The South Carolina Enemies List

The anti-evolution crusade in South Carolina, led by the Discovery Institute, continues unabated. There is not much new to report – the Educational Oversight Committee (EOC) has voted to reject, yet again, the curriculum standards that don’t include the pro-ID “critical analysis” language. But the EOC has no power to change the standards. Only the Board of Education, which meets today, can do that. So it gets kicked back to them, and they’ll have to submit another round of standards for EOC approval. Round and round we go.

But the rhetoric and nonsense keep heating up. Sunday’s Charleston Post and Courier carried a front page article which starts out as follows:

In January, state Sen. Mike Fair desperately needed a pair of speakers to challenge the theory of evolution.

The Greenville Republican and Education Oversight Committee member lost the two South Carolina university professors he had lined up for a debate with state science educators after one of his speakers began receiving job threats for agreeing to participate.

The topic of the debate was the proposed injection of language favoring “critical analysis” of evolutionary theory into guidelines or standards used for sophomore biology lessons.

So he turned to the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank, for help.

The article goes on to describe the Discovery Institute and its shenanigans – it’s a pretty good article actually. Among other things, we get to learn that South Carolina is now considered a “main focus” of the Discovery Institute, as if we didn’t have enough problems, and that U.S. Senator Jim DeMint’s office was being less than truthful when it said that DeMint had “little familiarity” with the Discovery Institute. (The fact that he gave the opening speech at a DI-sponsored event kind of gave it away). But it’s that peculiar allegation by Mike Fair, reprinted without skepticism, that I want to talk about.

Fair’s claim that there were two SC professors who had to back out because one of them received job threats has the virtue, like ID itself, of being impossible to verify or refute. The fact of the matter is, Fair brought this up well after he had his anti-evolution speakers appear in front of the Academic Standards and Assessments Subcommittee of the EOC (see here and here for background). Those speakers were Richard von Sternberg and Rebecca Keller, who were suggested to Fair by the Discovery Institute. Fair took some amount of heat due to his use of out-of-state personae to represent the anti-evolution cause, while the two pro-science speakers who the EOC lined-up (Karen Stratton and Mary Lang Edwards) were both in-state. But Fair didn’t see fit to mention until a subsequent meeting that he had originally picked two in-state professors who apparently backed out at the last minute – this being, according to Fair’s sob story, because one or both of them received job threats. This is very strange, because Fair steadfastly refused to say who his picks were – not even the other EOC members knew – until it was revealed at the last hour that they would be von Sternberg and Keller. Whoever these two SC professors that supposedly backed-out were, no one knew their identities then, and no one knows their identities now. How could either one of them received job threats when they remained anonymous?

Okay, so color me skeptical. Fair’s story doesn’t add up. But I happen to know for a fact that there are people whose jobs have been threatened over this. And it isn’t Fair or his allies. It’s hard working college professors whose only crime is standing up to Fair and the Discovery Institute.

Several weeks ago, Rob Dillon, a professor at the College of Charleston, received a carbon copy of an email sent by the dean in response to a message from a senior Vice President of the College (the original was not sent to Dr. Dillon). Rob is the president of South Carolinians for Science Education, a newly formed organization similar to those in other states dedicated to resisting creationist assaults on science education. As such, Rob finds himself attending EOC meetings, speaking his mind during public hearings, and other thankless tasks that any citizen of our state has a right (and a duty) to do.

Or do they? I reproduce the contents of the original email below in full:


TO: Dr. Elise Jorgens

Dean Norine Noonan

FROM: Frederick W. Daniels

I received a call from a good friend of the College who asked that I bring to the attention of the “appropriate people” a recent event at the Education Oversight Committee Hearings in Columbia. It is reported that a faculty member, Dr. Robert Dillon, attended the meetings and his behavior was both “inappropriate and disruptive to the hearings.” The person who called quotes a member of the committee as saying Professor Dillon “showed a lack of respect and lack of decorum in disrupting a public meeting.” He further argues such behavior makes securing funding for the new Science Center considerably more difficult.

Dr. Dillon was part of a group of people who interrupted the meeting. He identified himself and the fact that he is a faculty member at the College. This is another point the caller described as unnecessary. Dr. Dillon was acting as a private citizen, but he is remembered as a member of the College faculty.


cc: President Higdon

Needless to say, Dr. Dillon didn’t disrupt anything. According to several others who were present, he didn’t say a word during the whole meeting, and it wasn’t until afterwards when reporters started interviewing people that he began talking. This message is not intended to fix any actual problem, it is a blatant act of intimidation – a threat if you will – designed to keep Dillon from showing up at public meetings and voicing his dissent. And not only did this “good friend of the College” single out Dillon for attack, he saw fit to threaten the funding for the entire College of Charleston. Some friend! As a former student of Rob’s and an alumnus of the College of Charleston, I find this behavior too despicable for words.

Things get worse. Remember how one of Fair’s supposed SC professors had his or her job threatened? Well, that particular story may be apocryphal, but one of the individuals who testified in front of the EOC did have her job threatened. That person would be Mary Lang Edwards of Erskine College, who testified against Fair’s anti-evolution proposal. After her EOC testimony, and after having written two guest editorials that appeared in The Greenville News and The State, numerous emails and phone calls were made to Dean of Erskine College calling for her termination. Not just to the Dean, but also to the President. And to the Board of Trustees. And to the Chair of the Faculty…

Dr. Dillon and Dr. Edwards are not alone. There have been similar cases I am aware of but am not privy to the details. The good news is, neither Dr. Dillon nor Dr. Edwards are in any jeopardy of losing their jobs. Their respective Deans and other colleagues stand by them. It is very rare for a professor to get fired merely for saying something controversial, to say nothing of when one merely stands up for good science supported by the overwhelming majority of biologists. And of course it’s also why Mike Fair’s allegations are as hard to believe as they are. Even if his pro-ID professors existed, no one I know in my admittedly limited academic experience would want them fired simply for supporting ID (or just some generic flavor of anti-evolutionism), assuming they did their jobs competently. Of course that doesn’t mean we have to agree with them, or even take them seriously. As the Discovery Institute keeps saying, with a complete lack of sincerity, challenging your peers is what academic freedom is all about. But the minute someone challenges one of them, their immediate reaction is to scream persecution, file a nuisance lawsuit, or to submit a discrimination complaint. This is what you do when you can’t handle being criticized. Making such frivolous claims of persecution, as Discovery Institute constantly does, is nothing more than a crude smear-job against the scientific community.

But threatening one’s job, or an institution’s funding, is not mere collegial disagreement. And in this case it doesn’t appear to have emanated from college professors, but rather from politicians or others with strings to pull, as is almost always the case. Let me be clear: I have no evidence that Mike Fair or his Discovery Institute backers are responsible for issuing these threats. But someone in state government was responsible for that threatening email about Rob Dillon, otherwise there would have been no talk of cutting funding to the College of Charleston. (Which the state doesn’t need an excuse for, since it happens every year anyway.) And moreover, the email cites disparaging remarks from an EOC member, which clearly didn’t make their way into the missive by accident.

The Discovery Institute has been spoon-feeding strategy to Mike Fair and other anti-evolution politicians in South Carolina for some time now. They are responsible for the “critical analysis” language that Fair is trying to insert into the biology curriculum. Perhaps they’ve shared with him another one of their strategies: always accuse the other side of your own sins.