Friday, May 17, 2013

Inside Higher Ed Weighs in on the Ball State Academic Freedom Controversy

This is getting more and more interesting. Now there's an article in Inside Higher Ed discussing the controversy over whether Eric Hedin of Ball State University should be teaching a science course that emphasizes Intelligent Design Creationism. [see Science or Religion?]

The article discusses the difference of opinion between Jerry Coyne, on the one hand, and PZ Myers and me, on the other. It's very interesting to read the comments. Jerry Coyne has posted on the Inside Higher Ed article at: Ball State agrees to investigate science course infected with Christianity. His readers have lots to say on the issue of academic freedom.

Let's be clear about one thing. I'm not an American so I'm not terribly concerned about the American Constitution. If Eric Hedin were teaching in Canada, the legal issue would never come up. The part of this that I don't like is outsiders threatening departmental chairs to get them to take action against one of their faculty members. Four Creationists have tried to get the administration of my university to shut down Sandwalk and in all cases my university simply filed the letters in the waste basket.1 I ban people from Sandwalk if I ever hear of them trying to intimidate someone by complaining to their employer. That's unacceptable behavior in my book.


1. After sending me a copy.

61 comments :

  1. "The part of this that I don't like is outsiders threatening departmental chairs to get them to take action against one of their faculty members. "

    Agreed.

    ollie

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  2. As an outsider to the academic system, I think the fact that the actions of Eric Hedin are getting criticised in the market place of ideas is productive way of addressing this issue.

    Perhaps Eric Hedin can justify the teaching of religious dogma in his course.

    Presumably if he is comfortable in presenting this information to his students he should have no problem defending it in front of a wider audience.

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    1. ...and if he gets smacked down he'll be a martyr for his Christian views.

      For Ball State to save face it will have to offer the course as a philosophy or religion course. If not, more students will be victimized by this bait-and-switch.

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    2. University students are adults, not children. Let's give them a little more credit. They can handle diverse points of view. In fact, that's exactly what a good university education should expose them to.

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    3. If you were the Chair and this happened at your university, Larry, what would you do?

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    4. I described what I would do in the comments to earlier posts on this subject.

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    5. So you did, yesterday (he says after looking it up)! Sorry I missed that. I agree with your solution, I think.

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    6. Larry, I actually side with you in this discussion, for all the reasons you cite, i.e. exposing students to diverse points of view and protecting the ability of universities to put forward unpopular opinions.

      However I don't think this rules out exposing these opinions to public scrutiny.

      Just like the students, the faculty are adults and can handle criticism of their opinions.

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  3. The nation and civilization was founded on Protestant Christian foundations in all moral, political, and legal matters.
    to ban or punish the truth of Christianity from relevant subjects is absurd.
    The issue is always about the truth.
    To censor anyone is to say ITS not the truth or your prohibited from speaking the truth.
    if the state does this on a "religious" truth then its making a religious opinion and breaking the very "separation' concept it invokes to attack the religious opinion.
    E=Mc(2)
    No way around it.
    To censor a opinion in a subject about truth is saying officially its not true or truth is not the objective of the subject being taught.
    An absurdity in education.
    The founders of America, very protestant yanks and southerners, did not establish any laws to stop the truth in schools. An absurdity of post WW11 liberal judicial activism.
    Finally the state is not and was not meant to be everything the state paid for.
    The schools were to teach the truth and in the old days it meant Christian foundations to some extent.
    The modern censorship is immoral, illegal, and unintelligent and yes a war against christianity.
    I welcome the dust up here. it teaches more of the public whats going on in their schools .

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    1. The nation and civilization was founded on Protestant Christian foundations in all moral, political, and legal matters.

      Take about 2 seconds and think about it. When did "Protestant foundations" begin? And how long after human civilizations was this?

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    2. Heh, that's 2 seconds that will never happen.

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  4. I have precisely as much of a stake in the American constitution as you have, but should a university not treat a creationist biologist as the same type of problem as a chemist who teaches alchemy? This does not appear so much an issue of academic freedom but one of basic competence to do one's job...

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  5. In truth, there's a difference between teaching alchemy and teaching a religious perspective on science. They aren't exactly equivalent "errors."

    However, I wiil defend the right of a chemist to believe in alchemy and still hold a position in a chemistry department. I'll even defend teaching a course on alchemy. I think it would be wonderful experience for most chemistry students.

    You can't teach students to respect and value critical thinking while, at the same time, trying to suppress all those whose views you disagree with.

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    1. I do wonder, however, how one would be able to teach students anything whatsoever if the majority of a faculty were cranks. Surely you have to draw a line somewhere, and surely academic freedom cannot excuse everything. What if instead of promoting his religion he would be promoting his political party to his students?

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  6. I am a chemist and I teach university chemistry. My contract implicitly includes that I will teach legitimate perr-reviewed science, that I will prepare chemistry majors for careers in the field, and all students with the knowledge they need for their fields.

    I would be fired for breaches of contract and professional ethics if I strayed into alchemy or religious proselytizing or indeed, anything that wouuld waste the students' time and (considerable) money. They are paying about $300 per lecture for accuracy, not my "beliefs".

    It isn't a question of suppressing views that are not popular. It's not ethical and it does breach my job contract.

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    1. But look at the description of the course itself:

      Study of introductory principles within the physical sciences, emphasizing the relationships of the sciences to human concerns and society. Study of social and ethical consequences of scientific discoveries and their applications to critical issues confronting contemporary society.

      Clearly you are not going to be able to teach such a course by sticking strictly to peer-reviewed basic science, and no one signing up for such a course would expect that, nor that the lectures will avoid veering into areas that might be considered "belief."

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    2. @lutesuite

      If the syllabus had read emphasizing the relationships of the sciences to human concerns and my own personal opinions rather than society then perhaps Eric Hedin could make a case for injecting his personal, irrational and un-evidenced beliefs into the curriculum.

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    3. But I would still be contractally bound to present factally-based topics in social and ethical consequences, and not my personal belief as the only truth.

      Sure, I could present unpopular views, and state that those are my personal beliefs. But I couldn't present only those, or only those as true.

      If I just went into what I personally consider true in any area, it'd still be a breach of contract. Students are there to learn what they signed up for in the consequences of scientific discoveries and their applications to critical issues, meaning accepted, peer-reviewed sociology (or whatever) and the differing views within that.

      If students want to know my personal opinion on alchemy, the ethical consquences of polymer chemistry, or who's going to win the world series, they can ask, on their own time. I could hold seminars or extra-curricular clubs or whatever to promote my views. But, my personal beliefs are not part of the curriculum.

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    4. Of course, it would be improper for a professor to present his personal opinions as "truth", to require that his students share those opinions, and to fail to acknowledge and mention alternative opinions.

      Do we have any evidence that Hedin is doing that?

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    5. Let's be clear about one thing. It's impossible to teach any science course without letting your personal opinions influence what you say in class. This is especially true in biology as any Sandwalk reader should know.

      In most cases the lecturer doesn't even know there are alternative opinions so they certainly aren't going to be presented to the students!

      If we're going to fire every professor who presents her personal opinion as "truth" then there aren't going to be too many left to teach courses.

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    6. Professor Moran:
      Does this mean that contradicting "facts" in your view is good science just because you happen to believe it?

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  7. I don't know what Hedin's up to, nor did I say I did.

    I'm saying that academic freedom doesn't entitle professors to teach anything they want.

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    1. Well, of course not. You can't teach flower arranging in a class that's supposed to be on particle physics. But I don't think anyone is saying that's what academic freedom entails.

      The issue is whether there is even a legal right to teach this course in an American public university. It seems obvious to me that there is.

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    2. Yeah, people are saying that academic freedom entails being able to teach alchemy in a chemistry class.

      No, depending on the specifics of the class and how it's taught, there is no legal right to teach any topic if that teaching violates your contract and/or professional ethics. This (violation of contract) is a legal question that would arise whether or not there are any separation of church and state issues involved. Alchemy in a chemistry class isn't a first amendment issue, but it is a legal breach of my contract, and claiming academic freedom to teach an unpopular view isn't a defense to that.

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    3. lutesuite said:

      "The issue is whether there is even a legal right to teach this course in an American public university. It seems obvious to me that there is."

      The issue is that it's labeled as a science class, when it's actually a pseudoscience class based on the instructor's religious beliefs. It's misrepresentation.

      Frankly, I'm amazed and disappointed that Larry and anyone else who is a supporter of good science would condone the actions of that instructor and the college. Any science instructor's so-called "academic freedom" should be within the confines of good scientific methodology that teaches students how to look for, recognize, and produce evidence based results.

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  8. LM writes, 'You can't teach students to respect and value critical thinking while, at the same time, trying to suppress all those whose views you disagree with.'

    This is exactly right, and as it pertains to universities, it should be the final word. It is true that if Larry taught his course - that teaches science from an atheistic viewpoint and contends that religion and science are not compatible - in the United States, many people would raise the issue that it violates the exact same constitutional principle that Coyne and others say the Ball State course violates.

    And that position would be equally wrong. The very function of a university is to provide options/alternatives that go beyond the required curriculum of a high school or middle school.

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    1. andyboerger said:

      "This is exactly right, and as it pertains to universities, it should be the final word."

      When any school gets public funding, it should and must obey the laws that restrict the promotion of religious woo in science classes.

      "It is true that if Larry taught his course - that teaches science from an atheistic viewpoint and contends that religion and science are not compatible - in the United States, many people would raise the issue that it violates the exact same constitutional principle that Coyne and others say the Ball State course violates. And that position would be equally wrong."

      Atheistic science does not violate any constitutional principle in the USA and only god/spirit pushers like you would, and do, complain about science being atheistic, even though science must be atheistic. If it weren't atheistic, any religious/spiritual crap would be let in. If hedin were teaching wicca or voodoo in science classes instead of christianity based woo, would you condone that?

      "The very function of a university is to provide options/alternatives that go beyond the required curriculum of a high school or middle school."

      A university can offer classes that promote "options/alternatives" to science as long as they are labeled accurately and the students are given the "academic freedom" to choose real science classes.

      Hey andy, if you were in college and signed up for a theology class but it turned out to be a science class and the instructor regularly brought up his/her atheism, would you be happy about it? Would you support the instructor's "academic freedom"?

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    2. twt, your contention that 'science must be atheistic' is possibly the dumbest thing you've ever expressed here, except that you've expressed so many dumb things here that it has some stiff competition.

      Perhaps plumbing and car mechanics 'must be atheistic' as well, I guess. As well as agriculture. If people pray that crops grow instead of watering them, or pray that the transmission goes another 50,000 miles without replacing it, then those occupations would be just as up a creek as the sciences.

      You love to call me a god pusher, although I am not, and you love to insult me at every turn. What I'm going to do is just call you really, really dumb, and leave you alone.

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    3. Actually, god/spirit pusher, auto repair, plumbing, and agriculture are all atheistic. The people who do those things may not be atheists but absolutely nothing they do in those endeavors has anything to do with creation and/or intervention by a god/spirit, even if they believe otherwise. An atheist can be just as good a mechanic, plumber, or farmer as a theist can.

      Believing in religious fairy tales does not increase anyone's skill at any practical endeavor, and religious beliefs often decrease skills because the religious person relies on useless prayers and miracles instead of realistic, reliable, productive information.

      Science is atheistic and must remain so. Imaginary gods/spirits and associated fairy tales are not scientific.

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    4. dumb, dumb, dumb...
      To say that science, plumbing, car repair, etc. are 'atheistic' is to make the word practically meaningless.

      My toe is atheistic. Your body odor is atheistic. The toothpaste, soap, etc. that you may or not use is atheistic. My old black light posters are atheistic.
      And yes, science is too.
      Genius.

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    5. would somebody else be willing to educate poor twt about the meaning of 'atheistic'?
      He won't take my word for anything, or my atheistic T shirt or my determinedly atheist sneakers for that matter, but he really could use some help here.

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    6. Keep going, andy. With every word you demonstrate that you are indeed a god/spirit pusher who doesn't have a clue about science.

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    7. twt, really, its like this. You call people who believe in god 'zombies' and tell me I don't have a clue about science, but the fact is that even your own 'team' can see that you are not the brightest bulb in the chandelier. They don't tell you this, or call you out for your flaming and obnoxious behavior, because you are 'one of them'. But there is not a single person here who credits you with a great deal of intelligence, I'd wager. You are tolerated, but hardly loved.
      Even Jerry Coyne banned you from his site because your behavior towards those who think differently than you is so appalling. And you bragged about that.

      So whatever I write here can be taken by anyone who reads it to mean whatever they want. I am confident that, for the exception of the truly diehard partisans who frequent this site, my intelligence is not a matter of question. If it is, I'll live with that too. Furthermore, insofar as someone doesn't insult me, I don't insult them, and I can carry on a respectful conversation with them. Just ask NE, Piotr, Allan, Jim, etc.
      So I really don't care what YOU think, but it's time someone told you what an obnoxious twit you are.

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    8. By the way, andy, you seem to have missed these questions:

      If hedin were teaching wicca or voodoo in science classes instead of christianity based woo, would you condone that?

      Hey andy, if you were in college and signed up for a theology class but it turned out to be a science class and the instructor regularly brought up his/her atheism, would you be happy about it? Would you support the instructor's "academic freedom"?

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  9. Hedin is an extremely popular instructor. He rates an overall 4.2 (out of 5) at Rate My Professors.
    Even some atheist students like him, because apparently he is seen as knowledgeable and fair, and also makes his material easy to learn and absorb. Here is a typical quote

    "Great teacher, nice guy. Constantly talks religion, as an atheist, I was slightly concerned my science teacher is a devout christian. If you have astronomy at Ball State, get Dr. Hedin. He is willing to help with just about everything in class, and gives out more extra credit. Gave me 20 ec points just for showing up one friday. Great guy."

    There are numerous similar quotes. Some students are annoyed by his religious beliefs being brought into class, but feel that they learn a lot, that he is a good teacher, and recommend his classes.

    I would imagine that any religious students in Larry's classes would feel equally unhappy about references to atheism and the incompatibility of science and religion in his classes. But if they get a lot out of the class anyway, as they clearly do in the case of Hedin, why should outsiders complain.

    Rate My Professors, great site! Let the students decide. They are adults and they have voices.

    http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ShowRatings.jsp?tid=788711

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    1. Not saying that students should not rate and evaluate professors, but...

      Reading between your lines, it sure sounds as if one of the things they may consider somebody a "good teacher" for is being liberal with credits. Seriously, for showing up on a Friday? WTF?

      At any rate, and that is also one of my issues with Larry Moran's touching confidence in the ability of students to develop critical thinking skills when taught by people doing whatever they feel like, the problem is that while students are clearly able to judge whether prof A can explain a topic better than prof B they cannot judge whether what A or B is telling them is actually, you know, correct.

      That is why they are students. That is why they have professors. The professor's peers, people who at a minimum hold a PhD in the relevant subject and are practicing members of the scientific community, are the ones who can evaluate whether he is teaching nonsense or not. The students merely have to hope that the university is not making them waste their time and fees on a crank because they cannot really tell at that stage.

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    2. Alex, I provided the link, so you have a lot more to go on than just that one review, if you choose. In fact, there are several comments from students who consider him to be more than fair in terms of grading, but I hope we can agree that that's a separate issue, yes?

      The 4.2 score is an aggregate. He gets a 4.4 for Helpfulness, 4.0 for Clarity, and 3.6 for Easiness. So it would seem that he does more than just walk in and hand out A's.

      He has the approval of his students, including some of his atheist students. He seems to have the backing of his admins.
      What he DOESN'T have, is the support of Jerry Coyne.
      Since I don't see any reason why that should trump the views of students and administrators at Ball State, I think Coyne should a.) not take the course, b.) gripe loudly about it on his own widely read blog, and c.) chill out.

      If he wishes to make it a cause celebre, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if a Christian student at Cornell decides to suddenly become extra sensitive to any derogatory comments about religion he might happen to make during his own lectures, and wave that 200 year old piece of paper in his face.

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    3. You may have misunderstood me: I am completely unqualified to assess whether that guy should be disciplined or fired or whatever, and I never claimed anything else. I merely argue that academic freedom or the assumption that a student magically turns into a critical thinker once they enter uni cannot be excuses to have professors do whatever they want.

      I seem to remember Coyne writing that he never ever makes comments about religion in his lectures because they don't belong there. That kind of seems to be his entire point really.

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    4. Alex, apologies if I misunderstood. I agree in principle that students, by the very nature of being students, will not always be able to evaluate the quality of the material they are taught.

      And if it is true that Coyne never mentions religion in any way shape or form, and leaves his own views of it, as well as his own atheistic position, out of his classes, then he is probably going about things the right way regarding his own way of teaching.

      Even so, I disagree with him about making an issue out of this course in the way he is. He can criticize it all he wants, but trying to stop it seems unnecessarily intrusive.

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    5. Religious proselytizing in a class labeled as 'science' is what is "unnecessarily intrusive", and unlawful.

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    6. Andy,

      Jerry Coyne is a professor at University of Chicago, not Cornell. I took a couple of courses from him, and to my recollection the subject of god never came up. Mind you, they were graduate courses in evolution, and the percentage of non-atheist graduate students in evolutionary biology is by my estimate around 5% or less, so maybe he thought there was no point in preaching to the converted. Even so, I'm pretty sure that Jerry knows how to separate science from non-science and the proper subject matter of a science course from improper subject matter. I know Jerry's opinions on speciation quite well, but until he wrote his book I had no direct knowledge of his opinions on religion.

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    7. @John Harshman,

      Thanks for the firsthand account, John. Good to know. :)

      btw, somewhere else on this thread I noted my confusion about where Coyne teaches.

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  10. On the face of it, the course looks as if may be presenting ID itself as being science, or else presenting science as validation of a theistic (perhaps specifically Christian) religious viewpoint. Without providing students with the means for proper critical scrutiny of ID.

    If this is the case the university ought to step in and place the course somewhere else. At the very least the situation should be examined by the university and publicly explained.

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  11. Every university course should be required to contain at least one bit of absurd nonsense. Most are way ahead on this score. University professors are not Holy Gurus. The point was never to assimilate their every view. The greatest absurdity is that anyone would feel otherwise. That's far sillier than a flat Earth.

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    1. roger, I'm inclined to agree. Good teachers, like good parents, need to be willing to admit that sometimes their students are more on the ball than they are about some things.

      Just like with kids, the students are going to know it anyway.

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  12. Is anyone required to take the course for their major requirements? I'd like to see what the bibliography of this kind of course taught by someone who shares Coyne's ideology would contain. If Coyne wants to open up the can of worms about faculty bias as reflected in what they teach and assign, it won't be pretty. I can easily imagine him going after at least one of his colleagues at the U of Chicago, assigning religious implications to his entirely scientific ideas. Jerry has earned a reputation as being erratic, he's doing everything he can to enhance that reputation.

    College students should expect to be exposed to ideas they don't agree with, especially in elective courses. If they don't like it they should grow up. So should the faculty.

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    1. whoops, I wrote Cornell above. Coyne teaches at the U. of Chicago. And no doubt you are referring to James Shapiro.

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    2. So you would be OK with a math professor who taught that pi = 7? After all, math students should be exposed to ideas they don't agree with.

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    3. The kind of course it is does not, on the face of it, fit the kind of degree within which it is contained - an honors science degree. A philosophy or theology degree, perhaps.

      If, on reflection, the university decides to move the course somewhere more appropriate, I haven't the slightest doubt that Jerry and the FFRF will be more than happy to move on.

      Jerry doesn't pull his punches, on this one it's not he who is looking erratic.

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  13. Why not use the academic freedom and teach the truth about the influence of Darwinism on Hitler and the Nazi? That in my view would be a controversy. Turns out at UD they have a nice piece on that subject.

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/darwinism/newly-on-line-darwinism-as-a-root-of-make-it-up-as-you-go-ethics/

    I personally found the influence of Darwinism on morality and consciousness very intriguing.

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    1. Gee, Milosh, I never, ever, heard anyone blame Darwin for the Nazis. Right on the intellectual cutting edge, you are.

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    2. Good god man, the world needs to be informed about this urgent matter.

      Get yourself a tenured position in a university and run with this.

      Don't delay, do it now.

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    3. Excellent idea Milosh, while we're at it why not make a course exploring the link between the utterings of a certain Martin Luther, Catholicism and centuries of antisemitism in europe?

      Why is Mein Kampf chuck full of references to divine will against the jews? Why did it say Gott mit uns on the belt buckle of the uniform of the german soldier?

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    4. Why not use the academic freedom and teach the truth about the influence of Darwinism on Hitler and the Nazi?

      "the truth" being your version, presumably?

      I personally found the influence of Darwinism on morality and consciousness very intriguing.

      Have people become significantly less moral (or conscious) since 1859? I really don't see any evidence for that, Religious Right betes noires notwithstanding.

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    5. Well, I for one am pissed off. All these many years I was led to think that the argument against evolution was that the science was wrong.
      Here I find out it is about something altogether different. Jeez.

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    6. Milosh says,

      Why not use the academic freedom and teach the truth about the influence of Darwinism on Hitler and the Nazi? That in my view would be a controversy.

      I think it would be interesting to explore this relationship but there's already a better example that students can discuss. It's the relationship between the theory of quantum mechanics and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the deaths of about 200,000 people.

      I think it shows that quantum mechanics must be wrong—according to IDiot logic.

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    7. Richard Weikart of the University of California, Stanislaus, author of (most recently) Hitler’s Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)

      Either Weikart is a very stupid man or he's got some brass ones on him because he put the very refutation of his thesis in his subtitle. Of course, anybody who would understand that Darwinian evolution is not progressive and that notions of progress were introduced to German evolutionary thinking by Heinrich Georg Bronn's peculiar freeform 'translation' of The Origin of Species (where he even added a new final chapter!) is not likely to be interested in a book by a Discovery Institute hack. Still, is it possible that Weikart is trolling the Disco 'tute for fun and profit?

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    8. A couple simple questions for those who blame Darwin for Nazism:

      How long ago did humans develop selective breeding to change the characteristics of plants and animals to those more suitable for human use?

      Was this before or after the publication of On the Origin of Species?

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    9. Even if Hitler was directly inspired to instigate the holocaust by reading Darwin (not obviously true, and as much a problem for Darwin as the inspired book-burner for Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451), it would say more about Hitler's poor scholarship than any inherent problem with knowledge of Darwinian mechanisms. Natural Selection does not equate to 'deem a group unfit and kill them', in any sensible reading. Yet proponents of this link are themselves both profoundly ignorant of the actual account, and possessed of a political desire to perpetuate this ignorance in their own population, by hijacking education, by smear, or by any other trick they can cook up.

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    10. http://www.nobeliefs.com/hitlerchristian.htm

      http://www.nobeliefs.com/hitler.htm

      http://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2011/11/08/nazi-racial-ideology-was-religious-creationist-and-opposed-to-darwinism/

      http://coelsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/hitler-despised-atheism-as-much-as-pope-benedict-does/#comment-5859

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    11. Here's an article about hitler's non-Darwinian agenda:

      http://home.uchicago.edu/~rjr6/articles/Was%20Hitler%20a%20Darwinian.pdf

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