Summary

Expelled claims that Caroline Crocker was fired because she mentioned Intelligent Design in a class she was teaching. However, the evidence says otherwise. While there may have been grounds to fire her with cause, Crocker was not fired and continued to teach her course after student complaints; in addition, she did not just “mention” intelligent design, but rather was teaching demonstrably false creationist material. We do not know for certain why Crocker was not re-hired for her non-tenure track job. Such positions carry no promise that contracts will be renewed. Only tenure-track jobs come with such an expectation, and only tenured professors have a guarantee of employment.

The Claim

“After she simply mentioned Intelligent Design in her cell biology class at George Mason University, Caroline Crocker’s sterling academic career came to an abrupt end.” (Ben Stein, Expelled)
“[My supervisor] said ‘nonetheless you have to be disciplined’, and I lost my job.” (Caroline Crocker, Expelled)

The Facts

George Mason University, photo from The Fairfax County Economic Development AuthorityExpelled makes it sound as if Crocker was immediately removed (expelled, even) from the George Mason University classroom. On the contrary, she completed teaching the course in the normal fashion, even after student complaints and whatever “discipline” followed that meeting with the supervisor. Crocker’s position at George Mason University (GMU) was a non-tenure track contract position in which the employee teaches on a course-by-course basis for a set length of time, with no guarantee of a renewal. Universities commonly use such “contingent faculty”, and, while not being brought back for another term may be the result of inadequate performance, it most commonly is the result of staffing needs: whether or not an individual’s expertise is needed at a particular time, or whether regular faculty can handle the load for the particular semester. Tenured and tenure track faculty make up only 31.9% of university teaching jobs in the United States, so Crocker’s situation was not unusual. In fact, overlapping with her contract at GMU, she held another contract position to teach at Northern Virginia Community College.

Despite claims of being fired, Crocker was allowed to continue teaching and complete her GMU contract after the Department became aware of her ID instruction through student complaints. She was instructed to not teach about intelligent design and creation science, which was not part of the curriculum of the courses she had been hired to teach. Academic freedom does not mean the freedom to teach about anything you want, regardless of the expected content of your courses. And, far from having her academic career “come to an abrupt end”, after leaving GMU, Crocker taught at NVCC, and additionally acquired in 2006 a postdoctoral position at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, MD, working on T-cell signal transduction – an actual scientific investigation – suggesting that her reputation as a scientist was unaffected by the controversy over intelligent design.

The Claim

“Not only did she lose her job at George Mason, this highly qualified researcher suddenly found herself blacklisted, unable to find a job anywhere.” (Ben Stein, Expelled)

The Facts

Neither Expelled nor Crocker offer any basis for the claim that she was blacklisted. Visiting lecturers lead a difficult existence in an era when there are more Ph.D.s being granted than there are tenured positions at universities. Were she blacklisted, it’s hard to know why she would even be getting interviews.

Indeed, if she were blacklisted, we would not expect her to have had regular employment after leaving GMU. But after her contract at GMU ended and the controversy about her teaching methods surfaced, Dr. Crocker continued in another adjunct faculty position at Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC), where she continued to teach demonstrably false science, as well as creationism, and was even profiled in an article at The Washington Post to which she willingly contributed.

In January 2006, she began a year as a postdoc at the Uniformed Services University, where she researched and taught molecular biology techniques. Currently, Crocker has a job associated with intelligent design: she is employed as the executive director of the Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Center, a national ID group for students, and, according to her web site, offers lectures to “churches and educational institutions” for fees ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. If she prefers now to work full-time promoting ID and her religious views, she is certainly entitled to do so. But that may be a preference rather than a necessity. In any regard, she continued to hold academic jobs after leaving GMU, so she could hardly have been blacklisted, nor does she offer any documentation for this very serious charge.

The Claim

“And I said I mentioned Intelligent Design on a couple of slides but I did not teach creationism” (Caroline Crocker, Expelled)

The Facts

In the above-mentioned article in the Washington Post, Crocker is described teaching her students a laundry list of discredited Creationist arguments. In a video on the Coral Ridge Ministries site, several of Crocker’s slides are shown. Though it’s not known whether Crocker used the same slides while teaching at George Mason, the Washington Post article provides evidence that they were part of her Northern Virginia Community College lectures. Her use of these slides suggests that Crocker shows either a shocking ignorance of evolutionary science, or a rather shameless willingness to distort the evidence.

The following are just a small sample of her erroneous and clearly creationist claims:

* Archeopteryx [sic] is a bird (like an Ostrich), not a reptobird
* Only one complete fossil, and has been questioned as a fraud

Archaeopteryx is indeed classified as a bird by scientists, but it is a transitional form because it possesses traits characteristic of birds and other traits characteristic of the ancestors of birds. Like dinosaurs, it has teeth and a long bony tail, as well as many other characteristics which modern birds lack, but it possesses feathers and other adaptations to flight, like birds. (See http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/archaeopteryx/info.html#features) Note that “reptobird” seems to be a term entirely of Crocker’s invention.

Contrary to what Dr. Crocker’s slide suggests, there are several well-preserved Archaeopteryx fossils, and while it is true that two non-paleontologists (astronomers!) claimed in the 1980s that the original fossil was a fraud, the allegation was quickly disproved. Even Answers in Genesis, the pre-eminent Creationist organization, lists this as a creationist argument against evolution that should not be used, because it was so easily disproven.

Eohippus is same as modern-day hyrax

EohippusThis argument also has a long creationist history, and is equally erroneous. Eohippus is an extinct member of the horse family, while the hyrax is a modern, rabbit-sized, mammal living in the Middle East and Africa. They were part of an early radiation of African mammals and are more closely related to elephants than to horses. Even a brief consideration of skulls makes it clear that these are two completely different animals. The rest of the skeleton and soft tissues also help differentiate hyraxes from horses.
A noble steed?
In another slide, titled “Scientists are confused”, Crocker offers the following quote:

Gould and Eldridge [sic] (evolutionists): “There is no validation of the position that speciation causes significant morphological change.”

Gould never wrote these words. Crocker’s dishonest quotation follows from a long tradition of creationists misusing quotations from legitimate scientific sources – a problem we also find in Expelled.

Gould actually said “But continuing unhappiness, justified this time, focuses upon claims that speciation causes significant morphological change, for no validation of such a position has emerged.” (Gould, SJ and Eldredge, N, “Punctuated equilibrium comes of age” Nature 366, 223-227, 1993). In other words, there is a question of the order in which speciation and physical diversification take place, not “confusion” over whether any link exists between such diversification and speciation. Crocker’s erroneous quotation and mischaracterization of the author’s intent show poor scholarship, and encourage her students to misunderstand key concepts.

The Washington Post article discussing Crocker’s lecture at Northern Virginia Community College reveals her relying upon several more creationist talking points, all of which have been thoroughly debunked. These include:

Crocker “told the students there were two kinds of evolution: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution …easily seen in any microbiology lab… is … quite different from macroevolution. No one has ever seen a dog turn into a cat in a laboratory.”

No evolutionary biologist ever proposed that “dogs turn into cats in a laboratory”, and ironically, this would be disproof of evolution! Such rapid changes are exactly contrary to any expectation of evolutionary processes. Dogs and cats do share a common ancestor, but can no more turn into one another than you can transform into your cousins. If Crocker doesn’t understand that, she is stunningly ignorant of basic evolutionary theory, and she has no right to force her ignorance on students. Furthermore, her misrepresentation of the “micro/macro” distinction is a standard creationist distortion of evolutionary theory.

Biologists use “macroevolution” to describe the broad patterns and trends of the evolution and diversification of life over long stretches of time. Macroevolution includes such subjects as extinction, speciation, changes in traits over time, rates of change, adaptive radiation, and similar processes. To creationists, macroevolution is the change from one “kind” (in the Biblical sense of “created kind”) to another, such as “a dog turning into a cat.” Microevolution refers to changes in gene frequencies within a species. Microevolution is not “quite different” from macroevolution: microevolution is a necessary part of macroevolution, as the combined effect of microevolutionary changes produces macroevolutionary patterns. Despite Crocker’s claim, macroevolution and microevolution do not exhaust the possibilities: there are evolutionary processes which are neither microevolutionary nor macroevolutionary.

Creationists accept microevolution, but, as in Crocker’s lecture, reject macroevolution. Crocker’s statement implies that microevolution is the primary evidence for macroevolution, when there is significant and overwhelming evidence for the latter in geology, biogeography, biochemistry, anatomy and genetics. For her to teach this would be further miseducation of her students.

In the 1950s, she said, scientists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey ran electricity through a soup of chemicals to show how chemicals on the early Earth could assemble themselves into the building blocks of life.”… Crocker said that subsequent research had shown that chemicals used in the experiment did not exist on Earth 4 billion years ago. “The experiment is irrelevant, but you still find it in your books,” she said.

Crocker’s recitation of standard creationist attacks on origin of life research doesn’t even accurately regurgitate their false claims! Informed creationists do not deny, as she does, that “chemicals used in the experiment did not exist on Earth 4 billion years ago,” they deny that the atmospheric conditions of the Miller-Urey experiments accurately modeled the Earth’s early atmosphere. Crocker presents this information as evidence that scientists are clinging to inaccurate experiments to prop up a failed theory. She ignores the results of the past 50 years of origin of life research. In the specific case of the Miller-Urey experiment, scientists have re-run the experiment with revised conditions and obtained similar results.

She cited another experiment, involving researcher Bernard Kettlewell, who produced pictures of variously colored peppered moths on tree trunks to show that when the moths were not well camouflaged, they were more likely to be eaten by birds — a process of natural selection that influenced the color of the moths. “This comes from your book — it is not actually true,” Crocker said. “The experiment was falsified. He glued his moths to the trees.”

Another creationist shibboleth drawn from the discredited intelligent design book, Icons of Evolution, the “peppered moth experiment is a fraud” argument has been debunked for several years. Whether and under what circumstances moths were glued in place is a distraction from the main point of Kettlewell’s (many) experiments which explained why the frequencies of light colored and dark colored moths changed in different areas in Great Britain. Kettlewell contended that birds differentially preyed upon moths that contrasted against different backgrounds, resulting in more dark colored moths in polluted areas and more light colored moths in cleaner areas. The staged photos of moths glued to a surface were to illustrate that dark and light forms of the moths contrast against light and dark backgrounds. Kettlewell additionally glued moths to trees to test whether birds ate this species of moth (they do).
Peppered Moths
But what Crocker and other creationists avoid reporting is that no moths were glued to trees during the actual experiments that clearly demonstrated natural selection for light and dark varieties in different environments. Thus, Crocker was lying to the students – or was profoundly ignorant of Kettlewell’s research – in claiming that “the experiment was falsified.” And in fact, while scientists have questioned certain aspects of Kettlewell’s methodology, none doubt that his ultimate conclusion is accurate, and a recent replication of the experiments confirmed the original findings.

The journalist asked Crocker “whether she was going to discuss the evidence for evolution in another class. She said no. … she saw her role as trying to balance the ‘ad nauseum’ pro-evolution accounts that students had long been force-fed.” Her job at NVCC was not to “balance” the students’ experience, but to provide them with an accurate introduction to modern biology. Because evolution is an important part of any beginning biology course, she failed to teach the curriculum, and short-changed her students by not teaching them standard science in favor of a lot of misinformation. That alone would have provided NVCC grounds for dismissal, had they sought them. If she took the same approach at GMU, they too would have been justified in firing her outright, though they did not.

It is entirely possible and even likely that Caroline Crocker was let go at the end of her contracts by George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College simply for staffing reasons: such is often (and many times, unfortunately) the fate of contingent faculty. GMU, in fact, has made this claim. But if Crocker was unable or unwilling to teach accurate science, and there is evidence of this, an institution would have been entirely justified in making a negative evaluation and not renewing her contract. Caroline Crocker is not a victim of scientific persecution, but the students who took her courses are victims of misinformation.

Read More

Brumfiel, Geoff. Cast out from class. Nature 434, 4/28/05
Ode to Caroline Crocker. Blog post, Tiny Frog, 2/15/08