Academic freedom or academic tomfoolery? 1

The Ben Stein movie, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” champions academic freedom, purporting to demonstrate how faculty who believe in Intelligent Design or Creationism are being forced from their jobs by some kind of “evolutionist” hegemony.

The movie, which I have not seen, supports the opinion that someone who does not accept the theory of evolution cannot debate or question the theory in the classroom without fear of reprisal. The rights of anti-evolution faculty and students must be protected, the movie’s creators claim.

It’s another version of the “teach the controversy” canard that IDists and creationists have been passing around for the last few years. First, they create a false controversy (many people doubt evolution is valid). Second, they contend that “evolutionists” are forcing this “controversial” theory down students’ throats. Then, they insist that other theories must be given “equal time” somehow in the classroom to give students a full education.

This strategy to introduce ID and creationism in the public school classrooms failed miserably in Dover, Penn., after a federal judge (a Republican appointee) ruled that ID was just another form of creationism, that is, it was religion. Therefore, he said, ID cannot be taught in a public school without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

So now the ID/creationist tactic is to focus on the “academic freedom” to question evolution. The plan is to appeal to the public’s sense of fairness and belief in free speech rather than to concoct a controversy from whole cloth.

I was contemplating today what enforcing this interpretation of “academic freedom” would mean to me as a physics/astronomy/math teacher. I came up with three possible (though I hope unlikely) scenarios.

Physics class
We contrast each year Aristotle’s and Galileo’s explanations of falling bodies. Aristotle, whose “theories” were sacrosanct in Europe for two millennia, held that objects moved according to their nature. For him, the composition of each object was a mixture of the four elements (fire, air, water and earth). Objects that had more earth and water than air and fire naturally fell, whereas objects with more air and fire rose. Therefore, Aristotle claimed, heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones. Since this behavior is what we see, the explanation must be right.

Galileo (and others, to be fair) believed otherwise. In fact, Galileo by careful experimentation and reasoning, showed that all objects would fall with the same acceleration to the ground if air resistance was not important. He derived laws of motion that applied to all objects, no matter their composition.

So, I wondered, what if I had a student who refused to accept Galileo’s reasoning (and for that matter my demonstrations that Galileo was right)? As things stand now, I could tell the student, “OK, you’re entitled to your belief, but for the purposes of this course you have to know and be able to discuss the prevailing scientific explanation of falling bodies. If you cannot, or refuse to learn that explanation, I will need to mark those responses wrong, which will reduce your grade in this course.”

If, on the other hand, the student’s “academic freedom” were protected, I presumably would not be allowed to mark his or her answers wrong. Instead, I would have to accept as a valid answer the Aristotelian explanation for falling objects.

Astronomy class
Aristotle and the Bible both agreed that the Earth is at the center of the universe, and that all objects orbit it. This geocentric view of course has not been widely accepted since the 17th century, but suppose for a moment one of my students was a Biblical literalist and understood the Bible to say that Joshua really did stop the sun in its tracks, as it says in Chapter 10 of the Book of Joshua. Academic freedom of the kind professed by Expelled’s creators would require me to accept the student’s arguments as equally valid as the heliocentric model’s, and perhaps award him or her full credit for any test questions answered in that way.

By the way, if Joshua did stop the Sun, how come no one else noticed?

Math class
Ludicrous example, to be sure, but Indiana did at one point declare by law that pi was exactly equal to 3. So, a student would have the “academic freedom” to use 3 or 22/7 on math homework instead of pushing the pi button on his or her calculator? And if so, I would have to accept those answers as correct?

This version of academic freedom is the stupid, one-size-fits-all kind. It presumes that all arguments and viewpoints are equally valid, even if some are completely unsupported by any available evidence. In that kind of academic environment, no real learning of content would ever happen. Classes would spend their time arguing like medieval scholastics about the quality of each person’s argument, instead of the logical conclusions drawn from scientific evidence.

To put it another way, each field of study has to have standards. For modern biology, one such standard is that any student must understand the theory of evolution and its role in unifying the study of that science. If a student (or professor!) has qualms about the religious connotations of evolution, then they should either get over them or get a different line of work. Suggesting that ID or creationism is equally valid as evolution just because you like ID or creationism more is a specious argument. Standards should not change to please a vocal minority.

Science is not a democracy in which all scientists’ viewpoints are equally valid. Science relies on evidence to support its arguments, models and theories. Evidence is the ultimate authority, not what previous generations have taught or believed. Give us incontrovertible scientific proof (not faith or scriptural quotations or handwaving inferences) that God or an “intelligent designer” made the universe, then maybe we’ll talk. Until then, please, leave us alone, Ben. Stick to acting and economics.

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One comment on “Academic freedom or academic tomfoolery?

  1. Pingback: EquMath: Math Lessons » Blog Archive » Academic freedom or academic tomfoolery?

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