07 September 2008

Christ Church as it is: Creationist Credentials

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced Christ Church, Moscow, Idaho's friendly neighborhood theocracy-in-embryo, which weds garden-variety Christian Right hypocrisy with creepy, racist Neo-Confederate overtones. Today, I'm going to have a look at the Christ Church-affiliated New Saint Andrews College.

NSA cultivates a reputation as the ivory tower's ivory tower - the curriculum includes lots of Classical studies, including Greek and Latin; the school's vision statement puts much emphasis on the supremacy of Western Culture (or "Traditio occidentalis"). Zombie C.S. Lewis could totally be a member of the faculty, if he were into theocratic fundamentalism. Said faculty are all wearing Scholarly Robes in the group photo.

The original ivory tower is at the
University of Pittsburgh

Photo by Jeremy B. Yoder.
There's nothing wrong with focusing on classical studies. NSA's air of musty erudition has attracted a mostly positive profile by the New York Times Magazine and a favorable rating from the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (Full disclosure: my alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, was also recognized by ISI.)

But, basically by their own admission, Christ Church's theology is strongly right-wing. Is NSA's ivory tower secure against the ideology of the church that founded it? The evidence is, not so much. NSA's Code of Conduct sounds all sorts of alarm bells:
"The College seeks to recover true academic freedom, that is, submission to God's Word in all our actions and attitudes in and out of the classroom.
As does the NSA Students' Pledge:
I pledge to maintain sound Christian doctrine, to regularly attend an orthodox church, and to maintain a teachable spirit. I pledge to abstain from actively promoting doctrines contrary to the mission and goals of the College.
Who decides what is "God's Word" and "sound Christian doctrine?" Conveniently, Doug Wilson, the pastor of Christ Church, is both a Board of Trustees member and a "Senior Fellow" at NSA. In fact, of seventeen faculty members, three are Wilsons. That's DW, his son (if I'm not mistaken) Nathan, and brother Gordon.

Gordon L. Wilson, the "Senior Fellow of Natural Philosophy," is actually my closest contact to NSA. Last fall I attended a debate on the topic of intelligent design between GLW and Washington State University biologist Mike Webster. It wasn't pretty. GLW, who is basically miles to the right of Michael Behe, didn't make a very good impression on behalf of NSA's high-minded curriculum in rhetoric and philosophy - he dodged questions, failed to support his assertions, and generally displayed an inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend the logical underpinnings of the Scientific Method. In a particularly telling moment, he asserted that the reason ID/Creationists haven't developed any testable hypotheses is because biased funding agencies won't give them money.

That, of course, is laughable to anyone who does science for a living (i.e., a sizable chunk of GLW's audience), because no one gets grant funding to develop hypotheses. Funding requests are descriptions of how you will test a hypothesis through a specific program of experiments or data collection. In other words, scientists receive funding after they develop hypotheses and convince funding agencies that they have a good way to test them.

The Eastern Box Turtle,
Terrapene carolina

Photo by West Virgina Blue.
It's entirely possible that Gordon Wilson doesn't actually know how scientific funding works. Which is consistent with the hypothesis that he's more interested in adhering to his concept of "sound Christian doctrine" than doing science. The only published peer-reviewed research NSA's Senior Fellow of Natural Philosophy has produced is a 2005 paper on the breeding ecology of box turtles [$-a]. (GLW's NSA profile also mentions published "research, field notes, and abstracts," but this is the only paper that comes up in a Google Scholar search.) It's basically a census, although there are some t-tests. And it was funded not by an outside grant, but by what seems to be a donation from the biology department where GLW was an instructor when he did the study. Here's the only mention of funding in the Acknowledgments section:
We would like to thank Paul Sattler (Chair) for allocating Liberty University Biology funds for the purchase of much of the field equipment necessary for this study.
To put this in perspective: I'm now a fourth-year doctoral student, and I'm not nearly to the point of having enough published work on my CV to say I've earned my doctorate yet, much less apply for a faculty position at a good university. I've personally written (as near as I can recall) four major grant requests, and contributed to a fifth; I'm a coauthor on a review article, one published original research article [$-a], and a third in press; I'm a coauthor on two more articles that are submitted for review, and I'm waiting for my first first-authored paper to go out to reviewers. And (what the heck) I've been published in the letters column of Science. Let me repeat: my pubs list is piddly. But it's bigger than Gordon Wilson's, and he's somehow on the faculty at NSA. With the word "senior" in his title.

NSA might have a bang-up program as far as Latin studies go, but its resident "biologist" is clearly more interested in ideology than biology. I can't say that bodes well for the "intellectual rigor" of the rest of the curriculum.

Edit, 7 Sept. 2008:
Added a couple of links to the NSA faculty pages in references to Doug Wilson's positions at NSA and the number of Wilsons on the faculty.

Correction, 9 Sept. 2008:
Corrected the relationships between the Wilsons on the NSA faculty.


W. Godsoe, J.B. Yoder, C.I. Smith, O. Pellmyr (2008). Coevolution and Divergence in the Joshua Tree/Yucca Moth Mutualism The American Naturalist, 171 (6), 816-23 DOI: 10.1086/587757

R. Gomulkiewicz, D.M. Drown, M.F. Dybdahl, W. Godsoe, S.L. Nuismer, K.M. Pepin, B.J. Ridenhour, C.I. Smith, J.B. Yoder (2007). Dos and don'ts of testing the geographic mosaic theory of coevolution Heredity, 98 (5), 249-58 DOI: 10.1038/sj.hdy.6800949

G.L. Wilson, C.H. Ernst (2005). Reproductive Ecology of the Terrapene carolina carolina (Eastern Box Turtle) in Central Virginia Southeastern Naturalist, 4 (4) DOI: 10.1656/1528-7092(2005)004[0689:REOTTC]2.0.CO;2

J.B. Yoder, B. Shneiderman (2008). Science 2.0: Not So New? Science, 320 (5881), 1290-1 DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5881.1290

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