‘academic freedom’ in oklahoma

One of the threads at Open Parachute has had a discussion about the concept of ‘academic freedom’ – the idea that scientists should be free to state their opinions about those areas of science where they have expertise. (This concept isn’t exclusive to scientists, either, but applies to researchers in all disciplines.) It’s probably most apparent in the universities, which in NZ are expected to provide research, teaching (ie research-based teaching, where the people doing the research are also teaching their students about that research & how it fits into the existing body of knowledge) – & to be the critics & conscience of society.

This freedom may be constrained, to a greater or lesser degree, by intellectual property (IP) issues – if you’ve contracted to do a bit of research for another organisation, they aren’t going to be pleased if you start talking about the results in public without their permission. And similarly, no sensible scientist is going to let the world know about the outcome of an important new piece of research via press release: they’ll publish it first in a reputable journal & then the media release will follow. But outside those constraints, researchers can & do talk – with their students, with the media, with interested community groups – about topics within their areas of expertise. (We can & do talk about topics outside our own fields as well – but with no more authority than the next interested amateur.!)

But in the US, the phrase ‘academic freedom’ is being used (I should say, mis-used) in some states to suggest that science teachers should have the freedom to teach, or not teach, particular parts of the science standards… Oh, OK, to teach about the manufactured controversies** surrounding evolution, & about ‘alternatives’ to evolution as an explanation for life’s diversity. This is both a mis-use of the phrase & a yet another, fairly blatant, attempt to get around the restrictions on teaching creationism in the classroom. First Oklahoma, & now Mississippi – it would seem that the legislators responsible have learned very little from the experiences of the Dover Board of Education, in Pennsylvania. (There’s an excellent video about the Dover case available on-line.) It’ll be interesting to see how these latest efforts pan out.


** As far as the scientific community is concerned, there is no controversy. In 2009, 150 years since the publication of On the origin of species, & 200 years since Darwin was born, evolution remains the only scientific explanation we have for the diversity of living things that live, & have lived, on this planet.

5 thoughts on “‘academic freedom’ in oklahoma”

  • Hey! You’re supposed to be on holiday. Remember what those things are? You stop working, take a walk, go tramping, visit friends, read a book…
    Anyway, on a partially positive note, Texas is at least getting some revisions in the right direction: http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2009/01/texas_science_standards_lookin.php
    Note the first comment in thread (repeated in triplicate!): it has essentially the same thesis about what these people are doing as you are presenting. (Michael Heath’s comment about the textbooks is one I’ve seen bandied around, too. Seems to make Texas have more influence that it would otherwise have.)
    I don’t think that this Texas story is all good though. As a recommendation the higher level can just ignore it and apparently this is what they have done in the past (!). I’ve also read that the Education board there was set up to have two creationists and two non-creationists. This seems “balanced” (in the PC political sense) except that the senator (or whatever) heading it is a creationist (I presume that he is able to make a casting vote on any tied votes), and that an advisory board for science education should be based on science and scientists.
    About the ones you mention, I hope that will be turfed out based on precedent, as similar things have been presented and tossed out. The complication for my understanding of this is that the USA things work at a state level also, and I have no idea what states the other cases where in (other than Texas and Pennsylvania) and if one state even considers cases faced in other states, etc., that is, I have no real idea how precedents are used there.
    The fact that there are all these related cases going on in different states all at once, does make it feel like a concerted effort, doesn’t it? Conspiratorial thinking…! 🙂 If the [Non-]Discovery Institute or some other creationists organisation is a player in common between these, that might be revealing.
    Regards research in NZ universities, strictly speaking there is also “research” into some things from “a theological perspective”, as they put it. (I’m loathe to call this research, proper, as to be “a theological perspective” it is has to start with some rather strong, unprovable, invalidated assumptions first, assumptions that to me mean that the work cannot be unbiased.)

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Yes, yes, I know – but I find blogging just a tad compulsive 🙂 (Both writing mine, & reading other people’s.) ‘Political correctness’ has a lot to answer for sometimes – this thing about always presenting ‘balanced’ views even when only one of them is valid being a case in point. We’re lucky here in having a national curriculum, I think. As for your comment on US precedents in the ongoing attempts to get creationism into the science classroom – it doesn’t seem to matter how things have gone before. I think the cdesign proponentsists will just keep on coming up with another ‘angle’ on the same subject in the hope that one will eventually get through.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    “Hey! You’re supposed to be on holiday. Remember what those things are? You stop working, take a walk, go tramping, visit friends, read a book… ” Make bread, go to the gym, eat bread, have a swim, read other people’s blogs & write my own :-), walk round the lake… see? I’m trying!

  • I am winding you up, of course! I know what you mean about blogs. I’m supposed to be working myself (writing an application for one of those impossible-to-get research grants), yet I keep drifting off and reading one thing or other…
    You’ll have a few less to read over the weekend! Apparently the sciblog site is going down for 36+ hours for an upgrade. (You can read, but not post, so comments will grind to a halt!)
    When I meant precedents, I meant in the sense of how judges, etc. (in my feeble understanding) use precedents to aid their judgement of cases.
    I know what you mean about presenting the “balanced” view. I’ve knocked my head against a few of what I gather are the deep end of the anti-vaccine, etc., lot (I ran into a comment made by Orac in Steven Novella’s blog naming two posters as the far end of the spectrum and recognised them as two posters I had recently encountered in an HIV/AIDS-related post that got hit by some trolls or denialists.) I worry about their mental stability of a few of them, but many of them seem to genuinely believe the nonsense they write.

  • Forgive me for this cut’n’paste exercise, from stuff.co.nz
    It seem that a guidelines re religious education is being drawn up, and public schools will be reminded that they are obligated to allow kids to opt out of religious classes. (It strikes me as “common sense encoded”, but then that is the nature of guidelines, I suppose.)
    While this is not really related to science education, it make me think that “technically” if someone tries to present religious “science” in a science class, they’ll have to allow the kids the right to opt out, too. (Not that many schools would even attempt to present religion as science.)
    Full article at: http://www.stuff.co.nz/4814218a11.html
    First three paragraphs:

    Schools are set to receive guidelines on how to run religious education and ceremonies, paving the way for pupils to get out of any religious activity.

    The Human Rights Commission, in conjunction with Victoria University, decided to draft the guidelines in light of the country’s increasing religious and cultural diversity.

    A draft will be released in March for discussion, but a working copy reveals schools could be told that forcing children to take part in religious ceremonies or classes may breach their rights.

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