Is Teaching ‘Junk Science’ Protected by Academic Freedom?

Point to ponder: So how does biologist explain the creation of life?

Academic freedom protects professors’ scholarship and teaching — within limits. It certainly protects the ability to broach controversial ideas in class. But it isn’t an absolute right. Professors have to teach the subjects assigned, and can’t engage in racial or sexual harassment, to mention just a few limits. There is also the matter of professional competence. A Holocaust denier may be competent to teach math or Spanish, but is unqualified to teach European history. A believer in “creation science” may be competent to teach medieval literature, but not biology. If the course is junk science, the professor has no academic-freedom right to teach it, and his department should have enough professional integrity to remove it from the catalog. [Emphasis added]

Read more at Inside Higher Ed.

12 thoughts on “Is Teaching ‘Junk Science’ Protected by Academic Freedom?”

  1. I believe that when he means when he says “creationism science” is 7-day young-Earth creationism. I’ve heard several devout atheists refuse to believe more nuanced positions exist because it challenges their views of the religious as counter-science extremists.

    However, while I dislike his examples and phrasing, he has a point. It is the duty of the university to restrict what their employees teach to the realm of fact. While there are obvious places where this can overreach, and thus, the creation of tenure, we do not want classes on homepathy at medical school

  2. This is not exactly a question of whose ox is being gored.
    If “creation science” means the literal Biblical (or Koranic or Hindu) interpretation of how the world was formed, hard science just doesn’t square with that. To paraphrase from Genesis, we have the creation of light on the first day (which could be the Big Bang), and we have evening and morning for a few days, and then the sun and moon are formed on Day 4. Even allowing the “days” to be epochs, we don’t get evening and morning without a sun. We also have enough information about radiation, speed of light, and other physics to tell us that life forms on earth go back something like a billion years and that the earth did not originally form coated with water, which God then gathered to let the dry land appear. The same science that flies airplanes, generates electricity and provides radiation therapy says it didn’t happen like that.
    A biologist who teaches that species of animals appeared at command is denying the (certainly incomplete) fossil record. A geologist who believes the earth was covered with water and that it was gathered to create land masses is defying all the evidence that geology has found. It’s hard to see how either teacher could be taken seriously or could share the knowledge that students need.
    A biologist or a geologist could, as a matter of related philosphy, describe a personal belief in a divinity which created the universe and set in motion the marvels that became our planet and our biosphere. Such a teacher could acknowledge the limits of science and ask, legitimately, what the ultimate source is.
    Is there a secular purpose to such commentary, or even a course devoted to “the limits of science”? I’d say yes. Scientific hubris is a real flaw. James Hansen, for one, seems convinced that his knowledge of physics somehow applies to economics. When scientists and others recognize the limits of what we know and what we don’t know, it may help them respect others’ opinions and help them to push those limits more wisely.
    As a snide remark, I’d say that any university that teaches the evils of the patriarchy and has socialists teaching economics has got no room to be sniping at a biologist who has religious beliefs. Nor any university that hires Bill Ayers or Bernadette Doehrn.

  3. Marxist economics? Academia has offerings in a lot of long discreditted nonsense. Sometimes these provide useful lessons in who NOT to believe.

  4. Touching on the litigation mentioned in the article: this is why people should be accommodating of one another instead of litigious. When the atheist and the believer join at dinner, it’s rude of the atheist to deny the believer a chance to pray aloud. It’s a bit inconsiderate of the believer to demand the atheist listen. I don’t have a good answer, but it turns out the courts don’t either.

  5. A true believer wouldn’t demand the atheist listen, as the prayer is not directed at the atheist…..

  6. And the atheist (me) has no problem with hearing a prayer. After all, in my view, neither of us has a mortal lock on the metaphysical truth.

  7. Howdy Jim Sweet
    I think we’ve discussed theology before. As there are respectful believers and atheists alike, disagreeing but recognizing each other with courtesy, there are also jerks in both camps. In general, it has been atheists who demand that believers shut up. I understand believers being annoyed at that. Then again, I understand atheists and agnostics being annoyed at times also. Now, how do we keep it out of courts?

  8. The only practical advice I can give is Shakespeare’s…BTW I don’t represent other atheists. I think both sides should remember what I posted above. The universe is simply too big and too unknown for any of us to prosess enough certainty to demand agreement. But we can all enjoy the hunt!!

  9. “In general, it has been atheists who demand that believers shut up.”

    You lump atheists in with antitheists.

  10. I’m using the term that the folks have applied to themselves. I can imagine a distinction between atheist and antitheist readily enough and yes, I’d want to be careful about what brush applies to whom.

  11. You need to make sure terminology is correct. My post doc in stereochemistry was part of an ongoing creation chemistry project. The good professor has been publishing in this area for about 40 years. It was not theist creationism, but an attempt to explain how life could start from stereoselective chemical processes arising from chemicals in the primoridial soup. So, I guess technically I’m a creationist, but not the kind everyone thinks. Back in the mid-70’s this was not exactly a hot political issue and on publication was on stereoselective phase transfer catalysis, so it wasn’t really threatening.

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