Inside Higher Ed: Science or Religion?

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

May 20, 2013

Ball State University has agreed to investigate complaints that a course taught by a physics and astronomy professor has crossed a line from being about science to being about Christianity.

Science blogs have been discussing the course for a few weeks now (although the professor who teaches the class, who did not respond to requests for comment, hasn’t weighed in publicly). Ball State did not issue a statement until 16 May, after it received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation claiming that the course - “The Boundaries of Science” - is being used “to proselytize students and advance Christianity”.

The letter states that the course’s description makes it seem “to be an honest objective investigation regarding the intersection of science and religion”. But the 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.

The foundation says that the syllabus is full of “ID-speak”, language promoting the ideas of intelligent design, a theory discredited by leading scientists as a tool to try to undercut the teaching of evolution. The letter states that there is nothing wrong with teaching about religion at a public university, but argues that the course crosses a line into endorsing a religious view - which the letter says is inappropriate for a science course or for a public university.

Ball State needs to investigate the issues involved and assure a separation of church and state, and the upholding of academic standards, the letter says. The letter was sent to Ball State’s president, Jo Ann Gora, on 15 May.

On 16 May, the university issued this statement: “The university received a complaint from a third party late yesterday afternoon about content in a specific course offered at Ball State. We take academic rigor and academic integrity very seriously. Having just received these concerns, it is impossible to comment on them at this point. We will explore in depth the issues and concerns raised and take the appropriate actions through our established processes and procedures.”

The university’s statement did not identify the faculty member responsible for the course - Eric Hedin - but the programme has been much discussed in recent weeks on science blogs.

The debate over Dr Hedin’s course started on the blog “Why Evolution Is True” which is written by Jerry A. Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago.

Professor Coyne examined the materials for the course and wrote that it “is little more than a course in accommodationism and Christian religion, with very little science. It’s my firm opinion that teaching this course at a state university not only violates the First Amendment, but cheats the students by subjecting them to religious proselytizing when they’re trying to learn science.”

For example, Professor Coyne noted that one course objective on the syllabus is to study “implications relating to the significance and value of human life, and as possible indications of the nature and existence of God”. Professor Coyne asked why a science course is looking for indications of the existence of God. Further, he noted that the syllabus lists as topics to be explored intelligent design and “miracles and spirituality”, and he again asked why these would be taught in a science course.

Professor Coyne said that he wrote to the chair of the physics and astronomy department at Ball State, Thomas Robertson. Professor Coyne wrote that Dr Robertson responded, but had not granted permission for his response to be published. But Professor Coyne said that Dr Robertson confirmed the accuracy of the syllabus and said that the course helped students challenge the ideas they had upon enrolling in college. Professor Coyne said that the course must be stopped because it is a violation of the separation of church and state.

Dr Robertson said in an email that the syllabus was approved by the department’s Curriculum and Assessment Committee. “We review faculty performance regularly through student and peer/chair evaluations,” he said. “I receive complaints and concerns from students familiar with faculty performance in their classes and investigate when appropriate. Given the totality of information available to me at this time, I do not share the opinions expressed [on the internet]. We will continue to monitor our faculty and their course materials and practices and take appropriate action when deemed necessary.”

Meanwhile, Professor Coyne’s posts have prompted an unusual disagreement within the anti-creationist science blogging world.

PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris and a prominent critic of those who try to promote doubt about evolution, examined the issue on his blog Pharyngula. Dr Myers called the Ball State course “crap” and “bad science” and endorsed Professor Coyne’s analysis of the reasons the course is flawed.

But Dr Myers disagreed that the course should be blocked on legal grounds. “[A]cademic freedom is the issue here, and professors have to have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective,” he wrote. “The First Amendment does not apply; this is not a course students are required to take, and it’s at a university, which students are not required to attend. It’s completely different from a public primary or secondary school. A bad course is an ethical problem, not a legal one. It’s also an issue that the university has to handle internally.”

Similarly, Laurence A. Moran, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Torontowrote on his blog that he also agreed with the critique of the course, but not the idea that the professor should lose his right to teach it.

“I defend the right of a tenured professor to teach whatever he/she believes to be true no matter how stupid it seems to the rest of us,” he wrote. “I’m troubled by the fact that some people are calling for the instructor’s dismissal and writing letters to the chair of his department. We really don’t want to go down that path, do we? Academic freedom is important and it’s especially important to defend it when a professor is pushing a view that we disagree with.”

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said he has been watching the emerging debate with interest. Branch said he doesn’t think enough facts are clear to know whether the course has crossed a line. Via email, he called the syllabus and reading list “suggestive but hardly dispositive”. While Branch said that there are academic freedom issues when discussing what professors say in the classroom, “it is possible for a professor’s religious advocacy, even if not breaching the separation of church and state, to go so far as not to be protected by academic freedom considerations”.

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