Professors debate legitimacy of Polanyi

Outgoing prof says Sloan is discouraging comment on issue


When the Michael Polanyi Center was quietly established on the Baylor campus last fall, few people knew of its existence or how much controversy it would foster.

A debate over the reputation of Baylor as a university has erupted among the teachers and administrators, concerning the establishment of the center as a campus institute.

That debate intensified Tuesday, when an outgoing Baylor professor said President Robert Sloan is intimidating faculty into not commenting on the controversy.

"Faculty are not speaking out because Sloan can make their lives miserable," Dr. Lewis Barker, psychology and neuroscience professor, said. "They don't speak out for fear of their salaries and of being singled out by administration.

"I know you can't get many faculty responses, but the ones you have represent the majority of the faculty. The others are just too scared to speak out and want to hold on to their jobs."

The Polanyi Center -- which studies creationism or the intelligent design of nature, depending on the point of view taken-- is drawing criticism and support as it opens its Nature of Nature conference today.

The Michael Polanyi Center consists of two people: director William Dembski and associate director Bruce Gordon.

A committee has been established to evaluate the center's influence on Baylor's reputation.

At an arts and science faculty meeting in March, Dean Wallace Daniel told faculty members that he had heard "many strong concerns" relating to the center and that he, Dr. Donald Schmeltekopf, provost and vice president for academic affairs, and Dr. Keith Hartberg, biology chairman, would work to put the committee together. Schmeltekopf was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached for comment, despite several messages left for him this week.

Barker said there has been "unanimous consent that the Polanyi Center is detrimental to Baylor's science department."

Barker, who has taught at Baylor since 1972, is leaving Baylor to take a position as chairman of the psychology department at Auburn University. Barker is concerned with the center's promotion of creationism as a legitimate science and how it could potentially taint the integrity of students' degrees from Baylor.

Barker said President Sloan refuses to listen to the science departments' concerns.

"My best guess is that as long as President Sloan wants the Polanyi Center here, it will stay here," Barker said. "And it will continue to do what it wants, no matter what concerns the faculty have.

"The major concern of faculty is not that the Polanyi Center can do anything, but that Baylor's entire realm of science can be brought under suspicion."

Sloan is returning from out of town today and could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Messages were left at Sloan's office and at his home.

Dr. Joe Yelderman, a geology professor, agrees that the Polanyi Center could generate negative publicity that could harm the reputation of his department.

"As a professor, I am concerned that people will make us guilty by association and assume that we are associated or linked to these organizations that have been established as psuedo-science," Yelderman said.

Barker's colleague in psychology and neuroscience, Dr. Charles Weaver, associate professor, also worries about Baylor's reputation.

"Those of us who work really hard at trying to keep our reputations as uncompromised as scientists, find this frustrating to deal with," Weaver said.

According to Barker, the major concern of the faculty is the attempt by the Polanyi Center to use science to prove religion.

He told the Waco Tribune Herald in a Monday article, "I really don't want someone to say, as Dembski does, that he can prove the existence of God using statistical formulas. The problem with that is that if you disprove his argument, you prove there's no God."

Dr. Michael Beatty, director of the Institute of Faith and Learning and philosophy professor, disagrees with Barker. He believes that the Polanyi Center will enhance the academic quality of Baylor's science degrees and serve as an aid to the sciences.

"The purpose of the center is to help foster reflection and conversation between religion and the historical and philosophical nature of science," Beatty said. "The science department should know that there is no real danger, because it is not a religious center, nor a science center."

Gordon regards the debate between the departments as a "misunderstanding."

"I think the worries that have been expressed about the Polanyi Center are a misunderstanding as to what we are actually trying to do," Gordon said. "We are not creationists, we are merely asking whether there are empirical means in nature."

Gordon said the center studies the intelligent design of nature through various techniques in mathematics, such as probability, complexity, and information theories, the center can develop a method to detect signs and see if they can be applied to other structures, such as cosmological or biological forms.

Dr. Charles Garner, chemistry associate professor, agrees that there is a misunderstanding.

"The Polanyi Center's not talking about explaining God, it is simply talking about explaining its observations," Garner said. "Maybe science professors should be a little more careful in finding out what the center stands for."

However, Barker said he understands fully the nature of the Polanyi Center.

"How many times do I have to listen to Gordon and others tell us how much we do not understand?" Barker asked. "I understand perfectly and am not in the minority. How is that we [science faculty] can be all wrong and he [Gordon] be right?"

At the heart of the debate is the true definition of science. Critics of the center believe that science should be able to pass the test of peer review and should follow established criteria on whether to accept or reject findings, regardless of the outcome.

Scientists must accept the possibility their research will not produce expected results. Critics said they don't believe the center is capable of accepting alternative explanations.

"One of the cornerstones of academic life is peer review, you have people who will engage in debates on a level playing field and whether we are right or wrong, the consensus of one's peers plays a great role," Weaver said. "This, in my opinion, is out of that context."

Yelderman is waiting for the center to produce scientific works.

"There may be science involved, but I have not seen any at this stage," Yelderman said. "Just because someone uses mathematics or statistics, does not necessarily mean that it is science."

Garner disagrees with his colleagues and respects what the Polanyi Center is trying to accomplish.

"I think the center is a good thing," Garner said. "They are seeking out to answer some important and much need questions and are going about it very professionally."

Garner thinks that the Polanyi Center will enhance Baylor's science department.

"Science could never explain God, therefore God and science are always excluded from each other," Garner said. "They [Polanyi Center's researchers] are not talking about explaining God, they are talking about explaining their observations."

According to Garner, the center is approaching the study of evolution from a perspective that counters that of most scientists. He said the center studies theistic evolution, which "uses the facts of evolution but also involves God in the crucial points along the way." The alternative, according to Garner, would be atheistic evolution that has "no dominance by God, it is strictly the properties of chemistry and physics that can account for all these things."

Baylor faculty are not the only ones troubled by administration's decision.

Dr. Sahotra Sarkar, director of the history and philosophy of science program at the University of Texas in Austin, agrees that Baylor's faculty have a legitimate concern.

"I, for one, am extremely distressed by the decision of the center not to involve scientists at Baylor in its activities," Sarkar wrote in an email. "It almost seems that the center's staff have a fear of genuine science."

Sarkar is a plenary lecturer at the Nature of Nature conference. However, Sarkar will not pocket her speaking fees.

"In order to emphasize even further our distance from the pseudo-creationist agenda of the Polanyi Center, some of us-including me-are donating all or part of our honoraria to organizations that will promote the study of evolution in our schools," Sarkar said. "We are committed to a rational and scientific understanding of the world and our role in it."

Another concern of the Baylor arts and science faculty are the alternative science links, such as the Creationism Connection and Discovery Institute, that now appear on or connect to the Polanyi web site.

"We now show up in a cohort of people that Baylor has worked very hard at disassociating themselves with," Weaver said. "So, my concern is partly how quickly word is going to get out and how compromised it will make us look?"

Weaver considers the links "damning publicity" and is fearful such implications could scare off potential faculty and promising medical students.

Beatty understands their concern.

"I understand the science faculty's point of view regarding the web sites," Beatty said. "It is understandable how the center's interest is presented, or in this case, misrepresented."

Beatty said it was "regrettable that the net could be used to misrepresent your work" but explains that "when you are on the net, you are vulnerable to a lot of outside links and are unable to control who links to you or how your work is perceived."

Gordon agrees with Beatty that such links are unfortunate.

In an interview with the Waco Tribune Herald, Gordon said, "We have no control over who decides to link to our site. We do not endorse a connection to those sites at all. They didn't ask our permission. It would be better if they removed it, but we can't spend our time policing the Internet."

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