July 13, 2008

Crackergate And Why PZ May Be Wrong About One Thing

Elevation of the host after the consecration, ...
Elevation of the host after the consecration, a scene from the life of Martin of Tours (fresco by Simone Martini, 1322-1326) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you read any atheists blogs at all, you've undoubtedly heard about Crackergate and the death threats PZ Myers has received from enraged Catholics after threatening to harm a Communion wafer. I applaud PZ's efforts because they send the message that crackers are simply crackers and nothing more. We in the reality-based community should not be asked to respect religious beliefs any more than we would respect psychotic delusions. But Myers may be wrong on at least one count. I recognize that PZ is something of a folk hero in the atheist community and am aware that what I am about to say may not be well received. If I did not think it was an important point, I'd likely hold my tongue.

PZ Myers is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota - Morris. His blog is hosted on Seed, which has no affiliation with his home university. However, according to the Star Tribune (Minneapolis-St. Paul), the Catholic League has pointed out that Myers' blog, Pharyngula, is linked from at least one university website. I doubt that this is true, as I tend to be skeptical of anything Bill Donahue's hate group says. But if true, this is a problem.

If PZ links to Pharyngula from a university-hosted web site, this would blur the line between what PZ is doing on his personal time and with his own resources vs. what he is doing on university time and with university resources. If a university-hosted website is linking to Pharyngula, it gives the impression that the university is supporting the views PZ expresses on Pharyngula. I can imagine that the university administration would not be thrilled with this. But let me repeat that I suspect that there is no such link and that PZ would realize that this would be problematic.

But what about academic freedom? The way most academic freedom policies are written, the focus is on the classroom and what is taught there. However, those policies which are broader tend to ask for some separation between what a faculty member does in his or her official capacity as a representative of the university and what he or she does in his or her own time.

Now this one is much less clear than the link issue, but there may be another problem for PZ that has nothing to do with Catholic allegations. Look at his picture on Pharyngula and examine the text directly below his picture. He provides his academic title and university affiliation. By doing so, I could imagine some university administrators arguing that this implied he was representing himself as an agent of the university on a personal blog. Not smart.

When I write a letter to the editors of my local paper, I don't get to include my academic rank and university affiliation. Why? Because I am writing as a private citizen and not a spokesperson for the university. I would get in serious trouble if I signed my letter with my university affiliation. I see little difference on a personal blog or website.

I have no respect for Bill Donahue or his group of Christian extremists, and I applaud the steps taken by PZ Myers to offend them. However, I think that PZ needs to be a bit more careful about separating his blog from his university. Not doing so places him in a precarious position that is unlikely to be helped by flooding the office of his university president with letters from atheists.

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