Monday, March 17, 2014

On teaching creationism in American public universities

I think that universities are places where diversity of opinion should be encouraged and where fringe ideas should be protected. I'm very much opposed to letting outside interests (i.e. politicians and lawyers) decide what should and should not be taught on a university campus.

Clearly there are limits but those should be decided by faculty who understand the concept of academic freedom. It's not a good idea to offer astronomy courses on an Earth-centered solar system or geology courses based on the idea that the Earth is only 6000 years old. Those ideas are just too far out on the fringe. You're unlikely to find any university professors who want to teach such courses.

However, there are lots of other controversies that aren't so easily dismissed. If some of the more enlightened Intelligent Design Creationists want to teach a science course at my university, I would not try to prevent them. Just as I didn't try to prevent Michael Behe and Bill Dembski from speaking on my campus.

I firmly believe that university students are mature enough to handle diverse points of view and I prefer that they hear them in the context of an academic environment rather than in church on Sundays. Even if there were no opposing views allowed in the course,1 the fact that the ideas are "out there" would provoke debate and discussion among the students. Hearing different ideas encourages critical thinking. Censorship does not.

If Ken Miller, Francis Collins, or Simon Conway-Morris want to teach a course on theistic evolution, I'd be happy to support them. It would be fun to start a debate about the conflict between science and religion and let students see both sides of the issue.

The situation is much more complicated in the United States since both Intelligent Design Creationism and Theistic Evolution have religious implications. In fact, teaching these subjects can be seen as promoting religion and public school systems are forbidden to do that by certain interpretations the Constitution of the United States. There are even people who would use the legal system to prevent courses on Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution at publicly-funded American universities. It seems incredible to me that they would resort to lawyers to block the teaching of certain subjects at a university but there you go. The culture in America is different and my American friends don't see this as censorship.

It's fun to watch while my American colleagues wiggle and squirm over this issue. The latest "problems" are whether you can categorically label intelligent design as religion and not science2 and whether you can criticize it in a science class without seeming to criticize religion.3

Read the discussion (with links) at: Rosenhouse: It’s okay to criticize Intelligent Design in science class, but not okay to teach it as science. Here's what Jerry Coyne says in the opening paragraph ....
Jason Rosenhouse’s new article at EvolutionBlog, about the Hedin affair, “Dubious legal analysis from the Discovery Institute” (DI), is really going to tick off the DIers and advocates of intelligent design (ID), but I think Jason has a good point. And that point is that although it’s illegal (as well as dereliction of duty) to teach intelligent design creationism in public schools and universities, it is okay to criticize it, for you can criticize ID on the grounds of bad science without bashing religion. And I think Jason’s right, especially given the legal rulings so far on what constitutes an incursion of religion into public schools.
It's okay to criticize ID as bad science but it's illegal and a dereliction of duty to allow any professors to defend ID and make the case that it's actually good science. My head is spinning.

1. A position I would strongly oppose if the course were offered in my department.

2. I think that much of what Intelligent Design Creationists advocate qualifies as science by my definition of science. It's just bad science.

3. There's a fine line between banning all mention of religion and promoting atheism. It's not clear whether promoting a solely materialist view of the world violates the US Constitution.


  1. A fair minded position. I can support that.

  2. From what I can remember, the court challenges to ID have been those that have demonstrated the religious nature of what was being taught and how those ideas came primarily from the Abrahamic religions.

  3. "It's not a good idea to offer astronomy courses on an Earth-centered solar system or geology courses based on the idea that the Earth is only 6000 years old." And how does that differ in any meaningful scientific way from denying evolution? Obviously there are social and political differences, but scientifically the evidence supporting evolution by natural selection is exactly as strong as the evidence supporting an earth over 6000 years old (in fact, it uses much of the exact same evidence in support of both). If you are going to allow one non-scientifically controversial controversy to be taught in classes, they you have no right to draw the line down field. Either you use science to determine what should be taught, or you don't:

    1. There are many Intelligent Design Creationists who accept the fact of evolution and common descent. They do not deny all of evolution. Like I said, I don't have problem with creationists like Ken Miller teaching their point of view. Do you?

      It would be nice if we could use science to determine what should be taught but in some cases we have to agree that there are different perspectives on what is correct science and what is not. Tomorrow's class is about the tree of life, for example. Which scientist should make the rule about what I can teach? Is it Norm Pace or Ford Doolittle?

      If you make me the boss of what should be taught in a biochemistry course then most biochemistry teachers would get the boot for teaching bad science. How many Sandwalk readers want to give me that power?

      The best we can do is make sure students are exposed to many different points of view and encourage them to make up their own minds. If the subject is already controversial then censoring one point of view is not going to be very helpful.

    2. Well, Ken Miller teaches biology courses at Brown and AFAIK, doesn't teach ID or bring up the subject of religion. AFAIK, the subject of religion doesn't appear anywhere in the Miller/Levine textbook either. Of course, legally he could because Brown is a private school.

    3. If Ken Miller honestly believes that science provides evidence of god then why shouldn't he be allowed to teach that at Brown? After all, I'm allowed to teach that science provides no evidence of god or of purpose, although I'm careful to add that this is just my opinion.

      BTW, the subject of religion DOES appear in the Miller/Levine textbook because they have a section on Young Earth Creationism and Biblical literalism.

    4. Re Moran

      If Ken Miller wanted to teach that science provides evidence of god, he could legally do so at a private college like Brown. Of course, the administration there might not look too kindly on such an activity. Jerry Coyne could also legally teach that science provides no evidence of god at a private college like the Un. of Chicago. Again, the administration there might not look too kindly on such an activity. And I would point out that Michael Behe could legally teach about ID in his courses because Lehigh is a private university. Of course, again, the administration there has already indicated that he can't and I suspect that he courses are carefully monitored to insure that he doesn't.

  4. At a US university or college, where students are made aware of the nature of the course or that section of it through a syllabus, I think there's a better argument. In US primary and secondary schools, where the curricula or at least curriculum criteria are set by the state, would you agree with teaching Intelligent Design as *the* evolution section of, e.g., 10th grade biology, knowing students would not be taught actual evolutionary theory, or even about Darwin and natural selection?

  5. It's not clear whether promoting a solely materialist view of the world violates the US Constitution.

    Not clear? Have you found any good Constitutional lawyers from the US who would find "promoting a solely materialist view of the world" to violate the Constitution? I see no problem with that at all.

    1. IAAL and Larry is right, depending on what "promoting a solely materialist view of the world" is taken to mean. If it means holding that "philosophical materialism" (the view that the material universe is all that there is, ruling out supernaturalism) is right and/or the best philosophical view, that is a position on the nature (i.e. nonexistence) of god(s) or, in other words, a theological position. US courts would certainly consider that to be an establishment of a religious position (i.e. against religion). Numerous cases have held that government cannot support or deny a particular religion or support or deny religion in general.

      Of course, government schools can teach about various philosophies/theologies, including materialism, but they cannot assert that one is "better" than another, though, of course, discussion can be had on the strengths and weaknesses of all of them

    2. Well, I guess it ultimately comes down to the opinions of judges. But in my mind, one could assert that the material universe is probably all that there is. There is still room for god in this universe: god is the order of amino acids in every protein, he is the twinkling of stars in the universe. Its close enough to nonsense to be called such, of course, but until there is a legally comprehensible and consistent definition of what god is supposed to be, one could argue that this facile definition of god, if one decides it is needed, is as valid as any other. Well, just an opinion from someone with no actual legal training.

    3. @SRM,

      Please keep in mind that of all Western industrialized nations there's only one where the opinions of judges and lawyers can decide what's taught in a university science course.

    4. Do we know that? Has there ever been a case in the US where a court has ruled the teaching of creationism, or anything else, in university is unconstitutional? Honest question; I don't know the answer.

    5. lutesuite:

      Has there ever been a case in the US where a court has ruled the teaching of creationism, or anything else, in university is unconstitutional?

      No. US courts are, in fact, reluctant to to get involved in university policies. I should have been clearer that teaching materialism as true would be certainly banned only in elementary and high schools. As I indicated elsewhere in this thread. It would take an egregious case for the courts to interfere with what universities teach and no such case has arisen yet. Jerry Coyne's confident assertion that teaching ID in a public university is a violation of the Establishment Clause is not correct.

    6. Thanks. I've always been uncomfortable with the reliance on the Establishment Clause to forbid the teaching of creationism in schools, for the simple matter that it seems too easy for me to obscure its religious motivations. We can't rely on the creationists always being as ham-fisted and obvious as they were in the Dover case.

      Creationism should not be taught in schools for the same reason it should not be taught in math that the square root of 4 is 6579, or in history that the first president of United States was Justin Bieber. It's not just wrong, it's stupidly wrong.

    7. so lutesuite finds it necessary to say "Honest question; I don't know the answer." Interesting...

    8. Yes its a disturbing prospect that such matters come down (at least initially) to the opinion of one judge, as it did in the Dover case.

    9. Jerry Coyne's confident assertion that teaching ID in a public university is a violation of the Establishment Clause is not correct.

      How do you know that? It certainly can't be the result of a Supreme Court ruling, or, apparently, any lower court either. Is it your opinion on how a case would go if one were brought? Or are you merely saying that Jerry shouldn't be so confident?

    10. John Harshman:

      Or are you merely saying that Jerry shouldn't be so confident?

      Exactly. And a bit more ... Based on the way US courts have dealt with situations in el-hi versus university settings it is much less likely that they would find Establishment Clause violations in university courses.

    11. SRM:

      You have to understand that, in the US, there is no central authority over education standards (though there is some movement towards something like that with the Core Standards and the Next Generation Science Standards). Education stardards are presently set by tens of thousands of locally elected school boards, many in areas where the vast majority of voters are creationists who would happily teach YEC as "science." The courts don't get involved in what is good or bad education, they only are invoked to make sure that taxpayer money isn't used to teach religion. The system sucks but it is not as if we have a choice to enforce good science education nationally . We can only prevent sectarian education at taxpayer expense.

    12. Yes thanks, I understand that. As usual the real solutions to the problem lie at the grassroots level and not the courts, but at least the courts do provide hope of remedy when it is needed.

  6. It is highly doubtful that a violation of the Establishment Clause would occur if a university teachs a course concerning the controversy between ID and mainline science, even one more favorable to ID than conventional science. It might get dicey if credit was given towards a science degree for a course ID was taught as good and valid science that counted toward a science degree. There is no question that what ID holds can be taught in a philosophy of science course.

    A not very long line of cases in US courts hold that tenured professors' academic freedom refers to what a professor chooses to research and write about but that the university can control what is taught in the curriculum. The right to control may require a public university to prevent violations of the Establishment Clause in classrooms.

  7. If Ken Miller, Francis Collins, or Simon Conway-Morris want to teach a course on theistic evolution, I'd be happy to support them. It would be fun to start a debate about the conflict between science and religion and let students see both sides of the issue.

    That would actually be a truly great thing - because you cannot properly teach theistic evolution without going deep into how evolution really works.

    Right now we have the following given as statements of fact

    1) Evolution if compatible with God (Theistic evolution)
    2) Evolution is equivalent to natural selection

    And these are very widespread views.

    But you rarely see a detailed examination on how exactly evolution is compatible with God, which aspects of it are more compatible with theism than others, which views about evolution are more compatible with theism than others, and conversely, which versions of theism are least incompatible/best fitting with the best understanding of evolution.

    If we actually had that kind of discussion everyone would come out of it with better understanding of both evolution and the various theistic propositions.

  8. The host here has often come out for some species freedom of professors teaching what they would.
    It is head spinning because its all illogical. like evolutionary biology(gotta get that in).
    The point of schools is to teach the truth in the subjects they teach upon.
    if censorship is applied then its because 1) its officially not true or 2) true or not its still illegal.
    If the later then its an absurdity for any school to say its teaching the truth and as priority. Its not teaching the truth but only what it teaches.
    if the former then its a official state position that such and such religious doctrine is false since the truth is the objective for whats taught.
    So the state is nreaking the very concept of law it invokes for the censorship.
    Oh Brother.

    There is nothing illegal about teaching the truth on origins and nothing illegal about teaching Christian truths if the subjects cross each other in real time and space.
    I insist the very Protestant Yankee and Southern men NEVER put in their constitution anything prohibiting Christian faith.
    Its absird claim of motives.
    Its only since WW11 that such claims are made.
    Anyways history shows the good /smart guys support freedom of enquiry and put up with it in the expected result of truth and right prevailing.
    censorship is a legacy of evolutionism and many left wing things and because they fear defeat and they are right. Its just as one would write the movie about this stuff.
    Creationists are on the side of freedom of conclusions and teaching.
    Academia toughs are the enemy of modern North America as in the former soviet Union. who they respected as I remember.

    1. Incoherent, as always, Robert.

      Scholls don't teach "truth" (certainy not as you'd define it). They teach subjects. After all, what is the "truth" of English? They should teach our best understanding of those subjects but, unfortunately for you, our best understanding of of science is that the universe and the Earth are very old and life has evolved from one or a few original forms. Your religion has no more right to teach your religion as science than a Muslim majority American jurisdiction has the right to use your tax money to teach your children that Allah was the one true God.

      As to the Constitution being found to prohibit religion in public schools only since WWII, it has only been since WWII that it has been found to prohibit discrimination against blacks and other minorities (not to mention the majority made up by women!). It was the genius of the Founders to give us a very sketchy Constitution so that later generations could adapt it to changed circumstances ... a policy you'd no doubt endorse if you found yourself in that Muslim majority community.

    2. Nothing you said was accurate.
      Truth is just another word for accuracy or right.
      It is so the purpose to teach accuracy in the subjects being taught. to censor in those subjects is making a big conclusion on whats being censored as I said above.
      censorship is oposite to truth especially in a free nation with the desire for truth.
      the bad guys are censoring the truth once again in history.
      Thats why there is the funny result of them banning ID but not banning criticism of ID WHICH COULD ONLY involve bringing up what iD teaches.
      It is being taught but by a hostile teacher. Its it being taught then it can't be censored for being taught by a friend.
      CAN IT??????
      It could become the most taught thing in science while being illegal to teach it!!!!
      Is is me?!

    3. Can't you at least try to make sense, Robert?

      Thats why there is the funny result of them banning ID

      Except Ball State didn't "ban" ID ... it said it couldn't be taught as if it was science .., just as univerities can say that you can't teach French as if it was English. But universities can allow courses in why French isn't English.

      The "truth" is that ID is religious apologetics (Willian Dembski is the head of the Institute of Scientific Apologetics at the Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina). Now, there is nothing wrong with that and if the IDers would just admit that it is a religious argument, no one would care and it could be taught in a religious or philosphical course without any problem. But universities are not required to allow liars teach what they want.

    4. JP
      Come on already. censorship is what is going on. Are you ashamed of censorship?? The whole purpose of ID is a SCIENTIFIC investigation of nature and concluding it shows complexity was created by a thinking being and it can't allow chance such as in most of evolution etc etc.
      Its official NO ism to these conclusions and BANNING any more talk as if ID is from a sincere thinking educator.
      its the same left wingers who lost the soviet union and their concept of freedom of speech and enquiry and so on.
      BRING DOWN THIS WALL EVOLUTIONISTS and put up with competition. Yes you will lose but its not your world.
      We need lawyers and more public attention.

    5. BRING DOWN THIS WALL EVOLUTIONISTS and put up with competition.

      Robert, what upsets you, and what has always upset religious people, is competition. It's not for nothing that people were burned at the stake in the past, and are murdered or imprisoned to this day, by theocrats for infidelity with respect to belief.

    6. censorship is what is going on

      Really? Is anyone preventing you from babbling on about ID? Do you think that freedom of speech gives you the right to speak anywhere you like? Good! Give me the address of your church and I will show up to loudly proclaim evolutionary theory when your pastor or priest is trying to give a sermon. No? Well then you don't get to try to expound your religion in a science class either.

      The whole purpose of ID is a SCIENTIFIC investigation of nature

      Don't make us laugh! The whole purpose of ID is to dress up religious belief as if it was science. That's why Dembski has an "Institute of Scientific Apologetics." It is the apologetics that is important to IDers and the rest is dishonest window dressing to try to assure the faithful that they aren't really related to the rest of life on Earth and are somehow the special pets of some god or other.

      You are free to drink the Kool Aid but you are not free to force universities to be your accomplices or to use my tax money to try to force it down the throats of elementary and high school students.

  9. As a simple Dutchman it totally escapes me why Earth-centered astronomy is more fringe than ID. It's rather the other way round. Earth-centered astronomy is very possible; the mathematical equations just become insanely complicated.

    1. the term "mathematical equations" may be a clue.
      Astronomy is difficult, goddidit is easy.

  10. Congratulation professor Moran! Bravo!

    BTW: I especially enjoyed your comments on The Science Blog... Keep it up!

  11. In what way is blind watchmaker evolution science, Larry? What prewdictions does it make?

    Intelligent Design can be tested and potentially falsified. How can we test the claim that natural selection is a designer mimic? I could easily defend Intelligent Design against blind watchmaker evolution. One is testable and the other isn't.

    1. Intelligent Design can be tested and potentially falsified.

      Yeah. Right. The ultimate source of your confidence is that you know it can never be falsified. And that is all you have, to complement your firmly held beliefs. Sigh.