What Boundaries for Science?

A storm is brewing over “The Boundaries of Science,” a course taught at Ball State University by physics and astronomy professor Eric Hedin. The course’s professed intention is to present a balanced and fair consideration of the relationship and tension between religion and science.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (stationed in my home town of Madison, Wisconsin) has a different take. According to a letter sent to Ball State president Jo Ann Gora, FFRF contends that the course is actually a vehicle for Hedin to “proselytize students and advance Christianity.” Many scientists have also weighed in with a similar critique.

Critics accuse Hedin’s course of clear bias in favor of such religious-oriented doctrines as Intelligent Design. According to an article in Inside Higher Education, FFRF’s letter “notes that the syllabus and reading list includes creationists and ‘Christian apologists who lack any scientific credentials whatsoever,’ while leading proponents of the idea that evolution is true (embraced by a wide scientific consensus) are not represented.” FFRF also maintains that the course violates the First Amendment’s Establishment clause.

Ball State is looking into the matter while debate is raging in the blogosphere over the proper way to deal with the issue.

The dispute raises important questions about what properly constitutes science and knowledge, and what it is appropriate for a university to teach. Beyond these concerns, how the dispute is handled also matters because the way the matter is settled has potentially important implications for academic freedom and judgment.

The key issue in this dispute revolves around the tension between academic responsibility and academic freedom. Let me start with the freedom side of the equation.

Anyone who works in an institution of higher learning knows that there are many courses taught by colleagues that he or she would teach differently, perhaps even profoundly so. (I hear from students all the time about courses I would turn inside out if given the opportunity. And I know colleagues who would gladly return the favor.) Often this difference concerns purely intellectual judgment, such as what to emphasize or how to interpret evidence.

But sometimes differences involve the deeper assumptions and moral positions taken in the course. Regardless, academics usually cut their colleagues considerable slack for two reasons: respect for academic freedom and professional courtesy. The former, of course, matters most. In academic institutions worth their salt, a strong presumption in favor of academic freedom must hold sway.

Academic freedom recognizes that the pursuit of truth—universities’ moral charter—is based as much on disagreement as on agreement. So if a precedent is established allowing critics to change the content and approach of a colleague’s course, untoward consequences can follow.

So we need very good reasons to change the content of someone’s course, and we always need to be wary of the downside potential of doing so. To borrow language from Supreme Court cases involving fundamental rights, “strict scrutiny” must be applied.

Another factor is also important on the freedom side. It is one thing when pressure to change a course comes from appropriate sources inside the university, and another when it comes from outside the institution’s gates. As I have pointed out elsewhere, academic freedom is premised on the right of the institution and its professional staff to make academic judgments independent of overt external pressure. While appropriate outside pressure is part of the democratic process, and it may be necessary when the institution is AWOL in its duty to uphold professional standards, in general, the institution and its members are the ones to decide complex issues of academic freedom.

Recognizing the importance of academic freedom, some of Hedin’s most vocal critics oppose legally nullifying his course. Noted science blogger PZ Myers has called Hedin’s course “crap” and “bad science.” Nonetheless, Myers concludes that “academic freedom is the issue here, and professors have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective.”

But the matter of appropriate academic judgment and professional responsibility also has to be considered. Beyond its ancient Socratic roots, academic freedom in America was historically premised on the type of social contract that prevails in other professions: the academic community was given the autonomy to govern itself on the grounds that academics’ training and commitment to academic standards would make them the best judges of what should be taught, and how. In return, academics accepted the responsibility and duty to uphold intellectual standards.

A geographer or astronomer teaching that the earth is flat or a physicist basing his or her judgments on astrology would be teaching irresponsibly. But once we leave the realm of easy examples, judgment becomes more difficult. The default position in such cases should be academic freedom for the instructor, but this position is not absolute. If a course poses genuine concerns about academic judgment or responsibility, then this issue should be addressed.

So where does a course about science and religion that draws extensively on creationism or intelligent design fit into this scale of judgment? As in many areas of life, the devil often lies in the details. It is one thing for Hedin to point to the limits of science, which may open a door to further inquiry. It is another thing to use a science class as an opportunity to make clearly unfounded claims or to proselytize.

We know that creationism and intelligent design can be pushed for expressly religious purposes. Evidence in recent court cases dealing with creationism and ID in public school curricula have often revealed substantial religious intent. In one case, an influential school board member who endorsed placing intelligent design in the curriculum was reported as saying that “Jesus Christ deserves equal time” in education. Courses conducted in the spirit of such intent are not scientific. At the level of primary and secondary education, such policies even pose Establishment Clause (that is, separation of church and state) problems, as federal courts have concluded.

But universities are different from primary and secondary education. Academic freedom is part of higher education’s DNA, and college students are more intellectually mature than younger students. They are also less “captive,” especially if the course is an elective rather than a requirement upon which other courses depend. Students can vote with their feet, and all courses are subject to public discussion and debate. In true First Amendment fashion, the campus marketplace of ideas and opinion can often serve as a non-coercive check on irresponsibility.

In matters of the mind, no consensus should be “off limits” to reasoned critique. This applies to the conclusions of natural science, as well. Theories of evolution have been revised over time, sometimes in order to answer critiques raised by creationists. It is one thing for creationists to propose questions about evolution theory that can be addressed empirically on scientific grounds, but another for creationists to use faith-based religion itself as an explanation or as an excuse to proselytize. The latter is illegitimate per se in a science course.

We might compare this dilemma with the question of consciousness and materialism. Research and teaching in the field of philosophy of mind (which includes the longstanding debate over the mind/body relationship, extending at least as far back as Descartes) has often raised important questions that a purely materialist explanation for the origins of consciousness may not handle very well.

Such disputes are far from settled. Such respected contemporary thinkers as Thomas Nagel argue that consciousness cannot be fully explained by materialism or naturalism alone because the experience of consciousness seems sui generis in many telling respects that call out for further inquiry.

Nagel’s recent articulation of his views in his new book, Mind and Cosmos, has been the subject of fierce critique. But no one has maintained that a course based on Mind and Cosmos should be restricted in the name of academic responsibility. Indeed, the debate over Nagel’s book has been an occasion to think further about the relationship between mind and matter, and natural science and philosophy. Should natural scientists have the final word regarding mind and matter? Or should philosophy?

But note another point: Nagel expressly excludes any theistic explanations for consciousness, for such explanations lie beyond the possibilities of empirical and analytical inquiry. Religion is different from non-materialist philosophy because it is ultimately based on faith, not science.

If it is determined that Hedin’s course is truly religion in disguise or that it clearly constitutes proselytizing, appropriate Ball State authorities including faculty or administrators or even students would be justified in questioning it and urging Hedin to seriously consider the criticisms. Usually faculty members will listen to reasoned criticisms from students and colleagues.

Given the academic freedom implications at stake, more overt pressure should be off the table unless the course represents the imposition of religious views. To learn this, some questions should be asked: How dogmatic is the course? Does it amount to proselytizing? Is the course a required course or an elective? In what department(s) is it taught? (What is suitable in a humanities course is often not suitable in a science course.) What is the position of Hedin’s department, which also possesses academic freedom rights as an entity? If Hedin resists due consideration of critics’ concerns, is preventing him from teaching his course according to his lights justified in light of the threat to academic freedom such an action would pose?

These are the questions—reflecting a search for motive, emphasis, and nuance—that need to be asked. The university, rather than outsiders, should be the one to ask and, if necessary, act on them.