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Does Intelligent Design Deserve Academic Freedom?

Casey Luskin


Over at The Conversation, Peter Ellerton rightly points out that “How a debate is framed can change the point at issue.” Ellerton, who is Lecturer in Critical Thinking at the University of Queensland, uses intelligent design as an example of how framing can affect the outcome of an argument:

Realise, for example, that the point of not teaching Intelligent Design in science classes is one of quality control, not of academic freedom.

Now Professor Ellerton is himself an expert in framing issues so he can win a debate. Thus, he has tried to frame the intelligent design issue in a way that makes it look like ID proponents don’t care about establishing the “quality” of our arguments, and that we argue that ID may be taught only on the basis of “academic freedom.” This makes us sound unreasonable and unconcerned about academic concerns. But he created this framing so he could win the debate; his framing is not accurate at all.

Before going further, let’s note that leading groups like Discovery Institute aren’t trying to push ID into public schools, and in fact we oppose attempts to do so. That isn’t because we think ID lacks “quality” but rather because critics are so intolerant of ID that when it gets promoted in public schools, it results in politicization that impedes ID proponents from making their case in the academy. It’s that scientific dialogue that takes priority.

That brings us to Ellerton’s argument. When you’re trying to decide whether to teach a concept, both academic freedom and quality control come into play. Despite Ellerton’s simplistic and self-serving framing, it’s not just one or the other.

Now there’s always freedom to teach views that everyone agrees with. Thus, academic freedom basically means freedom to teach unpopular or controversial viewpoints that are also academically rigorous. Here’s how the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) puts it:

Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. …
The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is “controversial.” Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject. [Emphasis added.]

Further elaborating on the meaning of academic freedom, the AAUP has stated:

It is not indoctrination when, as a result of their research and study, instructors assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline. It is not indoctrination for an economist to say to his students that in his view the creation of markets is the most effective means for promoting growth in underdeveloped nations, or for a biologist to assert her belief that evolution occurs through punctuated equilibriums rather than through continuous processes. …

Indoctrination occurs only when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of such propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them. Vigorously to assert a proposition or a viewpoint, however controversial, is to engage in argumentation and discussion-an engagement that lies at the core of academic freedom. Such engagement is essential if students are to acquire skills of critical independence. The essence of higher education does not lie in the passive transmission of knowledge but in the inculcation of a mature independence of mind.

“Freedom in the classroom” is ultimately connected to freedom of research and publication. Freedom of research and publication is grounded in the exercise of professional expertise. Investigators are held to professional standards so that the modern university can serve as “an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally, perchance, it may become part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.” Academic freedom therefore includes the freedom to publish research results on controversial questions of public policy. A faculty committee at the University of Montana put it well in 1918:

If professors of economics and politics can discuss none of these questions, their departments should not be permitted to continue in the University, for the very fact that we have men employed in these subjects implies that they must make a study of them and give the result of their investigations to the people of the state. It does not follow that their conclusions must be accepted, for the opinions of members of the faculty are worthy of consideration only so far as they are supported by indisputable facts and sound logic. In case their arguments are weak, the weakness can be detected and exposed.

It follows that if an instructor has formed an opinion on a controversial question in adherence to scholarly standards of professional care, it is as much an exercise of academic freedom to test those opinions before students as it is to present them to the public at large. [Emphasis added; internal citations omitted.]

The last sentence is a crucial example of balancing the issues of academic freedom and quality control. It’s not appropriate to insert just any old idea into the classroom. But when an idea meets scholarly standards of professional care, it’s acceptable to discuss even if it is controversial. That’s academic freedom.

So what happens when a professor wants to discuss a highly controversial scientific idea that:

  • Uses the scientific method to make its claims,
  • Is backed by credible scientists,
  • Is supported by credible peer-reviewed scientific publications,
  • And uses arguments that stand up to scrutiny, and are backed by evidence?

Such an idea meets scholarly standards of professional care, and deserves academic freedom. Then what about ID? The theory of intelligent design:

Though controversial, ID meets scholarly standards of professional care and thus deserves academic freedom. It’s really quite simple.

Yet we have scholars like Dr. Ellerton asserting that ID fails the test of “quality control” and does not deserve academic freedom. Where exactly is the refutation of ID or the demonstration that it doesn’t use the scientific method, that it isn’t backed by credible scientists, that it isn’t supported in peer-reviewed publications, or that its arguments don’t stand up to scrutiny? Ellerton doesn’t tell us.

He’s not alone. On the contrary, some of the most prominent critics of intelligent design in the scientific and academic community take the same approach: they declare ID devoid of evidential backing without any serious examination of the evidence.

For example, in 2008, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a statement declaring that ID “is not supported by scientific evidence” and “[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution,” because evolution is “so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter” it. But the NAS’s critique misrepresented the meaning of ID, and included a highly inaccurate discussion of the scientific evidence.

In 2002, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) adopted a resolution and issued a press release declaring that the “ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim.” But they offered no discussion of the actual evidence for ID and why it supposedly isn’t “credible.” John West surveyed AAAS board members and found they “voted to brand intelligent design as unscientific without actually reading for themselves the academic books and articles by scientists proposing the theory.”

Opponents of ID like Ellerton may rely on blanket statements like this as if they demonstrate that ID has been rejected by the scientific community. However, what these statements actually document is that much opposition to ID is not scientific in nature but political, and is based upon fundamental misunderstandings and misrepresentations of ID. After all, since when do leading scientific organizations issue press releases and edicts against an idea?

Additionally, consider the NAS’s statement that ID “is not supported by scientific evidence” and “[t]here is no scientific controversy about the basic facts of evolution.” Or consider the AAAS’s statement that its members should “understand the inappropriateness of ‘intelligent design theory.'” Now imagine you are a biologist who supports ID and holds fundamental doubts about Darwinism, but you see the two most influential science organizations in the U.S. asserting that your views are not only wrong, but beyond consideration. Does that make you feel you have the freedom to express your views in the laboratory, the classroom, or in scientific journals, even if those views meet scholarly standards of professional care? Certainly not.

Indeed, even groups like the AAUP — which are supposed to defend academic freedom — go on witch hunts against ID proponents, wrongly implying that particular ID proponents are teaching ID in the classroom and preemptively declaring that ID doesn’t deserve academic freedom.

Given that ID does meet scholarly standards of professional care, the issue really is about academic freedom. Why do elite intellectual guardians of academic freedom and scientific truth declare the debate about ID to be over, when they haven’t even engaged what ID proponents actually say? We still await serious critics who will successfully tell us in detail how our arguments and evidence go wrong. Instead, we typically see critics who just declare ID is wrong, and tell us to be silent.

Image: Harvard University, by QuarterCircleS (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.