Inside Higher Ed: Academic freedom doesn’t allow you to teach junk science

UPDATE: There was a letter in yesterday’s Muncie Star-Press by one David Perkins criticizing the bizarre letter from music professor George Wolfe that I highlighted the other day.  Perkins’s is a remarkably sane letter (I’m getting used to craziness coming out of BSU) that criticizes Wolfe for saying, among other things, that we evolutionary biologists should be decrying Nazi eugenics instead of sticking our noses into Ball State’s affairs.

I’m not sure who David Perkins is, but there’s somebody with that name who is a professor of psychology at Ball State.


Marjorie Heins has written about Ball State University (BSU) and Hedingate in a May 30 article in Inside Higher Ed, one I apparently missed: “Is teaching ‘junk science’ protected by academic freedom?” It’s basically an ok piece—particularly when compared to similar reportage in other places—but its purpose seems to be to warn carpetbaggers like me and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) from interfering in the internal affairs of a public university.

The question Heins poses is familiar:

Academic freedom protects professors’ scholarship and teaching — within limits. It certainly protects the ability to broach controversial ideas in class. But it isn’t an absolute right. Professors have to teach the subjects assigned, and can’t engage in racial or sexual harassment, to mention just a few limits. There is also the matter of professional competence. A Holocaust denier may be competent to teach math or Spanish, but is unqualified to teach European history. A believer in “creation science” may be competent to teach medieval literature, but not biology. If the course is junk science, the professor has no academic-freedom right to teach it, and his department should have enough professional integrity to remove it from the catalog.

So far so good, and contra the views of Larry Moran and P. Z. Myers that a professor has the right to teach any kind of junk science he/she wants. Hey, it’s academic freedom!

But what if the department decides not to? Does teaching the course at a public university violate the constitutional mandate prohibiting an “establishment of religion,” as it indisputably would if offered at a public high school? There’s little case law on this question — probably because there aren’t many public universities that offer courses proselytizing religion under the guise of science.

Heins goes on to review case law about situations in which professors proselytize for religion in a public university, and concludes, correctly, that it’s confusing, “probably because there aren’t many public univerisities that offer courses proselytizing religion under the guise of science.”

Nevertheless, she concludes that the Hedin case probably doesn’t violate the Lemon Test for First-Amendment compliance. According to that widely used test, the law is said to be in harmony with the First Amendment if it meets three criteria (this paragraph is from the decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman):

Three … tests may be gleaned from our cases. First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster an excessive government entanglement with religion.

Heins concludes that the Hedin issue wouldn’t fail these tests because (quotes are from Heins):

a) “There’s no coercion brcause nobody has to attend Ball State or enroll in the course.” That’s bogus because coercion isn’t part of the Lemon test, because nobody has to attend a public high school either (you always have the alternative of home-schooling), and because there are only a handful of courses that BSU honors students can take for science credit. Finally, once a student is in the course, and realizes that it involves a religious message (it doesn’t appear at the start), their options for withdrawing are limited.

b) “There’s little likelihood that reasonable observers would think the administration endorses the professor’s religious message. On the contrary, a basic tenet of academic freedom is that professors don’t necessarily speak for the university.  . .”.  Again, bogus.  High-school teachers can’t teach creationism regardless of whether the administration endorses the professor’s religious message.  A professor at a public university, like a teacher in a public school, is an agent of the government (their salaries come from the state), and so is prohibited from endorsing religion. Whether the administration knew (or should have known) what Hedin was teaching in the last six years is unclear, and, at any rate, when I brought the issue of religious proselytizing to the attention of Hedin’s chair, he said the syllabus had been approved by the department and higher administration. In that respect, Hedin is speaking with university approval.

c). “There’s little chance of entanglement with religion, and although it might be difficult to discern a secular purpose, and the primary effect might be religious, on balance the courts would probably not find this dubious course to violate the Establishment clause.”  This is not an argument but an opinion. Clearly Hedin’s course was entangled with religion.  Heins’s opinion that despite this the course (though “dubious,”—she doesn’t say why) wouldn’t violate the Establishment clause is bizarre.

d) “Academic freedom, as a matter of First Amendment right at public universities, protects both the institution and the individual professor.” Note to Heins: there is no First Amendment provision for “academic freedom.” The provisions are for freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but, as the judge ruled in the Alabama case of Bishop v. Aronov, “academic freedom” does not give one the right to violate the First Amendment by talking about Jesus in a University of Alabama course.

We don’t now what would happen were BSU taken to court about this course, something that certainly won’t happen, but my own doubt rests more on the present composition of the U.S. Supreme court than on the legal merits of the case.

But what galls me the most about Heins’s piece is her conclusion:

In the case of “The Boundaries of Science,” the right of the Ball State administration to decide on the course’s overall scientific validity is even stronger than the University of Alabama’s claim of authority to restrict a professor’s occasional in-class proselytizing. The point is that these are educational decisions for the university to make, and absent a violation of the Establishment Clause, outside political interference is dangerous, no matter how well-intentioned.

And what if the University decides to allow its professor to violate the First Amendment, or to teach junk science, as Hedin was apparently doing? Are the rest of us supposed to keep quiet? If so, why? Perhaps only BSU can approve or disapprove courses, but we have the freedom of speech to point out what kind of courses they’re teaching. In fact, had not a student, the FFRF, and I pointed out the course contents to the University, they wouldn’t be investigating it. Would Heins be happier if this “dubious course’ (her words) weren’t investigated at all?  And what, exactly, are the dangers of outsiders simply weighing in on a course at a university? I don’t see any.

Finally, let me show you what I believe to be Eric Hedin’s proposal to BSU about the course at issue: Honors 296, or “The Boundaries of Science”. Unlike the syllabus given to students (see here), this says nothing about religion, God, monkey Gods, or Jesus. In other words, if this is the proposal I think it is, one presented to the faculty for their approval of the course, Ball State University did approve the course without knowing what it really would include. If Hedin planned to include the religion and God stuff, this document could be seen as duplicitous:

Hedin master #1

Hedin Master #2

Hedin master #3


h/t: Mark


  1. Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:22 am | Permalink


  2. Kurt Helf
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:28 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that anyone in an administrative position in academia who doesn’t recognize the words “strengths and weaknesses” (second bullet in the answer to #2 in the syllabus) as being code for injecting ‘other ways of knowing’ like religion into the discussion should not be in a position to evaluate whether such a course should be taught or not.

    • eric
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:19 am | Permalink

      Yes and no. Certainly anyone in physics, chemistry, or biology should get that this is standard creationist code. But in the business field, ‘evaluate strengths and weaknesses’ is a pretty standard thing that people do and talk about. Look up “SWOT analysis.” So its at least concievable that some Uni administrator, coming from a business background or nonscience background, would not get Hedin’s reference.

      But this is a quibble. At least part of the problem appears to be within Hedin’s department, so I doubt very much that fooling senior Uni leadership had much to do with the course getting approved one way or the other. It probably got approved because it had the backing of the department chair, who knew exactly what he was approving.

      • Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:48 am | Permalink

        Even this is too broad. Most physicists (and probably many chemists) would have no clue this was a creationist code. These kinds of public, politicized debates just don’t crop up around topics in physics (even though the creationists certainly reject scientific cosmology). There does seem to be a serious problem with the Ball State physics department, but that cannot be inferred just from their failure to recognize this phrase.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

        I think that is entirely unrelated (except in the sense that creationists may have picked up on the terms), since the SWOT landscape has 2 dimensions.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:48 am | Permalink

          Oops: Meaning that the key words Opportunities and Threats are missing.

    • Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

      I had a similar gut reaction when I read that language.

      It seems clear that, assuming Jerry’s understanding of what this document is is accurate, Hedin used that language in full knowledge of the loaded nature of the terms. That was further reinforced in my mind reading the bits about evaluating several alternate theories of gravity.

      To me, it seemed like a “dog whistle,” or maybe an attempt to lay the foundation for an exit strategy once he started teaching full-blown creationism. “Hey, they approved ‘strengths and weaknesses,’ and that’s exactly what I’m teaching!”

      It was also worded in a neutral enough manner that there’s nothing at all worng with it as presented. In retrospect it seems obvious, but I very much doubt I would actually sound the alarm bells in advance unless there was some contextual reason to be suspicious.


  3. Sarah
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    It must really come down to competency in a subject. If you were teaching history and got your dates muddled up and events in the wrong order, it wouldn’t be about “academic freedom” or freedom of speech or the First Amendment, it would be about competency to teach the subject. Isn’t that the same as taking woo tangents off from science?

  4. Hempenstein
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    Now just lookit what you started. Bravo!!

    • gbjames
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:09 am | Permalink


  5. eric
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    A Holocaust denier may be competent to teach math or Spanish, but is unqualified to teach European history. A believer in “creation science” may be competent to teach medieval literature, but not biology.

    It gives me the willies to call someone incompetent to teach a subject merely based on their beliefs. It really should be based on what you do and say in the classroom, not what goes on inside your head.

    I agree the two will match most of the time, so belief may be a reasonable proxy measure. But the point is, in this case we don’t need any proxy measure. We can judge teaching competency and what they say in class directly. So saying its right a lot of the time is not a good reason to use it, because is wrong more often than another available evaluative measure. We should abandon it.

    • Matt G
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      Wasn’t there some kid who was a YEC, but did his Ph.D. thesis on radiodating?

      As you say, your personal beliefs should be kept to yourself if you don’t “believe” what you are teaching. How disappointing that about a third of science teachers in the US are YECs.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      I suspect that Heins was just a bit clumsy here. Certainly your beliefs shouldn’t prevent you from taking a position as long as you aren’t inflicting them on anyone else. It may be questionable that you can really be honest in your convictions when you do this but nothing prevents you from doing so.

    • nickswearsky
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      Arthur Butz was an engineering professor at Northwestern and a holocaust denier who had written several books on the topic. He NEVER mentioned the holocaust in any of his classes and never spoke of it on campus or in any of his official departmental duties. He was rather good about keeping his beliefs on holocaust out of his classroom. He had tenure (never made full professor, tho). Northwestern didn’t like him, but really could not fire him as long as he kept his beliefs out of class. He was otherwise quite active on denial publishing and message board circuit.

      • eric
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

        Not exactly the same, as the Heins quote argues only that kooks are not qualified to teach only in the area of their kookiness. She quite explicitly says that a holocaust denier may be qualified to teach non-history subjects. This issue is whether someone like that could teach 20th century history in a qualified manner. My position is – let their in-class actions speak for themselves. Yeah, if I had to lay a bet before it happened on whether such a person would get it right or wrong, I’d bet wrong. But there is simply no good reason to measure teaching competency by observing belief when we can measure teaching competency by observing teaching.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      I don’t get the willies at all. There is something fundamentally wrong with the thought processes that can apply skepticism in a patchwork manner. It isn’t truly skepticism, and the quality of its application is in question.

      Hence people tend to say that patchwork skeptics may make for great technicians in their chosen patches, but not scientists as such.

      If the argument is that technicians still can do science, I think that is the point. But you can’t rely on their work to be creative, without bias, et cetera.

      • eric
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        There is something fundamentally wrong with the thought processes that can apply skepticism in a patchwork manner.

        Just my opinion, but I think you’re profoundly wrong about that. Play is an adaptation that greatly benefits mammals of many types, but it can’t happen unless the animal can apply thought processes ‘in a patchwork manner.’ We need to apply thought processes in a patchwork manner to have judicial system and a scientific system working at the same time, but with different rules. We need it to distinguish between a football tackle and an assault. We need it to enjoy fiction without pointing at the book or movie and yelling “its a lie!” over and over again.

        What creationists do is wrong because they are using context to inappropriately section off one area of belief for different treatment. But the ability to section off parts of our lives for different treatment is an extremely valuable and arguably necessary trait.

      • Gary W
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

        Hence people tend to say that patchwork skeptics may make for great technicians in their chosen patches, but not scientists as such.

        If he does valid science, as determined by the accepted standards and metrics of his field, then he’s a scientist, regardless of what irrational beliefs he may hold.

  6. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    “Examine how the scientific knowledge gained through this course has changed the way you think about cleaing products…


    • gbjames
      Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:51 am | Permalink

      I had a similar reaction. Cleaning products? Is this guy also an Amway salesman?

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

        Maybe he used someone else’s proposal as a template, and overlooked some of the original.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted July 25, 2013 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

          Well, certainly a little basic chemical knowledge and some educated scepticism has a rather devastating effect on *commercials* for cleaning products…

  7. Matt G
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Is this the complete document? I remember seeing a reading list, which was full of IDC propaganda.

    • Posted July 25, 2013 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      This is (and I may be wrong, but I don’t think so), the proposal for the course that Hedin presented to BSU to get the course approved in the first place.

      What you’ve seen before was the actual course syllabus given to students once the course was under way.

      • Matt G
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:10 am | Permalink

        Sounds like there was a bit of a bait-and-switch at work here. Those books are a clear indicator of his intentions (unless he meant to hold them up as examples of bad science – which he didn’t).

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted July 25, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

        I have been on committees that approve courses, both within my department (chemistry) and from other departments (mostly in the College of Science). The two syllabi are so dissimilar (the “strengths and weaknesses” code words notwithstanding) that I think it is fair to say that Hedin was disingenuous in his original application, to say the least.

        The original course proposal is presented in such a way that, in principle, a variety of different instructors from a variety of different disciplines might teach the course. If Hedin alone submitted the course proposal, my comment above is applicable. If a committee of which Hedin was a member or even the chair submitted the proposal (even if Hedin actually authored all or most of it), then Hedin gets off the hook, I think. If he pipes up in a committee meeting and says, ‘Hey, I’ll give the first draft of the course proposal a shot.’, then he can claim he was just offering the generalized framework he knew would be desired for such a “flexible” course. Having said all that, I would have voted against the proposed course simply because it is extremely vague. Without even knowing what Hedin had in mind, the proposal really says very little about what the course will actually cover.

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    Heins didn’t research the limits of academic freedom or what it actually is very well, which is disappointing. As I’ve said before, the slippery slope that outside forces will kick universities around is much less likely to be slid down than the slippery slope allowing garbage courses to be taught (in the name of academic freedom) will diminish education on a whole. It is clear places like the DI have an agenda (just look at their mission statement) to push theology into as many institutions as possible. Letting something like this go would quickly result in more and more bogus science courses popping up so that you’ll get entirely too many (1 is too many in my opinion) graduates really believing the wild conjecture of ID is true and the theory of evolution is a hunch!

    • Posted July 25, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

      I disagree, there is a long and storied history of outside forces kicking around universities. Yes, there are garbage courses, almost all of these garbage courses are not justified from an academic freedom defense, they just suck.

      Courses are not put in the catalog willy-nilly, but have to be developed (at least on paper) with goals, potential outcomes, and the niche that is being filled, and then this is approved by a curricula committee. There will be some variation among different institutions, but the basic set up is the same. Someone can correct me if they have more information, but professors/instructors do not say I’m teaching this course because ACADEMIC FREEDOM! and it’s on the books.

      The problem, IMO, is that there is little oversight/accountability after a course is on the books. That is clearly an issue at BSU, but again the university can always step in and correct/alter garbage courses. The fact that the department did not reflects poor leadership.

      I am still uneasy with outside groups, even those I agree with, ‘kicking around with universities.’ I think it sets a bad precedent. Hedin’s course is a travesty that may have caused some damage to the education of some students. Providing justification for outside groups, like creationists, right-wing theocrats, etc. to pressure universities to waste time and resources responding to their concerns is potentially much more damaging.

  9. Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:38 am | Permalink

    I must admit, I’m allergic to “Get to the back of the bus!” types of rhetoric, and Heins’s words are making me itch.


  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Even before the switch, the bait looks decidedly uninteresting.

    I understand that US universities tend to contain courses that are cross discipline. But I don’t see anything there that wouldn’t have been covered by the run-of-the-mill environmental course. Optional courses that I found very rewarding at the time, in addition to being fact filled and hands on.

  11. Peter Ozzie Jones
    Posted July 25, 2013 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Down here, we have the recently formed group “Friends of Science in Medicine” with prominent doctors, medical researchers and scientists. They lobby to have “alternative medicine” degrees removed from Australian universities.

    “Of immediate concern was the extent to which pseudosciences (Homeopathy, Iridology, Reflexology, Energy Medicine, etc) and other ‘health’ interventions are being taught within our universities. Many universities and other tertiary institutions teach these under the banner of ‘health sciences,’ despite the fact that they have no scientific credibility, do not conform to scientific methodology and are not evidence-based.”

    This 2013 announcement may indicate the group is having some influence:

    Macquarie University is ranked 8th in Oz, 233 in the world.

  12. Jim
    Posted July 26, 2013 at 12:43 am | Permalink

    Don’t understand why Hedin can give one course syllabus to the BSU board and another to the students? Surely the board should see ALL course materials?

  13. Marvol
    Posted July 26, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    I see this ‘nobody is forcing students to listen’ argument used time and again.

    I don’t understand why. The subject of a breach of First Amendment is not part of the equation.

    Saying it’s OK because “there was no coercion” is like saying it’s OK to fondle random women’s breasts in the streets because, hey, nobody is forcing the women to stand next to you – and they can always move away.

    Totally daft argument.

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