Bacon, Fish, Arts vs Science, and Dawkins.

This is interesting, if not a bit alarming. Essentially, this story follows a trail of individuals that even Kevin Bacon would be proud of.

The cast includes: a UBC student, her sister (also a UBC student), a senior level biology course, the course’s teacher and the course’s teaching assistant. As well, there is another teaching assistant – this one from the History Department (not Biology), and for the rest of us here, this TA is sort of the antagonist. Oh, and the aforementioned biology course focuses on the theory of evolution, with historical as well as current cultural contexts provided.

Anyway, the story goes a little like this:

The first UBC student, who was taking this biology course, thought that some of the reading she had done in this course would be useful for her sister. You see, her sister is also a UBC student, and one who needed to write a paper for her history class. Here, writing a historical overview of the theory of evolution seemed like an excellent option. In any event, her sister did write an essay on just such a topic – and not only that, to all intents and purposes, she wrote a solid essay.

This is where things got a little wierd. It turns out the teaching assistant marking the history paper (the aforementioned antagonist) clearly felt that there were some problems with her paper—namely that it espoused evolution as if it was a real process.

But wait – isn’t evolution a real process?

Below are segments of the student’s work and the TA’s comments (reprinted with permission):

Student: By 1870, about a decade after its publication, nearly all biologists agreed that life had evolved,, and by around the 1940s most agreed that natural selection was a key driving force.
Footnote: Allen Orr, “Devolution: Why Intelligent Design Isn’t,” The New Yorker, May 30, 2005.

TA: Astonishing statement by Allen Orr

Student: One account of the United States having a lower acceptance of evolution is that it largely sees Genesis as true while other mainstream Protestant faiths in Europe view it as metaphorical and, like Catholics, do not a see a major contradiction with Darwin and their faith. However, the most prominent reason is the politicization of science in the United States.

TA: How evolutionists call their opponents “unscientific” (including prominent physicists) is another manifestation of politicization too.

Student: So why do people continue to reject Darwin? One reason […]

TA: Also the lack of reliable fossil records, lack of examples showing species to species transitions, manipulation of evidence, etc.

The teaching assistant then had this to say at the very end:

As you may be able to tell, I personally have lots of reservations regarding evolution (even scientifically). But your goal isn’t to agree with me, and I found your referencing excellent and essay concise and to the point. The two complaints I have will be the heavy reliance on people such as Orr, and you are a bit thin on primary sources.

Anyhow… you can imagine what happened next. The essay’s writer (a bit upset by the comments), showed the comments to her sister, who (also a bit upset) went on to share this story (as well as the paper with the comments) to those involved in the biology course (much more upset by the comments), which inevitably made its way to me.

– – –

So what to do? What to do? As a colleague said to me, “Imagine a teaching assistant writing, ‘I personally have lots of reservations regarding the fact the Earth is round.'”

The key question, of course, is whether this is a big deal. On the one hand, it is a major knock against science. Truly it is. It’s an insult through and through to those of us trained and engaged in the scientific process. From that angle, we could say that there simply should be no place for this sort of silliness at a place like UBC. Aren’t we one of Canada’s (indeed the World’s) top universities—a bastion of scientific research, home to several Nobel Prize winners in science, and (irony of all ironies) host to a guest lecture by Richard Dawkins tomorrow?

Yet on the other hand, we are at a “university” – a space devoted to free academic debate and discourse. Even if this particular dialogue is tantamount to scientific nonsense, it’s not something that should necessarily be silenced. We should let it run its course – it may have career repercussions for the grad student in question – but that is ultimately their call, and we should let it run nevertheless. As well, in this case, it’s important to note that the opinions of this teaching assistant did not appear to affect anyone’s grade.

But if opinion is welcome, is there room for opinion on every issue (e.g., gravity, the existence of slavery or female circumcision or ghosts)? Is a TA entitled to share his opinion with his students? Is this an isolated case? Or is this one of many such incidences that occurs not only at UBC but also around the world?

And is this incident a reflection of deeper issues between the Arts and Sciences (in this case an academic in history vs an academic in biology)? Perhaps even a reflection of the challenges that us science literacy types need to pay attention to?

Anyway, the point is this – this might not be such an easy question to answer, but I’m certainly curious to find out what you and others think. At the very least, this would make a great anecdote in Dawkins’ talk tomorrow.

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at

29 Responses to “Bacon, Fish, Arts vs Science, and Dawkins.”

  1. Dave Semeniuk

    This whole thing reeks of a certain scientist’s infamous opinions. I remember reading one OpEd that referred to Watson’s comments as the “Novel prize syndrome” or something similar. The gist is – you feel entitled to state your opinions (however unsubstantiated they may be) on subjects you know little about because you have already proven your mental prowess in other areas of study. I don’t see how this case differs from Watson’s.

  2. Kurt

    While somewhat annoying, if it was clear that the TA was just sharing some personal opinions and not basing the grade on them, then I wouldn’t be too concerned. I do consider it somewhat unprofessional on the TA’s part to be including personal opinions amongst the marks on a graded paper, but that is a separate issue from the content of the remarks.

    As far as the substantive remarks by the TA go, I would at least partially agree. Instead of quoting Orr, it would be preferable to go back to whatever primary sources Orr was using for his numbers. As to why the TA singles out “people such as Orr”, that’s harder to justify, but perhaps he/she considered the article to be more of an opinion piece than straight reporting, and would want the student to use sources that don’t contain an overt point of view.

  3. Tom Swalls

    If someone says, “I am a master pianist,” then someone comes up and says, “Well, if you are a musician, then prove it by playing this trumpet”…That doesn’t make it right, it does not prove nor disprove they are a master pianist, just that they can not play the trumpet. It is a matter of keeping apples with apples…not apples with kumquats (Which are quite tasty!)

  4. Donalbain

    It is staggeringly innapropriate. Essentially, the TA was spouting standard creationist nonsense that has no place in such a forum. A complaint should be made.

  5. Physicalist

    Speaking as a professor in the humanities, I don’t view this as an Arts vs. Science issue. It’s simply an issue of ignorance. Is it OK for a historian to be ignorant about both biology and the history of biology. Not really, but it’s not the most egregious of problems.

    What is very problematic is that this TA is spouting this ignorance in his/her role as an educator. It’s bad enough to be clueless, but it’s something else to think that you can correct those who actually have a clue.

  6. Neil Schipper

    Interesting story, and I find your take on it balanced and reasonable.

    You said, “But if opinion is welcome, is there room for opinion on every issue (e.g., gravity, the existence of slavery or female circumcision or ghosts)?”

    I’m afraid the middle 2 of these are questions that do have some non-trivial wiggle room: modern liberal notions != truth; for the 2 bookends, wiggle room is miniscule in the absence of extraordinary evidence.

  7. David Ratnasabapathy

    I agree with Physicalist. The TA’s job is to point out errors in the paper and suggest ways in which it might be improved.

    The TA can’t do that unless he’s in a position to correctly evaluate the paper’s content. Since the TA has revealed himself to be ignorant and gullible with regard to evolution, he shouldn’t have been asked to mark the paper; and if so asked, should have declined on the grounds of incompetence.

  8. Ian

    I think someone in the bio dept ought to invite the TA to give a presentation supporting his claim “Also the lack of reliable fossil records, lack of examples showing species to species transitions, manipulation of evidence, etc.” and to bring his best scientific evidence against evolution so it can be examined in a scientific forum….

  9. P.C.Chapman

    As the late Daniel Moynihan put it..”everyone is allowed their own opinion, they are not allowed their own facts”.

  10. Hunter

    Directed over here by Pharyngula…

    I think it’s interesting that you point out the specific examples of slavery and female circumcision. In a history class that I’m taking, one of my TA’s told the class that most sexual relations between black female slaves and their white plantaiton masters were probably consensual, and would not listen to any reasonable arguments to the contrary. So this is definitely an issue that comes up no matter what topic is being discussed. The thing that always concerns me is how much power the TA may have over the grade given or (in the case of my school) the evaluation that appears on the permanent record.

  11. BaldApe

    Also here by way of Pharyngula.

    I agree with others, that it is fortunate that the grade was not affected by the inappropriate comments. Still, such comments on a student’s paper are inappropriate.

    Kind of reminds me of a paper I wrote in high school. My English teacher criticized me for the use of jargon. The word he specifically thought was jargon was “hydrogen.”

  12. JM Inc.

    It should be a big deal. This is a historical issue as well, and not just an issue of criss-crossed domains. When we look at this from the TA’s perspective, we see that he probably views this paper as being a matter of historical one-sidedness. If it just so happened he didn’t knock off part of the grade, we can easily see that he might have.

    Suppose you were this TA and came upon a history paper which queried openly about why the majority of Americans still stubbornly resisted accepting that the Earth was flat? Clearly this would be a matter of gross ignorance of the history on the part of the student – and the grade should be cut down.

    Fortunately, for the student’s sake, this TA’s ignorance, though clearly profound, only extends far enough that he believes there to be an actual “controversy”, and not far enough that he considers the issue to be fairly settled against evolution (in which case he certainly would have docked her grade).

    Though this is plainly speculation on my part, the situation is nevertheless not acceptable. His patently obvious lack of realistic knowledge of the history of this theory damages his capacity to consider the true quality of the student’s historical scholarship. He might as well be unaware of the spectacular success of Maxwell’s equations.

  13. Kerrie

    To say it is an Arts vs. Science issue is an implicit insult to the Arts/Social Sciences. Yes, in Humanities and Social Sciences you should have the academic freedom to build a case on whatever point you want. If I want to write an essay in defense of FGM or slavery, that is my right. But every subject has a certain methodology, and your point must be backed up with research, a logical argument, and an understanding of possible counter-arguments. So while theoretically I should be entitled to write an essay on the positive effects of the transatlantic slave trade, it should be held to a high standard of research and argumentation, and critical thought. (“d-uh, but der are no police reports filed by slaves so therefore it wun’nt rape” is not a cogent argument by the way 😉

    In fact I would argue that even well-accepted points of view should be properly researched and documented, or else we could slide into the inaccuracies of “conventional wisdom”.

    It remains, however, that whether I turn in a pro-FGM or a post-colonial or a pro-evolution or an anti-development essay, it deserves a measured and insightful critique from someone preferably more intelligent than myself. TA’s that use their personal viewpoints (combined with the authority of being a Big Omniscient Grad Student) as a framework for evaluating essays are a pox on this university.

  14. genewitch

    Man oh man, i failed a philosophy class once. Critical Thinking and Writing, if i recall (undergrad nonsense). we were writing essays on california ballot items that year, and i chose the stem cell research one.

    We also had to speechify the papers for the class, 2-3 minute presentation. In the course of my research i found that a lot of the opponents of the bill (Such as JUDY NORSIGIAN) were proponents of bioethics. As i read the essay out loud basically from memory, the professor jumped my ass about my rendition of bioethics, even though i was quoting from the people who wrote the opposing viewpoints of the bill.

    Time spent in front of class? 25 minutes. Prof failed the paper, wouldn’t allow a rewrite, i stopped going. I hear she was forced to retire a couple of years back. Oh well.

  15. Dana Hunter

    When you’re grading a paper, your personal beliefs should be set firmly aside. Grade on the merits of the paper, not what you think the merits of the subject are. Preaching on a student’s paper is appallingly inappropriate.

    People like this TA become the kinds of teachers who think it’s their right and duty to use their classroom as a forum for their religious views, evidence and standards be damned. We have quite enough of that already, thanks.

  16. Vivian

    Hmmm. I’m super curious to see what mark the student received from the TA. If the student had gotten a poor mark, naturally we’d think that she was upset by it because of the TA’s influences and personal beliefs. But if she received an excellent mark, despite those comments, and still made a case for it, kudos to her. Then we also have a real debate on hand – the one concerning whether or not TAs should be allowed to share their opinions with the students, yadi yadi yar.

    “The two complaints I have will be the heavy reliance on people such as Orr, and you are a bit thin on primary sources.” – those seemed like fair criticisms and the TA did acknowledge at the beginning about her own beliefs.

  17. Vivian

    Oh and I’ve met hilarious students in the past who could care less what the TA thought of the course, subject matter, and essay written. In the very end, a high mark goes a long way.

  18. Gyles

    I grew up in a religious cult (Jehovah’s Witnesses) and got out in my late 20’s, got myself an education, went 180 degrees on a lot of subjects I thought I knew about.

    I hang round a discussion group for ex-JW’s, and see (and regulary partake in) discussions about Evolution/ID-otism/Creationism.

    What you see there is the blithe arrogance of the ignoranti; “I’ve ready a couple of websites so I have a worthwhile opinion, the whole of science has got it wrong”. They know so little they don’t know how little they know.

    Example; Creationists crowing about the discovery of “soft tissue” inside fossilied dinosaur bones without knowing recent analysis shows this proves theories about dinosaurs being closer to birds than reptiles AND saying things like ‘have to change the definition of fossil then’ (trying to be sarcastic) showing they don’t even know the words definiton.

    I see it as a blue collar bias; everyone would agree that someone with no real knowledge of carpentry teling a Mastercraftsman cabinet maker he’s got it wrong and should do it another way was an arrogant idiot.

    Someone with no real knowledge of evolutionary biology is somehow seen (by many) as being more entitled to tell all the ‘Mastercraftsman’ Evolutionary Biologists they’ve got it wrong without being accused of arrogance.

    There is also the paradigm shift between arts and science; you can make many arguments ‘fly’ enough to be considered gradable in the Arts as it is about opinion and defending an opinion. “Who is factually the greatest artist” is unasnwerable. Science is about documenting and demonstrating facts; your opinion comes second to facts.

  19. paul

    The biggest concern I have here is that the comments by the TA were completely irrelevant to the paper. The paper was not discussing the factual accuracy of the theory of evolution, it was discussing the history of the theory. Regardless of whether or not evolution is correct, its history stays the same. Historical events are not modified by our opinion of the subject around which they revolved.

  20. Stephen McNeil

    I concur with most of the commentary, especially Physicalist. Those who aspire to educate others have a responsibility to recognize their own ignorances and take steps to correct them; to blindly pass them on to others in their role as an educator makes us all look bad.

    But I disagree that the comments were irrelevant or somehow not speaking to the thesis of the paper. The acceptance of evolution by mainstream science is a matter of historical record. To regard as “astonishing” Orr’s statement that “by 1940 or so most [biologists] agreed that natural selection was a key force driving this evolution” is not just ignorance of evolution, it is ignorance of history as well.

    Universities are about learning, and the student’s sister has just learned one of life’s great lessons: just because somebody has more degrees than you do, that doesn’t mean they’re not a twit.

  21. mxlplx

    McNeil has the essential point: that a History TA who is both a) unaware of the fact (as close as you can come to a fact in history) that “by 1940 or so most [biologists] agreed that natural selection was a key force driving this evolution” and b) to have been astonished by that fact and not immediately have begun researching it, is truly not deserving of a graduate degree in history.

    This is not a case of an Engineering TA get on an irrelevant soapbox about evolution, or a Biology TA having a poor grasp of grammer – but of a History TA clearly showing a lack of talent in historical analysis. The student didn’t receive a cogent criticism (even if mistaken), or an out-of-specialty mistaken critique, but a mangled distorted version of historical criticism that at best comes from some kind of radical subjectivism (but I doubt that level of intellectual rigor).

    This is not about academic freedom, as David Ng seems to imply by bending over backwards to give the benefit of the doubt, but about academic standards, and those most be enforced whether the subject at hand is wildly radical or the most insipidly mainstream.

  22. What I've Noticed

    […] Good science education is important for everyone.  An English TA comments on a student paper: “I personally have lots of reservations regarding evolution (even scientifically).”  This is appalling.  As one scientist put it “Imagine a teaching assistant writing, ‘I personally have lots of reservations regarding the fact the Earth is round.’” […]

  23. Jan Karlsbjerg

    (Isabella / Moritherapy sent me)
    The history paper should get reassessed by somebody who know what they’re doing. Fire the TA.

    Physicalist & Stephen McNeil: Yep.

    Keep “religious truth” out of your science department, your history department, and all other departments (except maybe for the janitorial department) if you want to stay a recognized university.

    No, I didn’t come up with the janitor bit. I think it was Gore Vidal who remarked about a US state’s (Kansas?) decision to teach creationism in high school: “Well, the country is going to need janitors too; it sounds like Kansas wants to provide them”.

  24. Nancy (aka money coach)

    @JanKarlbjerg Would we distinguish between “worldview” and “religion”? Ie., do we keep “worldview” out of science departments, or just “religion”?

  25. isabella mori

    i’m with ian. let’s give the TA a chance to air his opinions on more than just an undergrad’s paper. that’s what we do at universities, we have debates!

    i don’t see how this is an arts vs. sciences thing. you don’t need to be a science major to have heard about the difference in validity of evolution vs. creation.

    on the other hand, i think there needs to be some room for people to spout crazy ideas. let’s send them off into the harsh waters of debate and see what happens. some crazy ideas end up being pretty good. (don’t see that happening for creationism any time soon, though)

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