Strike a blow for (and against) academic freedom

I am in favor of academic freedom. I am opposed to “academic freedom.” 

“America, meet the new creationism-in-sheep’s-clothing: The ‘academic freedom’ bill.” So begins Dana Liebelson on The Week, in an article on the latest version of the anti-science wedge being pushed into our schools. According to the National Center for Science Education, since 2004 more than 50 bills have been proposed that would require biology teachers to present conservative ideologies as science—in particular, the rejection of climate change and Intelligent Design (which I capitalize not to dignify it but to mark it as a dogma, distinct from engineering).

In the introduction to The Panda’s Black Box (Johns Hopkins, 2007), I traced the history of anti-Darwinist efforts and showed that they were getting simultaneously logically weaker and politically more potent. Each iteration, from the Scopes trial on down, has become more science-like and hence more insidious—harder to tell from the real thing. I wrote,

Thus, only vestiges of creationism remain in the public case for anti-Darwinism. On the current trajectory, one can easily imagine an anti-Darwinism so feeble that the Supreme Court cannot ban it. One must not forget that the so-called wedge strategy, the 1998 manifesto produced by the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, is to make anti-Darwinism superficially indistinguishable from science, and thereby to gain access for more strongly theistic doctrines in the public schools. But this fact does not weaken the point: anti-Darwinism today is rhetorically formidable but intellectually anemic.

My point was that anti-science rhetoric has, ironically, become increasingly scientistic—ever more committed to the principle of explaining everything with science—including opposition to particular scientific findings. (Evolution, climate change, and gravity are all both findings and theories—the former in the sense that they are by now incontrovertible; the latter in the sense that they generate predictions and testable hypotheses.) This is their proponents’ strategy for insinuating crackpot ideologies into science classrooms, in order to undermine data they find ideologically inconvenient.

“Academic freedom” is just that kind of feebler anti-Darwinism (and anti-climate change) that I was talking about. Conservatives have appropriated a term that used to be a justification for tenure, mainly bandied around by tweedy academics in their cups at faculty dinner parties, and turned it into a wedge for intelligent design and struthian opposition to the fact that it is getting warmer, perhaps inexorably.

For now, academic freedom bills have not done well in state legislatures. The NCSE lists only two out of the 51 attempts as successful (Tennessee and Louisiana). But six such bills have already been proposed in 2013—more than in all of 2012—which suggests a ramping up of the effort.

I will say that I think that the climate change debate and anti-Darwinism in all its 31 flavors ought to be taught in school—but not in science class. They belong in the humanities curriculum, as part of an effort to teach the social context of science. Teaching this stuff as if it were science hamstrings good teachers by diverting precious class time from the real thing—which harms our students. However, there is no doubt that these are real controversies. They are social and cultural controversies that use science as their weapons. The existence of “academic freedom” bills is a potent argument for teaching our children not just a scientific approach to science but also a humanistic approach to science.

In social studies or a history of science or STS (science and technology studies) class, bring it on: let’s teach the controversy. But leave them out of science class, for chrissakes.


3 thoughts on “Strike a blow for (and against) academic freedom”

  1. Why is Intelligent Design not science? Because it challenges the consensual view of Darwinianism/Evolution? One of the things that many say to show the superiority of Science is “self-correcting”. This article shows a “stiff-necked” attitude. Why can’t our understanding of gravity be wrong, “IF” new evidence that challenges our understanding is produced? To exclude this possibility makes it non-falsifiable, which then becomes “NOT” scientific, but dogmatic. I think that’s the beauty of those who do real authentic science (study of nature), correcting constantly and not placing haughtily above everything else. Bradley Monton has rightly said that Intelligent Design has the potentiality to be given a place on the table and not to be rejected a priori.

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