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.


Rocinante Rides Again: Intelligent Design Redux

Over at The Loom, the science writer Carl Zimmer is taking a turn at bat against the creationists. In a thoughtful, nicely written 4-part series, he recounts his experience trying to engage Intelligent Design advocate David Klinghoffer and pin him down on the evidence for his view, and provides an excellent summary of some of the chromosomal evidence for our evolutionary split from the higher apes. Zimmer is characteristically succinct, clear, and entertaining, but he’s tilting at windmills: The argument isn’t really about science.

Zimmer has been asking for even a shred of actual evidence that evolution can’t have happened, and of course the folks at The BioLogic Institute (the new entity of the Discovery Institute) are hemming, heeing, and hawing–cherry-picking quotes from 10 year old papers, masking data behind paywalls, twisting and massaging facts until they seem to say what they want them to. It’s like trying to talk seriously to a 9 year-old playground bully: they’re interested only in winning the argument, not in serious inquiry, and they use any rhetorical technique they need to do so.

As I argued in The Panda’s Black Box, this is just what you’d expect. The ID movement is patently an offspring of American creationism (which Ron Numbers shows irrefutably in his superb history, The Creationists). The last time we saw these folks was in Dover, PA, in 2006. But there is a new ID text, Science and Human Originsand the ID folks are shilling it. It may seem strange that this would pop up now, of all times. We’ve never had more evidence for evolution and human origins. But such moments are always when we have a new wave of anti-evolutionism. Also, the country’s political center has never been farther right. Although it claims to deal in the realm of scientific evidence, ID is one of the things that science doesn’t explain (or in this case, explain away). Intelligent Design is not about evidence.

How can that be, given all the scientific “evidence” they throw around? I mean that ID is about the cultural authority of science, not about science itself. It’s about fear of the godless Dawkinsian world Darwinists advocate, and about the dominance of science–and especially biology–in our world today. The IDers use science to fight science–they have taken up the weapon of their “oppressors” because they too recognize that science is the most powerful weapon today. Intelligent Design is superficially scientific anti-science–a tacit, ironic vindication of the power of the scientific worldview.

I actually have some sympathy for that view—and that sympathy makes my small intestine clench, because I disagree with the IDers on just about every point of policy and social theory. I do not agree with the means the IDers employ and I certainly don’t agree with the worldview they espouse (however coyly). I’m as godless as they come.

But I too have a critique of science and particularly biomedicine as the dominant cultural force in our society. Science has an enormous amount of power in our society–rightwingnuts notwithstanding–and I take part of my job to be being nervous about that. Science and technology have done much to improve our quality of life, but it does not have a good track record as a basis for social policy. So I defend science against irrationality, but I criticize its cultural hegemony. Dissent is the sincerest form of  cheerleading.

We should stop engaging the IDers on issues of science. They’re not interested in sincere inquiry–it’s bound to be fruitless. And it’s not what the argument is about, anyway. What we need to worry about is that textbook. If the rightwingnuts get their way and teach American children their medieval worldview, their other great concern–the Decline of America–will only accelerate. America will be to Europe and Asia what Mississippi and Kansas are to America.

The way to disarm the IDers is to dismount Rocinante and contextualize this movement. History, not science, provides the explanation.