July 10, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Why Academic Freedom Is Dangerous

Barbara Forrest has a tough case on her hands.  The veteran creationist-fighter has to convince the people of Louisiana that they did a bad thing by passing the Academic Freedom Bill, because academic freedom when it comes to discussing intelligent design and evolution is dangerous (cf. 05/12/2008, bullet 3).  The bill passed by 94-3 in the state House and unanimously in the Senate.
    Amanda Gefter, reporting on New Scientist admitted Forrest has the deck stacked against her.  Those supporting the measure outnumbered her group and had more spirit.  Nevertheless, she empathized with Forrest’s anti-ID position, titling her article “New legal threat to teaching evolution in the US” and speaking of “hidden dangers” in the bill recently signed by Governor Bobby Jindal that protects the rights of teachers who wish to supplement their lessons with alternative material on controversial science topics such as evolution, human cloning and global warming, after first teaching the assigned textbook material.  It is the prospect of offering alternatives to evolution that has generated the most heated discussion.
    What is it about the evolution issue that is so threatening to the time-honored tradition of giving voice to opposing views on controversial topics, and letting people think critically about the evidence?  In sum, here are the arguments as gleaned from the article for forbidding academic freedom on the evolution question:

  1. [Forrest] had spent weeks trying to muster opposition to the bill on the grounds that it would allow teachers and school boards across the state to present non-scientific alternatives to evolution, including ideas related to intelligent design (ID) – the proposition that life is too complicated to have arisen without the help of a supernatural agent.
  2. The act is designed to slip ID in “through the back door”, says Forrest, who is a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University and an expert in the history of creationism.
  3. She adds that the bill’s language, which names evolution along with global warming, the origins of life and human cloning as worthy of “open and objective discussion”, is an attempt to misrepresent evolution as scientifically controversial.
  4. Jindal …. enjoys a close relationship with the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), a lobbying group for the religious right whose mission statement includes “presenting biblical principles” in “centers of influence”.  It was the LFF which set the bill in motion earlier this year.
  5. The development has national implications, not least because Jindal is rumoured to be on Senator John McCain’s shortlist as a potential running mate in his bid for the presidency.
  6. The new legislation is the latest manoeuvre in a long-running war to challenge the validity of Darwinian evolution as an accepted scientific fact in American classrooms.
  7. …Forrest presented evidence that ID was old-fashioned creationism by another name….
  8. Academic freedom is a great thing,” says Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California.  “But if you look at the American Association of University Professors’ definition of academic freedom, it refers to the ability to do research and publish.
  9. This, he points out, is different to the job high-school teachers are supposed to do.  “In high school, you’re teaching mainstream science so students can go on to college or medical school, where you need that freedom to explore cutting-edge ideas.  To apply ‘academic freedom’ to high school is a misuse of the term.”
  10. “It’s very slick,” says Forrest.  “The religious right has co-opted the terminology of the progressive left… They know that phrase appeals to people.”
  11. ….those who wish to challenge Darwinian evolution have “plausible deniability” that this is intended to teach something unconstitutional…. “They are better camouflaged now.”
  12. In a landmark 1987 case known as Edwards vs Aguillard, the US Supreme Court ruled the [balanced treatment] law unconstitutional, effectively closing the door on teaching “creation science” in public schools.

Convinced that intelligent design is unconstitutional, Forrest is worried that the bill makes it harder for opponents of ID to sue schools and teachers who present what they feel is religious material.  “Because the law allows individual boards and teachers to make additions to the science curriculum without clearance from a state authority,” Gefter reported, “the responsibility will lie with parents to mount a legal challenge to anything that appears to be an infringement of the separation of church and state.”  Forrest complained that this is like starting a lot of local brush fires that have to be fought individually.  “This is done intentionally, to get this down to the local level,” she said.  “It’s going to be very difficult to even know what’s going on.”
    Forrest says she doesn’t fight “academic freedom” for fun, but because it’s a duty.  Her next tactic is to get the word to teachers to be on the lookout for creationist material finding its way into science class.
    Writing for National Review, Discovery Institute senior fellow John West denied that the Louisiana bill is a threat to science.  “The act is not a license for teachers to do anything they want,” he said.  “Instruction must be ‘objective,’ inappropriate materials may be vetoed by the state board of education, and the law explicitly prohibits teaching religion in the name of science, stating that its provisions ‘shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine.’”  It is hypocritical for pro-Darwin lobbyists to fight this bill on religious grounds, he said, when many of them have a clear atheist agenda.  He pointed out that Barbara Forrest is a militant atheist and long-time board member of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Organization.
    West countered that the real threat to science is to indoctrinate students and fail to teach them how to evaluate evidence.  The law was so carefully framed, he added, that even the head of the Louisiana ACLU has had to concede that it is constitutional as written.  He accused the “usual suspects” of mounting a “disinformation campaign” against the bill which turned out to be a massive failure in Louisiana.  Both political parties, he pointed out, were nearly unanimous in support of the bill, and some science professors came to the hearings to testify in favor of the bill.
    West argued that students deserve to be taught more than the consensus views on controversial issues, because historically the consensus has often been wrong or subject to blind fanaticism (he cited the eugenics movement, supported by all the leading scientific societies of the early 1900s, as a particularly bad example).  Furthermore, scientific positions often have serious implications for society and government policy.  Students, therefore, need to be able to evaluate critically the evidence on which the claims are based.  “In truth, the effort to promote thoughtful discussion of competing scientific views is pro-science,” he concluded.
    Michael Stebbins (co-founder of Scientists and Engineers for America) did not quite elevate the cordiality of the dialogue when he wrote in The Scientist about “Jindal’s Creationist Folly” and referred to intelligent design as “urine in the education pool.”  Meanwhile, Evolution News took time out for a reality check concerning the New Scientist article.

Hallelujah!  The dogmatists are on the run.  Were you impressed by the scare tactics and loaded words used to support the idea that high school students are so dumb and pliable, they must be indoctrinated into lily-white evolutionary truths lest their pure minds get corrupted by evil religious ideas?  Were you attracted by the tender vitriol of their hate speech?
    This is how you make freedom look dangerous.  You characterize the ones calling for freedom as evil.  Those sneaky, creepy (05/22/2008), creationists are just angry they lost at Dover.  So in retaliation, they look for new ways to set brush fires and wreak havoc on civilization (cf. 11/30/2005).  Thus black is white and white is black.  (Be sure to throw in a few big lies wherever needed, like defining ID incorrectly, mischaracterizing the Supreme Court ruling [it does not prevent teaching creation science but only laws that require teaching creation equally alongside evolution], and claiming there is no controversy among evolutionists; see 03/07/2008.  Also, keep holding up the Dover decision – an ACLU-plagiarized ruling by one unelected judge in one Pennsylvania school district – as the standard of jurisprudence for the entire world.)
    Evolution, of course, is so “scientific” that it is the only contender for a science class (06/03/2008).  And of course, evolutionists have no bias or agenda (06/21/2008, 04/13/2008).  Why, those evolutionists, they are so smart, and so logical (04/14/2008, 03/12/2008) they know for a fact that people have bacteria ancestors (03/20/2008, 02/22/2008).  They only tell the honest truth (03/06/2008).  Their math is so good they get the whole universe out of nothing (01/15/2008).  Yes, we must protect students from challenges to those natural truths.  Nothing supernatural about their miracles.  And they just lo-o-o-o-o-ve the people of Louisiana (04/09/2008).  They would never do legal maneuvering and play politics to sneak around the will of the people (02/20/2008).
    The dogmatists can’t win through the democratic process and town hall or through open debate on the evidence, so they use the courtroom and special-interest PACs.  To enforce their will on the people, they get unelected judges to tell us what science is, and get the ACLU and Americans United for “Separation of Church and State” (a misleading slogan, more properly United Against Academic Freedom) to slap parents, teachers and students with budget-busting lawsuits (intimidation, e.g., 01/06/2007).  Who has been setting those brush fires?  No wonder the people at the Louisiana hearing were wearing stickers, clapping, cheering and standing in the aisles.  No longer will they have to stay after class with Ben Stein, covering the chalkboard with “I will not question Darwinism.”
    Let’s keep the pressure on Barb till she emigrates to a country she would really enjoy – Cuba.  There, she can stand and clap for little Elian Gonzalez – you remember the little boy denied freedom in America and captured at gunpoint and shipped to Castro’s evolutionary heaven?  Now, eight years older (high school age) and sufficiently indoctrinated with the consensus view, Elian is a proud young member of the Communist Youth Brigade (see New York Times).  He promised he will never let down the murderous Castro dictators.  Enough to make Forrest clap, cheer and stand in the aisle!  Sufficiently programmed, Gonzalez will have all the academic freedom he wants to be a good, loyal communist on an island where alternative views are systematically excluded.  Maybe he can debate (with his professional academic freedom) controversial topics like whether an annual pro-communist rally should be held on Fidel’s birthday or on Raul’s.  See?  We’re only trying to alleviate the anxiety that is wearing Barbara Forrest down.  Why not take your services to a place where they would be appreciated?
    After reading the anti-ID smear piece on New Scientist, take a refreshing intellectual shower.  Read John West’s piece on National Review celebrating the fact that neo-Darwinism is no longer a protected orthodoxy in Bayou country.  He explains what academic freedom is really all about.  If you agree, get to work against the Darwin-only-Darwin-only DODOs in your state.

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