Intolerance Threatens Every Scientist--Amateur Or Not

For more than 20 years I dreamed of some day becoming the writer of "The Amateur Scientist," the popular column in Scientific American that inspired me to become a science writer. After my dream came true, Scientific American revoked my assignment to write the column because of my views on evolution and abortion. The controversy over my dismissal from "The Amateur Scientist" has been characterized by irony. Were he alive today, Rufus Porter, the founding editor of Scientific American, would be

Feb 18, 1991
Mims Iii
For more than 20 years I dreamed of some day becoming the writer of "The Amateur Scientist," the popular column in Scientific American that inspired me to become a science writer. After my dream came true, Scientific American revoked my assignment to write the column because of my views on evolution and abortion.

The controversy over my dismissal from "The Amateur Scientist" has been characterized by irony. Were he alive today, Rufus Porter, the founding editor of Scientific American, would be fired from his own publication, for he advocated belief in "Creator God" in the magazine's premier issue in 1845. Since Porter actually wrote about God and I promised not to, his offense was infinitely more embarrassing than mine.

Another irony is that the roots of "The Amateur Scientist" can be traced to the November 1925 issue, the cover of which proclaimed, "The Heavens Declare the Glory of God." This quotation from the Book of Psalms was the title of an article by Albert Ingalls that paved the way for a column on amateur astronomy that eventually became "The Amateur Scientist."

Of course the ultimate irony is that Jonathan Piel, editor of Scientific American, continues to find himself the focus of the public relations nightmare he wanted to avoid. For more than a month, so many reporters, writers, and broadcasters called my office that sometimes both telephone lines and the fax line would be ringing simultaneously.

Neither Piel nor I anticipated the intense barrage of criticism that would be leveled at Scientific American. In an eloquent letter to Claus-G. Firchow, the magazine's president, Lamar Hankins, executive director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, wrote that the magazine's conduct was "grounded in the intolerance of another era, if not another century." He compared the magazine's action with McCarthyism and blacklisting.

The Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of the American Association for the Advancement of Science sent me a letter that stated, "A person's private behavior or religious or political beliefs or affiliations should not serve as criteria in the evaluation of articles submitted for publication. We emphasize, in particular, the consensus of the Committee that even if a person holds religiously derived beliefs that conflict with views commonly held in the scientific community, those beliefs should not influence decisions about publication of scientific articles unless the beliefs are reflected in the articles." The AAAS Committee on Council Affairs reviewed this letter and recently notified me that it states "the relevant AAAS principles."

Many other organizations as well as individual scientists have sent letters of support. An astronomer even offered to help defray the expenses of a lawsuit. Laurence Tribe of Harvard University's law school and Nobel physicist Arthur Schawlow of Stanford University voiced their concern in the press. And many editorials and columns castigated the magazine.

Prior to the magazine's revocation of my assignment to "The Amateur Scientist," no one at Scientific American ever questioned my qualifications. That's why I was surprised by the disparaging remarks about my qualifications that were made by several scientists quoted in the press.

One said that as a believer in creationism I lack the credibility to write about science. Another suggested that I was attempting to "penetrate" mainline scientific organizations. During a nationally televised debate, an anthropologist who directs an anticreationist organization questioned my competency.

To the best of my knowledge, none of these scientists read any of my works before making their judgments.

The controversy has received extensive media coverage, most of it fair and objective. Among the few exceptions was a newspaper column by Arthur Caplan of the University of Minnesota. "I think Mims deserved to be fired," Caplan wrote in his Dec. 10, 1990, column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He also wrote, "I believe Mims is not qualified to write a regular column about science for the general public."

After it received some 50 letters of protest from irate readers, the newspaper that printed this attack against my reputation responded with a Dec. 29 editorial that chastised Scientific American. The Birmingham News, another newspaper that ran Caplan's column, received so many protest letters that the editor called me to offer his apologies and then assigned a philosopher to write an eloquent rebuttal that appeared in the Dec. 19, 1990, edition.

In a particularly unusual step, the wire service that distributed Caplan's column picked up a response I wrote for the Pioneer Press, which was published in the paper on Dec. 29.

I was so stunned by Caplan's attack that I called him and asked what he knew of my background and qualifications. He was totally unaware that for 20 years I have earned a living by writing more than 50 books and many hundreds of articles and papers for some 75 magazines, journals, and newspapers.

Caplan also didn't know that I have designed and assembled and have operated, virtually every day for 22 months, the only two ground-based total column ozone monitors between California and Florida at my latitude. He didn't know that my son and I have used these miniature instruments to measure the column ozone between the base and crest of several mountains, and to measure the column ozone from a moving vehicle over the width of a resolution element of the Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (TOMS) aboard the Nimbus 7 while that satellite passes overhead.

Nor did Caplan know about any of my other projects, including the development of miniature infrared travel aids for the blind; a photographic study of the life cycle of the black widow (Latrodectus mactans); an ongoing program to measure the sun's ultraviolet radiation every day (32 months of data to date); the design of instruments to measure the near-infrared reflectance of soil, leaves, wood, and human skin; a study to identify Africanized bees by the frequency of their wing beat; measurements of the bounce rate of the black and yellow Argiope (A. aurantia) on its web; the dozens of instrumented rockets I have built and launched; hundreds of measurements of background radiation aboard commercial aircraft; and the numerous other investigations and projects I have conducted in fields ranging from analog computers and digital controllers to optical fibers and laser communicators.

Even after learning about some of this work, Caplan still insists I should be prohibited from writing "The Amateur Scientist," since belief in intelligent design, meaning a universe created by God, means that I will selectively apply the scientific method. This sword cuts both ways, and it is Caplan who fails his own test. On what evidence does Caplan question my objectivity?

None. His claim is based solely on a religious stereotype unsupported by any evidence whatsoever from my writings. Had he taken the time to examine them, he would have found that the articles and books about the electronic circuits, instruments, and computer programs that I design, and the investigations in which they are used, clearly follow traditional scientific methods. Moreover, I describe these instruments and programs in sufficient detail so they can be duplicated by my readers. If they did not function properly, I would soon be out of the writing business.

Caplan mistakenly believes biology will be left out of "The Amateur Scientist" if I am returned to the column. He is completely unaware that I live in the country and keep sheep, photograph wildflowers, collect fossils, observe wild bees, collect spider silk, and study the effects on the local ecology of imported fire ants.

Indeed, I was so concerned by the virtual absence of the life sciences from "The Amateur Scientist" over the past decade that several biology topics were included among the 30 proposed columns that were accepted by Scientific American. My proposed topics included an ultraviolet sunburn dosimeter, a study of eyeshine phenomenon, an investigation of amber, the reflectance spectroscopy of various plant materials, the electro-optical detection of pollen grains suspended in air, an investigation of spider webs, and the design of several prosthetic devices for the blind.

Even after they learned that I believe in the same Creator God espoused by their founding editor, no one on the staff at Scientific American questioned my ability to write these and the many other columns I proposed. Instead, they expressed considerable enthusiasm, and Piel himself said more than once that I should have been hired 10 years earlier.

On what basis does Caplan conclude that advocates of intelligent design are unwilling to discuss biology in a magazine column? Is he unaware of their major contributions to biology and science over the centuries? Why is he so threatened by an amateur scientist who builds instruments, writes books, and believes in God? On my desk are many letters of support from professional scientists, some of whom are biologists. Last year, 49 New York physicians signed a public declaration entitled "All Life is of Divine Origin." Will Caplan's next column call for the resignations of these scientists and physicians?

In retrospect, it's apparent that Jonathan Piel had good reason to be worried about the Arthur Caplans of the scientific community when he canceled my assignment to "The Amateur Scientist." Now that I've been subjected to some of their attacks, I can almost sympathize with Piel's plight. Even though he anticipated their reaction and dismissed me, to his credit he never once stooped to disparage my qualifications.

My lifetime ambition to write "The Amateur Scientist" was thwarted by scientific orthodoxy, not science. History teaches that scientific orthodoxy is nothing new. Besides ruining careers and closing opportunities, its adherents slow progress by stifling academic freedom and chilling the free and open exchange of ideas. Because dissenters who are qualified to do science threaten this orthodoxy, they are labeled as heretics, are publicly castigated, and are sometimes fired, much as I was.

No matter what their views on evolution and abortion, scientists and those who write about science should carefully consider the implications for science in general and their own careers in particular if Scientific American goes unchallenged. For next their personal beliefs may be questioned, their works censored, their reputation maligned, and their First Amendment rights denied.

Forrest M. Mims III has been a professional writer of books and articles about electronics, computers, and lasers since 1970. He works out of a small laboratory and office in Seguin, Texas.