The Ball State Kerfuffle

Eric Hedin, an assistant professor of physics at Ball State University, has come under fire for an honors course called, “Boundaries of Science.” The problem: the course appears to be little more than thinly veiled Christian evangelism. From The USA Today:

“BSU appears to offer a class that preaches religion, yet gives students honors science credit,&rdqu; foundation attorney Andrew Seidel wrote to Gora. “BSU appears to have a class with a non-biologist undermining genuine science and scholarship of the Ball State biology department by teaching creationism, a religious belief … masquerading as science.&rdqu;

Hedin and department chair Tom Robertson declined to comment to The Star Press.

But Provost Terry King, a chemical engineer and the university’s chief academic officer, said, “Faculty own the curriculum. In large part, it’s a faculty matter. But we have to ensure that our teaching is appropriate. All I have so far is a complaint from an outside person. We have not had any internal complaints. But we do take this very seriously and will look into it.”

He added that the class is an elective course and not part of the core curriculum.

“All the books are by creationists, IDers (intelligent designers), or people who try to show that science gives evidence for God,” evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, a professor at the University of Chicago, told The Star Press, referring to the bibliography for Hedin’s course. “There are no straight science books.”

It appears Hedin “presents a non-view of science in a science class,” said Coyne, author of the book Why Evolution is True.

“The students are being duped. It’s straight theology with no alternatives. It’s a straight Christian intelligent design/creationist view of the world, which is wrong. It’s not science. It’s not that it’s not science, it’s science that has been discredited. It’s like saying the Holocaust didn’t happen.”

Especially interesting is the response of some of the other faculty, as quoted in the article:

He suspects Hedin is “asking people to think a little broader, outside the box, which causes controversy. It’s funny.”

Ruth Howes, a retired professor from the department who now lives in Santa Fe, said, “The people I know in the department are very straightforward thinkers. I don’t think they mean to preach to anybody, except possibly F = ma (one of Newton’s laws of motion).”

Hedin replaced Howes when she retired.

“It is the university’s job to help students understand viewpoints that differ from their own,” Howes said. “Students are not expected to totally agree with these viewpoints, but they are expected to understand them. I think that is probably what professor Hedin is trying to do, and I would expect the university to back this effort thoroughly. For example, if I were teaching a class on Islam, I would not expect students to convert to Islam, but I would expect them to understand the basic tenants that Muslims believe.”

These explanations are not credible in the face of the reading list for the course:

Behe, Michael, Darwin’s Black Box (1998).

Brush, Nigel, The Limitations of Scientific Truth. Why Science Can’t Answer Life’s Ultimate Questions, (2005).

Collins, Francis, The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, (2007).

Consolmagno, Guy, God’s Mechanics, (2008).

Davies, Paul, The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? (2006).

Davies, Paul, The Mind of God. The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, 1992.

Davies, Paul, The 5th Miracle (1999).

Dembski, William A. “Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information”

Dubay, Thomas, “The Evidential Power of Beauty. Science and Theology Meet”, 1999.

Flew, Antony, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, (2008).

Gange, Robert “Origins and Destiny” (1985). Online: http://www.ccel.us/gange.toc.html

Giberson, Karl W. and Collins, Francis S. The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, (2011).

Gingerich, Owen, God’s Universe (2006).

Gonzalez, Guillermo The Privileged Planet (2004).

Lennox, John, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (2007).

Lennox, John, God and Stephen Hawking: Whose Design is it Anyway? (2011).

Lewis, C. S., Miracles, (1947).

Malone, John, Unsolved Mysteries of Science, (2001).

Meyer, Stephen C., “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories”, Proc. of the Biological Society of Washington, 117, 213 (2004).

Meyer, Stephen C., Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (2010)

Penfield, Wilder, The Mystery of the Mind (1975).

Penrose, Roger, The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe, (2005).

Polkinghorne, John and Beale, Nicholas, Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions About God, Science, and Belief, (2009).

Quastler, Henry “The Emergence of Biological Organization” (1964).

Ross, Hugh The Creator and the Cosmos (2001).

Ross, Hugh Why the Universe is the Way it is (2008).

http://www.reasons.org (Extensive materials on reasons for faith and science).

Ross and Rana, “Origins of Life” (2004).

Schroeder, Gerald L., The Hidden Face of God. Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth, 2001.

Seeds, Michael A., Astronomy: The Solar System and Beyond, 3rd Ed. (2003).

Spetner, Lee, Not by Chance (1996).

Strobel, Lee, The Case for a Creator. A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence that Points Toward God, 2004.

Von Baeyer, Hans Christian, Information: The New Language of Science, (2003).

Sorry, but that reading list has nothing to do with expanding students’ horizons. That’s just straight up Christian evangelism. There’s no attempt at balance, and there’s very little in the way of straight science. Worse, several of the entries on that list are outright garbage. Lee Spetner’s book Not By Chance, for example, is just one of those sleazy creationist tomes that has no place in any serious science course, regardless of the religious viewpoint of the professor. If you know rudimentary probability theory and a smidgeon of biology, it should be obvious within a few pages that Spetner hasn’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about. Similar criticisms could be leveled at anything by Lee Strobel, Hugh Ross, or Gerald Schroeder. Including these books in any course related to science is the equivalent of reading books by Ann Coulter in a political science class.

For that matter, if a political science professor based his course reading list on Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, and Sean Hannity, that would be prima facie evidence that it was not a serious course at all. But Hedin’s reading list is little better.

To seal the deal, the article reports on some student comments about the course:

Some of the students who have taken Hedin’s class have reported on Rate My Professor that he is a very nice guy who “constantly talks religion,” has “an extremely Christian bias and does not believe in evolution,” and who is “constantly bringing religion into class,” Seidel complained to Gora.

The right is constantly going-on about left-wing indoctrination in college courses. You can be sure that they would go ballistic over a professor who constantly talks about atheism or who is constantly criticizing religion in class. Well, there’s plenty of right-wing indoctrination as well. There are unprofessional people on both sides who are willing to use their classrooms as their own personal soapboxes.

A professor can make clear his own viewpoint without being dogmatic and one-sided. If I were teaching a course about the religious implications of evolution, I would not try to hide my skepticism about the possibility of reconciling Christianity and evolution. But I would also be sure to include readings from the best writers on the other side, and I would treat their views respectfully in class discussions. I would consider it irresponsible to do anything else. The extremely one-sided nature of Hedin’s reading list is very troubling, as his inclusion of cranks and crackpots.

Jerry Coyne has been covering this extensively, and he has argued that, since Ball State is a public university, this course represents a first amendment violation. I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about that. Professors at public universities are not agents of the state in the same way that public high school teachers are. But I don’t really know this area of the law. Is there no point at which the first amendment comes into play? What if I conducted my class like a Pentecostal preacher and graded my students based on their ability to convince me they had come to Jesus? That would certainly be unprofessional, but it would specifically violate the first amendment? Would it matter if the course were required or not? If anyone knows of any court cases on this point I’d love to hear about them.

It also makes me queasy to have outsiders tell college professors what they can and cannot do in the classroom. As bad as this course appears to be, trying to shut him down would be even worse. When the creationists start arguing that it’s a first amendment violation for a biology department to teach about evolution, we want them to be laughed at. I think it’s better just to glare at him in faculty meetings, and let him teach his course.

But I do think it would be perfectly reasonable to take this seriously during annual reviews and tenure evaluations. If the course is as bad as it appears, then his behavior is at least arguably unethical. I would want to take a good hard look at what sort of assignments he assigns and how they are graded, for example. Academic freedom counts for a lot, but at some point your department gets to say that it does not approve of your activities.

I would feel the same way about any professor who was constantly pushing atheism in a science class. College professors are given quite a lot of latitude, and they have considerable power over their students. It is incumbent on us to be responsible in our use of that power. Our job is to educate, not indoctrinate. That doesn’t mean completely suppressing our own views and opinions, but it does often mean giving respectful treatment of views different from our own.

Frankly, I don’t understand professors who preach and indoctrinate on class. In my math courses it’s all I can do to get the students to do the problems right. Who has time to worry about anything else?

Comments

  1. #1 G.
    May 22, 2013

    The usefulness of a course that teaches creationism, is to equip students with the information and arguements they are likely to encounter if they ever go into teaching or public policy. The key to evaluating this particular course is whether the professor grades on the basis of “knowledge of the information presented” or on the basis of “agreement with the information presented.”

    “Knowledge of” is acceptable, “agreement with” is not, and that applies to anything, including convergent science. IMHO it’s OK for someone to take hardcore biology classes dealing with evolution, demonstrate that they understand all of the material thoroughly, and still retain a personal belief in creationism and say so in class (as long as they don’t disrupt).

    We may wish that their new knowledge would change their beliefs, but in the end, they have a right to freedom of conscience, even the freedom to personally believe things that are demonstrably false. The place to “go to war” politically, is when someone attempts to impose a particular religious view on the K-12 public education system.

    If I was a college professor (ha ha, that’s funny) in any field, I’d make an announcement on the first day of each class, about the axes of evaluation for grades, including the following:

    “There are three routes to an A in this class, with a high recommendation attached to the grade.

    “One is to demonstrate a clear and comprehensive grasp of the material presented, even if you sharply disagree with it. In fact you’re welcome to write, on exams and papers, ‘I disagree strongly with the views presented, but I understand the material as follows’…”

    “Two is to make some kind of new contribution to the field that’s encompassed by the material. For this, you’ll still have to demonstrate a clear grasp of the subject, but we’ll cut a little slack if you start from there and go on to do something that’s truly creative or productive.

    “Three is to use empirical facts and sound reasoning to successfully change my opinion about any of the material I present. For this, you’ll also have to demonstrate a clear grasp of the material, but we’ll cut some slack here the same way as if you make a creative or productive contribution to the field.

    “The way to achieve either of Two or Three, is not in regular classes or on exams, but in papers, in email, or discussion in my office or in open study sessions. “

  2. #2 Reginald Selkirk
    May 22, 2013

    USA Today should have looked for a Ball State biology professor to interview, that might have been interesting. Also several of the books purport to be about information theory. I notice that Ball State has a Department of Information and Communication Science, and Hedin is not listed among their faculty.
    The choice of books about astronomy (Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez, fer realsies) makes me wonder about Hedin’s competency in his own field.
    .
    I can understand the university president or provost not wanting to rock the boat; we all know college administrators are politicians. The part that worries me most is the department head who thinks this is no problem. He either does not care about the quality of departmental offerings, or thinks that Hedin’s course is quality.

    He suspects Hedin is “asking people to think a little broader, outside the box

    “It is the university’s job to help students understand viewpoints that differ from their own,” Howes said.

    Right. Because at Ball State University in Muncie Indiana USA, probably very few of the students are Christians ;)

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    May 22, 2013

    Eric Hedin, an assistant professor of physics at Ball State University

    <facepalm>Get it straight, dude. First you get tenure, then you put your crazy on public display. See, e.g., Josephson, Brian.

    I know a guy who got fired from a tenure-track position at a state university in the Deep South, reportedly because he taught a similar course. This was about a decade ago, so the reading list would not have been the same as Hedin’s, but among books that were around at the time, I’d guess several were on the reading list. (I don’t have firsthand knowledge of any details.)

    Prof. Hedin’s colleagues absolutely should consider this course when he comes up for tenure review.

  4. #4 eric
    May 22, 2013

    But I don’t really know this area of the law. Is there no point at which the first amendment comes into play? What if I conducted my class like a Pentecostal preacher and graded my students based on their ability to convince me they had come to Jesus?

    IANAL but I believe there are state funded seminaries (Googling it, the first hit is a news article about public funding of the Princeton Theological Seminary). So its pretty clear that using tax money to fund classes that insist on a theological commitment from students isn’t prima facie unconstitutional (as interpreted by current courts). Now, that doesn’t mean such classes at a regular university are always legal. They could run afoul of the state constitution (depending on the state). Or, more likely, university policies and legal contracts. But probably not the constitution.

    The only exception I might draw (answering your: when would it come into play?) would be the military academies. They are, essentially, the main path to being a military officer – which I would argue is a senior, federal, civil service job. AFAIK the federal government can’t require a religious test to rise in civil service grade, so a class that prospective officers have to take to become officers in the US military seems, IMO, to be a place where such activity would be just plain illegal.

    It also makes me queasy to have outsiders tell college professors what they can and cannot do in the classroom.

    Depends on what you mean by outsiders. If you mean pundits, politicians, reporters etc. from outside the university opining on how the University ought to teach, I feel you. The University should guard its independence pretty strongly. That doesn’t mean never accept constructive criticism, but I certainly don’t want university leadership to be windsocks to political or social pressure.

    But IMO, there is no reasonable question as to whether the University can regulate the teaching conduct of its own professors: they can. In fact they must, because you can’t have things like “a math major” or “core curriculm” if the University were to wash its hands completely of what the professors teach. You can’t have the Calculus 101 course covering no calculus at all and the history of WWII instead – it just won’t work. Professors get a lot of freedom to teach and research. That is good. But at the same time, if part of your contract requires you to teach subject matter ABC, then you are contractually obligated to teach ABC and not XYZ instead. If you feel XYZ is really, really important, then the proper response is to create a new course to teach XYZ – sneaking XYZ into your ABC class is NOT the proper response. Its unethical and does a disservice to all the students who paid good money and signed up to learn ABC.

  5. #5 dean
    May 22, 2013

    It is stated that this is ban honors course. If it doesn’t count as a core course that makes me think it is offered through an honors college. If that’s the case the blame for its design might not fall entirely with this faculty member; folk at the honors college may well have influenced it. Still no real excuse for the course existence, of course. WMU’s honors program had a ‘science and eeligion’ course during the 1970s, taught by a physicist. It was nothing like this course appears to be.

  6. #6 eric
    May 22, 2013

    The part that worries me most is the department head who thinks this is no problem. He either does not care about the quality of departmental offerings, or thinks that Hedin’s course is quality

    Yep, exactly. I don’t think Hedin’s course is unconstitutional, i think its the sort of problem that needs to be resolved by the university. But that fact that the chair of the physics and astronomy department doesn’t see it as a problem…that is really bad.

    If they defend Hedin, then BSU’s physics and astronomy department is very likely going to lose credibility, and their undergrads are going to lose credibility when it comes to seeking jobs and graduate school entry. Unless the grad school opportunity you seek is under Dembski or Behe, I suppose. In that case, I guess this course is a plus.

  7. #7 SLC
    May 22, 2013

    There seems to be a rather interesting notion, held by PZ Myers and Larry Moran amongst others, that academic freedom at colleges and universities means that faculty can teach any damn thing they want in their classes. Do Myers and/or Moran seriously think that it would be perfectly OK for Northwestern engineering professor Arthur Butz to teach Holocaust denial in his engineering courses? For undergraduate courses, this is poppycock. Generally, there is a syllabus for such courses which define the content and the subjects that are to be covered in such courses. That was certainly true when I was an undergraduate.

  8. #8 Alex T
    May 22, 2013

    Professors at public universities are not agents of the state in the same way that public high school teachers are.

    I thought that initially but Jerry has made some persuasive arguments. Just because students are no longer compelled to attend University courses, doesn’t mean that this is a violation – just look at court cases regarding other optional events like school football games, displays in civic squares, and prayers at city council meetings. The University is getting a lot of public funds so why shouldn’t they be held to the same standards that other public institutions are?

  9. #9 Alex T
    May 22, 2013

    Argh, I mean “doesn’t mean that this is NOT a violation”

  10. #10 Marc
    Ohio
    May 22, 2013

    I’d be interested in seeing how an accreditation board feels about this class. Science, it is certainly not, regardless of whether it is an elective.

  11. #11 tomh
    May 22, 2013

    Professors at public universities are not agents of the state in the same way that public high school teachers are.

    Perhaps not exactly in the same way, but Hedin is a public employee, paid by the taxpayers. He doesn’t get an exemption from Constitutional restrictions simply because he is a professor.

  12. #12 Reginald Selkirk
    May 22, 2013

    USA Today should have looked for a Ball State biology professor to interview, that might have been interesting.

    Specifically, they should have tried to interview full professor of biology Kamal Islam.

  13. #13 The Phytophactor
    http://phytophactor.fieldofscience.com
    May 22, 2013

    The boundaries of knowing in science is a legitimate subject for advanced students and a number of philosophers of science teach such a course, but based on the reading list this fellow isn’t teaching that. I often give students pseudoscience to read because that’s how they learn what it is, how to recognize it, and how to spot its flaws. But if you propose a course, academic freedom doesn’t allow you to coopt the course for another subject. Just gave a seminar to our physics dept and they had a lot of strange determinist ideas about evolution although not antagonistic to it, just a failure to understand it. So as a biologist, this fellow probably has no business messing around outside his field in more than one respect.

  14. #14 G.
    May 22, 2013

    Re. Eric @ #4 re. military academies:

    Look up the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and have a read (keep a barf bucket handy). For a while, the US Air Force Academy was utterly infested with hardcore preachy “you’re with us or you’re not going anywhere” religious-right extremism. Other service academies had their troubles, but Ground Zero was the Air Force, which as we all know, is responsible for managing a large chunk of our strategic nuclear deterrent.

    Fortunately it appears that Obama used his C-in-C authority to clean up a lot of that stuff, but there may still be remnants.

    Utterly intolerable to have religious coercion in the military academies. And here’s the legal item:

    In all enlisted ranks, and in all commissioned officer ranks, you take an oath upon joining the service, that you are committed “to protect and defend the United States Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” That is unequivocal, and no other oath or commitment may interfere with it. If you can’t uphold it, you’re supposed to resign your commission or otherwise honorably exit the service.

    What the religious extremists were peddling was a “higher allegiance,” sometimes in very very explicit terms: demanding that their subordinates pledge themselves to a specific religious doctrine, God first and Constitution second.

    And the legal item about that is, it sets up a deliberate conflict with the oath of service or commission.

    IMHO anyone who has a “higher allegiance” should be honorably exited from the service on the grounds of conscientious objection (same category as for principled pacifists). And anyone who demands that subordinates commit to God first and Constitution second, should be brought before a court martial on charges of fomenting mutiny.

  15. #15 sean samis
    May 22, 2013

    eric; I am quite sure that state-funded seminaries would violate the First Amendment. State funding of infrastructure (buildings and grounds) might be permissible if it is shared by a seminary and a public university, but funding seminary activities themselves seems inarguably unconstitutional.

    I agree also that a university like Ball State has a right to protect its independence, but the University has a responsibility to not allow its faculty to violate the law. A really good argument against this class is that it was falsely advertised.

    If the department head is incompetent, that is not a constitutional violation, and it is not a constitutional defense.

    I am not aware of a case on-point regarding public employee college faculty and how they are bound by the First Amendment, but the publically funded University as a whole definitely is.

    sean s.

  16. #16 eric
    May 22, 2013

    Alex @8: I think you are mixing up three issues: whether the state is endorsing a view (through the professor); whether the state is compelling attendence; whether tax funding can go indirectly to funding religious proselytization.

    The first is arguable (but IMO, no). For the second – the state is clearly not compelling attendence at BSU or this class. And whether you agree with the judiciary’s current interpretation of the constitution or not, federal precedents about the third come down fairly stongly on the “yes” side. Vouchers for religious schools are legal. Tax breaks for religious institutions are legal. Religious organizations competing for federal grant funding is legal. Etc., etc. Our courts have a long history of upholding tax expenditures that have an indirect effect of supporting religious outreach by some group or peson. You might argue that it ought not be that way, but I think its very hard for anyone to argue that it is not that way right now.

    I’d also point out that the old standby, the Lemon test, does not say no religious intention or effect is allowed in what the state does or funds. It says merely that the state must have a – as in, “at least one” – secular purpose, and that the primary effect of the state’s action must be secular. Funding a University clearly has a (again, at least one) secular purpose – general education. And I suspect even BSU would have an easy time showing that the primary effect of the taxes flowing into BSU is not to promote religion. Heck, they probably spend more on football than they do on classes like this.

    Sean @15:

    A really good argument against this class is that it was falsely advertised.

    I completely agree. As I said, you can teach WWII history. You can teach calculus. But spending an entire calculus course teaching WWII history is unethical and does a disservice to the students who signed up to learn calculus.

  17. #17 MNb
    May 22, 2013

    So much for teaching the controversy. In fact it’s a pity, because, as Jerry Coyne pointed out, if you add some scriptures of Stenger, Carroll and Kraus to the list, those students might learn something useful indeed. What’s obvious to you and me might not be so obvious to them, especially given their average background.
    I find it really very typical that no single creacrapper has stood up and argued: whoah, wait a minute Mr. Hedin, this is not teaching the controversy! Intellectual honesty is not one of their characteristics; that’s what this case makes clear.

    “If anyone knows of any court cases on this point …”
    We Dutch don’t need court cases to correct or even fire loons like Mr. Hedin. Incompetence suffices.

    “Our job is to educate, not indoctrinate.”
    In Suriname, where I teach math and physics, and The Netherlands freedom of speech applies here too. All my kids know I’m an atheist; my kids being contrary teenagers they sometimes write something like “Jesus is my Lord and my Shepperd” on the chalk-board. I never comment. Certainly it will never influence their grades. Rather I teach them what to do when subjected to such injustice.

  18. #18 Explicit Atheist
    May 22, 2013

    With maybe a few rare exceptions, like an elected (partisan) official, employees (both government and non-government educational and non-educational) have only restricted, limited, “free speech” rights. Employees are paid to perform particular work, not to pontificate their opinions or debate non-work related issues. The lawsuit against this government school and teacher for promoting their religion under the guise of teaching science appears to me to have a rock solid legal foundation. I don’t agree at all with the hand wringing over free speech. The (assistent) professors and are legally accountable for upholding minimal academic standards, and in the case of government schools, of being secular.

  19. #19 MNb
    May 22, 2013

    What I wrote about Suriname is nicely confirmed here:

    “The government does not permit religious instruction in public schools”
    Instruction is not the same as expressing an opinion.

  20. #20 MNb
    May 22, 2013

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper

    No need for a First Amendment.

  21. #22 Roger
    May 22, 2013

    This was a very balanced and thoughtful post, JR, and I find myself in complete agreement. It’s impossible, looking at the reading list, to buy the argument that he is merely allowing his students to experience another view, or broaden their horizons; he’s preaching, pure and simple. On the other hand, it’s very dangerous to censor a professor, and it further fuels the flames of the Creationists who proclaim that they are being discriminated against.

    This won’t be those students’ only science class, or science professor. Let them hear his say, and then let every single other science professor they will ever have in their lives perfectly, consistently, professionally, and inevitably prove him wrong on every count.

  22. #23 couchloc
    May 22, 2013

    Jason writes: “The extremely one-sided nature of Hedin’s reading list is very troubling, as his inclusion of cranks and crackpots….Jerry Coyne….has argued that, since Ball State is a public university, this course represents a first amendment violation. I’m pretty sure he’s wrong about that.”

    I think you’re right on this point. The problem with the course is not that it violates the First Amendment, or something, and Jerry’s suggestion otherwise is overreaching. The problem is that the course is imbalanced and poorly designed. It would have probably made sense for the review board at Ball State to send the syllabus over to the philosophy department there as part of their review. It’s unclear what happened but this course appears to have slipped through.

  23. #24 tomh
    May 23, 2013

    The problem with the course is not that it violates the First Amendment, or something, and Jerry’s suggestion otherwise is overreaching. The problem is that the course is imbalanced and poorly designed.

    @ #23
    Courses that are imbalanced or poorly designed are not illegal. Neither are courses that teach bad science. All perfectly legal. On the other hand, a public employee promoting a specific religious viewpoint, under the guise of education, all financed with taxpayer money, is illegal. That’s the problem with the course.

  24. #25 couchloc
    May 23, 2013

    tomh,

    As Jason said in his original post, “Professors at public universities are not agents of the state in the same way that public high school teachers are.” I don’t see that you have addressed this point. Professors at colleges have academic freedom which grants them latitude to teach what they want in the classroom, and students are not being required to take the course. So I don’t think that the situation is really the same.

  25. #26 Reginald Selkirk
    May 23, 2013

    All due respect to your opinions, but let’s introduce some more facts into the discussion. Several commenters have stated that the course is of low quality, but probably not illegal. Jerry Coyne posted the letter from the FFRF to Ball State, and the legal precedents they cite:
    The Freedom from Religion Foundation to Ball State University: cease and desist your religious indoctrination
    Kitzmiller v. Dover ASD (That ID = creationism)
    Abington Township School District v. Schemp
    Edwards v. Aguillard
    McLean v Arkansas
    Bishop v. Aranov
    .
    The last one concerns college instruction, not K-12.
    Another legal issue with this class is Hedin’s active promotion of his personal religious views. In Bishop v. Aronov, the University of Alabama ordered a teacher, Dr. Bishop, to stop injecting religion into his classroom. Bishop lost a free speech lawsuit challenging the university’s order… The court specifically held that the university classroom “is not an open forum,” and upheld the university’s order that the professor “separate his personal beliefs and that he not impart the former to hius students during ‘instructional time’ or under the guise of courses he teaches in so-called optional classes. Id. at 1071. The court was “not persuaded that, even in the remotest sense, Dr. Bishop’s rights of free exercise or worship as those concepts are conprehended in constitutional parlance are implicated.” Id. at 1077.
    .
    One lack of parallel is that no one in a leadership position at Ball State has yet realised, or admitted, that the course is problematic.

  26. #27 Larry Moran
    Toronto, Canada
    May 23, 2013

    @SLC,

    Please don’t lie about what I said on my blog.

    That’s not nice.

    My position is that Hedin’s department should settle this problem. If his colleagues support what he’s doing in the course then outsiders should not bring in lawyers to try and force their view on the department against its will. That’s a very dangerous path. I would oppose it if I disagreed with the view of the outsiders (i.e. creationists) and it’s even more important to oppose it when you agree with the outsiders.

    Academic freedom is worth protecting. You don’t just defend it for the people who think like you. You defend it even more vigorously for the people who don’t think like you.

  27. #28 sean samis
    May 23, 2013

    Larry,

    I agree that the department should have an opportunity to settle this, but whether this course violates the First Amendment is not up to them; and it is not an academic freedom issue either.

    Further, if the department thinks the class is appropriate, then it is not a violation of their academic freedom to demand that it be accurately advertised. The department does not have the freedom to misrepresent what is actually happening in the classroom.

    sean s.

  28. #29 tomh
    May 23, 2013

    couchloc wrote:

    As Jason said in his original post, “Professors at public universities are not agents of the state in the same way that public high school teachers are.” I don’t see that you have addressed this point.

    Since neither he nor you have given any evidence for this assertion, there is nothing to address. Professors at public universities are public employees, subject to the same constitutional restrictions as other public employees, one of which is that they may not proselytyze or promote their religious convictions at public expense. They don’t receive an exemption from this limitation just because they are professors. The whole defense in Edwards v Aguillard was based on academic freedom, and the Court made it clear that academic freedom does not override the Constitution.

  29. #30 dean
    May 23, 2013

    The master syllabus for a course titled “Boundaries of Science”, given the number ASTR 151, can be found here.

    http://cms.bsu.edu/-/media/WWW/DepartmentalContent/Physics/PDFs/MasterSyllabi/Master%20Syllabus_ASTR151.pdf

    The course outcomes are

    The objectives are to give a scientifically accurate introduction to the origin and development of the
    physical universe (cosmology) which has led up to the formation of Earth as a uniquely suitable
    environment to support life. The complexity of physical life (on the molecular level) and the mystery of
    human consciousness will also be briefly examined. These and other topics provide examples of features
    of our existence which may lie outside the naturalistic boundaries of science. These will then be
    considered for their implications relating to the significance and value of human life, and as possible
    indications of the nature and existence of God.

    Selected (by me) items of course content:

    Fine-tuning of physical parameters necessary for life: Chance or dance?

    • The origin of life
    o The origin of complex specified information as relates to biochemical molecules
    o Information theory as applied to molecular biology—no free lunch.
    o The theory of evolution
    o What is the evidence? What is the mechanism?
    o The fossil record
    o Coherence or dissonance with information theory?
    o Theistic evolution
    o Intelligent design

    Here is the final one

    • Beauty, complex specified information, and intelligent design: what the universe communicates
    about God

    The reading list doesn’t seem to match exactly, but I don’t doubt this is the general syllabus outline for the course. It is interesting that it does not state that it is any type of honors class. It certainly isn’t a course in the Honors College, as the only three listed for those students are

    HONR 296 Inquiries in the Physical Sciences (3 credits)
    HONR 297 Inquiries in the Earth Sciences (3 credits)
    HONR 298 Inquiries in the Life Sciences (3 credits)

    No other science courses for honors college students are listed, that I can find, and students who take HONR 296 cannot receive credit for ASTR 151. This may be an honors course, but that information isn’t easy to find on the school’s website. No doubt that it seems to be nothing but a crapfest.

  30. #31 Larry Moran
    May 23, 2013

    @sean samis,

    I’m not an American and I’m not a lawyer. If what a Professor teaches in class is going to be subjected to lawsuits based on an interpretation of First Amendment than I feel sorry for American universities. An enormous amount of money is going to be transferred to lawyers and the effect will be exactly the same as what happened in the public schools. Evolution will not be taught and creationism will never be challenged in schools.

    The department does not have the freedom to misrepresent what is actually happening in the classroom.

    Yes it does. It happens all the time. But in this case we know exactly what’s being taught in the classroom. There’s no serious misrepresentation other than quibbling about what is science.

    This may come as a surprise to you but professors teach from their personal perspective all the time and never bother to present the views of their opponents. Are we going to sue every one of them?

  31. #32 sean samis
    May 23, 2013

    @Larry Moran

    I appreciate your concerns about American Universities wasting money on lawyer fees, but as we Yanks say, this is a self-inflicted wound. There has been a tremendous amount of First Amendment jurisprudence over the last 2+ centuries, Ball State should have known better.

    It does happen that professors or departments misrepresent the content of courses; I’ve had it happen to me. And every American should know that if you complain about it (since the courses aren’t free and misrepresentation for financial gain is fraud) they will get out of the course and probably get most if not all their money back. I’ve done that too.

    The courts have been clear (at least here in the States); science is what scientists do. This course is not even arguably scientific.

    Professors teaching their personal perspective is unsurprising; it’s also not fraud. This case is not about mere personal opinion leaking into content, it’s about content that no reasonable person would consider science and not religion.

    sean s.

  32. #33 eric
    May 23, 2013

    Larry @27, I agree that the department should have first crack at fixing the problem. Then, more senior university leadership should get second crack. I am not sure whether you agree or disagree with this, but I think the department should rein in this guy and if they don’t, BSU leadership should rein hm in. Now, pretty much anyone can sue anyone for anything in the US, so FFRF will get their legal crack at it if it gets to that point. But I strongly suspect that it won’t get that far and if it does, I strongly suspect FFRF will lose.

    Reginald @26: Bishop vs. Aranov found that the University had the legal right to discipline a professor. The free speech issue was whether they had a right to, and the courts found that they did. So it does nothing to support FFRF’s claim. I frankly wonder if they didn’t cite it in their brief just to give a subtle push to BSU leadership. As in “hey guys, we’re going to cite this legal precedent which totally does not make our point, but which, hint hint, gives you total cover to discipline him yourselves.”

    TomH @29:

    [Couchloc] As Jason said in his original post, “Professors at public universities are not agents of the state in the same way that public high school teachers are.” I don’t see that you have addressed this point.

    [TomH]Since neither he nor you have given any evidence for this assertion, there is nothing to address.

    State and county governments issue HS course curricula for core classes, and they reserve the right to approve or disapprove elective curricula. State and counties do not issue university-level course curricula, or approve classes (though community colleges might be a legitimate intermediate case).

    State and county government approve textbook choice. They do not approve university texts.

    States set high school graduation requirements – i.e. what a student must learn to receive the official degree; they do not set university graduation requirements.

    I believe, though I could be wrong, that t is standard practice for professors to put caveats saying that they don’t speak for the university in their professional publications (journal articles), in their national and international presentations, and even in many cases in their more informal communications. Any student or private citizen that is at all familiar with academic research will be familiar with this practice.

    It is also standard practice (and often required by a grant agency) for a professor to publish the source of their research funding in their papers and presentations – and this source is rarely their home university alone. Again, anyone at all familiar with academic research would have been bombarded with evidence that the vast majority of academic researchers have their “strings” being pulled by someone other than their state government.

    Is that enough? No? Okay, lastly, as Larry Moran points out, lots of professors teach from their own perspective without running afoul of the 1st amendment. Lots of university departments and regent boards are very hands off in terms of regulating course content. So I think its pretty empirically obvious that the university leadership themselves, the public, the courts, and the students do not see university professors as mouthpieces of the state. I think it would be a bit obtuse if anyone were to claim otherwise (i.e. that professors are seen as mouthpieces of the state).

  33. #34 SLC
    May 23, 2013

    Re Larry Moran @ #27

    If I recall correctly, Prof. Moran was quite negative about the lawsuit in Dover, Pa. objecting to the judge, John Jones II declaring ID not to be science.

    Now I don’t know what the laws are in Canada but in the US, judges have to make decisions all the time as to whether something is science and are given quite specific guidelines by the Supreme Court. Thus, for instance, judges had to decide whether DNA evidence was of sufficient scientific credibility to be allowed in US courts. Another example is polygraph examinations which, as a general rule are not allowed in US courts because the science behind them is not generally accepted in the scientific community.

  34. #35 SLC
    May 23, 2013

    In looking at the reading list, there are at least 3 items authored by allegedly reputable scientists, namely the tomes by Paul Davies, Francis Collins, and Owen Gingerich.

  35. #36 sean samis
    May 23, 2013

    I recall reading the Kitzmiller case quite closely when it came out; the finding was very good. The judge’s reasoning on which he based his decision was an excellent example of exploring what constitutes science and the subterfuges ID’ers went through to mask their true intentions.

    sean s.

  36. #37 tomh
    May 23, 2013

    @ #33

    I don’t know why you think all that about who sets the curriculum matters in a case like this. Or how the public perceives professors. Or what research papers have to do with it. The curriculum is not the issue, if he were teaching astrology in astronomy class, that would be perfectly legal. The fact is that an educator, paid with public funds, at a public institution, can’t just preach and proselytize religion to students, neither under academic freedom, or free speech, or, as you put it, teaching from his “personal perspective.” Now, you may think that’s not what he is doing, and that would depend on the facts. That’s what courtrooms are for. Witnesses, sworn testimony, credibility, all the facts would be brought out and a judge or jury would decide if he were using public funds to preach a religion. Which he cannot do.

  37. #38 eric
    May 23, 2013

    The fact is that an educator, paid with public funds, at a public institution, can’t just preach and proselytize religion to students, neither under academic freedom, or free speech, or, as you put it, teaching from his “personal perspective.”

    Now I”m going to ask you to cite a case where the courts have ruled in this way as it relates to university professors. As far as I can tell, you are asserting the way you want the law to be interpreted, but not the way it is interpreted by modern US courts.

    And, as a quibble, I pointed out above that many of these professors are not wholly paid by their university; many of them derive much of their funding from independent grants.

    Oh, and not all public universities derive all of their money from the state, either. I couldn’t find a simple breakdown of BSU’s budget, but as an example, UVA is (one of) the flagship state, public universities in Virginia. Virginia takes a lot of effort to market it as a public school. In reality, it receives approximately 6% of its operating funds from the state; the rest is from private sources, pay-for-service fees, etc. So even claiming public university professors are “paid with public funds” is an assumption and very likely to be quantitatively wrong in many cases.

  38. #39 tomh
    May 24, 2013

    @ #38
    Just because the SC has never ruled on the issue doesn’t mean “anything goes” for university professors. The SC has never ruled on preaching in government funded pre-schools either. The SC of WA, in upholding an objectively taught Bible As Literature class at the U of WA, said, “There can be no doubt that our constitutional bars are absolute against religious instruction and indoctrination in specific religious beliefs or dogma.”

    not all public universities derive all of their money from the state

    So now your argument is that they’re not really a tax-supported school? Meaning, I suppose, that if they were tax supported, they would be subject to following the Constitution. Well, I agree with you here. If they’re not a public university, in spite of have “State” in their name and receiving at least some of their funding from taxes, then they’re not bound by laws which apply to public employees. I don’t know why you need this argument, though, since you claim that university professors are exempt from such pedestrian concerns.

  39. #40 eric
    May 24, 2013

    Tomh:

    The SC of WA, in upholding an objectively taught Bible As Literature class at the U of WA, said, “There can be no doubt that our constitutional bars are absolute against religious instruction and indoctrination in specific religious beliefs or dogma.”

    And as I pointed out to you before on Jerry Coyne’s thread, that was a case about a violation of the the Washington State constitution, not the US constitution. Since you knew that (as I told you about it), I have to consider this to be a deliberate misrepresentation; you are intentionally trying to get other readers to think this state supreme court is making a statement about the US constitution when they are not.

    So now your argument is that they’re not really a tax-supported school?

    No, my argument has always been that the (i) lack of mandatory attendence, the (ii) lack of any perception that professors are mouthpieces of the state, and (iii) lots of legal precedents demonstrating that tax monies can legally indirectly support religious activity all combine to make Hedin’s acts constitutional.

    The point of the funding mention was that you are basing your entire argument on a single fact which may not even be quantitatively right. I happen to think that you’re wrong even if 100% of BSU’s funding is tax-based, but I thought it was an interesting and relevant point so I added it as an aside. As a hypothetical, let’s say some of BSU’s operating funds are not from taxes. Where do you draw the line, Tom? Is it legal if 10% of their funds are private? 20% If 0.0001% of their funds are from tax money, is it still (according to you) illegal?

  40. #41 tomh
    May 24, 2013

    you are intentionally trying to get other readers to think this state supreme court is making a statement about the US constitution when they are not.

    Ridiculous. Besides, you actually think anyone else is reading this?

  41. #42 Roger
    May 24, 2013

    Re: #41,

    Well, I’m reading it now. :)

    Very interesting back-and-forth. As an outside observer, I tend to agree with Eric, that there likely isn’t anything unconstitutional about the class. That doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be brought before the courts and determined to be unconstitutional; just that there doesn’t seem to be legal precedent stating that his teaching is currently illegal.

    Unethical, misguided, and not-science? Absolutely. But let’s not get started on that; my undergrad program would probably lose 60% of their professors if they weren’t allowed to indoctrinate, teach from their perspective, and “preach” their own doctrine.

    I’m personally offended by ALL non-factual, or unscientific, bias, not just religious bias.

  42. #43 MNb
    May 24, 2013

    @32 Sean S

    Like Larry M I’m not an American and I don’t get that lawsuit thing either. In Dutch government there is always a department – in the end parliament – which can correct nonsense like this. It seems to work better.
    One important difference seems to be, as I learned from a piece of Mano Singham about orthodox jews in New York, that in The Netherlands government sets the standards for education at all levels. That specifically includes religious institutes for education, private schools and homeschooling. There is a department of education inspectors which sees to it that those standards are met. As a result a few years ago two muslim schools were closed.
    Nonsense like this Hedin courses couldn’t happen in The Netherlands; about the same in Germany and Belgium.
    So self-inflicted wound or not, it’s still an awful waste of time and money.

  43. #44 Michael Fugate
    May 24, 2013

    The problem with the court cases against creationism and intelligent design is that the plaintiffs attempted and succeeded in having both declared religion and not science – effectively banning their discussion in public schools. Why is this a problem? Creationism and intelligent design formed the basis of scientific hypotheses for hundreds of years and were discarded when other hypotheses were found to fit the data better. They were not discarded because they were religious. Certainly the individuals who have revived these ideas are doing so for religious reasons, but that doesn’t make the hypotheses themselves religious.

    I know some have argued that it would waste time to refute creationism and intelligent design, but science teachers often discuss alternate hypotheses and the historical changes in scientific understanding. Pretty good evidence exists in the educational literature that teachers need to specifically confront student misconceptions showing how they are incorrect before replacing them with something else. We know that most people in the US hold creationist views in some part.

    One thing is clear science changes over time, but that doesn’t make discarded hypotheses and theories no longer scientific. It just makes them much more likely to be wrong.

    Rather than banning creationism as religion, we should be strengthening science standards in every state so that evolution is highlighted in every textbook used in public schools and taught in detail. In a battle of evidence, evolution will win every time.

  44. #45 G
    May 25, 2013

    Re. Michael @ 44:

    The reason that most of us go into war mode over intelligent design is not that it’s an outdated theory: It’s that ID is being used as a “camel’s nose under the tent” for a much larger agenda by religious extremists in the US, and that their larger agenda is as backward and odious as that of the Taliban, to anyone who believes in freedom of conscience or even in objective reality itself.

    Contrast a hypothetical class topic or course on alchemy. Few here would object, because in the US, there is not a huge and often successful power bloc of believers in alchemy who are systematically seeking to impose their will upon civil society. We might find such a course useful and informative if it was taught objectively, or we might dismiss it as a silly waste of time if it was sprinkled with New Agey nonsense, but we wouldn’t go into war mode about it.

    The reason that courts have consistently categorized creationism and ID as religion rather than outdated science, is that the courts have also seen these “theories” as being used (and often specifically and carefully crafted) as the means of promoting sectarian religious dogma. The responsibility for that outcome rests squarely with the religious extremists themselves.

  45. #46 MNb
    May 25, 2013

    “Pretty good evidence exists in the educational literature that teachers need to specifically confront student misconceptions”
    Well, yes. Your argument would have made a lot of sense if this course had been about confronting Behe and co with Collins and co with Stenger/Carroll. As it is it is just low quality education. What’s more, the simple fact that no single IDer or creationist drew the logical consequence of the “teach the controversy” argument and advocated adapting the course shows their dishonesty.
    So G is right.

  46. #47 Michael Fugate
    May 26, 2013

    G, been there done that. Has it worked? No. The NCSE is clueless about how to teach evolution.

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  48. #49 Peter Robbins
    June 5, 2013

    In Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987), the Supreme Court held that a state statute mandating the teaching of “creation science” in public high schools violated the Establishment Clause. However, footnote 5 of the decision recognized legally significant differences between mandatory high school classes and elective college courses, basically making the same points you did. Before making a judgment about constitutionality here one would have to know a great deal more about how the course is being taught, but a successful Establishment Clause claim seems quite doubtful on the basis of the information you have provided.

  49. #50 tomh
    June 5, 2013

    @ #49

    The footnote you refer to says, ” Thus, for instance, the Court has not questioned the authority of state colleges and universities to offer courses on religion or theology.” This is not a course on religion or theology so I don’t see how it would apply.

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