An Alcatraz of the Mind: What the Coppedge Trial Will Show - Evolution News & Views

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An Alcatraz of the Mind: What the Coppedge Trial Will Show

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In typical loutish fashion, PZ Myers takes off after David Coppedge:

It sounds like the [Jet Propulsion Lab] was reasonable and put up with Coppedge for quite some time, clearly telling him to desist in his problematic behavior at work. The Discovery Institute has nothing to lose -- Coppedge is a nobody -- and their enthusiasm for the case has waxed and waned. We'll see if they put up a fight or not.
As the Coppedge trial proceeds, this idea that Coppedge is a "nobody," a "mere computer technician," will be heard often from Darwin enforcers as they explain why NASA's JPL "reasonably" punished Coppedge for his pro-intelligent design interests. The truth is that JPL didn't "put up" with anything. Coppedge's supervisors demoted him at the same meeting at which they told him he was doing something wrong, and then fired him when he sought legal recourse.

But the picture of Coppedge as a "nobody," a person of no consequence and therefore offering no reason to protest his mistreatment, needs to be addressed. It's exactly the fact that Coppedge isn't a professor or academic himself that reveals the extent to which professional scholars are denied the freedom to reach any conclusion on the scientific questions raised by intelligent design.

Let's take a moment to recall the realities of the world of science. If you are outside that world, it's hard to understand the prison-like conditions that pertain inside.

For trustees, as the best-behaved individuals would be called in a genuine prison or other correctional institution, it's a comfortable place, with reasonably generous salaries and decent vacations, opportunities for piling up prestige and lots of handouts from the government. Still, an electrified fence encloses those inside and fellow prisoners patrol the perimeter.

Flirting with ideas that run counter to Darwinian materialism is the surest way to have your trustee-status revoked along with all your privileges. Going further than flirtation would bring correspondingly severe, even catastrophic, consequences.

It's a strange kind of prison, though. There is no commandant, no professional correctional officers who guard the prisoners by day and go home at night to a wife and children. The internees guard themselves, supervised by kapo-like figures, specially suited to the role by their own meanly brutish nature. James Barham gave a good illustration the other day of how a kapo, Jerry Coyne, warns an internee, James Shapiro, when he gets too close to the fence.

These odious prison functionaries are never fine scholars themselves. They seek personal distinction by keeping others in line. One thinks of PZ Myers, a biologist who gave up on publishing peer-reviewed research and now spends his time writing juvenile blog posts.

On the other hand, unlike a prison, this facility is not intended to punish or "correct" the prisoners at all. It merely keeps them confined.

In such an Alcatraz of the mind, what sort of person do you think is most likely to fall into the most serious difficulty -- running heedlessly into the fence and getting electrocuted, torn up by the prison dogs, not merely intimidated by the kapos but beaten and humiliated by them? Is it the trustee, the "good" scientist and longtime resident who absorbed the rules of the place long ago, for whom those rules have been second nature from undergraduate and grad-school days on, who hardly thinks of himself as being imprisoned but, quite the contrary, enjoys the perks while staying so safely clear of the perimeter that he never even sees it?

Of course not. In all likelihood, the guy who gets fried by the fence is someone who is an innocent, an unwary soul without the instinct for self-protection and, probably, without the long training in academia that many other internees have had. He is in the science world but not entirely of it. Such a person is David Coppedge. I have not met or talked with him myself but those who have spent time with him tell me that an "innocent" is exactly what he is.

Coppedge, a computer specialist, (formerly) the most senior on JPL's Cassini Mission to Saturn, is neither a scientist nor a scholar per se. For that reason, he is precisely the kind of person most likely to get caught talking about ID and to pay the price for it. He offered to lend a DVD to a colleague and the next day found himself getting screamed at by a supervisor, then quickly demoted and, after he protested, fired.

Most other men and women in science would have the long-trained defensive instinct to keep themselves safe. A story like this shows you where the prison perimeter lies. As the Coppedge trial gets off the ground, he'll have an opportunity to tell his story. It will be, or should be, an embarrassment to the kapos.


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