I very much enjoyed Jerry Coyne's stance on free speech in his latest
The proliferation of identity politics and the demonization of free speech continues apace on America’s campuses. Speakers with unpopular opinions have their speaking invitations rescinded or are demonized by students whose tender ears can’t bear to hear something challenging, and students continually press for rules against “hate speech,” often construed as “speech that makes me uncomfortable.” For a fuller account of the bizarre extremes of this brand of campus fascism, see Wendy Kaminer’s piece in Friday’s Washington Post, “The progressive ideas behind the lack of free speech on campus.”Later on in the same post he said,
College is—or should be—a dangerous space. The world is a dangerous space. The only reason we’ve been able to bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice, as Martin Luther King put it, is through speech and discussion—speech that some group would have deemed offensive and dangerous. Prohibit that discussion, and the arc will straighten again.I agree.
However, being a curmudgeon, I couldn't resist pointing out to Jerry Coyne that his stance seems to be at odds with his actions. He has, on many occasions attacked professors who bring up intelligent design in their classroom. He has written to university chairs and presidents to try to censor those professors and he has even suggested that they should be dismissed.
Why does he favor censoring the free speech of Intelligent Design Creationists but not the free speech of others he disagrees with?
As you might imagine, that was not a popular position for me to take on Jerry's website. A lot of different objections to my view were posted but I think they can be distilled into a small number that actually might make some sense. I'll start with Jerry's comment ...
The U.S. courts have already ruled, in Aronson vs. Alabama, that a teacher can’t proselytize religion in schools. Since ID isn’t science, it falls under that ruling.There are actually three arguments here and I'll try and cover them below. What Jerry Coyne is saying is that teaching Intelligent Design Creationism in a science class should be banned because:
Larry, I think, is badly wrong here, for he’d find it okay to teach faith-based healing in an “internal medicine” class, and astrology in a psychology class.
- Professors can't teach religion in science classes in public universities in the USA.
- ID isn't science.
- If we allow the teaching of ID then we have to allow teaching astrology (slippery slope argument).
And you still haven’t answered the questions I asked about teaching astrology in psychology class, spiritual healing in medical school, and flood geology in geology class. Imagine the waste of time that would entail. It is not “censorship” to require that professors not teach discredited theories, and it shortchanges the students to pretend that creationism is a valid alternative, as Eric Hedin did at Ball State (he did not present the evolutionist alternative). You keep ducking the issues. Why don’t YOU answer some questions for a change instead of demanding all of us to deal with yours?Later on he repeats this point and adds a fourth reason for censoring some professors who disagree with him.
Sorry, Larry, but string theory and other controversial theories are taught. “Controversial” is not the same as “wrong.” And you still haven’t responded about whether you would favor astrology being taught in a psychology class, or faith healing in a medical school class. As many writers have said, our job is to teach science, not discredited and religiously- or faith-based theories that have been discredited. I cannnot imagine why you’d wouldn’t object to spiritual healing taught in medical school, but I guess you wouldn’t.The fourth argument has to do with the professors' duty and obligations. Apparently, our only job is to teach science according to a prescribed curriculum that does not include ID. This point is more clearly expressed by others who comment on Jerry Coyne's blog. For example, Ben Goren says,
Larry, were I in charge of a college and a physics professor was teaching the Luminiferous Aether and Phlogiston theories as valid and worthy of serious consideration (and not merely presenting them in their historical contexts), he’d be out on his head so fast his ass would spin.It's pretty obvious that Ben Goren has no idea how universities work. Any chair who tried to do that to a tenured university professor would be fired within 48 hours. Nevertheless, it does create a fourth argument for persecuting ID teachers.
4. Science professors can only teach prescribed science in their classrooms.
I can't deal with all of these argument in the comments section on Jerry's website so let me give it a try here.
1. Professors can't teach religion in science classes in public universities in the USA.
This point is of no concern to me so that's why I specifically asked if Jerry would try to get Canadian or British professors fired for teaching ID. Jerry's position is that any free speech issues are mute in an American public university context because American constitutional law says that university professor's can't bring up religion in their science classes. Let's just talk about what to do in all other countries.
2. ID isn't science.
This may be Jerry Coyne's opinion and it may even be the opinion of the majority of scientists. If so, the argument boils down to the tyranny of the majority. Any scientist—I am one—who thinks that aspects of ID may be legitimate science have to be silenced?
This raises some interesting questions. What if John Mattick took a sabbatical at the University of Chicago and taught a course on genomes where he trotted out all of his false arguments against junk DNA. I presume he wouldn't be fired for teaching bad science in spite of what people might claim on Jerry's website.
Now what if it were Jonathan Wells giving the exact same course but not hiding the fact that he was a proponent of ID? Would he be fired?
What if it were a theistic evolutionist teaching the same course using the conclusion to bolster the idea that God uses evolution to create special creatures (humans) and He wouldn't like junk DNA?
Saying that ID is not science is not a valid excuse for censoring professors who teach ID in a science classroom. The issue is not open and shut. Lots of ID is very much part of science.
3. If we allow the teaching of ID then we have to allow teaching astrology.
I don't really understand this argument. I probably haven't phrased it properly. It seems to be important to lots of people.
Nobody is teaching astrology that I know of but let's assume that it's a possibility. How do we deal with it?
We deal with it by creating a dangerous university where all ideas are on the table. We deal with it by focusing our attention on teaching critical thinking and encouraging our students to challenge authority. We deal with it by making sure students understand the nature of science and the importance of scientific thinking.
You aren't likely to find a professor who wants to teach astrology in a university like that but the professor would likely be blown out of the water by the students if the attempt was made. The kooks aren't going to survive in a proper university.
This is why we don't need to be afraid that some university professors are going to teach Young Earth Creationism in a decent public university. Heaven help them if they did.
But there are lots of other ideas that aren't so clear. Take ID as a an example. I think I can refute any of the scientific claims of Intelligent Design Creationism but Michael Behe doesn't agree. If he came to Canada, and if my department allowed him to teach a course based on The Edge of Evolution, then on what grounds would Jerry Coyne seek to get him fired? He could teach the entire course without ever mentioning gods.
My point is that ID, unlike astrology, is still a live issue among scientists. Yes, it's true that only a tiny minority of scientists subscribe to ID but let's bend over backwards to be tolerant in defense of free speech. That's going to serve us better in the long run than openly banning and censoring anyone who disagrees with the majority.
It's the cost of free speech.
4. Science professors can only teach prescribed science in their classrooms.
This is where I profoundly disagree with Jerry Coyne and his supporters. University professors are not high school teachers that are bound by a set curriculum. University science professors are researchers and academics with views and opinions on a lot of issues. When teaching a biochemistry course, for example, they are not obliged to confine their lectures to a little box labelled "legitimate biochemistry."
They can talk about all kinds of things. In one of my courses for science students we spend a lot of time discussing the conflict between science and religion. The course was cancelled by the chair but if it were still running we would assign Jerry's new book and have a wonderful time discussing it. Just about anything is fair game in my classroom and that should be true of all professors at any decent public university.
Remember that the goal is to teach critical thinking and foster the idea that universities are dangerous places.
We discuss intelligent design in my molecular evolution class and we discuss issues like science communication, science education, and history. We even discuss the role of the federal government in funding science. The idea that I have to restrict myself to some third-party definition of "biochemistry" is completely foreign to me. It is foreign to my chair and to every member of my department. My chair thinks we should be teaching more ethics and philosophy (nature of science) in our biochemistry courses. (Please don't tell Jerry.)
Science does not exist in a vacuum and neither should science education.
Thus I reject the argument that we should seek the dismissal of anyone whose teaching ventures outside the box of "proper" science. Teaching outside the box is what professors are supposed to do and thinking outside the box is what we want students to learn.
Should we seek the dismissal of any professor who teaches ID in science class in a Canadian or British public university?
I dismiss the first argument because the American Constitution doesn't apply.
I dismiss the second argument because I'm not prepared to dogmatically insist that ID is not science and that anything that doesn't qualify as science can't be taught in a science class. ID is bad science but if we fire anyone who teaches bad science then there won't be very many professors left in the universities.
The third argument seems to defend the censoring of ID on the grounds that we would also censor astrology and other pseudosciences. My position is that I would not seek to ban or censor those subjects nor would I seek the dismissal of anyone who taught them. Instead, I would set up a university culture and environment where free speech was valued and respected but where the extreme kooks would be laughed out of the classroom.
The problem with slippery slope arguments is that they are very slippery and you can slide both ways. If we censor ID and fire all the ID professors then where do we stop? I know professors who are teaching biochemistry incorrectly. Should they be fired? What about the hundreds of professors who are teaching evolution incorrectly?
Then there's the theistic evolutionsts. When do we go after them?
The fourth argument is that we should fire professors who teach anything but science in their science classes. That's a view that treats university professors like glorified high school teachers. I dismiss that argument.
The humanities departments at many universities are infected with post-modernism. Departments are purging themselves of anyone who disagrees with the majority opinion on the proper way to teach history, English literature, philosophy etc. This is no way to run a university. I want to stand up for free speech and academic freedom but it's difficult to do that when people like Jerry Coyne are making such a big splash over firing proponents of ID.
I know that's not a good argument against Jerry's position but it does put things into perspective. The post-modernists are wrong because they are censoring any professors who disagree with them. It's also wrong for scientists to do that and it's better to err on the side of tolerance than to prove that you are against academic freedom.
The hardest thing about free speech and academic freedom is when they force you to put up with people who disagree with you. Those are exactly the people who need our protection.