Shutting down the opposition

The Christian Legal Society at Southern Methodist University is co-sponsoring “Darwin vs. Design”, a presentation on the always-controversial subject of intelligent design (ID). In the best spirit of the university being a marketplace of ideas, representatives from the departments of anthropology, biology, and geology will be on hand to counter the viewpoints espoused by ID proponents with a presentation of their own, focusing on ID’s lack of coherence as a scientific theory.

Sounds good, except only one of the two sentences I just wrote is true. Guess which one?

Science professors upset about a presentation on “Intelligent Design” fired blistering letters to the administration, asking that the event be shut down. […]

“These are conferences of and for believers and their sympathetic recruits,” said the letter sent to administrators by the department. “They have no place on an academic campus with their polemics hidden behind a deceptive mask.” [emph. added]

Similar letters were sent by the biology and geology departments. […]

While some who are leading the protest acknowledge the need for free speech and academic freedom, they say this event doesn’t qualify. [emph. added]

“This is propaganda,” said Dr. John Ubelaker, former chairman of the biology department. “Using the campus for propaganda does not fit into anybody’s scheme of intellectual discussion.”

Other biologists compared the conference to a presentation by Holocaust deniers. [emph. added] Would the university allow that to happen?

No sir, we academics never engage in polemics.

I’m no fan of ID, and like a lot of people I don’t put stock in it as a scientific theory. But there’s no denying, even among the scientists, that ID raises important questions which are best dealt with by reasoned responses from skilled scientists. The CLS here is offering an opportunity for just such a thing (whether it realizes it or not), and at least one professor in the article is encouraging his students to attend and think critically about the content.

To instead cast aspersions on the intentions of the conference organizers, act as gatekeepers for what students may and may not think about, and then pull out the handy-dandy “Holocaust denier” card to complete the character assassination of the conference organizers, rather proves the point of those who say that academic scientists are merely afraid of holding discussions on things that contradict their beliefs. If I were someone questioning about ID, I’d be thinking: What are these scientists afraid of?

As for the “if we let them in, we legitimize them” canard, realize that intelligent design is already “in” — in the sense that your students and faculty have heard about it and are thinking about it. The faculty had best start acting like scientists and teachers, and get the university thinking about ID in critical and scientific ways. You can’t hermetically seal a university campus against ideas, despite the intentions of SMU faculty to determine what “qualifies”.

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Filed under Critical thinking, Higher ed, Life in academia

18 responses to “Shutting down the opposition

  1. One wonders, then, if SMU’s philosophy of science department (somebody has to teach those courses, though I don’t know if SMU has a department devoted to the field) doesn’t address ID. That’s where such discussions belong, is it not? So why would an academic oppose a discussion of ID on campus?

  2. It’s the “if we let them on campus, we legitimize them” argument I mentioned in the last paragraph. SMU faculty really believe that ID is on the moral level of holocaust denial, and since SMU wouldn’t allow a conference on THAT subject, it shouldn’t allow one on ID. That’s straight from the article.

  3. virusdoc

    You have to know a bit of the history of ID in Texas higher education to understand the vehemence of the response. Several years ago (1996), the Baylor University (Baptist, about an hour and a half south of SMU) administration (not the faculty–the president’s office) created something called the “Discovery Institute,” housed within the biology department, dedicated to the study of Intelligent Design theory. They hired Bill Dembski, the father of ID theory, and named him director. The only problem: the administration did not consult with anyone in the biology department before doing this, and the faculty were not involved in any way in the hires. An understandable uproar arose from the science departments, and Dembski was essentially run out of town (they couldn’t terminate his contract, but he was given 5 years sabbatical and no academic duties). This was also considered the end of then-president Robert Sloan’s administration.

    The resulting backlash against ID theory in that geographic region has been dramatic, because all of the faculty fear (correctly, I think) that any allowance in favor of ID weakens the quality of a science degree from their institution. And although the “holocaust deniers” reference is a bit harsh, it is very clear now that ID has at its core religious propositions (and religious motivations lie at the core of most of its proponents), and where it makes scientifically testable predictions these have proven to be false. It’s a bad scientific theory and an unecessary religious one.

    But it should be allowed to be discussed on any campus and its inadequacies demonstrated clearly for all to see.

  4. virusdoc

    Just read the article you link to. Further underscoring the role of history in this response, it is the very same “Discovery Institute” of former Baylor fame–now operating as a nonprofit in Seattle–sponsoring the SMU lecture.

  5. 5 years’ sabbatical and no academic duties? Geez, maybe I should rethink my position on ID!

  6. virusdoc

    Yeah, isn’t that funny? He was quoted somewhere as saying it was the nicest thing Baylor could have done for him. He got 5 years paid leave to work on his next book.

  7. JimMc

    Nice work on the background info, virusdoc.

    If somebody refers to Nazis or the Holocaust (or the Bible even) in the basis of their argument, it should be cause for ex-communication. Or at least never-ending public ridicule and humiliation.

    That being said, perhaps what would be most effective for the scientific faculty is to host their own mockery symposium. Maybe do a “Gravity vs. God” discussion –> Gravity: Does God control it?

    Sorry, it comes from watching too much Daily Show.

  8. Justin

    I agree that the comparison to Holocaust deniers is overblown. A better comparison might be to this group which denies that smoking cigarettes causes cancer. That said, I disagree with Robert’s implication that the academy should never be dismissive of fringe science. It seems to be the nature of fringe science that its adherents have an almost religious devotion to their beliefs and engaging them in debate only serves to obfuscate the truth. A university’s mission to teach does not oblige it to dignify such beliefs with forums that present fringe views as legitimate science.

  9. Eric

    Couple comments.

    First, I love the perspective that virusdoc always seems to bring to the party. Context is crucial when interpreting events like this.

    Second, it is not enough to dismiss ID purely on the grounds that it has been motivated by religious belief. Scientific inquiry never occurs in a vacuum; regardless of how “pure” of a scientist a person thinks they are, there are always presuppositions involved. Why should a demerit be given to a viewpoint solely on the basis of its origin? If an idea is foolhardy or unsound, it will be exposed in the marketplace of ideas. This applies to both presuppositions and conclusions.

    Finally, in response to Justin, I think it is vitally important for universities to be a forum for the presentation of “fringe views”, regardless of their origin. If faculty are doing their jobs, students will be able to recognize bad argumentation and at least have a notion as to how to refute it. Also, in a university setting, there will most likely be someone around who can present an opposing side of an argument, whereas that luxury may not exist in the outside world.

  10. Justin, who gets to decide what the “fringe” is?

  11. Justin

    The scientific community itself defines the “fringe”. The process of peer-review seems to do a decent job of separating good science from junk science. If scientific work cannot pass muster with peer-reviewed journals and professional societies, then I don’t think it needs to be taken seriously by academic institutions.

  12. Justin…have you ever participated in the peer review process?

  13. virusdoc

    Eric: I agree that a theory must be judged on its own merits (in the natural sciences, largely by its explanatory and predictive capacity), and not by the intentions of those who originally put it forth. ID theory was originally put forth by a mathematician (Dembski) and a biochemist (Behe), both of whom were more or less motivated by their faith but who claimed their theory made no specific theologic statements, which is true I think. Unfortunately, when the theory is evaluated according to the natural predictions is does make (namely, that there can be no gradual evolution of “irreducibly complex” biochemical systems, it has proven to be false. Of course, it is not possible to trace the gradual evolution of every system Behe suggests is irreducible in its complexity. But a reasonable job has been done demonstrating the gradual evolution of some of the ID setpieces of irreducible complexity, including the bacterial flaggelum. So I would argue that ID has been judged on its scientific merits and found wanting by the vast majority of biologists, and has been relegated to fringe status by the scientific community a long time ago. It did serve a useful purpose in evolutionary biology, because it (painfully) pointed out the inadequacy of many evolutionary arguments most students accepted as ironclad. The Emperor wasn’t completely naked, but he was hanging out a bit in the rear.

    The question then becomes, how long does airing of fringe ideas in the marketplace of the university serve a legitimate educational purpose? Once the scientific community at large has banished an idea, does it not seem irrational to keep discussing it in large, public forums? I think it should be covered briefly in every evolution, general biology, or philosophy of science course, its major failings outlined, and that should be that. To continue to provide such an audience for this theory does give students and the public the (mis)conception that there is still controversy among scientists about this theory; there is not. This misconception is then used with great efficiency by school boards, teachers, and pastors with religious motivations to revamp biology curricula.

    I also don’t know how the Discovery Institute does their presentations, but I suspect they are well funded, highly scripted, and beautifully polished. I also suspect they do not provide an opportunity for expert detractors to address their claims one by one. If this is the format of the presentation, it does sound more like propaganda (proselytizing?) than debate and discussion.

  14. virusdoc

    Oh, and I had some of the details incorrect on the Baylor University controversy, according to wikipedia. (scroll down to “Baylor Controversy):

    My general take is still correct, but the name of the institute was wrong and the date of establishment was off (1999). The Discovery Institute is where Dembski did postdoctoral training and where he now serves as a senior fellow, so his connection with the Institute would still incite painful memories among Texas biologists.

  15. “It’s the “if we let them on campus, we legitimize them” argument I mentioned in the last paragraph. SMU faculty really believe that ID is on the moral level of holocaust denial, and since SMU wouldn’t allow a conference on THAT subject, it shouldn’t allow one on ID. That’s straight from the article.”

    I’ll be the first to say that ID doesn’t belong in the sciences — but my point is that it’s as valid a course of study in the PHILOSOPHY of science as anything else. That’s where it belongs, and the university–regardless of past history, or the feelings of science departments (which are irrelevant, given that it’s a PHILOSOPHY of science field)–is betraying its academic mission by doing this.

  16. virusdoc

    RWP: I’d agree with you except for the fact that ID doesn’t consider itself philosophy, it portrays itself as an empiric science. The ID’ers claim they can make quantitative, mathematical statements about biological complexity that lead by direct inference (if there is such a thing) to the necessity for an intelligent designer.

  17. “RWP: I’d agree with you except for the fact that ID doesn’t consider itself philosophy, it portrays itself as an empiric science.”

    Yes, but the issue is that the university is shutting down this discussion. And why is ID so much more dangerous than all the other examples of the erosion of empiricism in the sciences, such as string theory in physics, or the encroachment of postmodernism and so-called “qualitative research” into the social sciences? I’m a strict empiricist, mind. I don’t want ID in the science classroom, but I certainly don’t see ID as any more threatening than any of the others.

  18. virusdoc

    SMU didn’t shut down the discussion–they allowed it to occur but made it clear in a public statement that they were simply providing facilities for a public forum hosted by a private (non-academic) entity, as they would for any other type of organization on a fee-for-service basis. The faculty who were disturbed by the forum seemed satisfied with this conclusion and stopped their protests, and many are now using the forum as an opportunity for teaching about the controversy (or more likely, rebutting ID formally in the classroom).

    Had the university decided to shut the conference down based solely on its topic, that would have been unfortunate. But I think a legitimate argument could have been made to shut it down based on the one-sided nature of its sponsorship and format (i.e., a polished presentation of one perspective, rather than a discussion of opposing viewpoints). No idea, regardless of how absurd or poorly supported it is, is threatening as long as it can be freely discussed by all sides. And in that respect I agree with you that ID is no more threatening than any other pseudo-science, and given its current cultural relevance it definitely deserves a place in course syllabi. My previous comment was simply to point out that the ID’ers don’t see themselves as philosophers but as empiricists engaged in a statistical argument. This is in my mind a fundamental self-misunderstanding on their part.

    (Of course, the ID’ers take my last two sentences and apply them to many dogmatic evolutionists, an application which isn’t far off the mark in some instances).