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As Eric Hedin Earns Tenure, It’s Time to Set the Record Straight — Again

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Up until 2013, Eric Hedin, a Ball State University associate professor of astronomy and physics, taught an interdisciplinary honors course called Boundaries of Science. The course explored intelligent design, among other topics. Biologist Jerry Coyne and the Freedom From Religion Foundation caught wind of this and complained, accusing Hedin of proselytizing and teaching Christianity. Hedin was investigated, and Ball State cancelled the course, while releasing a statement prohibiting the teaching of intelligent design as science.

Obviously, nobody aiming at a career in science would wish to be at the center of attention like that, and Hedin’s critics knew it. They set out to intimidate him and other scientists with an interest in ID.

Though Hedin’s future looked iffy at the time, he has now earned tenure. That’s the good news. The bad news is that his milestone was greeted with reporting in the media that recycled inaccurate, damaging claims from the original controversy, claims that had already been firmly refuted. Inside Higher Ed, for one, repeats obvious errors about Hedin and his course that require setting the record straight once again.

First, Inside Higher Ed reporter Colleen Flaherty gives credence to false claims that Hedin proselytized. She notes:

Eric Hedin, the associate professor of astronomy and physics at Ball State University who was investigated in 2014 for allegedly teaching intelligent design, has earned tenure. That’s despite claims that he was proselytizing in a science class and the university’s strong affirmation of the scientific consensus around evolution in light of the allegations.

The foundation said it did not object to the premise of the honors science seminar, described in the syllabus as an investigation of “physical reality and the boundaries of science for any hidden wisdom within this reality which may illuminate the central questions of the purpose of our existence and the meaning of life. Rather, the organization said it objected to the course “as taught,” based on reports that Hedin was proselytizing and endorsing a Christian viewpoint over others presented. As a public university, Ball State could be in violation of its obligation to separate church and state, the foundation said. [Emphasis added.]

In an article at the time, John G. West, the Center for Science & Culture’s Associate Director, noted:

[T]he complaint against Hedin did not identify any student who was willing to complain on the record against Hedin. Instead, it merely highlighted a few anonymous (and ambiguous) comments from RateMyProfessor.com, a website that doesn’t even verify whether those posting comments are in fact college students, let alone whether they ever took courses from the professor in question.

Furthermore, according to documents released by Ball State, students reported that the course was evenhanded:

  • “I’m an agnostic and I find absolutely nothing wrong with… [Professor Hedin’s] teachings; … as far as intelligent and thought-provoking discussions go, [Hedin’s Boundaries of Science course]… is one of the most INNOVATIVE classes I have had during my time at Ball State. I lean more towards scientific evidence than anything else, but being an intelligent, curious, and open-minded individual, I appreciate all of the discussions that this class has had and all of the new ideas I have come to understand. There is nothing wrong with this class, and I would recommend it to anyone, no matter what their religious beliefs are.”

  • “I took the honors physics course taught by Dr. Hedin in the spring of 2011. While learning about scientific concepts such as quantum mechanics, black holes, the formation of stars, and other topics, Dr. Hedin’s instruction challenged me in a way that my other university classes did not. This course made me a better learner. It allowed me to become much more competent in these complex scientific areas of study and prompted me to become an individual who is committed to learning more about these topics in my own time. At times, in the classroom, students would pose questions which were related to spiritual concepts, but Dr. Hedin merely facilitated discussion giving EVERY single student an opportunity to provide input. Furthermore, Dr. Hedin goes above and beyond the actions of a typical college educator.”

Inside Higher Ed‘s reporter puts unverified student reports, damaging to Hedin’s reputation, front and center in her article, while ignoring positive reviews.

Second, Hedin’s course, as described in the syllabus and approved by the university, fulfilled course expectations. Boundaries of Science (HONRS 296) was an interdisciplinary honors course, not a narrowly focused science course. The stated purpose of HONRS 296 courses at Ball State is to “emphasize relationships of the sciences to human concerns and society.” In line with this, Hedin covered a wide range of topics relevant to the boundaries of science, including human consciousness, intelligent design, evolution, debate on the place of naturalism, perspectives on the relationship between science and faith, and the nature of science. The course centered on physics, cosmology, and astronomy, but delved into biology and more. Hedin did not teach creationism — the religious view that the earth was created several thousand years ago.

Inside Higher Ed also regurgitates the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s complaint that the “partial syllabus” for Hedin’s course included works by intelligent design proponents and other “Christian apologists who lack any scientific credentials whatsoever,” such as C. S. Lewis.

In actuality, the two main texts were a book by Oxford University’s John Lennox, a mathematician whom West describes as “a scholar who explicitly rejects Biblical creationism,” and a mainstream textbook by Mark A. Garlick, a PhD in astrophysics, covering cosmic history from the Big Bang to the origins of life. A bibliography of optional additional materials included works from a diverse set of philosophical and religious (and anti-religious) perspectives that students could choose to consult — or not — at their own discretion.

Inside Higher Ed also repeats inaccuracies from then-Ball State President Jo Ann Gora’s public statement:

“Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory,” and the question was not one of academic freedom, but one of academic integrity, she said. “To allow intelligent design to be presented to science students as a valid scientific theory would violate the academic integrity of the course as it would fail to accurately represent the consensus of science scholars.”

This statement contains several errors. The point about “consensus” science is not a valid way to judge intelligent design; instead, it is often an excuse not to examine the evidence. Intelligent design is not a religious belief — it does not draw from any sacred text. On the contrary, intelligent design uses the scientific method to reach its conclusions. Here is a brief summary of ID, according to Casey Luskin, former Center for Science & Culture Research Coordinator:

Intelligent design is a scientific theory that holds some aspects of life and the universe are best explained by reference to an intelligent cause. Why? Because they contain the type of complexity and information that in our experience comes only from intelligence.

As a result, intelligent-design theorists begin by studying how intelligent agents act when they design things. Intelligence is a process, or a mechanism, which we can observe at work in the world around us. Human designers make a great dataset for studying how intelligent agency works.

When we study the actions of humans, we learn that intelligent agents produce high levels of complex and specified information (CSI). Something is complex if it’s unlikely, and specified if it matches some independent pattern.

By assessing whether natural structures contain the type of complexity — high CSI — that in our experience comes only from intelligence, we can construct a positive, testable case for design.

And what happens when we study nature? Well, the past 60 years of biology research have uncovered that life is fundamentally based upon:

  • A vast amount of complex and specified information encoded in a biochemical language;

  • A computer-like system of commands and codes that processes the information.

  • Molecular machines and multi-machine systems.

But where in our experience do things like language, complex and specified information, programming code, or machines come from? They have one and only one known source: intelligence.

For further information on the scientific theory of intelligent design and related matters, see our resource list of “Essential Readings.”

Finally, despite Dr. Gora’s assertion, academic freedom was indeed the primary issue at stake in Hedin’s case. We have dealt with this extensively elsewhere.

Despite claims from the Freedom From Religion Foundation and other activists, Hedin in fact has a fine record as both a scientist and a teacher, and he deserved fairer treatment from Inside Higher Ed. It would have been much more fitting to celebrate his tenure, than to dig up unsubstantiated accusations from the past.

Photo: Ball State University, by Momoneymoproblemz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.