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.


Giving is Healthy

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Dear Valued Faculty Member:

It has been a challenging year for Kashkow Medicine. First, we completed the King Mullah Abdullah Medical Multiplex, the first healthcare resort to be attached to a major medical school. The KMAMM is a component of the Kaschkow International Strategy for Monetizing Yet Another Sector of Society (KISMYASS). Completing the KMAMM required purchasing one third of the land mass of our city, in addition to more than 20,000 sturdy cardboard boxes for relocating the residents who lived there. We are glad to report that the residents are enjoying the flexibility and simplicity of life in a cardboard box. That was only the beginning, of course. The twin 40-story towers of the KMAMM feature 5-bedroom luxury suites crafted to impress the most discriminating patient. Each suite comes with its own physical therapy facility, with pool, weight room, and ¼ mile indoor running track; a kitchen staffed by a gourmet chef; an occupational therapy facility, with potting studio and wood shop; a private staff of nurses; and sexual surrogates available on request, no questions asked. We designed these suites, in other words, to be like a home away from home for our most elite patients. The KMAMM also maintains three high-speed cruise ships, fitted with accommodations similar to the towers, that will make “house calls” anywhere in the world for patients who cannot come to Kashkow. We are entering an exciting age of personalized medicine. We understand that healthcare must be tailored to the unique needs of each individual. The most privileged patients, too, deserve to have their expectations accommodated, and meeting those demands is expensive.

Next, we received the news that an anonymous donor was giving us Chicago. Although this generous gift is an exciting opportunity, it comes with significant challenges. First, where will we put it? It is obviously in a bad location and besides, it is too far away. Further, maintaining a city of that size will require a major investment in infrastructure and staff. Nevertheless, with your help, we are confident that we can successfully extend the Kashkow brand to include this and other major metropolises around the world. Indeed, we are close to a deal on purchasing Greece, which is available for a song, comparatively speaking. But we can’t do it without you.

Dr. John Moneybags, the recently anointed Prince of Development at Kashkow, wishes to extend a special invitation to all faculty to be a part of these thrilling changes at our university by making a gift to the school. Although a recent article in Medical Money magazine ranks our School of Medicine faculty as among the lowest paid in American academic medicine, we remind you of the substantial fringe benefits we offer: a generous healthcare package including two free hospital stays of one night or less per year, partial tuition remission for one course per year in our Master’s program in Biomedical Business Administration, and a coupon for 5% off the full uninsured rate for a heart transplant (not to be used in combination with any other offer). These benefits amount to more than $105,000 in effective annual take-home pay. Seen in that light, our faculty are a significant resource to be tapped. In short, we value you and want to make more of you and from you.

We warmly thank all our faculty and staff for contributing to our Institutional Advancement Campaign by accepting a 10% involuntary pay cut for each of the next three years. But we think you can do more. We are asking, therefore, that you invest more of your salary by giving back to your institution through one of our many convenient giving opportunities. For those unable to commit to long-term support, a one-time gift of $1,000 will make a real difference in our inexorable rise to world domination in healthcare. The easiest option is an annual subscription of $5,000 per year, managed through our payroll deduction program (pretax!). These gifts will be acknowledged by a gold-tinted brick with your name laid in our “Walk of Fame,” which will connect Bank of America Hall to Saudi Arabia. Or consider our new “Life Member” program for junior faculty under the age of 35: pledge your firstborn child and receive a “Kashkow World” calendar, delivered to your door every year that you remain part of the Kashkow Family. Staff making less than $40,000 per year are encouraged to drop spare bills and pocket change in one of the many bright blue “I <3 KK” donation boxes conveniently located in every ward, laboratory, classroom, and meeting room on campus. They also accept MasterCard and Visa.

As the poet said, “Health is your most important asset.” It is certainly ours. Our “20×2020” campaign has set an ambitious goal of raising $20 trillion by the year 2020—which translates to roughly the amount of the national debt each year. We have never been willing to settle for “second best.” But we can’t do it without you, our third most important asset (after property). So please, dig deep and make your gift today. And again tomorrow.

Toward a historioriography of science & social media

I love this stuff. The idea for this panel has generated some high-quality discussion around the histsci community. Just wanted to quickly gather them here for anyone thinking about these issues–hopefully we can keep this going!

Jai Virdi excavated her 2010 article from the HSS newsletter, pecked out with a primitive stone tool on a Nokia 8210, on the use of social media by historians of science. It’s chocked full of the history of this topic and prescient reflection on some key issues. I’m blogging about blogging about blogging now, but seriously, this article is golden.

In response, Mike Thicke, over at the Bubble Chamber, posted this great discussion of Ben Cohen’s “Ayers-Onuf axis” and an alternative model for thinking about the connections among social media, popularization, and the pleasures and dangers of being a public intellectual. The comments on this are almost as good as the post itself.

Naomi Lloyd-Jones blogged about a workshop on social media, hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and Social Media Knowledge Exchange. She came away with some good rules of thumb for successful use of Twitter and blogs–and some reflections on what it all means for historians. 

Finally, just to bring together into one post some more of the secondary literature on this topic…

Here’s Ben Cohen’s HSS Newsletter article from 2008, in which he anticipates not only that there will be a thing called the internet but that a small number of historians of science will have an inexplicable drive to blog in it and about it, as well as a more recent article in Endeavour by Michael Barton, reminiscing about the formation of the Bering land bridge and the halcyon days when men were men and the mammoths frolicked and gamboled upon the verdant tundra.