September 10, 2006

9/11 conspiracy theories and academic freedom

Brigham Young University has placed physicist Steven Jones on paid leave while it investigates his publications related to 9/11 and his claims that evidence shows the use of thermite in the collapse of the WTC. Let me state right off the bat that I don't find his argument credible. Jones is also one of the original cold-fusion gang (though with important differences from Pons & Fleischmann)—not exactly someone to inspire confidence in fringe engineering judgments.

Nonetheless, putting someone on paid leave is extraordinary for a university and suggests that his actions are potentially so dangerous to the university that temporary separation is unavoidable. The danger of his employment? Well, it can't be to science, because fellow physicists were far kinder to Jones than to Pons and Fleischmann, and in any case the cold-fusion hullaballoo is a few decades back. You don't get scientific misconduct investigations a few decades later that suddenly become an extreme danger to a university.

BYU doesn't grant tenure. Apparently, Jones's status is "continuing employment." But the relevant question is not whether Jones's writings on 9/11 are scientifically correct and valued by the relevant community of scholarship. (They're not.) The question is whether Jones's work as a whole is of value. If 9/11 is his entire work right now, that's one thing, but it should come out in annual reviews (or whatever the regular evaluation mechanism is at BYU).

Putting Jones on paid leave suggests that the real danger that BYU feels is political embarrassment, always an unjustifiable motivation in dealing with faculty personnel issues.

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Posted in Academic freedom on September 10, 2006 8:50 AM |