Jerry Coyne liked yesterday’s post about teaching ID. I do just want to clarify one point, though. Coyne writes:
Jason has a good point. And that point is that although it’s illegal (as well as dereliction of duty) to teach intelligent design creationism in public schools and universities, it is okay to criticize it, for you can criticize ID on the grounds of bad science without bashing religion. And I think Jason’s right, especially given the legal rulings so far on what constitutes an incursion of religion into public schools.
I certainly do think it’s a dereliction of duty to teach intelligent design in public universities. But I think I was clear that I don’t think it is illegal. Consult the second major paragraph of the post.
In the context of the Ball State kerfuffle, I think it was entirely appropriate to raise a fuss and I think the school did the right thing in shutting down the course. If they had chosen instead to do the wrong thing, then I would have supported a healthy dose of public shaming, but I would not have supported taking legal action.
But that’s just a preamble. I mostly want to discuss this post by Larry Moran. He gets off to a decent start:
I think that universities are places where diversity of opinion should be encouraged and where fringe ideas should be protected. I’m very much opposed to letting outside interests (i.e. politicians and lawyers) decide what should and should not be taught on a university campus.
Clearly there are limits but those should be decided by faculty who understand the concept of academic freedom. It’s not a good idea to offer astronomy courses on an Earth-centered solar system or geology courses based on the idea that the Earth is only 6000 years old. Those ideas are just too far out on the fringe. You’re unlikely to find any university professors who want to teach such courses.
Sounds good to me! Academic freedom protects your right to pursue outre ideas, but there have to be some limits. At some point your colleagues do get to step in to enforce a little quality control. To use my own field, academic freedom does not protect me if I want to extol the virtues of angle trisection or circle squaring.
But Larry starts to go wrong in the next paragraph:
However, there are lots of other controversies that aren’t so easily dismissed. If some of the more enlightened Intelligent Design Creationists want to teach a science course at my university, I would not try to prevent them. Just as I didn’t try to prevent Michael Behe and Bill Dembski from speaking on my campus.
Well, I don’t agree. I think the arguments of even the most “enlightened” ID folks are garbage. They don’t even provide food for thought. Again sticking with my own field, William Dembski’s ideas about probability and information theory are just full-on, straight-up BS. The only difference between ID and YEC or geocentrism is that it has a vocal, well-financed lobby behind it. On the merits it’s no improvement at all.
Still, I might not have bothered to reply were it not for what comes later. Let’s keep going:
I firmly believe that university students are mature enough to handle diverse points of view and I prefer that they hear them in the context of an academic environment rather than in church on Sundays. Even if there were no opposing views allowed in the course, the fact that the ideas are “out there” would provoke debate and discussion among the students. Hearing different ideas encourages critical thinking. Censorship does not.
That’s all very high-minded, but it’s way too simplistic. Hearing different ideas very often does not encourage critical thinking. Often it just encourages confusion. That’s not so terrible on issues that are genuinely murky, but it’s educational malpractice to present a manufactured controversy to students as though it is serious science. Censorship may not encourage critical thinking, but keeping lies and nonsense out of our classes certainly helps us properly inform our students as to the state of play in our disciplines. That’s also a legitimate educational goal.
It’s fun to watch while my American colleagues wiggle and squirm over this issue. The latest “problems” are whether you can categorically label intelligent design as religion and not science and whether you can criticize it in a science class without seeming to criticize religion. … It’s okay to criticize ID as bad science but it’s illegal and a dereliction of duty to allow any professors to defend ID and make the case that it’s actually good science. My head is spinning.
That ellipsis represents a link to Jerry’s post linking to my post, coupled with a quote from him discussing the legalities of teaching ID. I have already explained that I don’t think it’s illegal to offer a course defending ID.
As for the rest of this, though, Larry is just full of it. He’s already established that it’s perfectly fine for an academic department to put limits on what can be taught in the courses it offers. The only disagreement is over the side of the line on which ID resides. Apparently when it’s a species of nonsense he sufficiently dislikes, like YEC or geocentrism, then it’s just normal quality control not to include it respectfully in the syllabus. It only becomes censorship when he’s decided it’s interesting enough to catch his fancy. Suddenly he’s the only one who respects the maturity of his students and who wants to teach them critical thinking.
There is no legitimate educational purpose served by putting crackpots in front of our students and telling them they are making valid and interesting points. Doing so is, indeed, a dereliction of our duty. Our job as teachers is partly to expand the horizons of our students and to have them engage actively with difficult issues. But it’s also our job to give them accurate information, and not to give a heckler’s veto to every crank with a blog.