more to do with my Christian faith. That is, I object to BioLogos's often liberal interpretations of the Bible but, since I am not a theologian and this interview is about science, not religion, I will say no more about that.
However, I am also aware that, because BioLogos has an agenda, which is the same as NCSE's (to promote acceptance of evolutionary theory), they have a tendency to distort science to fit their preconceived ideas. Evidence of this is readily apparent in their founder Francis Collins's assertions in The Language of God (pp. 136--137), that the presence of "junk" DNA provides verification for common ancestry. This scientific inaccuracy is nicely analyzed and debunked in The Myth of Junk DNA. I address another instance of slanting of science to fit a lock-step position when I responded to Kathryn Applegate's description of the parallels between adaptive evolution and immunity. Her post on the BioLogos website even contained several scientific mistakes—hardly surprising when one realizes that she is not an immunologist. The beauty of AITSE's position is that we are free to consider the scientific evidence for what it is—we have no agenda, apart from that of promoting integrity in science.
TBS: What organizations have you worked with most closely that have proven to be your best allies? How helpful are they in promoting scientific integrity? Comment on the Discovery Institute. Does it support your work?
ICC: AITSE is working with individuals in at least ten organizations, all of which are valuable allies and resonate with our goal of promoting education and integrity in science. I am glad you asked about Discovery Institute since I am often asked if I work for them or have any role in that organization. The answer is, "no." I am friendly with a number of individuals at Discovery, but am also friendly with people in many other non-profit organizations. Similarly, there is no official relationship between AITSE and Discovery Institute, or indeed any other nonprofit organization.
The team at AITSE believes in cooperation, not competition, to achieve one's goals. Therefore, if we agree with what an organization does, AITSE does what they can to help them, including advertising their relevant events and referring any of our contacts who may be helpful to their cause. Discovery Institute and other organizations like American Freedom Alliance, Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity, Probe Ministries, Gateways to Better Education, Family Action PAC, Breakpoint, various universities, various churches, and individuals at the American Scientific Affiliation reciprocate and the relationship is mutually beneficial.
TBS: Where to from here? What are some of your main projects right now? What do you hope will be some of your main projects down the road? If they succeed, how much difference could they make? How can people help facilitate the work of AITSE?
ICC: Since AITSE incorporated in 2009 we have been steadily working towards fulfilling our stated mission. AITSE membership has now grown to nearly 500 individuals and we anticipate that many more will join us once our upcoming membership campaign has been launched. We have followers on Facebook, Twitter, and our extensive website and also communicate using an informative monthly newsletter and by publishing articles in popular magazines and blog posts. In addition, AITSE has been gathering a diverse range of scientists, physicians, and engineers to participate in AITSE's scientific consortium. These highly qualified professionals write articles for the monthly newsletter, address current scientific questions and debates, develop appropriate materials for use on the AITSE web site, are available as AITSE speakers, and oversee AITSE projects. We now have 29 participating consortium members, some of whom we invited and others who contacted us after realizing that AITSE welcomes those whom the consensus-bound scientific community may reject. This number is increasing as we gain public visibility, and we begin to actively pursue growth in this area.
To help advance these initiatives, we are now planning our first AITSE conference for scientists who want to be free to discuss scientific theories without fear of unjust condemnation. These people have communicated that they need more than encouragement; some of them have been working at this for a long time. Therefore, they need a place to meet, training in how to best educate the public on scientific issues, and support. American Institute for Technology and Science Education is such a place and can provide the training and support. Our vision is to promote good science, based on impartial evaluation of evidence, not mere consensus. Our mission is "… to improve science education and encourage scientific integrity" and "offer clear, reliable, and balanced education with the goal of liberating science and technology from ideology, politics, and the restrictions of consensus …"
Our plan is to increase the impact of AITSE in 2012 with a three-pronged strategy.
- We will have a conference to equip scientists, physicians, and engineers of integrity with tools to increase scientific understanding in the general public, and to encourage them to continue their work in promoting integrity in science by giving them networking opportunities and strategies for engaging with other organizations and influencing our culture for good.
- We will publish a book containing stories of scientists of integrity, thus making progress in putting to rest the lie that all people of intelligence subscribe to lock-step consensus science. Already we have established contact with half a dozen scientists who are willing to share their unique and exemplary narratives.
- We are exploring making this book into a first-class movie so that we can reach more people with our message that good science needs to be based on impartial evaluation of evidence, not mere consensus. If successful, this movie could catalyze a change in science and medical education so that students are encouraged to think and apply instead of just memorize.
To achieve these goals, we need help. I want to encourage scientists, physicians, and engineers reading this interview to join the AITSE consortium and commit themselves to healing any infection in their branch of the tree of science. Members of the public I would encourage to sign up for our monthly newsletter, "like" our Facebook page, invite me to speak to your group, and spread the word. Finally, it almost goes without saying that none of this is possible without funding. Consider donating to AITSE or even becoming an AITSE partner by committing to a monthly contribution. The movement to increase scientific integrity in our nation in not merely academic. Promoting integrity in science, engineering, and medicine saves lives, perhaps the life of someone you love.