Monday, September 24, 2007

Academic Freedom for Creationists?

Since Hiromi just brought up a great point about this, here's a really good article on anti-Darwinism. I don't know if this has become an issue in universities like it has in high schools, although there was some question at Mall University about whether one of out World Civ professors should continue starting his course with the Neanderthals. It was pretty quickly decided that, yes, he had tenure so he could discuss whatever he wanted. He later offended a number of Christian students by briefly discussing homosexuality in the ancient Greek world. Whatever.

Where creationism has come up in regards to academic freedom has been about how much you can ask of creationists. Most of us wouldn't have problems with say a History professor who believes in intelligent design note that this is a prehistorical issue, but what about giving a PhD in Biology to a student who ascribes to the belief? Is it okay if they're not focusing on evolutionary biology? Now what about hiring them as an assistant professor of Biology? Does it violate their academic freedom to not do so?

I'll put my cards on the table by saying that I'm okay with, for example, a marine biologist who believes that God created the whole shebang. I actually welcome the 0.0001 percent chance that they might develop an experiment in the lab that could give some empirical evidence of their beliefs. As of now, this has not happened. But my mind is always ready to be blown.

Most creationists don't realize that this has not happened yet, and this is where their ideas get dangerous for science. As a non-believer, there isn't an experiment yet that I could recreate in the lab which would convince me of intelligent design. They all require an imaginative leap to be made. To take the ''human eye'' argument, sure I can dissect a human eye in the lab and prove that it is both highly complex and well-developed. But to get to the creation argument, I have to look at that and say, ''well, gee whiz, it must have been God that did that!'' This isn't science as I understand it- it's projection. And it requires me to bring in something purely metaphysical based on the argument that ''it seems like it could be right''. Conversely, for the true believer, there's no logical argument I could make to disprove the design thesis- it can't possibly be disproved, and hence is not science.

So, for me, the design arguments aren't scientific yet. And, given how little they've actually changed in over a hundred years, I'm not convinced that they ever will be scientific. But I don't have any problem with a creationist working in a laboratory because they might conceivably find some empirical proof of God in the lab. And it would certainly blow my mind. There are, unsurprisingly, people who feel quite differently on the subject.


Hiromi said...

I think people flip their lids in terms of scarce resources. Universities have limited space and money, and so do granting institutions, including the gubmint. And that's where quality (for want of a better word) comes in -- if creationists, why not UFOlogists?

I have no problem with them being privately funded, however. But we have to parcel out space and funds based on some sort of standard, so I guess that, along the lines of what you said about falsification, creationism doesn't quality as "academic" per se.

Rufus said...

Few universities give resources to creationist research. But some are even starting to balk at giving money or positions to creationists whose work isn't involved with the debate. So the question is whether there's an actual problem with a marine biologist who studies the sex life of clams, for example, but who personally believes in creationism, if it doesn't come up in their research. I don't really think it's a problem, but a number of universities aren't keen on hiring people for their biology departments who are openly creationist because I assume they think it looks bad.

The issue of funding that you raise is right at the heart of the debates about academic freedom. It's a good idea that academics should be able to study whatever they want; but when I teach my students that anarchism, say, is preferable to American democracy, and the public gets upset, they might well have paid taxes that went towards my salary. A lot of taxpayers would prefer if we don't ever teach things that they disagree with. In fact, many conservatives are quite vocal about believing that they shouldn't have to pay the salaries of Marxists, or liberals, or whatever, at all.

Of course, we get our research funding from private organizations, and most states foot about 33% of their state universities' operating budgets, so it's arguable whether we owe anything to the taxpayers. Not to mention the fact that we are, in fact, more educated on the topics that we teach than they are. But there's a real debate as to whether taxpayers should pay the salaries of some old hippie who's teaching the kids that Marx was a swell guy or not.

Hiromi said...

Check this out:

an upcoming documentary about creationists persecuted in academia.

Rufus said...

Alas, all documentaries are now required to 'take on Big' something or other. It looks entertaining though. It seemingly proves the theory that you make these people seem more respectable by refusing to deal with them. Academics should debate much more than they do, as calmly and rationally as possible.

On the other hand, I've actually never in my life met a creationist who was willing to honestly and openly deal with challenges to their beliefs. So the critique definitely goes both ways.

green said...

I don't think intelligent design fails the science test because you can't prove it (right or wrong) anymore than evolutionary theories fail the science test for similar reasons. Intelligent design is typically feared and discredited because it draws attention to unfilled gaps in evolutionary theory. It also draws attention to the idea that other areas of study (outside of biology) should probably be involved in evolutionary science (statistics,
for instance). The caption, "intelligent design" is what disturbs people because it implies existence of a supreme being. The same ideas could just as easily be labeled, "Critiques in Evolution" and they would be generally accepted by the science community. It's not the underlying ideas of "intelligent design" that disturbs evolutionists, its the "gaps" it exposes in evolutionary theory that disturbs them.