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Academic Freedom and ID

Intelligent Design advocates are trying to make us believe that their struggle is primarily about academic freedom, about allowing a new idea to get the examination it deserves, and about ensuring that people are not persecuted for their beliefs. Similar arguments are used from the high school level on up, with the phrase “teach the controversy” setting the tone. People attuned to fair play like the sound of “teach the controversy.” It sounds like a fine idea–whenever it’s done in somebody else’s sandbox.

Recently a firestorm has arisen in the blogosphere over the decision at Iowa State University to deny tenure to Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez. You can find some of the controversy via the following links:

I don’t have any new revelations from the Gonzalez case. The arguments over the facts surrounding it are going full steam around the various blogs involved. I want to think just a bit about academic freedom, priorities, and how serious we are about them.

You see, I don’t think the ID people put a high priority on academic freedom as such. What they put a high priority on is freedom specifically for their point of view. That is not actually all that uncommon. Most of us get hostile about attacks on freedom of speech when the person speaking does not support our particular point of view. When we despise them, it’s much harder. This isn’t a left or right phenomenon. When I see footage of a KKK demonstration, at some level I’d really like to see their mouths forcibly shut and have them hauled off the streets. I feel even more strongly about the Westboro Baptist people (not to be associated with any other variety of Baptist), who protest at funerals.

But I have a stronger belief in freedom of speech. I think that in the long run we are worse off if I get to cart the people who anger me at the most basic level off to jail. For me, freedom of speech is more important. The ACLU is frequently criticized for supporting free speech for people who are despicable, but their finest work, in my opinion, is done when they are under attack from the right and the left. They stand up and demand freedom for people that they themselves despise.

There are some similarities in academic freedom. I see this from a slightly different perspective because I was homeschooled, and then completed both undergraduate and graduate work at private schools (Walla Walla College and Andrews University respectively). These are Seventh-day Adventist institutions, and are not only conservative, but in the area of origins are (or at least were) generally young earth. I started as a young earther myself with a view of Biblical inspiration that was compatible with inerrancy.

During my studies I came to reject both inerrancy and young earth creationism. But that wasn’t where I got into trouble. My studies had nothing to do with that. Where I got into some difficulty was in the area of comparative literature. Just what of the Biblical text is original, and what might have its source, either literarily or in terms of ideas, in other ancient near eastern literature? When it came time to write my thesis, it turned out that due to timing, we could find two, but not three professors who were open to my research subject. I am a controversy avoider, so my adviser and I did a count, we demoted my thesis to “project” and I took four more hours of classwork, completing a non-thesis MA. Now there’s no reason to sympathize with me here. The university was private, religious, and I was writing a thesis in Biblical studies. I took the path of least resistance and took my degree. But just beyond the edges of my path of least resistance I knew there was the fact that academics are not entirely free.

Should academics be entirely free? That depends on what one means by freedom, and the range over which the problem is discussed. In discussing freedom of speech, I argue that speech should be almost entirely free. I accept obvious exceptions such as incitement. But there are those who will argue that one’s speech cannot be free unless one is provided a platform. I see that differently. I don’t have to provide a platform to everyone, no matter what they have to say. They can provide their own platform.

I believe that applies even more in academic freedom. For some people, academic freedom means that no matter what a person teaches, no matter how bizarre, no matter how untested, they should have a university platform from which to say it. Now they don’t usually make such a broad claim. What happens in fact is that when my favorite idea is not given the hearing that I think it deserves, I yell “academic freedom.” But academic ideas are not created equal. Professors are not equal. In general those in academia approve of standards of some type. They just want those standards to let them in and keep others out.

But I don’t see academic freedom threatened by one wrong decision on tenure at one university. (Note that I am not calling the decision on Gonzalez at ISU wrong. Let’s call this a hypothetical wrong decision.) First, there are numerous universities. Other people who are denied tenure go find themselves more fertile ground. Students then examine various universities and decide where they want to get their education. A pattern of wrong decisions on tenure would be destructive of any academic program in the long term. Good decisions will tend to make a strong department. DIs blog has just such a suggestion.

Intelligent Design activists could try to model the type of behavior they advocate by creating departments at their various religious schools and seminaries that include “Darwinists” and atheists, and of course Christians of various other denominations to “teach the controversy” in all of their various departments. I think Baptist schools should have Methodist professors to “teach the controversy” about baptism by immersion. Certainly, Richard Dawkins should be a regularly invited speaker for programs at seminaries to “teach the controversy” over the existence of God.

You may think I’m joking. I truly believe that Christian education could do with a huge dose of the academic freedom that is now advocated for public and/or secular institutions. I’ve carried out such projects in Sunday School classes and small groups. I recommend Bible study with commentaries from traditions that get on your nerves. Anything that will tend to prevent inbreeding.

At the same time there need to be boundaries. Another popular definition of academic freedom is freedom from criticism. The inverse of that is the definition of any criticism whatsoever as “persecution.” Scientific ideas need to be tested and challenged. Amongst the questions that should be raised are whether the idea itself is a scientific idea that generates explanations and new questions that can be objectively studied and tested. Few people would argue that an astronomy department should grant tenure to someone who believes that the earth is flat, or that the sun revolves around the earth, or that the earth is the center of the universe. Few would argue that a chemistry department should invite an alchemist to teach or grant him tenure.

Where one draws the line is going to be difficult. Most importantly, however, different departments are going to draw that line in different places, and thus we will get to see how things work. It may be sad for people refused tenure who might have deserved it, though I suspect if someone truly deserved tenure and was refused, they will find an institution to grant it. It may be sad for the students who study at the university that makes a series of poor decisions. But those students also have a choice of where to study.

But in the end, the fact that we have a very large academic community in many institutions under many different organizations will tend to bring things out to better conclusions. The ID community is itself proving how free ideas are through their ability to keep the waters stirred in public discourse even while they claim academic persecution. If rejected by all of academia, one can, as a last resort, write popular books.

And there is where I think the real failure of the ID community lies thus far. They are more anxious to play the PR war than to demonstrate their ideas. I personally don’t think they will ever be able to do so. I think their ideas are philosophical and religious despite their claims. But the one way to push the scientific community into seeing their work as science is to work on their formulations to provide testable material and then get into the lab or the field and test those predictions. If the existing publications won’t publish, publish those articles yourself. Build a substantial body of research literature that demonstrates your claim that you’re being frozen out. I don’t think you can, but that’s the proper way to gain acceptance for a scientific idea, and it’s the proper response to skepticism.

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