Thursday, May 16, 2013

Jerry Coyne Is at it Again!

Jerry Coyne has discovered that some obscure Professor in some American college is teaching from a Christian viewpoint in his class on "The Boundaries of Science." Jerry thinks that he can stop this Professor from teaching things that he (Coyne) disagrees with by threatening the university with a lawsuit. PZ Myers and I disagreed, pointing out that academic freedom in the universities is an important principle that should not be ignored [see Is It Illegal to Teach Intelligent Design Creationism in American Universities?].

Jerry stands by his position: The Freedom from Religion Foundation to Ball State University: cease and desist your religious indoctrination. Nobody is arguing that Professors shouldn't be criticized for bad teaching and nobody is arguing that the instructor's colleagues and department can't reassign courses to keep a bad teacher away from students. That's not the situation here. The Chair of the department is aware of the situation and doesn't object.

It's dangerous for outsiders to start dictating what a Professor can and can't teach and it's especially dangerous to use legal threats to enforce your own perspective on another university. I strongly disagree with the letter that the Freedom from Religion Foundation sent to the President of Ball State University [see Coyne's blog website]. If this were my university I would expect it to fight such a demand with all the resources at their disposal and I'm certain that my union and the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) would support my university. So would I.
CAUT actively defends academic freedom as the the right to teach, learn, study and publish free of orthodoxy or threat of reprisal and discrimination. Academic freedom includes the right to criticize the university and the right to participate in its governance. Tenure provides a foundation for academic freedom by ensuring that academic staff cannot be dismissed without just cause and rigorous due process.
I have defended the academic freedom of racists and holocaust deniers in the past. I've even defended the right of an extreme free-market capitalist to indoctrinate business students. In the name of academic freedom, I will even tolerate adaptationists who teach evolution incorrectly.

The purpose of academic freedom is to protect the rights of those who disagree with the majority. Those rights must be protected for everyone, including those who you think are wrong. Otherwise it's not academic freedom.

I teach a course where I promote an atheist view of evolution and the idea that science and religion are incompatible. If the Freedom from Religion Foundation ever wrote a letter to my President demanding that I cease and desist they would be be ignored except, perhaps, for a few laughs over coffee.


  1. Off-topic, but who won the Monday Molecule? I might have submitted my answer with the wrong title, so I'm curious.

  2. Larry,

    I think you may be mischaracterizing the sin here. He doesn't just teach "from a Christian viewpoint". He apparently teaches creationism, which is a bit of a different thing. It may well be that Francis Collins, Ken Miller, or Simon Conway Morris would teach from a Christian viewpoint, but you won't find them teaching creationism.

    I understand your solution to a professor who teaches flat-earthism would be for the department to isolate him from teaching courses in which the shape of the earth would come up. So perhaps your solution to this fellow would be for his department to prevent him from teaching evolution to undergrads. And yet that appears to be just what he's doing. And his department chair is apparently cool with it. So a couple of questions arise.

    Is this case very different from the hypothetical flat-earth professor? If so, how?

    If you were department chair, would you take action that the actual chair has not?

    If a department chair won't act, should there be some recourse? If so, what?

    1. The case is no different from a Professor who teaches that the Earth is flat.

      If I were the Chair of a department, I would take steps to ensure that our courses were being taught properly. That means assigning appropriate lecturers to each course. In some cases I would have to put up with Professors who teach things that I think are wrong or misleading. Course content is, by and large, left to the discretion of the lecturer. The best solution, IMHO, is to set up a committee that evaluates course content on an annual basis and makes recommendations for change. That's sort of like peer review and it can be very effective.

      If a department approves of a course and it's content then there's no reasonable way for outsiders to correct the problem even if it means that a geology Professor is teaching that the Earth is flat. The best one can hope for is to change the department's view by persuading it that the course content is inaccurate.

      I've been trying to do this with biochemistry courses in my department for several decades but I've had little success. This seems like a stupid system but it mostly works for the big issues. I doubt that anyone teaches flat Earth in any respectable geology department and I doubt that extreme forms of creationism are taught in any respectable university.

      The protection of academic freedom is not a perfect system but it has evolved over the past century to a reasonable modus vivendi that's workable while at the same time respecting the rights of university Professors. If you break that system, as Coyne is trying to do, you likely to end up with something that is much worse.

      The worst thing you can do is bring in the lawyers. We don't want lawyers and judges making decisions about what can, and cannot, be taught in university courses. That's what happened in the American public school system and the result is decades of wrangling over whether creationism meets some legal definition of science or religion. Meanwhile, all civilized Western democracies simply decided that it was bad science and shouldn't be taught in the public schools.

  3. Very well said and done if a YEC may so.
    Usually the left wingers are the pillar of thought and speech control at least in America. canada too though.
    I know the winner of the top teaching award this year at UfT this year believes in God creating everything and I'm pretty sure in Adam and eve being the first people and genesis being true.
    Its good to know he would not be punished if this came up in his classes in UT.

    The truth is the objective of education in any subject. To get the truth we must have and put up with freedom of thought and speech.
    Extreme things don't go far anyways.
    Creationism is not extreme , even if wrong. Its been a historic and still common conviction.
    I welcome the Coyne lawsuit as it brings attention to the censorship problem in America.
    They need, and us, a big case to go to the Supreme court and settle things.

  4. "Reality" probably falls somewhere between the Coyne and Myers/Moran perspectives. Gleaned from the Comments section to the Coyne post (including input from law experts):

    (1) "Stealth" insertion of one religion's dogma (including creationism) /into a science course is probably not a 1st amendment violation because university and this elective course in particular is optional (and US taxpayers indirectly support teaching of (non evidence based) "religious" science in other ways - eg tax breaks for religious schools)
    (2) academic freedom ("free speech") is related more to research associated expression of ideas. And, academic freedom in the lecture room should not extend to the teaching of wrong ideas (e.g. Creationism not evolution; "flat not spherical" Earth; alchemy not chemistry) especially when the course content is so misrepresented.
    (3) As a consequence Ball State University should step in and stop the prof from teaching this material in a science course (which is probably the real intent behind the Freedom From Religion Foundation's raising of the legal issue in its letter to Ball State in the 1st place.)

  5. Ok, there are some issues that are particular to the United States here. Our Constitution has a "no establishment" clause which, as currently interpreted, means that the government cannot endorse or promote a religion. It CAN teach "bad science" (not that it should).

    Because this is a public university, the no-establishment clause applies.

    How this is often interpreted: often, a "captive audience" standard is applied. For example, if a public university wishes to allow students to use, say, a Bible course for elective credit, (and I am NOT talking about a "Bible as literature" or a "comparative religion" course), they can.

    But if one signs up for a science class, the student has a reasonable expectation that science will be taught in that class and to not be held as a captive audience for a religion.

    So, were I to teach a calculus class in a public university and try to start the class with a prayer, that would be illegal. If I said "the chain rule holds because Jesus loves composite functions, and non-Euclidian geometry is the work of SATAN", that would probably be illegal (I am not a lawyer).

    Academic freedom does not extend to holding students as a captive audience for religious beliefs or for proselytizing.


    1. That's a very legal perspective on what should be taught in a university classroom. It's also a peculiar American perspective.

      Do you really think that university education in America could be improved by suing all Professors who mention religion in their classrooms? (I'm sure the lawyers are drooling at the prospect.)

    2. I don't think it's accurate to describe university classes as "captive audiences". Students have considerable leeway in deciding which classes they will take, as well as avenues to correct inappropriate or incompetent teachers. That's a bit different than in a primary or secondary school.

      If a public unversity were to require that all professors begin a lecture with a prayer, that would be a different matter. But that's not going to happen.

    3. Yes, my answer was intended to give a legal perspective as to the issues in the United States.

      While students have some leeway in what they take, I think it is reasonable to expect science to be taught in a science classroom and it is reasonable for student in a science class to expect to not have religion promoted in that classroom.

      Where the line is: I lack the training and expertise to say. The key phrases in the law involve the "reasonable person" and that phrase contains a LOT of room. Example: a professor might "cross themselves" prior to a lecture; that is religious but only a few would see that as a promotion of religion.


    4. The legal issue, as I see it, is that the government is not allowed to establish or promote a state religion. So even if an individual professor in a state university is blatantly promoting religion in his class, can it be said he is acting as a representative of the state, or as an individual promoting his personal point of view? I think the latter.

      Of course, if someone pays money for a science course and gets religious proselytization instead, that's not right and he has a valid reason to complain. But that's not a First Amendment issue, as far as I can see.

  6. "Do you really think that university education in America could be improved by suing all Professors who mention religion in their classrooms?"

    This is why I limited my comment to the "what is legal in the US" issues. In our country, religion really has special status, and I understand the reasons for that.

    I agree that this special status has unusual and, at times, unfortunate side effects.

    I'll give an example: I take politics more seriously than I take religion. I had a professor (linear programming) who, on occasion, made right wing political remarks during class (which had nothing to do with the material). This didn't harm me in any way; in fact this made the professor a bit more human to me. I still liked him and I still think he taught a good class.

    So, I don't like the idea of our academic setting getting so sterile that professors become robots.

    But I admit that I tend to be intensely subject oriented in class, though I speak my mind on my blog and in the social media. When I get asked about it (as sometimes happens, especially during the 2008 and 2012 elections), I smile and say "I am here to teach math; feel free to ask me during non-class time."


    1. Comparing the US to Canada: While secularism in much more explicitly spelled out in the US Constitution, the separation of church and state is still by and large legally recognized in Canada as well. In fact, at the practical level, I would say in Canada there is much less intrusion of religion into public life, expecially in the political realm.

  7. The 'solution' of promoting a prof with unorthodox views on to a sidetrack as some propose seems a weasely way out to me, and a bit hypocritical. The only reason to to do seems to be able to claim that, hey, we have academic freedom, see, we didn't fire this silly person! We simply gave him an office in the cellar between the nuclear deposit and the cockroach breeder lab.

    If, during the job interview with an assistant professor to-be, you discover they're a fervent creationist or flatearther, will you still hire them? If the answer is 'no', how is that better than firing them if they start teaching their weird views at a later stage? If the answer is 'yes', do you warn the applicant that their views are not deemed fit for public presentation, or do you preemptively reserve the basement room?

    1. Once a person is awarded tenure they have the protection of academic freedom. Up to that point they can be released for lack of competence or never hired in the first place.

      Academic freedom is written into the contract between the professor and the university. There's a good reason for that. You can't just arbitrarily pick and choose which views will justify breaking the contract.

    2. That strongly suggests strict selection at the door, lest you end up with expensive casualties.

    3. If you know anyone who is seeking a tenure track academic position, you know that "strict selection at the door" is the case.