“Academic freedom” for pseudoscience?

Readers may have noticed (or maybe they haven’t) that I haven’t commented at all on the Guillermo Gonzalez case. As you may recall, Gonzalez is an astronomer at Iowa State University, as well as advocate of “intelligent design” creationism. In May 2007, ISU denied tenure to Gonzalez. Not surprisingly, the ID movement in general and its propagnda arm (Discovery Institute) in particular have done their best to try to portray Gonzalez as a martyr who was “persecuted” for his beliefs and denied his “academic freedom.” Despite the attempts of the DI to milk it for all its PR value, as usual, the story was not as it was portrayed in that there were multiple other reasons why Gonzalez might have been denied tenure, such as lack of grant funding and an unimpressive publication record. Of course, none of this stops the Discovery Institute from loudly proclaiming that the Gonzalez case is a violation of “academic freedom.” Fortunately, not even the American Association of University Professors is buying that sort of claim, as a recent article published in Inside Higher entitled Academic Freedom and Evolution points out in reference to both the Gonzalez case and the case of a Woods Hole postdoc who was fired because he does not accept evolution and would not do research related to evolution:

But what of Woods Hole or other scientifically oriented institutions that may not want to hire people or who may want to fire people who would teach against evolution in the classroom or refuse to do laboratory work based on evolution? The fears are not just theoretical — the lawsuits over such dismissals are very real, and many academics fear that the “Academic Bill of Rights” or similar measures backed by some conservatives would make it hard for them to keep out people whose teachings might run counter to science.

Knight said he could not think of a case where the AAUP had been asked to investigate the claims of anti-evolution professors.

AAUP documents have explicitly and implicitly affirmed the right of departments to recognize evolution as something that is established fact. The association’s recent statement on “Freedom in the Classroom” states that “it is not indoctrination for professors of biology to require students to understand principles of evolution; indeed, it would be a dereliction of professional responsibility to fail to do so.”

And a 1986 AAUP document, “Some Observations on Ideology, Competence and Faculty Selection,” says it is legitimate in some cases for departments to intentionally exclude certain perspectives when doing hiring. “Not just any currently debated approach to a subject has a degree of importance which should guarantee it time in the classroom, and classroom time not being unlimited, choices have to be made,” the statement says. “An institution of higher learning should welcome those who offer to bring it new ideas; but there is not evading the substantive question whether the new ideas a candidate offers to bring it really are that — as opposed, perhaps, to mere passing fads or fancies.”

I like this statement, except for the bit about “passing fads or fancies” at the end. Evolution denial, be it in the form of classical young earth creationism or its bastard offspring ID, is anything but a “passing fad or fancy.” However, it is indeed a “viewpoint” whose consideration can legitimately be used as a big black mark against a faculty member seeking tenure in disciplines in which evolution is important, particularly if that faculty member actively promotes such a view. Leaving aside the mendacity of the Discovery Institute and Gonzalez’s apparent acquiescence to being a publicity dupe for its campaign to rid the world of Darwinism at the expense of his own career, specifically any chance he might have still had for appealing ISU’s tenure decision or finding another tenure-track faculty position, the Gonzalez case does raise a number of interesting issues that extend beyond ID to pseudoscience and crankery in a variety of disciplines. The question is a difficult one: What viewpoints can legitimately be held against a candidate for tenure? The natural followup question is, of course: Is it denying academic freedom to include support for ID as part of an evaluation for tenure? If there’s one common tactic that advocates of pseudoscience resort to whenever challenged by science, particularly academic science, it is to cloak itself in “academic freedom” and represent any attacks against it as attacks against that freedom.

Although from my perspective ID creationists appear to be the best and most vocal at playing the “academic freedom” card, but they are far from alone in this proclivity. Given another favorite tactic of creationists, namely claiming that “Darwinism” led to Nazi eugenics programs and, ultimately, the Holocaust, I can’t resist picking one example in particular of cranks who like to cloak themselves in “academic freedom” when criticized for their pseudohistory. Yes, it can be argued that Holocaust deniers come in second to creationists in this area, loving, as they do, to play the same card whenever they can. For example, it was a cry heard often at the gathering of Holocaust deniers in Iran earlier this year, and it was the cloak of martyrdom deniers tried to place around the shoulders of Hans Joachim Kupka, a graduate student in the German department at Waikato University who denies the Holocaust and has been associated with neo-Nazi groups, and Joel Hayward, a graduate student at Canterbury University who parroted Holocaust denier canards in his masters thesis, citing the discredited Leuchter Report to conclude, “A careful and impartial investigation of the available evidence pertaining to Nazi gas chambers reveals that even these apparently fall into the category of atrocity propaganda.” The cry of “academic freedom” also arises in defense of the notorious Arthur Butz, an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Northwestern University and author of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Of course, the reason that Butz got away with his blatant Holocaust denial is because he is not a historian and was at least smart enough not to mention his views on the Holocaust in any of his classes.

The reason this question is starting to interest me even more than it did before is because it’s not just biology and astronomy that are being invaded by pseudoscience. In particular, academic is being infiltrated by purveyors of unscientific and non-evidence-based treatments. I pointed this out a while back by making a list of the medical schools in the U.S. that I could find on the web that either teach or provide non-evidence-based services such as reiki and therapeutic touch. Some even offer uncritically that quackery of quackery, homeopathy. (It’s a list that I need to update already, even though I assembled and posted the list less than a month ago.) As I watch these developments, I wish that medical schools showed the sorts of standards when it comes to pseudoscience that ISU did. Pseudoscience seems to be making its way stealthily into academic medicine with little attention and even less protest, except by a few “microfascists” like myself. Not only that, but whole divisions and institutes are being created to “study” these dubious modalities, although the lack of supportive evidence for them doesn’t seem to prevent some of these schools from offering them outside the context of clinical trials and billing for them, which raises some rather thorny ethical questions.

There’s no doubt that academic freedom is generally a good thing, but it’s not absolute. Higher education is a profession, and standards have to apply. Academic freedom does not protect, nor should it protect, an academic who is proclaiming or teaching information or ideas that simply are not supported by the evidence and scholarship within his or her field. I’m not referring to controversial ideas here; academic freedom can and should protect the right of academics to investigate such controversies. What I’m referring to are ideas that are demonstrably incorrect and are supported only through distortion of the evidence, logical fallacies, and lies. That’s why it is not a violation of academic freedom to exclude Holocaust deniers from departments of history, because Holocaust denial is not history. They have every free speech right to spew their lies, but that doesn’t mean that universities are obligated to give them a forum. That’s also why it’s not a violation of academic freedom to exclude ID creationists from departments of biology, because ID is not science and it is, to the best scholarship, demonstrably incorrect.

Which brings me back to the infiltration of woo into academic medicine.

Given that few seem to have a problem enforcing academic standards in history with regards to Holocaust denial or in biology with regards to evolution, I’m puzzled why woo is finding a hospitable home in so many academic medical centers. True, it’s the “soft” woo, like therapeutic touch and acupuncture which, while not doing any good, at least probably do no harm in the vast majority of cases. Moreover, “alternative medicine” is a rubric under which a wide variety of disparate “therapies” fall, and therapies vary from somewhat plausible (herbal medications) to the implausible (acupuncture, chiropractic), to the wildly implausible (reiki, homeopathy). I fail to see why an advocate of reiki or homeopathy shouldn’t be subject to the same sort of treatment as Gonzalez was when it comes to tenure decisions. The magical thinking that it takes to accept the existence of qi as given or the concept that diluting a remedy to the point where not a single molecule is left actually makes the remedy stronger should disqualify one for academic medicine. Hell, it should disqualify one for medicine, period. After all, medicine is a profession about directly treating people’s illnesses and trying to save lives; the stakes are even higher and the consequences potentially even more severe if pseudoscience is allowed an entrance.

No doubt I’ll be labeled as “intolerant” and wanting to deny academic freedom for saying this. But remember, I’m only talking about the hard core, truly implausible therapies that to work would not only have to contravene the laws of science as we understand but demonstrate that much of what we understand about chemistry and biochemistry is wrong. I wouldn’t say the same thing about advocates of, for example, herbalism or even acupuncture. Even though I highly doubt that acupuncture works as anything more than a placebo, sticking needles into the body is a physical act that likely has physiological consequences. They’re probably not therapeutic consequences, but there’s a small chance that they are.

Perhaps one reason why there is this difference is because it’s more than “academic” freedom that supports the infiltration of woo into medical schools. In reality, “alternative” medicine practitioners don’t actually need to be in academia. They can thrive quite well on their own, probably even better; it is the legitimacy conferred by academia that they crave. In medicine, “academic freedom” to practice non-evidence-based treatments is but a subset of the larger “health freedom” movement, a movement dedicated to dismantling the FDA and, under the banner of patient choice, allowing patients to choose quackery if they want. Also, unlike many of the basic sciences, like biology, medicine is to some extent a consumer-driven affair. If patients want it, chances are that some doctors will provide it–even if those doctors are in academia–and delude themselves into thinking that they’re doing science. Moreover, academic medicine provides a safe haven for such people, as tenure is not nearly as important an issue in an academic medical career as it is in a basic science career. For one thing, tenure doesn’t actually cover all of an academic physician’s salary. It’s usually only around half or even considerably less. Consequently, tenure is not as valuable a protection in academic medicine. Moreover, you don’t really need tenure to thrive; indeed, most academic physicians do not have tenure and most probably never get tenure.

Still, I’d feel a lot better about the scientific standing of medicine as a profession if we actually enforced standards in a manner similar to the way that our basic science colleagues do, whether it’s for tenure or other purposes. After all, standards and guidelines for patient care tend to be written and validated mostly in academia, and over the last decade or two there has been a concerted movement to make all of medicine as science- and evidence-based as possible. The infiltration of woo into academic medical centers runs counter to and jeopardizes this trend, which leads me to ask: If we’re not willing to enforce standards in academic medicine how long will it be before patient care standards decline as well?


  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    December 12, 2007

    If we’re not willing to enforce standards in academic medicine how long will it be before patient care standards decline as well?

    Your closing statement is what concerns me most. I am not a physician but do often teach at medical schools – perhaps more relevant is that I am also often a patient at an academic medical center.

    There appears to be a double-standard in these top-notch academic centers that also house centers of CAM or integrative medicine. On one hand, “conventional” medical practices are increasing held to evidence-based standards while these other centers operate with little or no solid scientific basis. How can one expect future physicians to practice ethically if the medical schools themselves are talking out of both sides of their mouths?

    Yes, as you point out, the embracing of alternative practices by academic medicine might be perceived as market-driven. But I am actually hard-pressed to think of a CAM center that actually breaks even on practice revenues (many still operate based on philanthropic investment). So I agree, let alternative practitioners fight it out in the marketplace – academic medicine should be above that.

  2. #2 Jesse
    December 12, 2007

    ‘Publish or Perish’ isn’t some affectation of academia. It is a simple code that implies rigor in research and that in the end results in publications and grant money. Doubting evolution or promoting creationism means that at a certain point, you throw your hands up and proclaim, ‘I can’t figure this out. It must not be science, it must be that Goddidit.’ This is simply incompatible with academic scientific research. One of my course masters, while taking a little dig at immunologists, said, ‘Nature is beautiful because it’s simple.’ I can’t think of anything more succinct and true.

  3. #3 Joe
    December 12, 2007

    Tenure is just a bad idea. It sounds lofty; but in practice it is a failure. When a professor has clearly gone beyond the pale, tenure can be held hostage till the university pays a whopping (un-earned) severance package, or pays whopping legal fees for revoking it (at least the lawyers earn the money).

    I attended three schools as a student, and then was an itinerant chemistry professor. I have only met one professor who used tenure as intended. The rest (at universities) who rely on tenure work three lectures a week, 28 weeks/year. Their salaries might be modest; but the hourly rate would make a surgeon in private practice jealous. (Faculty in chemistry at undergrad colleges may spend as much as 15 hours/week in “contact time.”)

    This was not intended as a derail. I have looked at GG’s case and his “impressive” publication list is mostly from his student days (including many co-authored years after graduation). He wrote a few literature reviews on his own. He was an astronomer with no telescope time, significant grants or students. It was charitable of his department to keep him as long as they did.

    As for the post-doc who joined a lab that focuses on evolution- What was he thinking??

  4. #4 Dave S.
    December 12, 2007

    As for the post-doc who joined a lab that focuses on evolution- What was he thinking??

    Probably that it would be nice to have that 40 grand a year. Maybe he figured once he was entrenched, they’d look past the fact he didn’t actually believe in his project.

  5. #5 Pavel Dubka
    December 12, 2007

    This is nothing more than an academic witch hunt against Christians. The Washington Post has the balls to ask whether any biologist who doesn’t believe in evolution can do their job. HELLO! The Theory of Evolution is just that, a theory. Any scientist worth his salt should question it.

  6. #6 Pavel Dubka
    December 12, 2007

    This is nothing more than an academic witch hunt against Christians. The Washington Post has the balls to ask whether any biologist who doesn’t believe in evolution can do their job. HELLO! The Theory of Evolution is just that, a theory. Any scientist worth his salt should question it.

  7. #7 Orac
    December 12, 2007


    You’re not really using the idiotic “just a theory” ploy to attack evolution, are you? That one’s so bad that only the most dim-witted creationists use that old canard.

    Let me ask you: Do you know what a scientific theory is? Hint: In science the word “theory” does not mean a “hunch” or a “wild guess.”

  8. #8 Joe
    December 12, 2007

    @P Dubka,

    If I may add- scientists have questioned the theory of evolution, quite assiduously, for 148 years; and it has withstood the closest scrutiny. That is why it is a “Theory” with a capital T. The people relevant to this post have not employed rigorous scientific methods to investigate, let alone support, their notions.

    Maybe you will be placated to read SJ Gould’s essay on the difference between science and religion:
    If not, well … I don’t care.

  9. #9 wfjag
    December 12, 2007

    In teaching CAM or permitting its use on patients, how are standards of care being developed or controls established to ensure that the applicable standards of care are being followed? Are there any standards for JACHO to apply?

  10. #10 Pseudonym
    December 13, 2007

    This is off topic. Perhaps there’s a better forum to discuss this. But I thought I’d better say it since it’s been brought up.

    Tenure is just a bad idea. It sounds lofty; but in practice it is a failure.

    Tenure is supposed to ensure academic freedom. The theory is that we give it to those who have proven that they can be trusted to use it.

    While I agree that it isn’t perfect, and the system arguably needs some kind of reform, I don’t see a good alternative. The bad alternative, as I see it, is that nobody ever works on risky projects. If you ever work on something that has a risk of failure, and it does indeed fail, then you will be a failed researcher. Tenure protects you against that.

    If you propose doing away with tenure, you must also propose a solution to that problem. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but you do need an answer.

  11. #11 Bob
    December 13, 2007

    The alternative to tenure is associate professorship which (at my employer at least) confers less job security and benefits than academic staff, e.g. no health insurance. That, in my opinion, is a crime.

    Regardless, when you hire someone, be they an instructor or a groundskeeper, you expect them to be competent at the job they’re hired for and that they are capable of learning and advancing as the needs for their job change. If that means having a record of obtaining grants or publishing papers that pass muster among peers, or working on experiments to confirm and extend evolutionary theory, so be it. If you don’t want to do those things or don’t have that background, don’t expect to get a job (let alone tenure) with organizations that require that background.

    It’s like dispensing pharmacists that don’t want to prescribe birth control – if they don’t want to do the job, they shouldn’t apply to do it, but if they do, they certainly shouldn’t be hired. If hired, they should be let go.

    The crybaby attitude shown by DI, Gonzales and the ex-Woods Hole “researcher” should be roundly mocked; willful ignorance and incompetence do not make them victims.

  12. #12 ZacharySmith
    December 13, 2007

    When considering cases like Gonzales or the Woods Hole twit, I think it’s fitting to make an analogy with the skilled trades.

    What if there were a plumber or an electrician who refused to follow the accepted pratices of the 99.9% of others in the field? For example, suppose there were a plumber who used “psychic soldering” instead of real soldering.

    Who in their right mind would hire this guy? I doubt even Dembski would hire him to unstop a plugged drain.

  13. #13 Sastra
    December 13, 2007

    People who believe in creationism and people who believe in alternative medicine seem to share some common traits: overemphasis on the value of personal experience, and overconfidence in the ability of “character” to trump expertise. A homeschooling mom with no background in biology or medicine will think nothing of dismissing the cumulative consensus of scientists who have worked in their fields. She’ll sneer at evolution or insist she can shoot magic energy out of her fingertips.

    If one is right on either, and can prove it, they would earn Nobel prizes and become more famous than Einstein. Well, sure. So what? They don’t have to prove anything — they know what they know because of their own experience, and their own faith. This little world is sufficient when it comes to outweighing the entire body of scientific evidence in the big world. The “mommy instinct” is just one variation of the “personal instinct.”

    In both cases, arrogance coupled with ignorance is being passed off as humility.

  14. #14 ebohlman
    December 13, 2007

    Sastra: really good point about the “character” issue; too many people confuse honesty with inerrancy. The fact that someone is telling you what they sincererly believe to be the truth is no guarantee that they haven’t gotten confused, misremembered something, or been given a bum steer in the past.

    Ultimately, the problem with antirationalists is that their basic epistemological question is “what person(s) do you believe in?” rather than “what evidence do you accept?” And that’s why they can be so thin-skinned; to them, questioning someone’s ideas is the same thing as questioning that person’s integrity.

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