Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Academic Authoritarianism: Universities Should Ban “Fake Science”

From a science oriented website, a demand that certain ideas be banned from university campuses. How, it asks, should universities deal with “fake science?” The answer:
By banning it—and recognizing that’s very different from restricting academic freedom.

Universities are supposed to stand for the highest ideals in science and scholarship. “Our mission is to advance knowledge and transform lives,” reads Michigan State University’s mission statement, by “conducting research of the highest caliber that seeks to answer questions and create solutions in order to expand human understanding and make a positive difference.” So what is a university like Michigan State supposed to do when it unwittingly lends its name and reputation to an organization that embodies the very opposite of the highest caliber scholarship?

The organization in this case is a Christian fundamentalist group that held an anti-science “Origin Summit” on the MSU campus last Saturday. The conference organizers managed to use a student religious group to book a room on campus. They then proceeded to emphasize in their advertising that the meeting was being held at a big-name research university and “bringing world renowned scientists before the students.” These scientists have “tangible proof and viable evidence” that science and the bible are “in total agreement.” To reconcile the Bible with science, the summit program—which has since been removed from the organization’s website, but can be found here—featured speakers who discussed the role of evolution in Hitler’s thinking, why “the Big Bang is FAKE,” why evolution is impossible, and the evidence for intelligent design in nature. One talk was devoted to criticizing a famous experiment by one of MSU’s own evolutionary biologists.
 Unorthodox, certainly. So it can’t be allowed on campus.
. . . a campus is not a Marriott. Universities should recognize as British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University did after it offered space to an anti-vaccine conference—that when you rent a room, you also implicitly rent your name and credibility. The second principle is that bad scholarship can be rooted out by conventional means, while pseudoscience cannot. Hiring a creationist as a science faculty member or hosting a debate with a figure from an anti-science movement runs the risk of misleading the students and the public, by giving such people air time under the university’s seal. When universities make a commitment to open inquiry, it doesn’t mean that they have to open their doors to fake science.
So these folks need to be banned from campus.

We happen to think young earth creationism is a bit of a crackpot position, but we would rather have a lot of young earth creationists around than nasty authoritarians who want to shut up speech they disagree with.

Where public universities are concerned, attempts to shut up certain viewpoints are pretty much unconstitutional. Our colleague Paul Nolette (who teaches Constitutional Law) responded to this article as follows:
I think that plaintiffs would have a strong viewpoint discrimination case if a public university attempted to ban what it deemed to be an “anti-science” summit while allowing similar discussions to proceed. While public universities are not quite the same as public parks or sidewalks (which are “traditional” public forums), they are nevertheless still limited public forums in which bans like this would raise serious questions. There’s a fairly clear line of precedent that suggests that designating a public forum, such as a lecture hall or other meeting space, to those with one viewpoint but closing it to another would violate free speech principles.

I would also add that such a ban might also violate the Free Exercise Clause as well. There are a number of cases involving student religious groups in which the Court held that school restrictions violated the students’ religious rights. Indeed, there are enough elements for a lawsuit that I would think a university would reverse its policy or settle before such a case even reached the courts.
Another example from the article:
In 2007, astronomer Martin Gaskell had applied for the directorship [at the University of Kentucky] of a new observatory at the university. His application was turned down, and the position was given to someone with less training and experience, in part because Gaskell had given public lectures endorsing intelligent design and claiming that there was little or no evidence for evolution. Though the job was in astronomy and not biology, the hiring committee was justifiably wary of hiring someone who rejected major elements of modern science. . . . But Gaskell sued for religious discrimination. The University of Kentucky settled, agreeing to pay Gaskell $125,000.
We are glad the University of Kentucky had to pay for this egregious instance of discrimination.

It’s one thing to say that if you want a job in (say) Physical Anthropology, you need to believe in evolution to teach and publish effectively.  But demanding orthodox beliefs in a different field really is discrimination (religious, in this case).

Some Crackpot Ideas Acceptable

Interestingly, scientists would doubtless be quite tolerant of crackpot notions that didn’t contradict the scientific orthodoxy.  A job candidate in Physical Anthropology or Astronomy who believed that Dick Cheney arranged the 9/11 attacks, or that the CIA had John Kennedy killed would be tolerated.

Indeed, years ago we had a conversation with a colleague in the natural sciences (we’ll conceal his name to protect the guilty), who loudly demanded that high school students not be taught about the theory of intelligent design.  We asked him whether it is OK that they be taught Marxist economics or JFK conspiracy theories, and he said that was perfectly acceptable.

In short, unorthodox and even crackpot theories are fine so long as they don’t contradict “science.”  Science is sacred.  Science is special.  Science should not be subjected to the rough and tumble of the marketplace of ideas.

Ironically, there is good evidence for one variant of intelligent design:  the anthropic principle, which shows that our universe appears to be contrived — designed — to allow the evolution of life.

Of course, science changes its orthodoxy sometimes.  The history of science is full of fiascoes like support for eugenics and acceptance of Piltdown Man as a human ancestor.  Scientists will point out that science is “self-correcting.”  Scientists themselves will correct their own errors.

After they do, people are then free to change their beliefs and accept the new scientific orthodoxy.  In fact, they better do so, on penalty of being called “anti-science.”

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5 Comments:

Blogger jimspice said...

If someone can't correctly interpret the slope of a trend line through say, global temperature data, why should he be expected to be able to understand the research in his chosen field. It's the same statistics.

11:37 PM  
Blogger James Pawlak said...

I will correctly answer all those questions---IN A HUNDRED YEARS.

However, I was under the impression that there are NO "settled questions" in Science. Earth central astronomy, bleeding as general medical treatment and other like "settled science" is well known to honest historians.

10:16 PM  
Blogger jimspice said...

Um, the modern scientific method, specifically the concept of falsifiability, wasn't even a thing until the 1930s.

9:51 PM  
Blogger Hina Khan said...

Indeed, years ago we had a conversation with a colleague in the natural sciences (we’ll conceal his name to protect the guilty), who loudly demanded that high school students not be taught about the theory of intelligent design.

HSSC Date Sheet 2015 BISE Abbottabad Board

8:35 AM  
Blogger John Pack Lambert said...

I had a professor at Eastern Michigan University who rejected the Warren Report and used that to frame his study of Alexander the Great coming to poer implying Alexander arranged his fathers execution. I am still not sure how that class got approved as a graduate one but that is because it was a weak course using one book more aimed at high school seniors than anything else. There was no discussion of historiography and it was never clear the teacher understood that there were muliple sources and interpretations. Some of this was a reflection of weaknesses of ancient history. However mainly it reflected the professor was not up to the caliber needed to teach grad students.

12:54 AM  

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