Today, we try to sort out prejudice. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
In 1990 Scientific
American hired a new editor for its feature,
The Amateur Scientist. That's where
Scientific American shows you how to build
your own apparatus and do your own experiments. A
physics professor named Jearl Walker used to write
it. I felt close to The Amateur
Scientist column, because Walker used some
of my experiments in it.
The new editor was to be a science writer named
Forrest Mims. Mims is also an accomplished amateur
scientist. He had great qualifications for the job.
Then it came out that he's a Fundamentalist and a
Creationist. So Scientific American got rid
of him before he started. And we're left wondering
if they did the right thing.
Help me think this one through. The case for
Scientific American goes like this: Mims's
Biblical literalism denies much of the core of
accepted science. He's at odds with huge pieces of
paleontology, geology, biology, genetics,
astronomy, and more. How can such a person work
with a magazine that tries to tell the public what
science has to say?
When Mims answers, he doesn't defend his beliefs.
He knows they're at odds with our convictions. But
they're also his own business. He doesn't mean to
sell Creationism. He just wants to celebrate
So can he write accurately about -- say -- biology?
Sure he can. He can tell about spider webs, the
greenhouse effect, and how plants reflect light. He
can write about artificial limbs and about pollen
in the air. Still, he'd have to walk around his own
beliefs. There remains some science his column
The facts alone don't answer the questions. We have
to turn to our own belief systems. My beliefs put
high value on individualism and diversity. So I
think he should have the job.
We see worse flaws than his among scientists. Some
can't bear to be wrong. They do huge damage when
they won't let go of ideas. Yet, regrettably,
that's a trait we've come to accept.
Years ago we worried about electing the Catholic
Jack Kennedy. Would he let the Pope set national
policy? In the end, it wasn't Kennedy's stated
beliefs, nor is it Mims's, that we must fear. It's
people who want to impose their beliefs. It's
people who keep their beliefs a secret.
Mims doesn't worry me. Scientists who're greedy,
secretive, or self-serving do. I'll trust anyone
who takes a healthy, innocent, and curious pleasure
in the world -- even when I'm sure he's dead wrong
about the details of its Creation.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For background on this matter, see three articles in
The Scientist: The Newspaper for the Science
Professional, Vol. 5, No. 4, Feb. 18, 1991.
King, J., The Mims Case: Defending Science or
Persecuting Religion? p. 11.
Mims, F.M., III, Intolerance Threatens Every
Scientist -- Amateur or Not. pp. 11 and 13.
Caplan, A.L., Creationist Belief Precludes
Credibility on Science Issues. pp. 11 and 13.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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