Monday, February 23, 2015

Should universities defend free speech and academic freedom?

This post was prompted by a discussion I'm having with Jerry Coyne on whether he should be trying to censor university professors who teach various forms of creationism.

I very much enjoyed Jerry Coyne's stance on free speech in his latest blog website post: The anti-free speech police ride again. Here's what he said,
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 Speakers with unpopular opinions have their speaking invitations rescinded or are demonized by students whose tender ears can’t bear to hear something challenging, and students continually press for rules against “hate speech,” often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.

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.
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:
  1. Professors can't teach religion in science classes in public universities in the USA.
  2. ID isn't science.
  3. If we allow the teaching of ID then we have to allow teaching astrology (slippery slope argument).
The last point seems to be particularly important since Jerry comes back to it in subsequent comments.
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.

Summary

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.

Finally, there's another point that's relevant.

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.


92 comments :

  1. Larry, you make it clear that you have no objection to teaching astrology in a college astronomy class. I'm sorry, but that's just not something I can take seriously. Not only does it represent gross incompetence and academic dishonesty, it does everybody a disservice, from the student who's unqualified intellectually as a result to the future employers who hire the student on the false assumption that the degree implies competence to the university whose reputation is severely tarnished through all of it to society at large who's now stuck with an idiot astrologer rather than an astronomer.

    Again, if the teacher wants to preach astrology, he's free to do so outside of the classroom. What he's not free to do is engage in bait-and-switch indoctrination.

    Maybe you've actually got a contract that prevents you from being fired for gross incompetence. Bully for you. But that's not something you should be proud of. Tenure is good if it gives faculty the freedom to explore anything crazy they want...but that freedom has to stop when they start promoting nonsense in no-nonsense classes.

    b&

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    1. I don't think this is a real issue. Astrology is not controversial. I can't imagine that any physics or astronomy department would allow a professor to teach astrology and I can't imagine any students who would tolerate it.

      If some rogue professor started teaching astrology then the department should take immediate action to replace the professor.

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    2. Really, Ben, what do you think is going to happen if a psychology professor sets aside some time to present a unit on astrology? Apparently there are a lot of people for whom it is an important part of their inner life. According to rumor, former first lady Nancy Reagan was a big believer and it influenced decisions about the president's schedule. Is there some other aspect of people's inner life that is automatically off the table in a psychology course? Astrology is a serious business in the sense that there is a commerce of producers and consumers, and there are also many effects on our culture. It's bad science, for sure, but do you think students couldn't figure that out? Maybe they would learn something about the human condition by trying to understand why people believe weird things. Not a bad aim for a psychology course.

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    3. Apparently my message got lost in the depths of the Internet. I'll try again:

      Dr. Moran, isn't that a double-standard? Astrology can't get taught, let's boot the Professor teaching it. ID on the other hand CAN be taught, let's keep him/her. Or am I misunderstandig something?

      Astrology is not controversial in a scientific sense but it's controversial in a social sense. ID is not controversial in a scientific sense but it's controversial in a social sense.

      You also seem to be saying that there's some merit to ID. Could you please explain what merit there is?

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    4. There seems to be a lot of confusion about double standards and the astrology example isn't helping to clarify the issue.

      Perhaps you could state YOUR position. Would you fire every professor who disagrees with you or only some of them?

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    5. Larry, it is a double standard on your part.

      From the scientific perspective, Cretinism is every bit as discredited as Astrology. Neither is even vaguely remotely hypothetically scientifically defensible, and neither has any more place in the science classroom than any other sort of nonsense.

      In abnormal psychology or sociopolitical analysis or the like? Yes, of course; it's important to understand the human phenomenon of the IDiots who swallow that sort of nonsense.

      But that's entirely irrelevant to the question of how biology and astronomy (and whatever) actually really do work, which is the only thing on topic in the science classroom.

      Honestly, you could make a far stronger argument for an English 101 professor to devote class time to Japanese calligraphy so the students could properly compose haiku. And, while I think we'd all agree that learning such a thing would be quite nifty, it really doesn't have any place in the English 101 classroom.

      Cheers,

      b&

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    6. Ben Goren says,

      From the scientific perspective, Cretinism is every bit as discredited as Astrology.

      That's not true. There are many scientists who are sympathetic to various versions of creationism including Intelligent Design Creationism and Theistic Evolution. There aren't many scientists who defend astrology.

      Neither is even vaguely remotely hypothetically scientifically defensible,

      I don't know how much experience you have in this debate but some of the claims of ID proponents are very difficult to refute. Have you ever tried to explain why Stephen Meyer is wrong in Dawiri's Doubt or why Michael Behe is wrong in The Edge of Evolution. How about Jonathan's Wells The Myth of Junk DNA? Can you explain why that is not "even vaguely remotely hypothetically scientifically defensible."

      I bet you can't.

      Some of those guys can defend their views as effectively as the ENCODE Consortium defends their views or as effectively as Simon Conway Morris defends his interpretation of convergent evolution. Or, for that matter, as effectively as Francis Collins defends his view that humans are special.

      ... and neither has any more place in the science classroom than any other sort of nonsense.

      I'm well aware of your opinion and well aware of the fact that you would act on it by trying to fire any professor who disagrees with you.

      But that's entirely irrelevant to the question of how biology and astronomy (and whatever) actually really do work, which is the only thing on topic in the science classroom.

      That's an opinion that's, unfortunately, shared by a great many people. You have a very narrow view of what can be discussed in university science classroom.

      In my science classroom we discuss the apparent conflict between science and religion, philosophy and the nature of science, Intelligent Design Creationism, the ethics of implementing some scientific discoveries, how scientific research should be supported, how we should teach undergraduates, whether sex education should be taught in Ontario public schools, whether Game of Thrones is the best TV series ever, whether we should have more women in our department, whether student evaluations are useful, and whether you should vaccinate your children.

      All of these things are related to my primary objective—to teach critical thinking.

      Do you think I should be fired? If so, you can find the address of my chair right here. Good luck.

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    7. Ben GorenWednesday, February 25, 2015 9:29:00 AM
      Cretinism is every bit as discredited as Astrology


      To add to what Larry said.

      Creationism is no as discredited as astrology because astrology makes predictions about the here and now, which you can test. Which people have done repeatedly, and it never comes out as anything different from random guessing.

      In contrast, creationism concerns the past, so you can always revise it in such a way that it fits the facts. Even the Young Earth creationists can resort to the trickster god (the one who made the world look old, directly inserted mutations in genomes to create the observed genetic diversity after the flood, and who placed different species on different continents and islands to fools us through biogeography) hypothesis and there is no way to refute it with 100% certainty. The same applies to all versions of creationism, the difference between them is the degree of ridiculousness relative to the evidence.

      Which is minimized with theistic evolution and there it actually gets quite difficult to even call it ridiculous because some quite scientifically distinguished people are creationists of that sort, and they even seem to not realize that their views still constitute rejection of the theory of evolution.

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    8. Dr. Moran:
      I'm not sure I have a position on the issue, I'm just pointing out that your position seems, at least from what I have gleaned so far, to be inconsistent. As I mentioned, I may simply be missing some part of your stance or I may have misunderstood something.

      You also didn't address my question regarding ID.

      Regardless, I will try to lay out my position:
      First, you're asking a loaded question. "Firing every professor who disagrees with me" is not the same as "firing every professor who teaches incorrect or outdated science" is not the same as "firing every professor who teaches stuff that's controversial".

      I'd distinguish the three accordingly:
      1) People who disagree with me exist aplenty. In my own field of studies (pedagogics in Austria), there's currently a debate over the adoption competency-orientation. There are multiple opinions and I can't claim any of them to be "true" or "false". I think I've got some pretty convincing arguments, but that's about it. This is, I think we'd both agree, the normal procedure of science.

      2) There are many views in science that are worth exploring, even if they are ultimately shown to be wrong or if part of them have already failed. I again believe we can both agree on that. For example, as far as I (as a non-physicist) can tell, there doesn't seem to be a lot of merit to the idea of "cold fusion". A few possibilities regarding that idea have been discredited. But have all? Is it absolutely impossible for "cold fusion" to exist? I don't know, but I believe (again, not a physicist) it might be something to debate and research.

      3) There are many views in science that are wrong. Lamarckian evolution, the "hollow Earth", geocentricism, etc. These may be brushed as "failed ideas" or "how not to..." or "how critical thinking works" or something like that, but I think you'll agree that they should not be taught as if they were established science.


      Second, you incorrectly assume that I would have anyone fired. Disregarding the issue with tenured staff, I’m not sure I’d fire anyone anyway.
      I’m not exactly sure how something like “I’m a creationist” wouldn’t ring thousands of alarm bells at a job interview for teaching evolution, but then again I’ve never sought a position in the US. Then of course I agree with you, Dr. Moran, that it’s probably more prudent to educate the colleague. If all that fails, I’d point out to the colleague that there are issues of integrity at stake. When teaching, it is the professor’s duty to teach established science*, when the professor is in a non-work-related setting then he or she may defend any idea he or she likes.

      *This caveat brings us neatly to the problematic of what “established science” is. Who gets to claim that?
      I don’t know and I doubt that anyone can really give an authoritative answer.

      As for the “hard to address creationist points”, I accept your answer, not having read the books myself to form an opinion.

      I hope this clarifies my position, though as I’ve already pointed out, this is not about my point of view (I never claimed to have one) but rather the inconsistency in yours.

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    9. Inferno says,

      First, you're asking a loaded question. "Firing every professor who disagrees with me" is not the same as "firing every professor who teaches incorrect or outdated science" is not the same as "firing every professor who teaches stuff that's controversial".

      There may not be as much difference between #1 and #2 as you imagine. Deciding whether something is incorrect or outdated science is often a matter of opinion.

      YOU may have decided that something is incorrect science but the scientist you want to censor probably disagrees.

      I hope this clarifies my position, though as I’ve already pointed out, this is not about my point of view (I never claimed to have one) but rather the inconsistency in yours.

      My position is to err on the side of tolerance. Whenever there are substantial numbers of scientists who disagree with me I will protect their right to say it in a university classroom.

      That's not the case with astrology but it is the case with many other issues. I suppose it hinges on the meaning of "substantial" but that's really the point, isn't?

      There are people who would censor ID professors because there are very few of them but they wouldn't censor proponents of other ideas where about 20% of all scientists held a minority view.

      Every one of us has to make a decision about where to draw the line. There's no inconsistency.

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    10. Larry wrote:

      Do you think I should be fired?

      That depends.

      Do you teach your students that ID is a valid scientific framework for understanding biology and that (the modern synthesis of) Darwinian Evolution isn't?

      If so, then, yes, your Dean needs to know that. I've no idea how it works in Canada, but that sort of thing would get you in serious hot water here in the States.

      But, if not, then whatever you're doing in the classroom bears no semblance to what the various American professors who've faced disciplinary actions have been doing.

      Cheers,

      b&

      Delete
    11. Do you teach your students that ID is a valid scientific framework for understanding biology and that (the modern synthesis of) Darwinian Evolution isn't?

      I teach that much of the approach taken by ID proponents is valid science but in my opinion it's bad science just like a lot of other stuff in the scientific literature.

      I teach that the Modern Synthesis and Darwinian evolution is a poor framework for understanding biology. Modern evolutionary theory based on population genetics is much better.

      If so, then, yes, your Dean needs to know that...

      The address of my Dean is here although I can't imagine why you would want to know that because he has no say over what I teach in my class.And I don't question what he teaches in his class. He doesn't know a lot about evolution and I don't know a lot about the molecular basis of bipolar disorder.

      I've no idea how it works in Canada, ...

      That's pretty obvious.

      ... that sort of thing would get you in serious hot water here in the States.

      Sounds like you're proud of that instead of being profoundly embarrassed (and mostly wrong). Do you honestly believe that I would be in serious hot water if I taught the same thing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison or the University of California at Berkeley?

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    12. Larry wrote:

      Do you honestly believe that I would be in serious hot water if I taught the same thing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison or the University of California at Berkeley?

      From that description, what you're teaching would pose no problem in the States. I'm sure it would spark the usual heated discussions academics get in all the time, but nobody would have a problem with you teaching that. (In appropriate settings, of course...including lots of population genetics in an art of ancient Asia class would perhaps cause trouble.)

      It's also not what those who have gotten in serious hot water have been teaching.

      b&

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    13. "There may not be as much difference between #1 and #2 as you imagine. Deciding whether something is incorrect or outdated science is often a matter of opinion."

      I acknowledged that when I said "This caveat brings us neatly to the problematic of what “established science” is. Who gets to claim that?
      I don’t know and I doubt that anyone can really give an authoritative answer."

      "YOU may have decided that something is incorrect science but the scientist you want to censor probably disagrees."

      Again, you're putting words in my mouth. I think I should clarify that I don't agree with Dr. Coyne, but nor do I agree with you. I've explained my position and I think it's quite far away from "censoring" anyone.

      "That's not the case with astrology but it is the case with many other issues. I suppose it hinges on the meaning of "substantial" but that's really the point, isn't?"

      I again have to ask: What makes astrology different? The ID-crowd themselves stated that if you teach ID in the classroom then astrology should be taught as well. Remember Kitzmiller v. Dover? It's right there in the transcripts.

      My problem isn't with your stance in general, it's with the inconsistency of who you would want fired and who not. You're drawing as artificial a line as Jerry Coyne, but you're berating him for it. As I may have said, I think you're both wrong in that particular instance, so please don't lump me with him.

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    14. @Inferno

      We seem to be talking past each other so it's time to stop.

      For the record. I would not FIRE or call for the dismissal of ANY professor because of their views about what is or is not science. Some professors should not be permitted by their department to teach certain courses.

      We have to make a decision about where to draw the line when we decide who should be allowed to teach and what they should be allowed to teach. You seem to think there's some inconsistency involved in making that call but you haven't explained what a "consistent" alternative looks like.

      BTW, the "ID-crowd" never said that astrology should be taught. What Behe said during cross-examination was that astrology fits his definition of science but it's bad science and has been proven wrong. I agree with him.

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    15. Larry wrote:

      What Behe said during cross-examination was that astrology fits his definition of science but it's bad science and has been proven wrong. I agree with him.

      Larry...I hate to put this so bluntly, but your response seems to demand it -- especially since it goes right to the heart of the matter.

      The obvious conclusion for me to draw from the bit I quoted...is that you also would agree with Behe that ID is not bad science and that it has not been proven worng.

      I'm having a really difficult time imagining that you could really think that, but it also seems a near-inescapable conclusion.

      I think it would at least do a great deal to clarify things if you would address that question directly.

      Do you, Dr. Lawrence Moran, think that ID is good or bad science, and do you think it has or hasn't been proven worng?

      b&

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    16. (Ugh...sorry for mispelling your name! Should have previewed. Please do correct that if it's in your power. b&)

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    17. The obvious conclusion for me to draw from the bit I quoted...is that you also would agree with Behe that ID is not bad science and that it has not been proven wrong.

      Really? You think that's an obvious conclusion from what I've written?

      I don't see how we can continue this conversation since you are obviously on a different planet.

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    18. But then we're right back to the double standard problem.

      If astrology shouldn't be taught because it's bad science that's been proven wrong, and if ID is bad science that's been proven wrong...how can you possibly defend the teaching of ID?

      That's really what it all comes down to.

      There's a very limited number of self-consistent options here.

      If you oppose astrology because it's bad science, you should also oppose ID for the same reason -- but you don't oppose ID.

      If you oppose astrology and support ID, it should be because you think the astrology is bad science and ID is good science -- but you don't think ID is good science.

      What other option, really, is there?

      b&

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  2. Teaching outside the box is what professors are supposed to do

    According to whom? Professors are perhaps supposed to think outside the box in their own research (but not so far out that they verge into nonsense), but when teaching students (at least undergrads) they have the obligation to instruct the currently accepted consensus to the students. The students don't have the background to know when the professor's views are at odds with the majority.

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    1. Yes -- that's an excellent distinction.

      Tenure should protect freedom of research. When the professor is teaching the results of that research, tenure should protect that as well...but professors are only ever called upon to teach such research in very narrowly-defined circumstances.

      I don't know if, for example, Sean Carroll or Lawrence Krauss teach any undergraduate courses, but, if they do, their cutting-edge work will at most be of anecdotal use in those classrooms...and the heavens help them if they actually start having their students calculate orbits with epicycles (except, of course, perhaps, to illustrate why we don't do that sort of thing).

      Cheers,

      b&

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  3. Hmmm my post vanished into oblivion.

    I want to pose the same question I asked on Jerry's site - Are you therefore opposed to Queen’s University’s decision to stop the Health 102 professor from teaching her materials that seem to suggest an anti-vaccination stance?

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    1. And I'll give you the same reply with a bit more detail.

      This is a different situation from the astrology example because there is some controversy over the efficacy and dangers of vaccination. Some students might be under the impression that children should not be vaccinated.

      If the department learns of a professor who is promoting an anti-vaccine position then this is a marvelous teaching opportunity. I would get another professor to take some of the classes and present the case for vaccination making sure to address all the points that the original professor brought up.

      I would also make sure that the students had plenty of opportunity to discuss and debate this issues among themselves. They would hopefully learn about critical thinking and evidence-based science.

      I would invite the original professor to come back next year so we could do it all again with a new group of students. There's no better way to learn than to hear directly from people who passionately believe in both sides of an issue.

      I fail to see why it would be better to fire the professor and prevent students from ever hearing in class that there was a controversy over vaccinations. The key here is that both sides of the issue have to be covered and the issue has to be something that is actively being contested in the public forum.

      If you buy into the idea that a university is a place where controversial ideas are aired and debated—as I do—then you should also buy into the idea that you will have professors who take opposite sides.

      That's a feature of good universities, not a problem that needs to be solved by censorship.

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    2. You are proposing to violate the first professor's academic freedom by insisting that the second professor be there and speak? And not allowing the first professor to dismiss the question as a waste of class time?

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    3. For reasons that perhaps one day Jerry will explain, I am excommunicated from his blog, but as a member of Queen's University I should point out that it strongly supports all that is generally understood by the term free speech. In the Health 102 case the evidence to date suggests an extreme imbalance concerning the vaccination issue, which at a time of measles resurgence quite understandably gained high media attention.

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    4. You are proposing to violate the first professor's academic freedom by insisting that the second professor be there and speak? And not allowing the first professor to dismiss the question as a waste of class time?

      I do not believe that challenging the views of another professor is a violation of academic freedom. In fact, I think it's almost a requirement.

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    5. You answered me on WEIT? I didn't see an answer to my question there. The professor was not fired but her slides were called into question enough that the provost has explained that she will have to have her work reviewed in the future to make sure her material is "intellectually sound".

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    6. Do you agree that university provosts should be able to review the contents of every. course in the university to make sure they are "intellectually sound"?

      What would you have done if you were chair of the department or one of her colleagues? Don't forget that the department apparently knew of a problem several years ago.

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    7. If the department learns of a professor who is promoting an anti-vaccine position then this is a marvelous teaching opportunity. I would get another professor to take some of the classes and present the case for vaccination making sure to address all the points that the original professor brought up.

      I would also make sure that the students had plenty of opportunity to discuss and debate this issues among themselves. They would hopefully learn about critical thinking and evidence-based science.

      Global warming, vaccine, and evolution denialists would be quite pleased with a "teach the controversy" position, because it gives people the idea there *is* a legitimate, active controversy about the science.

      Not that I have a lot of better ideas, but I don't think "equal time" is necessarily a great solution. I think of my wife's brother and sister-in-law, who didn't much like their pediatrician - not a friendly or winning personality as he tried to get them to come to terms with the fact that their child was likely on the autism spectrum. Through friends they found an extremely charismatic practitioner who they loved, and who convinced them it was all due to vaccines and processed food. To this day they believe it was the diet they put him on (very expensive food purchased through the practitioner), more than the long, hard hours they put in and the therapists they fought with the school district for that got him to the point that he's now doing very nicely.

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    8. @judmarc

      Like it or not, there IS a controversy about vaccines. Ignoring it in university classes isn't going to make it go away.

      Is the controversy a "legitimate science controversy". I taught an entire course on that topic for eight years and I can assure you that it's not easy to teach students how to deal with such issues.

      As science ecucators, our job is NOT to just snow students with scientific facts that they have to memorize and regurgitate. Our job is to make students see the value of evidence-based reasoning and why it's superior to superstitution. You can't do that without examples and you can't do that without giving students some experience in arguing about controversial issues.

      If your friends had been exposed to a good university education they would probably have not made the decision they did make. My view of a good education does not include censoring and persecuting science teachers who present views that most scientists disagree with.

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    9. I don't agree with "equal time" for everything, but I think that is not the issue. The issue is whether we trust the process of open discourse and engagement, or if we trust to authoritarian measures that those in power (in academia) can use to keep debate within certain channels.

      I'm in favor of open discourse and engagement. My suspicion is that if we welcome ID-creationists to join us studying life's diversity, but force them to follow the same standards we do, and publish in the same journals, then over time, practitioners are going to think more like scientists, their views will necessarily change as they find out just how hard it is to establish new knowledge, and the movement is going to become diffuse and morph into something that looks a lot more like mainstream science. Bad science is going to get trashed just like ENCODE got trashed. Mainstream scientists will still be making fun of creationists, but we'll see it more as an inside joke and less as a threat-- just like we make fun of evolutionary psychologists for their pan-adaptationism.

      Behe's article in Quarterly Review a few years ago is an example of this. It is a genuine scientific article on evolution, and having passed the bar of peer review, it isn't as crazy as the stuff Behe writes in books. The article starts out with "Adaptive evolution can cause a species to gain, lose, or modify a function; therefore, it is of basic interest to determine whether any of these modes dominates the evolutionary process", and then he proceeds to argue the case for "loss". The article is obviously tendentious, but tendentious articles on evolutionary topics are common when there is polarization, e.g., in the era of the neutralist-selectionist debate, or the introns early-vs-late debate, there were a lot of tendentious articles by partisans.

      How do you think the anti-science strains in the US and Canada will ever be addressed, if not through a more direct participation of everyone in scientific discourse?

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    10. To insert some scientific data in this discussion, this open access article on vaccination was just published (“Examination of the Safety of Pediatric Vaccine Schedules in a Non-Human Primate Model: Assessments of Neurodevelopment, Learning, and Social Behavior” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25690930):


      BACKGROUND:
      In the 1990s, the mercury-based preservative, thimerosal, was used in most pediatric vaccines. While there are currently only two thimerosal-containing vaccines (TCVs) recommended for pediatric use, parental perceptions that vaccines pose safety concerns are affecting vaccination rates, particularly in light of the much expanded and more complex schedule in place today.

      OBJECTIVES:
      The objective of this study was to examine the safety of pediatric vaccine schedules in a non-human primate model.

      METHODS:
      We administered vaccines to 6 groups of infant male rhesus macaques (n=12-16/group) using a standardized thimerosal dose where appropriate. Study groups included the recommended 1990s pediatric vaccine schedule, an accelerated 1990s primate schedule with or without the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, the MMR vaccine only, and the expanded 2008 schedule. We administered saline injections to age-matched control animals (n=16). Infant development was assessed from birth-12 months of age by examining the acquisition of neonatal reflexes, the development of object concept permanence (OCP), computerized tests of discrimination learning, and infant social behavior. Data were analyzed using ANOVAs, multi-level modeling, and survival analyses, where appropriate.

      RESULTS:
      There were no group differences in the acquisition of OCP. During discrimination learning animals receiving TCVs had improved performance on reversal testing, although some of these same animals performed poorer in subsequent learning set testing. Analysis of social and non-social behaviors identified few instances of negative behaviors across the entire infancy period. While some group differences in specific behaviors were reported at 2 months of age, by 12 months all infants, irrespective of vaccination status, had developed the typical repertoire of macaque behaviors.

      CONCLUSIONS:
      This comprehensive five-year, case-control study, which closely examined the effects of pediatric vaccines on early primate development, provided no consistent evidence of neurodevelopmental deficits or aberrant behavior in vaccinated animals.

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  4. I don't see hiring and firing as free speech issues.I think schools can control what is taught. It becomes a free speech issue if the speech occurs outside the classroom..People who achieve tenure are assumed to have demonstrated reliability (whatever that might mean). A gross deviation from pre-tenure behavior will understandably cause problems. Not entirely unlike changes in behavior after marriage.

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  5. I have flip-flopped several times on my stance about tenure. I can see its benefits and its weaknesses. I just haven't come to a final conclusion which one is stronger.

    Unconditional tenure I would definitely be against, but I don't think it exists.

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  6. There are some points here that aren't clear to me. You seem to be saying that if, hypothetically, a professor taught astrology in his astronomy course, that would be grounds for firing. But if a professor taught creationism in his biology course, it wouldn't. And the distinction seems to be that no scientist believes in astrology, so it isn't controversial, but a few scientists believe in creationism, so it is.

    Do I have that right? If so, you seem to be using popularity as a criterion for what shouldn't be taught. Yet you also seem to be eschewing that criterion too.

    Is there anything a university professor shouldn't be allowed to teach? Or be fired for teaching? If so, what would be the criterion?

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    1. You haven't got it quite right because I know that you can't fire a tenured professor for what he/she thinks. If one of them really believes in astrology and tries to teach it then the department just replaces him/her and moves on.

      You got the other part right. If an issue is controversial then we need to tread carefully because we can't be certain that we are right and it's better to err of the side of tolerance. Also, the students need to deal with the controversy because it's in the public forum.

      I like the idea that a proponent of ID could present the case to university students provided that the department made sure that both sides were discussed. That's very different than firing anyone who promotes ID and making sure that students never get a chance to debate and discuss the issue.

      I think that kind of censorship is likely to be counter-productive.

      In addition to astrology, I think there are literally hundreds of things that a university professor should not be permitted to teach. Some of my colleagues are teaching those things right now, as a matter of fact. :-)

      I'm thinking of things that are factually incorrect but not the least bit controversial in the outside world. For example, there's no excuse for teaching incorrect versions of biochemical pathways and the meaning of free energy. You don't fire professors who teach falsehoods. You educate them.

      Some controversial issues present real problems. Take evolutionary psychology for example. It's going to be hard to convince psychology departments to make changes because they are not convinced that there's a problem. It's impossible to have professors who teach both sides of that position because you probably can't get a job in a psychology department unless you tow the party line.

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    2. You haven't got it quite right because I know that you can't fire a tenured professor for what he/she thinks.

      If that was directed at me, I never mentioned thinking, merely teaching.

      In what way is ID controversial within science? What are the criteria for deciding if there is a controversy? I would imagine that if ID is considered a scientific controversy, then so would denial that HIV causes AIDS; and denial that the Holocaust happened would be a historical controversy. Should these be taught?

      And who are you to demand that both sides be taught? Isn't that as much an interference with academic freedom as demanding that something not be taught?

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    3. John,

      I think I've said on many occasions that evolution and ID are major controversies in our society. We should not ignore such controversies in our classrooms.

      As for Holocaust denial, I think that's also a problem in our society and history courses should expose students to the views of Holocaust deniers. That's how you teach them to see the truth.

      Banning any mention of Holocaust deniers in university courses just lets them have free reign in all other venues.

      Do you really think that exposing students to as many points of view as possible is interfering with academic freedom while banning some views from ever being expressed in a classroom is academic freedom?

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    4. Sorry, I thought you were referring to scientific controversies specifically. So you would be OK with a professor teaching from any controversial viewpoint? Note that we aren't talking about a wish to "expose students to views", or about "banning any mention" or "exposing students to as many views as possible". I think you're using those scenarios to avoid the uncomfortable true situation.

      Are you in fact OK with having Holocaust deniers teaching courses in 20th Century history? I'm pretty sure that course wouldn't involve multiple viewpoints or dispassionate analysis of evidence. And it might in fact be the only course on the subject a student would ever encounter.

      No, banning Holocaust deniers from teaching that course isn't academic freedom; it's a justifiable limit on academic freedom, just as banning a creationist from teaching an evolutionary biology course from a creationist viewpoint is another justifiable limit.

      I do think it would be perfectly fine to discuss Holocaust denial or creationism in a relevant course, as long as it was done in a balanced manner, which in this case means pointing out the absurdity of such views.

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    5. John,

      I'm not sure where we disagree. Do you think I would be in favor of a department that allowed a Holocaust denier to teach an entire course without ever mentioning the true facts about the Holocaust?

      The answer is that I would complain very loudly about any history department that behaved in such a manner? Do you know of any examples?

      Similarly, if a biology department allowed an ID proponent to promote ID in a class then it has an obligation to ensure that both sides are covered adequately so students can make an informed decision.

      There aren't many history professors who are Holocast deniers but there are science professors who are sympathetic to ID and others who favor theistic evolution. The two issues aren't as comparible as you think.

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    6. Re Larry Moran

      Since the subject of Holocaust revisionism has come up, let's look at an actual case. Northwestern University Engineering Professor Arthur Butz is a Holocaust revisionist. Prof. Butz is in the engineering department and is supposed to be teaching engineering courses, which the last time I heard doesn't seem to have much relevance to the Holocaust. Do you think that Prof. Butz should be allowed to teach his views on the Holocaust in his engineering classes?

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    7. @colnago80

      No, I don't think his department should allow him to teach an engineering course on the Holocaust.

      Did you really think I would give a different answer?

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    8. Apparently the two issues are directly comparable. So, how does the biology department make sure both sides are covered adequately? How could they do that without infringing on academic freedom?

      This reminds me of the U.S. senator who was against the requirement that restaurant employees wash their hands, because it infringed on the freedom of restaurant owners. He wanted to replace it by requiring restaurants to post signs informing customers if they didn't require hand-washing, relying on a market solution just as you do. And it was pointed out to him that his regulation also infringed on the freedom of restaurant owners. The parallels, I think, are exact.

      Are you acquainted with the case of Professor Emerson T. McMullen at Georgia Southern University? If so, I'm wondering how you would deal with it.

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  7. I've said this several times before (which, by not being born in the US, I have, or do not have, depending on the point of view, the right and proper perspective to say), but it's worth repeating - the establishment clause is no real friend to science. Sure, it has helped keep creationism officially out of schools, but this has had no real effect on its prevalence in the population - first, because it is still widely taught in practice, second, because the formation of worldviews is influenced to a significantly greater extent by what happens outside school (and before kids starts school) than what goes on inside. So the establishment clause has been completely ineffective in improving the public understanding of science.

    But it has been very effective in making unavailable the only tool there is for improving the situation - the ability to actively challenge religion in school (note that this is not the same as indoctrination in atheism although of course in practice atheism is what the hoped for outcome is).

    I would gladly trade the right for ID to be openly defended in universities and school for the right to tell students that most of the tenets of their religion are bogus and why.

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    1. Then both you, Georgi, and Dr. Moran would IMHO be incorrect.

      - There is absolutely nothing whatsoever in the Establishment Clause preventing the ability to actively challenge religion in schools. What prevents it is the same thing causing the prevalence of the creationist viewpoint, the current overweening religiosity of the US relative to other industrialized nations.

      Having gone through the US public school system as someone who was not a member of the religious majority, I can tell you that the Establishment Clause is in my view responsible for preventing that religious majority from simply overwhelming everyone and everything (e.g., teaching of good science) in its path. And though it progresses far too slowly to make me happy, the direction of science teaching in the US is moving away from creationism.

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    2. I guess that teaching creationism in public schools must be a serious problem in all those countries without an Establishment Clause, right?

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    3. Why are you supposing that the establishment clause is responsible for the prevalence of creationism in the U.S.? Judmarc's point, for which I've seen no refutation so far, is that the problem would be even worse without it.

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    4. Who has ever said that?

      What I said was that you need to actively educate religion away and with the establishment clause you actually are not allowed to do that.

      That creationism exists has nothing to do with the establishment clause but this is part of the point - it has been largely irrelevant as far as preventing religion from dominating public life goes.

      In the grand scheme of things it does not matter that much whether they teach creationism somewhere in the Bible belt or not. If they do end up teaching it, this will be because the population is largely creationist anyway. I have news for everyone who is concerned about the teaching of creationism in schools - if the population is largely creationist and very deeply religious, kids will also grow up to be creationist too, whether the open teaching of creationism is legal or not.

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    5. - There is absolutely nothing whatsoever in the Establishment Clause preventing the ability to actively challenge religion in schools. What prevents it is the same thing causing the prevalence of the creationist viewpoint, the current overweening religiosity of the US relative to other industrialized nations.

      I see it interpreted as prohibiting that all the time.

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    6. Georgi,

      I believe Larry was saying that. It's the clear implication of "I guess that teaching creationism in public schools must be a serious problem in all those countries without an Establishment Clause, right?"

      Larry thinks the establishment clause actively increases creationism, you think it's irrelevant, but I think that without it there would be even more creationism than there is. Larry thinks that the establishment clause is in fact the reason for greater religiosity in the U.S. than in other Western countries. I think he has causality backwards.

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    7. But the establishment clause does increase creationism

      As I said, if anyone is to try to educate religion away in schools, he will be stopped very quickly by invoking it (remember that Dawkins himself said that if he were to come testify in a US court on whether the teaching evolution leads to atheism, he would have to say "Yes, it does" and that would be seen as a negative).

      Also, the fact that religion was so centralized and detached from people's live was a significant reason why people eventually started moving away from it in Europe. You can almost apply evolutionary reasoning to the situation - when your population size is 1, or in the single digits, there is little competition and you can afford to ossify and degenerate. In the US there is very active competition for hosts between a large number of different strains of the christian religion (there is a lot of theological variation between individual pastors, mostly due to how poorly educated in their own religion they are) so the evolutionary fitness of the successful ones is higher, and it's more difficult to eradicate them.

      You can also add to the list of problems the decentralization of the school system - a single official federal curriculum would improve the situation.

      In general, one of the biggest problems of the US is its constitution. It is written in such a way that it is very very difficult to change it, ensuring that once conditions change so that it is actually does more harm than good, little can be done to alleviate the situation, and on top of that it has become a quasi-sacred text to be revered and uncritically worshiped. It's quite amazing how many atheists have joined the cult - wasn't the idea behind the whole thing to evaluate everything critically?

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    8. Are you suggesting that the constitution should be amended to create an established religion?

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    9. John HarshmanTuesday, February 24, 2015 12:11:00 PM
      Are you suggesting that the constitution should be amended to create an established religion?


      Don't be ridiculous

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    10. QuestTuesday, February 24, 2015 12:14:00 PM
      What are you afraid of Georgi...?


      How you act in the world depends very much on how you view it.

      So if the vast majority of the population has a completely wrong understanding of how the world works, there is a serious danger it will act in ways that are detrimental to its long-term well-being or even survival.

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    11. Don't be ridiculous

      What? You and Larry are apparently both saying that the lack of an established church has been a contributor to the U.S. problem of creationism. Why is it ridiculous to fix that problem?

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    12. Are you suggesting that the constitution should be amended to create an established religion?

      Yes, of course that's exactly what I must have meant. As you probably know, I've been at the forefront of attempts to get Canada to adopt an established religion. I'm leaning toward scientology but Southern Baptist has a certain appeal.

      Australia and France are next on my list.

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    13. So you must agree that it isn't the establishment clause that's the big difference, and that whole thing about the benefits of established religion was bogus.

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    14. So you must agree that it isn't the establishment clause that's the big difference, and that whole thing about the benefits of established religion was bogus.

      I agree that the whole thing about the benefits of an established religion was a figment of your imagination.

      You and I have been arguing about this for at least 15 years. Have you been confused all this time?

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    15. Come on, Larry. You've been claiming that establishing religion has the benefit of making people less interested in it and more secular. Or have I in fact been misunderstanding you on this point for 15 years?

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    16. Come on, Larry. You've been claiming that establishing religion has the benefit of making people less interested in it and more secular.

      I never, ever, said said any such thing.

      Or have I in fact been misunderstanding you on this point for 15 years?

      Apparently.

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    17. I see it interpreted as prohibiting that all the time.

      And I see "evolution" interpreted as "natural selection" all the time. Guess we're even. ;-)

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    18. I guess that teaching creationism in public schools must be a serious problem in all those countries without an Establishment Clause, right?

      Nope. So far as I've been able to tell from my years in Canada and trips to Europe, and correspondence with friends around the world, other nations don't tend to have large segments of the population who feel they're the dominant country on Earth because God has smiled on them, and they better be aggressive in spreading the message of His love in order to keep God happy. (Does any other nation have such a tradition of "muscular Christianity"?)

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    19. It is written in such a way that it is very very difficult to change it, ensuring that once conditions change so that it is actually does more harm than good, little can be done to alleviate the situation

      Which specific provisions of the US Constitution do you consider to be doing more harm than good due to their failure (as interpreted by the courts) to adapt to modern times?

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    20. As I said, if anyone is to try to educate religion away in schools, he will be stopped very quickly by invoking it (remember that Dawkins himself said that if he were to come testify in a US court on whether the teaching evolution leads to atheism, he would have to say "Yes, it does" and that would be seen as a negative).

      The Establishment Clause doesn't prohibit that. The reason such a teacher would likely be stopped is the same as the reason anything tending to convince people of the non-existence of a deity would be seen as negative: the tremendous religiosity of many locales in the US. (Same reason the US public has such a miserable and deliberate misunderstanding of the origin of the human species.)

      Check out Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism some time if you want to get a flavor of the religious tradition and history at play here.

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    21. "Come on, Larry. You've been claiming that establishing religion has the benefit of making people less interested in it and more secular."

      "I never, ever, said said any such thing."

      "Or have I in fact been misunderstanding you on this point for 15 years?"

      "Apparently."

      This made me laugh out loud, which is rare for me. But seriously, this very mechanism has been suggested to be the reason why the Scandinavian countries are so irreligious.

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  8. The humanities departments at many universities are infected with post-modernism.

    Could you make that a bit clearer? I know it's somewhat hip to diss post-modernism without being clear about what one means precisely, but I don't think it's helping. The cartoon you posted seems to poke fun at relativism while holding some misconceptions about relativism that are on par with "if humans evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?". Relativism does not reject objective truth, it rejects absolute truth - there's a non-trivial distinction between the two (1+1=2 is objectively true in Z and objectively false in Z/2. The truth of the statement is relative to whether you are operating in Z or Z/2. Hence it is objective, but relative). It does not hold that all positions are valid, just that there is usually more than one valid position (for instance I've given examples for mathematical frameworks in which 1+1=2 and 1+1=0 are true, but I'm not aware of any where 1+1=e for instance).
    The key assumption of absolutism is that if you can show the consistency of one particular set of ideas you have also shown all other sets of ideas to be invalid. Relativism holds that this is not correct and that you have to show the invalidity of alternative positions, to dismiss them.

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    1. Are you claiming that there's no problem in modern humanities departments?

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    2. I really wish you'd reply to one of my posts without making it a loaded question... I don't survey humanities departments that closely, so I couldn't say there is no problem. But if there is one, it's not rooted in post-modernism as far as I can tell. In terms of philosophy post-modernism is a rejection of some beliefs that were common among modern philosophers and this is based in applying the same intellectual tools we need to understand evolution. One could argue that modernism died with Darwin.

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    3. I asked a legitimate question. You were challenging my claim that there's a problem in humanities departments and I wanted to make sure I understood where you were coming from.

      What you are saying, I think, is that there is a rigorous definition of post-modernism that's perfectly acceptable and shouldn't pose a problem. That may be true, I'll take your word for it.

      However, in my university there are many humanities professors who think that there are all kinds of legimate "truths" that we have to recognize and respect. Many of these "truths" are dead wrong according to scientific reasoning but that doesn't seem to matter.

      Most of us think this is a perversion of post-modernism. Do you have a better term for this phenomenon?

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    4. Larry, you already named "post-modernism" as the problem "infecting" humanities departments. Then Simon schooled you on post-modernism. It might help to provide some concrete examples of the dead-wrong stuff you are seeing from your colleagues.

      We could call it vulgar post-modernism, which also has infected evolutionary biology. One of the claims of evo-devoists like Sean Carroll, straight out of the PoMo playbook, is that, in addition to population-genetic narratives, it is valid and important to provide alternative narratives of evolution that stress developmental changes. Mike Lynch disagrees. For him, population genetics is not a narrative, but the ground truth from which all causation arises. That is classic "modernist" thinking-- totalizing claims like "the ultimate source of explanation in biology is the principle of natural selection" (Ayala).

      But to get back to what Simon was saying. PoMo emerged from taking seriously what philosophers have been saying for a very long time about the nature of perception and reality and knowledge. Scientists are still ignoring this, and Exhibit A is the ontology enterprise in biology. Many scientists believe that we can get computers to do our work of reasoning and discovering and advancing knowledge. That obviously requires some model of how we understand the world— a topic philosophers have been pursuing for millennia. What, precisely, is the philosophy that scientists use? The philosophy underlying OBO is a kind of Platonic realism: things in the world belong to classes that have universal relations, and all of this can be perceived directly and then represented in the universal language of reality, which-- as we know from Star Trek-- just happens to be English.

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    5. I kind of think postmodernism was more of a problem in the 1990s than today. Between the mockery that was poured on the subject by Alan Sokal and others, many postmodernists like Bruno Latour (who tend to be left of center) were rather freaked out about how creationists and climate-change deniers started coopting PM methods and have backed down on a lot of criticism of science.

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    6. However, in my university there are many humanities professors who think that there are all kinds of legimate "truths" that we have to recognize and respect. Many of these "truths" are dead wrong according to scientific reasoning but that doesn't seem to matter.

      I would like to second Arlins request for examples. But I would also note that it indeed doesn't matter whether something is dead wrong in science - it can still be true in some other context. 1+1=0 is dead wrong in Z, but it is true in Z/2.

      I have no doubt that there are bad scholars in the humanities. There are certainly people that do not really get relativism. And I would certainly not claim that post-modernism is rigorously defined (relativism is and that's what your cartoon seems to mock). Post-modernism is a catch-all term applied to various movements in the humanities that generally take issue with some notions in modernity. I do think that some of these critiques are better founded than others.

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  9. I would also say there are three different points here, but slightly different ones:

    1. Professors can't teach religion in science classes in public universities in the USA.

    2. Professors can publicly support whatever nonsense they desire. That is academic freedom. But they are paid to teach state of the art science.

    3. Your argumentation implies that if one disallows the teaching of creationism then one will soon disallow the teaching of good science simply because it is unpopular (slippery slope argument)

    I do not particularly care about #1, and #3 is obviously fallacious. The relevant point is #2. As I wrote over at WEIT:

    Arguing that a science lecturer should not be censored for promoting creationism in class is like saying that the electrician you paid to work on your house shouldn't be censored for installing spaghetti instead of proper wire.

    Neither has anything to do with freedom of speech or academic freedom. Instead it has something to do with doing the job one is paid to do. One cannot seriously misunderstand academic freedom to mean that the professor is free to stop doing what they get their salary for.

    Note that I totally agree with you that ID is failed science instead of non-science. But it still remains a fact that students will assume that what the prof teaches them is good science. That is the role of a professor, and accepting what is taught is the role instinctively assumed by first to second year students. (I know you disagree, but before they can start thinking for themselves they do have to have a lot of facts and theory poured into them that they are not magically created with. When I came to uni I did not know much about Rubisco, purifying selection or incomplete lineage sorting.)

    It is also extremely unlikely that most students will ever hear more than one professor lecturing on evolution (unless they specialise in evolutionary biology), and it is extremely naive to assume that the kind of lecturer who teaches creationism in the first place has any interest in teaching the nature of science and the importance of scientific thinking. If they had that kind of approach they wouldn't teach creationism except as a historical footnote, and the problem would be moot. In other words, if one were to allow teaching of creationism as true and factual, soon tens of thousands of students would be lied to and leave university with a wrong understanding of reality.

    It is no slippery slope argumentation to ask for intellectual consistency: if, for some reason, there was big movement to teach that vaccines are evil, would you like to see thousands of general practice MDs march out of the gates of universities with shiny new degrees, ready to become the next generation of doctors, and keen to advise your neighbours not to vaccinate?

    That topic is also controversial, so we can't be sure we are right, correct?

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    1. Arguing that a science lecturer should not be censored for promoting creationism in class is like saying that the electrician you paid to work on your house shouldn't be censored for installing spaghetti instead of proper wire.

      Ideas and concepts are not analogous to spaghetti and wires. A better analogy would be if you want to censor and ban every electrician who taught their apprentices that aluminum wiring isn't all that dangerous.

      It's true that in many universities the words of the professor are treated as absolute truth that must never be challenged. In those universities, a department might allow a professor to teach an old-fashioned and totally discredited version of biochemistry. The department might even allow a course where a professor teaches that every bit of our genome is functional.

      Such universities could even let a creationist brainwash students into thinking that evolution was false. Those are bad universities and you aren't going to fix them by calling for the firing of the bad biochemist and the bad creationist.

      You fix them by showing the world what a real university should look like.

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    2. It reads as if this is one of those "the perfect is the enemy of the good" scenarios. It is all nice to work towards the perfect university, but at the moment we have a lot of merely good universities in which the students will take one (1) course on evolution, and if the professor tells them that evolution is bunk in an authoritative enough voice and has a nice enough teaching style, many of them will walk out convinced that science has rubbished the theory of evolution. So it would be nicer even to somehow deal with that reality while one waits for the perfect university to emerge.

      And of course concepts are different to wires; but they are perfectly analogous in that the electrician is paid to install wires, and the lecturer is paid to install concepts. I am currently living and working in a country where, sadly, the students pay fees per course, and that makes the analogy even stronger.

      I do not like the system and wish that studying were free of charge. In particular the per course cost disincentivises students against taking extra courses to try things out. But I will not change the Australian university system in the next four weeks, and the system there is creates a moral obligation: IF one collects the limited resources of time and money from a customer, THEN one should aim to deliver a quality product instead of teaching as fact something that is known to be wrong to the same degree that we can know anything empirical.

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  10. As for ID, I think you should teach it - and teach the counter arguments, but not promote it because it's something that isn't supported by the evidence (that should be taught). Free speech is important, but the students shouldn't pay the price of being misinformed by their teachers. That would decrease teaching quality at the universities.

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  11. If the department learns of a professor who is promoting an anti-vaccine position then this is a marvelous teaching opportunity. I would get another professor to take some of the classes and present the case for vaccination making sure to address all the points that the original professor brought up.


    An obvious point is that it would be great if universities were venues where all contradictory ideas could be explored and debated. This would foster the goal of critical thinking so often mentioned, and it would presumably become clear to most students on which side of a controversial issue the preponderance of evidence lies.

    The reality unfortunately is that universities have become by and large information factories where the goal is to get out the product to the consumer. In some sense the modern university is contructed such that the window through which information must be delivered is too narrow to be clogged up with controversial opinions.It is too bad really.



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    1. I agree with you.

      Please join me in trying to change the universities.

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  12. I think one could take the stance that we reach a happy medium with our laws by everyone, including the people at the extremes, pushing and pulling for what they want. If people at one extreme gave up that would cause a shift in the opposite direction. So one can support JAC while at the same time believing that university administrations should not ban the IDers. My feeling is that it should not be outright banned. The loss of prestige of the dept and the school is punishment enough

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  13. Banning ID-friendly faculty is bad for science. Such a policy would have deprived the scientific world of find minds like Nobel Prize winners Christian Anfinsen, Richard Smalley, Charles Townes, and many others. Even if they hold a minority viewpoint, that doesn't justify their exclusion from academia. It would be a disservice to science.

    Chemistry and Physics are real sciences, so my irony meter went off when Coyne tries to act as a spokesman for science since he's merely an evolutionary biologist. He himself likened his own field to the pseudoscience of phrenology:

    "In science's pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom. Far closer to phrenology than to physics." -- Jerry Coyne

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    1. Hmmm...sounds like a creationist.

      Credentialism, check. Quote-mining, check. Strawman claims, check. Though I suppose the nym was a clue too.

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    2. Our friend "LiarsforDarwin" is ironically named, as he appears to be the 999th. Liar for Intelligent Design. The problem is not just that he invokes argument from authority with his list of "ID-friendly" Nobel laureates, it's that he's lying about their beliefs. There are no living Nobel Prize winners who accept Intelligent Design. To reiterate, every Nobel Prize laureate named "Steve" has signed the Project Steve petition in favor of evolution.

      LiarForID tells us Christian Anfinsen (dead for 20 years) was "ID-friendly", which is absurd. He converted to Judaism and believed in God for religious reasons. He did not embrace ID's pseudoscientific claims of Dembski's "Specified Complexity" or Behe's "Irreducible Complexity" and did not believe no natural process can increase complexity or information, which are central to ID. ID creationist VJ Torley, who apparently originated many of these bogus claims, does not claim that Anfinsen rejected biological evolution; he claims that Anfinsen believed in an immortal soul, and Torley defines that as opposition to Darwinian evolution. So VJ Torley pulled a dishonest bait and switch, and our creationist friend LiarsForDarwin is wrong.

      Next, Charles Townes, the physicist, died 2015. VJ Torley tells us: "Charles Townes accepts Darwinian evolution as an account of the development of life on Earth, although he also holds that the process was planned by God – that is, he believes in cosmological Intelligent Design." Thus, VJ Torley pulls another bait and switch, admitting that Townes believed in Darwinian evolution, but then saying Townes opposed Darwinism. Here Torley's rationale is that Townes believed in cosmological fine tuning for life (FT4L). Leaving aside that FT4L is a hoax, and that FT4L is not evidence for God unless you invoke God of the Gaps fallacy, Townes, like Anfinsen, did not embrace ID's pseudoscientific claims of Dembski's "Specified Complexity" or Behe's "Irreducible Complexity" and did not believe no natural process can increase complexity or information, which are ID's central claims. Thus he was not "ID-friendly" in any Discovery Institute sense.

      As for Richard Smalley, died 2005, in his later years, after a religious conversion, he was an Old Earth creationist for religious reasons. His guru was Old Earther Hugh Ross, who claims that Neanderthals were dumb non-human animals and thus that Europeans, because they have some Neanderthal DNA, are products of human-animal cross-breeding.

      Again: there are no living Nobel Laureates who have drunk the ID Kool-Aid.

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    3. Now returning to our lying friend's central claim, "Banning ID-friendly faculty is bad for science," this is false because, number one, "ID-friendly faculty" have not been banned, they are just inferior, they suck at their jobs and they're not interested in doing research but just in religionizing, like Guillermo Gonzalez and Smalley in his later years.

      If hypothetically ID-friendly faculty were to be banned, which hasn't happened, it would have no effect on science, because people believe in ID after undergoing a religious conversion to YEC or OEC, and after that conversion they don't get any good research done. Look what happened to Jonathan Wells, Guillermo Gonzalez, Dean Kenyon, and many others.

      By contrast, scientists who believe in evolution actually are banned, censored and fired at religious schools across the United States, two recent examples being the two professors fired from William Jennings Bryan College, and Prof. Karl Giberson, etc. In recent years a long string of real cases of evolutionist professors have been fired, censored or silenced by religious colleges while the ID movement and the Discovery Institute and YECs cheer from the sidelines for more censorship.

      The censorship and banning of professors who believe in evolution is real; but the censorship and banning of professors who oppose evolution is a big, Expelled-style hoax.

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  14. Interesting to read this discussion because there are more sides to it than I had realized. I’ve slowly come to some conclusions.

    1. Professors should not be fired for having creationist views or for teaching them, but there are right and wrong contexts for that. The issue can usually be dealt with by changing who in the department teaches what classes, though sometimes changes in course descriptions may help.

    2. In evolution classes and the evolution units of general biology classes, widely accepted ideas of evolution should be taught, sometimes with bits of within-science controversy. If the prof or a team can teach clear thinking, the ID controversy is a good opportunity to do so, but not all of us are good at it. (Two profs I knew taught a general biology unit on evolution with monitored student discussions and were very happy with the results. Given the opportunity to defend their creationist views and loosing debates with fellow students, some students actually changed their minds – which they usually don’t do after attending good lectures on evolution.)

    3. Profs who want to teach a clearly labeled special topics class like “What’s wrong with evolution: Why naturalistic evolutionary theory is inadequate to explain life’s diversity” should be allowed or even encouraged to do so.

    I was a teaching assistant in discussion groups for a general biology class where the evolution unit was taught by a creationist. He assured students they didn’t have to believe in evolution and then wandered through pointless anecdotes about insects. Some of my creationist students complained because although of course they didn’t believe in evolution, they wanted to know what the controversy was about.

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    1. I have disagreements.

      1. I don't think anyone is arguing that anyone should be fired for his views. But what right context is there for teaching creationist views? Note that this is quite different from teaching *about* creationist views. I can't think of a course in which teaching creationism would be anything other than an abuse of students' time and money.

      2. You assume that ID is a scientific controversy, but it's actually a religious and political one. You might perhaps restate your argument, that political controversies around biology should also be discussed. I have no argument against that. But that isn't really what we're talking about here if it's an actual creationist teaching the course.

      3. Why? Your anecdote suggests that biology courses taught by creationists would be very bad biology courses. You want to encourage bad biology courses?

      So, how did it end up that the evolution unit of a biology course was taught by a creationist? Sounds like the department administration was asleep at the switch.

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    2. re: 3. What I prefer is that if we're going to allow full academic freedom that includes teaching creationism in universities, we should clearly advertize what the subject is going to be, so people are less likely to stumble on the class by accident. Being honest about the content might discourage people from teaching the class, too. Or maybe before it got approval the department would insist it be team taught and include a lot of discussion.

      As to the other question: Two factors contributed to the old-earth creationist teaching evolution badly in a general biology class. First, it was one of those team-taught classes with a couple hundred students in each of three or four lecture sections. Not really rewarding teaching, and most profs didn't want to teach it (unless they wanted most of the semester free for other work after two or three intense weeks of teaching). This guy actually did want to teach the evolution unit. Year after year after year. (The lab portion, set up years before, concentrated on definitions and was correct as far as it went.)

      Second, this guy was undergoing a gradual breakdown, mentally. The department began working to break his tenure, but two things happened. His wife stepped up to deal with paperwork he was letting slide. The department members realized that this guy was totally unemployable and poor, and they felt sorry for him and for his wife. They let his tenure stand and everybody counted down the years to his retirement. (Another factor may have been that he must have been sixty or so then, so after the whole process of breaking tenure was accomplished they might not have gained much time anyway.)

      He taught a course in his specialty that was technically correct though absolutely boring, the evolution unit of general biology, and probably something(s) else I didn't have contact with.

      I was very frustrated with this guy's squandering the opportunity to teach students things they could use about evolution. However, since then I've seen it taught much better in pretty much the same context, and still most students who start out as creationists, even young-earth creationists, don't change. (I gave out anonymous questionnaires at the end of classes with evolution units.) The classes in which the students learned the most were those with professor-monitored student-led debates and discussions.

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  15. This discussion is overall badly confused because people are not distinguishing all of the different decisions that are made at universities. A serious discussion would have to acknowledge that these are all different decisions where different standards apply: initial hire of a faculty member, tenure decision, curriculum for a major, course approval, failing to re-hire a short-term hire, firing someone who has tenure, etc. IMO the only people with really strong protections for their crazy-ass views are people with tenure, and that's basically as it should be as that's the point of tenure. And it's basically respected, see e.g. Behe, Kenyon, Peter Duesberg, etc. And having tenure just protects the job, it doesn't mean that the department has to give the Evolution101 course to the creationist professor, for example, or include their views in the science curriculum, and it doesn't mean everyone else in the department has to pretend that the guy isn't crazy and refrain from issuing statements etc. warning people about the crazy. There is a bizarre implication of some of Larry's rhetoric which ignores the fact that everyone else in the department has academic freedom and the ability to exercise their judgment as well in all sorts of decisions that every department has to make every year.

    Also: The constitutional church-state separation stuff that Jerry Coyne goes on about is dangerous ground, I'm pretty sure that academic freedom for tenured professors actually does cover the ability to argue for religious (or non-religious) views at a government-funded school. If Coyne ever does get a test case that overturns this idea, though, it will be the campaigning atheist professors who are the first victims I bet.

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    1. I think we agree that Jerry Coyne is not behaving in a way that meets our approval. I like your point about what would happen if the courts ever upheld his views.

      I'm a bit puzzled about what you say below ...

      There is a bizarre implication of some of Larry's rhetoric which ignores the fact that everyone else in the department has academic freedom and the ability to exercise their judgment as well in all sorts of decisions that every department has to make every year.

      What do you mean? Do you have an example of where my "rhetoric" ignores the fact that everyone has academic freedom?

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    2. If Coyne ever does get a test case that overturns this idea, though, it will be the campaigning atheist professors who are the first victims I bet.

      Yes, and that would be actually good from a strategic point of view. Remember how ID have been trying to portray themselves as the victims, being repressed in academia. Which is not entirely false, but it pales in comparison to the discrimination against atheism when the whole educational system is considered (people should stop separating the university from K12 to such an extent, and K12 is a lot more important to these issues anyway), let alone society as a whole.

      So a few cases demonstrating what the actual situation is may not be that bad.

      BTW, something else I have commented on in the past but it's worth repeating - there is all this effort expended into defeating any creationist attempt to start teaching creationism in schools, and it typically succeeds But it may actually be a lot better for them to win in a few states because this will expose the insanity of the situation, which is not the case at the moment - this is just not an issue that is heavily in the minds of the public at the moment, and it's not like thing are good as they are. The Scopes Trial was precisely that kind of situation, it's worth remembering. It really does not matter whether they are officially allowed to teach creationism in Texas if they are doing it anyway.

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    3. Larry writes,

      ===========
      "What do you mean? Do you have an example of where my "rhetoric" ignores the fact that everyone has academic freedom?"
      ===========

      If all you had said was "tenured professors shouldn't be fired for promoting crazy views", you would be fine. But you also seem to be against:

      - firing, or failing to re-hire, or failing to give tenure to, people with non-permanent appointments who have crazy views (e.g., the guy Coyne was going after in Indiana was not tenured, IIRC)

      - any kind of administration review, or statement about, courses that promote widely-debunked pseudoscience (this is what actually happened in the Indiana case, in part due to Coyne's activity; similarly the course by the anti-vaccine professor)

      These statements seem to indicate that you disagree with basic everyday standards in academia, such as: hiring and re-hiring decisions are based in part on scientific quality; departments and deans etc. determine the course curriculum for e.g. science majors, and there are standards for scientific quality in the courses that can count towards these majors, at least at serious universities.

      I expect that you don't actually disagree with these common standards, and instead you just got a little bit carried away in your zeal to protect academic freedom, which I suspect is mostly actually about protecting the tenure system, and legitimately so. I raise the issue to try to get you clarify your views about what positive standards you do think are appropriate for professors, departments, deans, etc. to exercise as they make decisions about hiring, re-hiring, curriculum, what courses to offer, etc.

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    4. ... firing, or failing to re-hire, or failing to give tenure to, people with non-permanent appointments who have crazy views (e.g., the guy Coyne was going after in Indiana was not tenured, IIRC)

      Hmmm ... gray area that, except for professors coming up for tenure. I'm not totally opposed to hiring someone like Michael Behe or Nick Matzke to come and give a few lectures in my course even though they have a lot of crazy views that I disagree with. :-)

      any kind of administration review, or statement about, courses that promote widely-debunked pseudoscience (this is what actually happened in the Indiana case, in part due to Coyne's activity; similarly the course by the anti-vaccine professor)

      But that's exactly what I think should happen. I've said that recently and several times over the past few years. It's much better than a witch-hunt. If the department agrees to let someone teach ID then I may criticize the decision but I won't call for censorship or dismissal. I'll criticize the department but I'll be very reluctant to pillory the individual. I'll call for balance. I think that's good for students.

      These statements seem to indicate that you disagree with basic everyday standards in academia, ...

      Really? Are you serious? You think I don't know about everyday standards in academia? Remind me again how long you've been a professor. :-)

      BTW, what do you think of Coyne's defense and the defense put by his sycophants on his blog? That was the point of the original post. Did you criticize him, and them, for going against "basic everyday standards in academia"? Can you provide a link to those criticisms of yours anytime in the past four or five years? I couldn't find any after a quick Goggle search.






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