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Freedom on the Football Field – How About in the Science Lab?


There’s a lot of hand wringing going on right now, some of it rather precious, about the free expression rights of NFL players being threatened when they’re criticized by the President for “taking a knee” during the National Anthem. Even some conservatives have joined the chorus in fretting about this. Whether tweeting on the matter represents a wise use of Donald Trump’s time, amid international crises, is a question I leave for others.

But I can’t help noticing that many of those suddenly rushing to the barricades for free speech have said nothing about a far more disturbing reality. As we know from years of reporting and hearing from scientists and science instructors in private, the machinery of censorship arrayed against Darwin skeptics is formidable, yet little remarked upon. Most people are hardly aware it exists. Some atheist scientists candidly justify it, or call for more.

Consider the contrast. These NFL players, high-paid celebrity entertainers, have the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, tweeting at them. He can tweet all he wants. So far, their employers have stood fast behind them, even “taking a knee” together with them. Whether fans, who find offensive what is implied, will respond by boycotting the game remains to be seen. Victor Davis Hanson astutely reads the cultural meaning here.

Trump has no authority to force team owners to fire or otherwise discipline anyone. He is simply making use of the President’s traditional bully pulpit. The players, meanwhile, are using their workplace as a forum to protest matters unrelated to their work, in a way guaranteed to alienate many of the people – fans –  who ultimately pay their mega-salaries. If the players were not TV stars, you wonder how much sympathy there would be for their cause.

If supermarket checkers used their registers to lobby customers on behalf of a political or social viewpoint, however just, would this pass muster with the owners, or with customers? What about if delivery truck drivers festooned their vehicles with banners advertising their social views, obscuring the logo of the company they work for?

Academic freedom is something very different. There is no logical connection between playing football and taking social stands. Playing football is what football players do. But exploring ideas, including controversial ones, is what scientists and other scholars do. Ensuring academic freedom is what universities do, or should do. Legalities aside, we expect communities of learning to set maximally wide boundaries for intellectual exploration.

Yet we know when it comes to objectively investigating the strengths and weaknesses of evolution, or recognizing evidence of design in nature, the manacles go on. I began thinking about this in 2005 when I investigated the treatment of evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg by supervisors at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The issue was his editing and publication of a relevant article by an intelligent design advocate, Stephen Meyer, in a technical journal. For this, Dr. Sternberg was reprimanded, shamed, and finally forced out.

With our Censor of the Year award, we have recognized some institutions and individuals for squashing free speech. University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, secure and tenured, nearly got one untenured astronomer fired – Eric Hedin at Ball State University – for airing design evidence to students. Hedin learned his lesson. It’s the powerful (Coyne) who victimize the powerless (Hedin) in these cases.

Scientists outside the U.S. fare no better. More recently, we saw what happened to paleontologist Günter Bechly at the hands of the Stuttgart State Museum of Natural History, when he expressed heretical ideas about evolution. He gets to tell some of his story in the recent documentary Revolutionary: Michael Behe and the Mystery of Molecular Machines.

Earlier this year we interviewed an Israeli biochemist on lipids as “designed objects.” He prudently wished to be anonymous. When I suggested a podcast with him, not identifying him, I was reminded of the risk. No, someone might recognize his voice!

Sternberg and Bechly ultimately joined the staff of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, a haven against Darwinist censorship. We know many other scientists and scholars, including at top institutions, who maintain a necessary silence about their Darwin-critical views. Oh, how I wish I could tell you where they are without endangering them. They share their thoughts only in private. Sometimes we have been startled and worried when one did speak out, and have, again privately, urged greater caution in the future.

Graduates of our Summer Seminars on Intelligent Design have gone on to academic careers, and they too are well aware of the dangers. We rarely have to warn or remind them. Everyone knows that questioning Darwinian theory, in a fundamental way, is likely to be career suicide. I once had the opportunity to talk with a Nobel laureate who shared his evolution doubts. Surely no one could be more secure! Yet when I asked him to go on the record, he refused.

Stories like these are all too familiar around here. Look what happened to New York University’s Thomas Nagel, a distinguished and tenured philosopher and an atheist, for goodness sake. Do you want that to happen to you? (See Andrew Ferguson’s Weekly Standard article, “The Heretic.”)

This, as we have observed before, is how rigid uniformity on evolution is enforced in academia, where free speech is supposed to be sacred. They call it the scientific “consensus.” This “consensus” has immeasurably more power to coerce and silence, and on matters of far greater importance, than the President of the United States does. It’s been said that in North Korea, people fear not only for what they say, but even what they think. It’s much the same in evolutionary biology.

In biology as in cosmology, an ultimate question is at stake: the origin of life and of the universe, with many vital issues downstream from that, including ethics and the meaning of being human. I’m not aware of any comparable stakes in the game of football. Yet about Darwinist censorship you won’t hear a peep across a vast swath of the media, including writers who are currently standing, or kneeling, in solidarity with the pampered athletes, beset by a “troubling assault on free speech.” Pardon me while I gag on the irony.

Photo: Oakland Raiders, kneeling in protest at National Anthem, by Keith Allison [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.