Mar 13 2012

JPLs Firing of Coppedge

David Coppedge is suing his former employer, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, for demoting him in 2009 and then firing him in January of 2011. According to Coppedge he was demoted then fired because of his religious beliefs. He is an evangelical Christian who promotes belief in intelligent design. The case raises an interesting question about freedom of religion vs professionalism, but first let’s go over the details of the case in a bit more detail.

David Coppedge started working for NASA at the JPL in 1996 as a subcontractor. He was then hired full time in 2003 to work on the Cassini mission, and was functioning as a team leader. In 2009 he was demoted from the team leader position because, as NASA claims, of reported complaints from his coworkers of harassment. The nature of the harassment was proselytizing about his beliefs, specifically Intelligent Design (ID) and other evangelical beliefs, such as opposing gay rights. Coppedge sued NASA and the JPL for this demotion, and then amended the suit after he was fired in 2011. He was fired as part of a larger lay off  of 246 positions due to budget cuts and downsizing.

So – NASA/JPL’s position is that Coppedge was demoted for harassing coworkers, and they felt he could not function effectively in a team leader position, and then he was fired as part of a larger round of  downsizing.  Coppedge’s position is that the demotion and the firing were a result of discrimination against his religious views, that he was singled out.

I try to avoid trying cases from afar, based on the very imperfect and filtered information that comes to me second hand through news outlets. This case will likely be judged on details that will come to light during the case. For example, exactly what was the nature of the complaints of harassment made against Coppedge? This seems critical. It’s one thing to occasionally chat with co-workers about your non-work related hobbies. If taken past a certain point, however, then this can make for an oppressive work environment, and can become disruptive and bad for group morale and cohesion. This is not exactly behavior we would value in a team leader. It’s also possible, at the other end of the spectrum, that Coppedge was simply occasionally chatting to others at work or expressing his opinions honestly when certain topics came up. These details will likely come out in court and may determine the ultimate decision.

Given that we don’t know these details, we can still talk about the principles involved. To me the key principle is the balance between individual freedom of expression and professionalism. This is certainly not the first case where this was the issue, taken broadly. Looked at another way, how much can employers demand of employees in terms of their dress and behavior? Can they forbid their workers from wearing religious symbols, or even discussing their personal beliefs with co-workers?

Employers often justify such workplace regulations as necessary to generate a certain environment, which can either be conducive for productivity, harmony in the workplace, or appearance to customers and colleagues. We might refer to all of this collectively as professionalism in the workplace.

In terms of what is appropriate, I think it largely depends upon the nature of the company, the workplace, and the specific positions. A professional, like a doctor, can be reasonably held to a fairly high standard of professionalism in their personal presentation and behavior, in the patient-care setting and especially with patients.

Another variable is – how up front was the employer to the employee about what was expected. If an employer has a published code of conduct and the employee takes the job knowing what is expected and agreeing to it, then it is more difficult to complain about those standards later. Still – this does not justify downright discriminatory standards, but that (like everything with this issue) is a gray zone. Appearance codes are legal and generally accepted, but occasionally run afoul of sex discrimination or race discrimination accusations.

There are even cases of religious discrimination from appearance codes at work. Costco was sued for banning facial piercings by an employee who was a member of the Church of Body Modification, established in 1999, 1000 members. That case was decided in favor of Costco, who, it was decided, had the discretion to make such rules for it’s employees to maintain a clean image to the public.

It seems the courts give employers the benefit of the doubt and wide latitude in making reasonable requirements for its employees, even just for the reason of public appearance. Safety is another reason (such as the requirement to be clean shaven for hygiene or to wear tight-fitting respirators). In this case the justification for demoting Coppedge, it seems, is to maintain a conducive work environment.

It will be interesting from a legal point of view to see which way the judgment goes, but my sense is that the courts tend to favor employers in such cases, and the burden of proof is on Coppedge to prove that he was discriminated against. I further wonder whether the notion that promoting pseudoscience in a company that is science-based is inherently unprofessional. That would be an interesting argument, and I would like to see what the courts think of it.

For the record, in my opinion Coppedge is a rank pseudoscientist. He runs a website, Creation Evolution Headlines, that includes pseudoscientific creationist propaganda nonsense, such as this gem: Humans Evolved from Dogs

“A new finding shows dogs performing better on one kind of intelligence test than chimpanzees.  If evolution teaches that human intelligence is the main trait separating us from other animals, and dogs are smarter than apes, shouldn’t the conclusion be that dogs are closer on the family tree?  If not, is it valid for evolutionary biologists to pick and choose the traits that matter?”

Like all creationist arguments, this one is just packed with silly misunderstandings of evolution. The article is referring to this study published in PLOSOne showing that dogs are better at understanding the meaning of a pointing finger than chimpanzees. While chimps are generally smarter than dogs, dogs are no dummies. It is probable that dogs understanding pointing because in the process of domestication dogs were chosen for being sensitive to human communication, and perhaps even specifically for getting the whole pointing thing.

But let’s dissect that nonsense further. Evolution does not teach us that intelligence separates humans from other animals. The evolutionary perspective is that we are not separate from other animals – we are all part of the same evolutionary tree. The statement also betrays the linear thinking that plagues many creationists non-arguments – as if there is a straight line of intelligence leading to humans at the pinnacle, and therefore we should be able to rank all animals on this one dimensional line. If dogs are smarter than chimps, even in one tiny ability, then they should be closer to humans on the line.

The other assumption there is that if chimps are generally smarter than dogs, they should be smarter in every possible way. If they are smarter in some ways, but dogs are smarter in others, that violates the creationist’s one-dimensional thinking and their brains combust.  There are many different kinds of intelligence, and selective pressures will favor different abilities in different groups and species.

The real evolutionary question is this – are chimps more similar to humans in their intelligence than are dogs? The answer there is clearly yes. Chimps are neurologically and cognitively more similar to humans than dogs. But chimps are not primitive humans. We did not evolve from chimps – we diverged in our evolution about 8 million years ago (and not cleanly – there was some later interbreeding), and so chimps have had millions of years to evolve their own particular traits not shared with human ancestors.

Coppedge promotes pseudoscientific nonsense. Is this even a matter of religious freedom? ID is all about blurring the lines – no, the intelligent designer is not the same as God, ID is science not religion, it’s not creationism, etc. But when an ID proponent is fired from a teaching job or in this case a science job, ID proponents immediately scream “religious discrimination.”

I think it is clear that if you are a science teacher, deliberately teaching pseudoscience (regardless of your personal beliefs) is a firing offense. I also think that believing in pseudoscience like ID is pretty solid evidence that you are incompetent to teach science. I don’t think the same is true of any science job, however. You can believe in nonsense and still be technically competent and do your job well. The question then becomes – do you bring your pseudoscience into work with you? In this case we have the added element of preaching your pseudoscience to your coworkers, including those whom you are supervising as a team leader.

The JPL is probably justified in this case, but we’ll see what details come to light during the case.

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