Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Are Academic Freedom Laws Anti-Science?

Over on 'A View from the Right' is a little article about the crop of 'Academic Freedom laws that have been cropping up. "Are Academic Freedom Laws Anti-Science?" Now I fully expect a website named 'A View from the Right' to support these laws. That's not my issue. My issue is I
do not think readers of this site really understand what these laws are all about.

The question asked "Are academic freedom laws anti-science?" can only be answered if you understand the intent of these laws. Before you can answer this question, the first thing you need to understand that what the article is referring to are not laws protecting academic freedom. The laws being referred to in this article are laws sponsored by the Discovery Institute for the purpose of . . . well we'll get back to that purpose in a minute.

What you might not know is that every state, and many countries, already have academic freedom laws on the books and these laws are implemented in the rules governing education. These laws are designed to protect education. They allow teachers to bring in controversial subject matter and are be protected from reprisals from anyone trying to subvert the teaching of a particular discipline. However what this article fails to mention is that academic freedom is not carte blanc to bring anything a teacher might desire. There are very specific limits.

One of the limits is that the subject being introduced must be part of the curriculum area. For example teaching Politics in an English classroom would not be protected by an existing Academic Freedom law. It sounds like a silly example, but here is another one. How about teaching Astrology in Astronomy class? Phrenology in Psychology? Numerology in Math? Not so far fetched now, is it. Current academic freedom laws do not support this because, while there are adherents who think they should be taught, the disciplines in question have rejected such topics as pseudo-science. So while a teacher might mention Astrology in it's historical sense, but to teach it as if it was the equal of Astronomy should result in disciplinary action and would not be protected under any current academic freedom laws. Think about that, it would not be protected under the current academic freedom laws!

So let's talk about this article for a few. The author isn't identified, but it references two other articles by someone mentioned frequently on this blog, little casey luskin. He's a lawyer for the Discovery Institute who thinks he's a biologist.

So let's be clear. What you have is an article supporting these 'academic freedom' laws, laws that are sponsored by the Discovery Institute -- and the meat of this article are a couple of other articles written by another employee of the Discovery Institute. Interesting picture starts emerging. Of course there is no conflict of interest here, and I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to get off my hands.

So according to casey, not exactly an unbiased source, there are several lies being told about these laws. (my comments are in italics after each):

Lie #1: These Laws Have Led to Litigation. This in and of itself is a lie. I have not heard of a single litigation case based on these so-called academic freedom laws. I also haven't heard of anyone else claiming that these laws have led to litigation

What I have heard is concerns that this type of legislation may lead to a Dover-style lawsuit. You'll notice that casey doesn't address this possibility. I believe the ONLY reason they have not yet led to litigation is because there is only one of these laws currently on the books -- the Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA). And no one in the State of Louisiana has actually tried to implement anything in accordance with this law. So while the one single law that managed to get passed hasn't been tested -- which means of course there hasn't been any litigation (yet!). Little casey makes it sound like these laws are enacted all over the place. I think he's trying to mislead people who are afraid of potential litigation -- very correctly afraid of potential litigation.

Lie #2: These Laws Force Teachers to Change the Curriculum. Once again, since no one has tried to put these laws into practice, of course it hasn't caused a change to curriculum.

However, and you knew there had to be a however, the Louisiana Family Forum for the Family recently tried to stop the approval of a number of Biology text books because the texts in question were evolution-friendly. If those texts were disapproved and ones more 'theistic-ally appealing' were put in place, wouldn't that cause a change in the curriculum? Guess who is another sponsor of the Louisiana Law? You guessed if, the Louisiana Family Forum! How about Evangelical parents pushing for curriculum changes who use this law to justify their actions? Oh no, teachers would never change curriculum to appease parents? How about the recent study that 60% of biology teachers cop-out of teaching evolution properly. The consensus is not that they do not support it, but that pressure from outside groups, including parents, makes it a job risk. They are risk-averse, not anti-evolution.
To address Lie #3 (These Laws Open the Door for Creationism in the Science Class), let's look at one of the sections of the LSEA which even specifically states that you can't use the law to introduce religious materials:

"D. This Section shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or nonreligion."

However, and this is a huge however, when the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education got around to publishing the rules about implementing this law, they sorta forgot the part about the 'shall not be construed to promote any religious doctrine' part. Is this of anything important?
Lie #3 "These Laws Open the Door for Creationism in the Science Class" is in fact a lie. Without the rules about implementing this part of the law, it most certainly does open the door. Oh, you disagree? Well guess which law was referenced by the Livingston Parish School Board while they were debating whether or not to teach Creationism in science class? Yes, the LSEA!
I know Livingston hasn't taken any action yet, but it's not because this law
prevents them from doing so. They decided to wait until next year because it was
too late in the current school year to do anything. They also decided to test
the waters a bit and see if it will open their school up to litigation just like
the Dover PA school board did to that school district. The law may not have
generated litigation, but at least one school district is looking at the risk.

Lie #4: These Laws Bring Intelligent Design Into the Classroom. Let us not forget that a Federal Court and a Federal Judge has ruled that Intelligent Design is Creationism. With that in mind, casey's lie number 3 and lie #4 are identical. But let's also add into the mix that REAL academic freedom allows you to bring in any subject material that is part of the discipline under discussion. Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory and therefore it doesn't belong in the science classroom. But enacting this law would allow it to gain a degree of legitimacy that it has not been able to achieve through science.

Lie #5: These Laws Single Out Evolution. OK, he's sorta right on this one. The original attempts at laws like these, that we saw in Ohio and Kansas, did single out one scientific theory, that was Evolution, the evolved versions list several topics as examples.

One of the criticisms of the Discovery Institute supported action in Ohio, and during the Dover Trial was that by singling out the Theory of Evolution, you had trouble making the case that your efforts are for improving science education as a whole. So what's a Creationist to do? Evolve your plan to try and negate previously used arguments for shooting holes in your desires.

If casey was being honest he would admit that evolution is only the start. Already we have seen efforts to re-write social studies in Texas. The Wedge Strategy of the Discovery Institute states quite clearly that Evolution is only the start. So while the laws might not currently target evolution, the behavior of the laws promoters certainly do. I guess casey seems to forget that actions speak louder than words.

Lie #6: These Laws Lead to Stupidity, Dishonesty, and the Adulteration of Science Education. Are these laws dishonest? Simply put, yes. Like I said at the beginning, many states already have laws protecting academic freedom. We have seen that even the idea of these laws causes casey luskin himself to be dishonest. The school district of Livingston Parish is deliberately exploring the possibility of an end run around the words of the law to push their own religious agenda because the enforcement rules allow it. Testimony from the Louisiana Family Forum has proven the stupidity and dishonesty of the law.

The end result will be the destruction of science education. If you don't believe me, simply list all of the scientific advances accomplished through the application of Creationism or Intelligent Design? If you are being honest with yourself you would come to the same number I did: 0. Teaching these subjects would result in a negative impact on science education. For example note the comments made by teachers in Mt Vernon Ohio who were discussing the impact of John Freshwater's dilution of the science curriculum by teacher his religion as valid and evolution as invalid science. The teachers found themselves having to re-teach basic materials that Freshwater was supposed to have covered. And little casey doesn't seem to think it matters.

Lie #7: These Laws Just Aren’t Needed. It's not that they are not needed, it's that they should not be implemented at all. As I've shown these laws have nothing to do with academic freedom and everything to do with creating an environment where teachers can either teach pseudo-science by choice or by coercion. The title of the laws are dishonest, the intent is a barely hidden agenda of folks like Luskin and the LFF, and the result is poorly educated students.

One more 'if Luskin was honest' he would admit that everything he wrote here is either a deliberate lie or just legal word wrangling. But the odds of that happening are pretty unlikely. I think a tornado in a junkyard would build a 747 first. So to answer the original question, are these so-called 'academic freedom' laws anti-science? It is my opinion that the current crop of 'academic freedom' bills are anti-science, anti-education, and designed to open a wedge to bring in religious topics as if they were scientific theories. The fun part is I wish someone in Louisiana would also try and use the law to bring Astrology into the classroom. I believe the law on the books could be used to support it and protect the job of the teacher who tried it. I would just LOVE to hear the reaction of the Louisiana Family Forum to that!

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