Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Iowa on Academic Freedom

Another state has fallen victim to the Discovery Institute (DI), but let's take a different tack. Let's look at the details of the bill, particularly the justification. Iowa House File 183 is the bill in question, and it is pretty much part and parcel of the DI's agenda. How do they keep finding lawmakers who fall for their marketing line? I guess that is a question best left to the people of those states and I hope they are as displeased with their representatives as I am! But that aside, let's look at the bill itself.

Here is the justification, with my comments interspersed:

a. That current law does not expressly protect the right of instructors to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.
Wrong! As long as a teacher sticks to SCIENTIFIC VIEWS the current law is perfectly acceptable in providing the full range of academic freedom.
b. That in many instances instructors have experienced or feared discipline, discrimination, or other adverse consequences as a result of presenting the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.
Once again, if the instructor sticks with the scientific views there is more than enough legal protection. The challenge comes in when the views expressed are not scientific! Does the teacher have the right to mention information from other points of view -- current laws say yes -- but the teacher has to identify it as opinion or otherwise. If not, then the teacher is violating the current rules and is subject to disciplinary action -- deserved disciplinary action!
c. That existing law does not expressly protect students from discrimination due to their positions or views regarding biological or chemical evolution.
Notice the word 'scientific' suddenly disappears from the conversation. Is it discrimination when a student refuses to learn a state mandated standard on biology? This is the same thing as saying a student who addresses Math questions using Numerology cannot be held accountable! Sorry folks, this is not discrimination. Did Oakland CA try replacing English with Ebonics a few years back? Look how well that went!
d. That the topic of biological and chemical evolution has generated intense controversy about the rights of instructors and students to hold differing views on those subjects.
There is no scientific controversy, only a political one. Plus the laws protecting Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression do not claim that you cannot have whatever view you want. But in a State-supported school, an unscientific viewpoint should not be taught, nor should it even be encouraged. There are platforms for those viewpoints, but the science classroom is not one of them.

As the bill progresses, it sticks to re-introduced the scientific viewpoint until it reaches this point (Section 2, para 4 for elementary/secondary students, Section 3, para 4 for community college/University students):
. . . students . . . shall be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials through standard testing procedures. However, students shall not be penalized for subscribing to a particular position or view regarding biological or chemical evolution.
Anyone else see the dichotomy here? I just finished grading two midterm exams. I sat there thinking what it would be like if I could not penalize my students for putting down the wrong answer. Now like any teacher I have the occasional classroom lawyer that argues things like "The question said describe 'nesting', so I did when I discussed Birds." While birds nesting might be a correct answer in a natural science class, in the context of computer programming, it is the wrong answer! Yet if this law going into effect in Iowa, it might well become a 'correct' answer and there will be little I could do about it. How can I evaluate what a student has learned if I cannot hold them accountable!

OK, you can read the rest of the DI's boilerplate for yourself, it even includes the normal 'religious disclaimer' that we saw so conveniently ignored in Louisiana. Basically the law says a teacher can pretty well insert anything they want with no accountability -- and the student can address the subject in any way they want, with no accountability.

Just to contrast, here is a link to the University of Iowa Operations Manual, the section dealing with Professional Ethics and Academic Responsibility. If this law is passed I guess this part, among many others, goes out the window:
The faculty member has the responsibility to teach courses in a manner that is consistent with the course description and credit published in the catalogue and with the announced objectives of the course. He or she must not intentionally interject into classes material or personal views that have no pedagogical relationship to the subject matter of the course.
Will a Biology Degree from an Iowa college or university have any meaning in the future? Only the people in the State of Iowa can answer that, and I hope they will! If Iowan faculty members have any say, it will. Check out Iowa faculty on the evolution from Biologist John M. Lynch's blog. I know what we can do, we can affix a great big asterisk to diplomas from Iowa! Yea, that'll do it. They'll have the diploma, just not the education to go with it! Scan those Doctor's walls well, if you see a diploma with an asterisk, run like hell and find a real doctor!


  1. I'm a journalist in Iowa and had to write a story today being "fair" to both sides, because today representatives from Iowa's three regent universities issued a press release calling for the state legislature to "kill" HF 183. I don't think the bill will get very far in Iowa. We value education too much and we don't have a large cadre of fundies who will rally around this it.

  2. If you have a problem writing a 'fair' article I suggest you read Lauri Lebo's book "The Devil in Dover". She addresses how being 'fair' in journalism does not mean you have to give each side equal time, or even equal treatment! It might help. You can present the validated science side and the unsupported creationist ideas without making them sound like two equal points of view.

    I have been to Iowa and liked the state and the folks. I hope the bill will fail, as it has in other states -- except for Louisiana! We'll see if it survives it's first legal challenge when a teacher tries to implement it. Some poor school system will be spending scarce resources on this foolishness. I hope never to see the same thing in an Iowa school district. Thanks for your words of hope!

  3. Update: HF 183 is dead!