“Continuing Thoughts on Academic Freedom”


I actually started this last month when I saw (and still continue to see) an increase in the number of views of a piece I wrote three years ago, “The Nature of Academic Freedom”.

The statistics package doesn’t give me a break down of where these viewers are coming from or what they are searching for but I suspected that it had a lot to do with the announcement that Ball State University was hiring Guillermo Gonzalez – see “Ball State Hires Key Figure in Intelligent Design” and “Intelligent Hire”.

Then there was the announcement, “Taking a Stand for Science”, by the Ball State President, Jo Ann Gora, that intelligent design was not a viable theory and, therefore, not appropriate or acceptable for science classes. She also stated that the issue was not academic freedom but rather academic integrity.

Background

I really do not know who Dr. Gonzalez is nor am I aware of what his publication record, research interests, or what he teaches or has taught in the classroom That he is identified as one of the prominent figures in the intelligent design debate suggests, at least to me, more about what he believes than anything else.

Still, the public record does tell us something. That he was at Iowa State suggests that he has an acceptable traditional doctorate in his field. He claims that while he was at Iowa State he was punished for his views on the subject. Iowa State has publically stated that his denial of tenure was based on traditional tenure criteria.

Such criteria usually includes publications and research money. The second Inside Higher Ed article notes that Dr. Gonzalez had a reasonable publication record but did not bring much grant money to the university.

Analysis

The problem for individuals such as Dr. Gonzalez whose research interests lie outside the mainstream of conventional science is that 1) most professional journals will not publish their research and 2) journals that do publish such research not consider mainstream journals (and perhaps not peer-reviewed).

The nature of academic freedom

Now, universities may hire whomever they wish and base their higher criteria on whatever they desire. So I have no problems with the Ball State administration’s decision.

But I have to wonder why Ball State took this step and what will be expected from Dr. Gonzalez during his appointment at Ball State. The second Inside Higher Ed article and the followup announcement probably tell us what is to be expected.

As I mentioned in my first piece on Academic Freedom, instructors should be able to teach what they want how they want provided it falls within the boundaries of the subject area being taught. As noted in the first Inside Higher Ed article, the scientific community has no problem with a discussion of intelligent design in a course provided that the course is either a philosophy or a religion course.

In terms of science, intelligent design fails most of the criteria for an acceptable theory. Every time I hear a discussion about intelligent design, I am reminded of a particular Sidney Harris cartoon.

Now, should Dr. Gonzalez be allowed to present his ideas and thoughts in his classes (let us presume for the moment that these are classes in astronomy or a related topic)? If they are part of the discussion of a topic relevant to the class, yes; that’s the nature of academic freedom.

If the students wish to discuss his ideas outside the constraints of the classroom, that is also acceptable.

No doubt, students will enroll in his courses because they believe that his thoughts will offer justification for their beliefs. But they have to understand that his ideas on the topic of intelligent design do not fall within the parameters of normal science.

But he should also not require that students accept the information that he presents as the only answer possible or one of many possible answers. That is where the issue of academic integrity comes into play.

Some years ago, I had some students whose belief system required the acceptance of a non-standard model of the creation of the universe. Their’s was a genunine belief and one that did not interfere with the major they had chosen or the work that they were going to do. I could have easily said that they had to believe what the evidence presented in the context of the course suggested about the creation of the universe and life on this planet. But that was not the purpose of the course and these students could easily work out the simple problems that I posed that were part of the course without any conflicts.

As to what to do with the discussion and what it meant for their beliefs, I told them that was something that they would have to work out on their own.

Now, if one wanted to teach a course in the philosophy of science and examine how various thoughts become theories, then intelligent design becames an integral part of that discussion. But again, students have to realize that we are examining one theory, not against another theory, but rather against the accepted methods of science and there intelligent design fall short.

I think that it is critical that students taking any science course need to have an understanding of how science operates and this is a topic that I have written on before (see “The Processes of Science” for a discussion of how science operates and “An Assignment on Academic and Scientific Integrity” for questions related to academic integrity.)

Conclusion – 1

I don’t mind that Ball State has hired Dr. Gonzalez or that Dr. Gonzalez has been given a sounding board for his ideas. The role of the university is to provide an arena were ideas can be development, explored, and then either modified or cast aside in lieu of better ideas.

But I hope that Dr. Gonzalez does the same within the framework of his courses and those who seek his support in confirming what they believe is done outside the context of his courses. I also hope that in opening his ideas to the arena of public debate, the weakness of those ideas is exposed and Dr. Gonzalez will recognize this. That is and will also be the nature of academic freedom. It also maintains the integrity of the course.

Conclusion – 2

As I writing this piece I could not help but think those who believe in intelligent design are trying, somehow, to put it within the framework of “normal” science. Somehow they feel that if there are enough proponents for their beliefs that sooner or later it will become part of the dialogue.

In some ways, I think that they are trying to emulate the discussions around the challenges to the geocentric solar system model, the phlogiston theory, and the caloric theory of heat.

But in each of those examples, the discussion involved the transformation and modification of existing ideas in terms of existing evidence. There is no comparable evidence for intelligent design.

In addition, while the discussion in those areas moved towards a better understanding of the available evidence and moved science forward, acceptance of intelligent design is move or step backwards.

Proponents of intelligent design want to offer a competing theory to the theory of evolution and to the development of the universe. But to offer a competing theory implies and suggests there will be a winner and a loser.

When Albert Einstein first began to postulate his gravitational theory (The Theory of General Relativity), others also attempted to create a theory as well. However, only Einstein’s work was experimentally proved to work. (see http://www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/HistTopics/General_relativity.html)

While multiple theories may develop as ideas are gathered, the best theory is the one that uses the available evidence and does not resort to outside or mystical influences when seeking proof.

And in the end, intelligent design looses that argument (again).

It seems to me, as we begin this new academic year, that there are several struggles going on. Too many people are afraid of education for they keep trying to limit or curtail the idea of free thought. Others are afraid that their own personal ideas are under attack and that the best defense against those attacks is to prevent others from attacking them. But if their ideas cannot stand up to a logical examination, then are they worthy of defending? And what happens to this country, this society and/or this world when there is no one capable of independent and free thought? What will we do then?

Academic freedom is the freedom to express your own thoughts, to push the boundaries so that we can find more and more about the world around us. Academic integrity demands that we do it in such a manner that makes sense.

That is where we are at today. Where will we be tomorrow?

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2 thoughts on ““Continuing Thoughts on Academic Freedom”

  1. Pingback: Further Thoughts On Academic Freedom | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: “Notes On Academic Freedom” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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