Dr. Brady Phelps gives students the skeptical lowdown

Todd Vanderwerff

Todd Vanderwerff

The door to his office is crowded with the humorous signs and cartoons one expects to see on the door of a professor who is known for his sense of humor.

A sticker with a blood red slash through the word “WHINING” sits just across the door from a Darwin fish, which may be sprouting legs to hop off the door and follow some student home. At the other end of the door is a taped up “Non Sequitur” cartoon which shows God tricking Noah into building the ark. The caption reads “The original April Fool’s joke.”

And sitting in the center of the room is the man whom so many rumors have swirled about. He is surrounded by photos of eminent scientists and books on everything from the conflict between science and religion to behavioral psychology.

This man, for those who haven’t guessed it, is Dr. Brady Phelps, the man who teaches hundreds of students in his Introduction to Psychology section. If you’re an Arts and Science major, chances are you’ve bumped into Phelps while completing your social science credit and chances are he challenged at least one of your beliefs.

“(At college) you’re supposed to start thinking differently or thinking about things you’ve never evaluated,” Phelps said. “You (as a teacher) sort of hope you’ve maybe planted a seed of skepticism and it might take a while to grow.”

Phelps grew up in a small town in Idaho with a population of around 300 people. No one in his family had ever gone to college. Indeed, his father was a high school drop-out. While his mother had graduated from high school, she had literally been born in a log cabin. Phelps said members of his family were often ostracized because they were the only family in rural Idaho to have boys with long hair.

Phelps said he was raised in a very conservative religion, but from an early age he was always asking questions about the veracity of what he was taught.

“I was trying to believe these things, but I was always saying, ‘Well, what if the Catholics are right?'” Phelps said. “I was always questioning things.”

Though Phelps has obviously left the religion he was raised in, he is still close to his family, though he admits there are some political topics he can’t discuss with one of his brothers.

Phelps went on to get his Ph.D from Utah State, where he discovered psychology for the first time after bouncing between different majors. There, he also increased his skepticism, as he learned to base his beliefs on what he could actually observe happening in the real world.

Phelps decided on teaching after his graduation. After nearly receiving a position at Auburn, he landed at SDSU and was surprised by the economics of South Dakota.

“When you think of poor states, you think of Mississippi or you think of Arkansas. I had no idea that South Dakota was one of the poorer states,” Phelps said.

Over the years, he has been surprised at how the state has to struggle to find funds to keep up the facilities at SDSU. Still, he likes living in South Dakota and has been pleasantly surprised at the variety of wildlife seen in this area.

Phelps has always had an environmentalist streak, but he insists he has become a rabid environmentalist with the environmental policies of the Bush administration. In the 1960s and 70s, Phelps says doomsayers were always predicting that humanity could cause itself to go extinct by destroying the environment. Phelps said he never paid them much heed until now.

“The Bush administration is going to make that come true if their tendencies towards pillaging … continue,” Phelps said.

If there’s one thing Phelps is known for on campus, it’s his religious views.

He considers himself an agnostic and he has no qualms about sharing his feelings on religion in his classes, which has offended students with strong religious views. Phelps doesn’t apologize.

“For one thing, some of (strongly religious people’s) beliefs insult me and they don’t realize that,” Phelps said, adding that he has often been told he’s going to Hell in a half-joking fashion.

Phelps believes that life on campus for an atheist or agnostic can be very difficult, since those with these beliefs are often treated like specimens or monsters. He does have a small circle of friends from departments like biology whom he gets together with on weekends.

He also has little patience for leaders like President Bush or Attorney General John Ashcroft who consult God daily to make policy decisions.

“It’s frightening that they can make policy based on a dream or heartburn or some feeling,” Phelps said.

Though Phelps believes science is on its way to finding the answers, he does think it produces some ethical quandaries. He said he is concerned for the first cloned human, who will not be allowed to live a normal life and will instead be treated as a specimen.

In the end, Phelps hopes to challenge his students and make them think about their lives.

And when he dies, he thinks there will be three groups of people saying three very different things.

“One group will say, ‘It’s too bad he died. He was a good guy.’ Another group will say, ‘I didn’t know him.’ And the last group will say, ‘Good. He was a son of a bitch.’ That’s how it will be,” Phelps said.

#1.886837:1948439874.jpg:bradyphelps2.jpg:Dr. Brady Phelps challenges students with his often skeptical views on all manner of subjects. The door to his office lets visitors know where he stands on a number of issues.: