Monday, May 27, 2013

My two cents on academic freedom

Some parts of the science blogosphere that I am following have been discussing the case of a professor called Eric Hedin over the past few weeks. From what has been reported, he has been offering an elective course at his US American public university that awards science credit but consists mostly of Christian apologetics and proselytizing, with a liberal sprinkling of creationist pamphlets but no real science included in the reading list.

The interesting thing is that rationalist and atheist scientists divided into two camps over the issue: evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and now physicist Victor Stenger argue that the university should scrap the course while developmental biologist PZ Myers and biochemist Larry Moran defend Hedin's right to teach unscientific nonsense with reference to academic freedom.

Part of this seems to be based on a misunderstanding; Myers, for example, claims that Coyne and Stenger are calling for Hedin to be fired but they did no such thing. The most forceful position taken by Coyne appears to be that such a course violates the US constitution.

Now I don't really have a horse in this particular race. Not being a US American or in the USA, I really have no opinion on their constitution. (Except perhaps that they should consider doing what every other country does and adopt a new one one of these days, perhaps one that was not written for the era of slavery, horse-drawn carriages and front loaded muskets. But I digress.) What interests me here is the concept of academic freedom.

As a German, I have learned about academic freedom in the historical context of the Goettingen Seven, and thus assumed that it was about being able to publicly hold a controversial opinion without being fired for it. But surely academic freedom cannot entail a professor not doing their job?

Thought experiments are always enlightening when faced with discussions like these, and of course Coyne and Stenger have already offered them. What if a physicist used one of their classes to promote a political party, or if a chemist awarded science credit for a course whose reading list consisted entirely of objectivist "philosophical" tracts? Would that also be acceptable under the banner of academic freedom? What if all tenured professors of a university decided, hey, we don't want to teach the students science anymore, we will all just award science credit to whoever reads the entire bible?

Perhaps even more interesting would be the following scenario: What if Hedin were promoting not Christianity but instead filled the reading list of his course with works of Wahhabi theology? Would his Christian supporters still be defending his "academic freedom" in that case? Let's just say I have my doubts.

Yes, academic freedom is important. Hedin should have the right to believe and publicly say controversial things, even to try and convert people to his sect. But in his science courses at a public university, I would argue he is supposed to teach science. That is not a question of academic freedom, it is a question of doing the job one is being paid to do by the taxpayer.

From that perspective, the slippery slope arguments invoked by Myers and Moran also don't apply because there is no slippery slope to be had between saying that a professor should not proselytize or teach theology in their science class on the one side and a professor being forbidden to teach good science in their science class on the other side.


  1. Your position is quite reasonable. I read once that we are supposed to teach about things, not teach things, at the university. When I taught the evolution course, I included a lecture or two about creationism. This was a required course for our biology secondary education majors, and it would not be unusual for them to encounter creationist thought while on their teaching job. I think we need to keep in mind the difference between teaching about and proselytizing.

  2. I think what you are mentioning is another thing again. It would be very hard to teach the history of evolutionary biology without presenting creationism simply because it was what nearly everybody accepted before 1859. Even just reading the Origin with students (I have never done that but I know colleagues who have) constantly brings it up because the book is filled with these paragraphs that go "this observation would be hard to explain under special creation, and here is why...".