There’s another in the continuing series of articles by Seth Slabaugh, the Muncie Star-Press reporter who is covering the case of Dr. Eric Hedin, the Ball State University (BSU) professor under investigation for teaching intelligent design and proselytizing Christianity in a science class. Slabaugh’s piece, “Professor left twisting in the wind?“, takes its title from a Discovery Institute characterization of how Hedin is being treated.
The subtitle is “God versus science debate over BSU class includes gets ugly.” (I think that “includes” is a typo here, unless “gets ugly” is some kind of noun.) And it’s largely about the tone of the debate rather than the substance, which makes me more than a little unhappy.
I’m quoted several times as having made statements characterized by Slabauth (and the Discovery Institute or DI) as inflammatory and verbally abusive, including:
Hedin has been called “the nutty professor” by Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago and author of the blog, “Why Evolution is True.” Coyne has referred to the controversy as “Hedingate.”
and these (all taken from this website).
“Were we supposed to sit back and let Hedin shove Jesus down his students’ throats, as well as presenting creationism in his science class? Well excuse me for informing Hedin’s chair (and then, when the chair did nothing, the Freedom from Religion Foundation) about his course.”
“I suspect Ball State is getting a wee bit nervous about the publicity now. Granted, their instinct is to cover their tuchus, cater to the religious and conservative majority of Indiana, and hope that it all blows over, but they’re starting to look like Dayton, Tenn., during the Scopes Trial.”
“ … I’ll be happy if this doesn’t go to court but is simply resolved by BSU telling Hedin that he can’t shove Jesus down the throats of his students. If they don’t do that, then I have no problem with saying that the BSU administration is simply cowardly and unwilling to stand up for good science.”
Je ne regrette rien. The “nutty professor” might seem a bit ad hominem, but remember that Hedin is teaching lies to his science class about intelligent design and the supposed evidence for God and Jesus in the universe. Remember that he said the universe must have been designed by the Christian god because it’s impossible that “some Hindu monkey god” was involved. It seems more charitable (and not out of place) to call him “nutty” rather than a “liar.”
The DI is also noted for “similar rhetoric” emanating from the old faker David Klinghoffer (words in quotes come from Klinghoffer):
“Physicist Eric Hedin is still left twisting in the wind, thanks to the administrators at his university.”
Coyne is an “ignoramus” and “a bully.”
“Distinctly on the far fringe, FFRP campaigns for erasing ‘In God We Trust’ from American currency … and is also responsible for some hard-edged billboards you may have seen including, ‘Yes Virginia…There Is No God,’ ‘ Heathen’s Greetings,’ ‘ Sleep In on Sundays’ and ‘Enjoy Life Now. There Is No Afterlife.’ “
You know what? I don’t care a whit about the tone of those statements. This is exactly what is to be expected on websites (not in academic journals, note) in a case that is not purely academic, but political. To me it’s about two related issues: 1) whether professors at public universities have the right to abrogate the First Amendment to the Constitution by pushing a particular religious viewpoint in the classroom, and 2) whether a professor has the right to teach lies (intelligent design creationism) in a science class, especially when he fails to present the other side.
The DI’s invective rolls off my back. At one time they—I think it was William Dembski—posted a picture of me next to one of Herman Munster, pointing out the resemblance. They eventually removed it, but it didn’t bother me at all. Satire is one of the weapons in this battle between rationality and superstition. When they don’t have arguments, they have Herman Munster and satire based on looks.
So the rhetoric from the DI doesn’t faze me in the least, and it doesn’t seem to have fazed anyone else but reporter Slabaugh. I’ve been criticized for many things in this fracas, but none of the criticism has been about my tone. It’s invariably that I’m an evolutionary carpetbagger, riding into Indiana to enforce my scientific/atheistic views on another university.
So tone is hardly an issue here, and neither is Hedin’s “twisting in the wind,” which, after all, merely means he awaits the outcome of Ball State’s investigation of his class, an investigation which is the right thing for BSU to do.
The other part of the piece deals with George Wolfe, a BSU professor who was accused in 2004 by right-wingnut David Horowitz of “supporting terrorists and indoctrinating students with a liberal, anti-military, anti-American political agenda.” But Wolfe’s case wasn’t similar to Hedin’s at all. There was no formal investigation, and Wolfe was quickly exonerated by the BSU president. Wolfe probably made a few “liberal” statements in his class and offended some right-wing students, who reported him.
The main dissimilarity between the Wolfe and Hedin cases is what the men were accused of. Hedin is not being hounded for thinking wrong thoughts or displaying “wrong” sentiments. He is accused of teaching manifest rubbish and calling it science, as well as violating the First Amendment.
Nevertheless, Wolfe, as is natural, was upset by this accusation that came out of nowhere, and has written Hedin a letter of support. It includes this.
“From what I have read about your class, I think having your students critically examine scientific theories in an Honors College class is most appropriate,” Wolfe wrote.
Be careful, Dr. Wolfe, for there was no “critical examination” in Hedin’s class. There was plenty of reading about the immanence of God and Jesus in the universe, but none about the absence of evidence for God. No Dawkins, no Stenger, no Sagan, no Krauss, no Carroll.
And Wolfe appends some advice, apparently intended for Hedin and his detractors:
“The answer to political intrusion and verbal abuse by misinformed individuals or groups is not to repress their expression but to respond with truth and dignified nonviolence. We must refuse to become like our enemies, and never allow ourselves to be drawn into hateful, slanderous debate.”
I’m not sure what he’s talking about unless he’s projecting what happened to him on this episode (entirely possible given that the firebrand Horowitz was involved), but the debate to date has been far from hateful, and hardly slanderous. Yes, there’s been some strong language, but that’s what happens in cases like this. Certainly my initial letter to Hedin’s chair was calm and reasoned, but of course achieved nothing.
What’s not important here is the tone, but the issues. The investigation of Hedin grinds on, and I hope will reach the conclusion that he transgressed, and that his course should be either dropped or changed to a philosophy/religion course that, in contrast to its present incarnation, allows airing of the secular side of science. By concentrating on the “he-said/they said” issues, emphasizing that things are “getting ugly,” and that Hedin is “twisting in the wind” (a very unwise choice for a headline, coming as it does straight from the DI), the newspaper has taken its eyes off the prize.
Let’s get back to the issues, Star-Press, and behave like the serious paper you purport to be. You’re not the National Enquirer, and there are serious issues of academic and religious freedom here. Concentrating on “tone” is simply a distraction.