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Soon after Eric Hedin joined the faculty of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, as an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, he became intrigued by two statements in the introductory notes of the Astronomy 100 textbook: "Astronomy helps us answer the ultimate question of human existence"; and "Astronomy helps us understand the meaning of our own existence."
"These thoughts caught my attention," he wrote two years later in a Point of View article in the Journal of College Science Teaching. "What did students think concerning the meaning of their existence?" Given that most Astronomy 100 students are non-science majors taking the course to satisfy a requirement, he saw an opportunity to engage them with a field of study they might otherwise see as foreign territory. And so, true to the spirit of science, he asked.
Over the next two years, he asked students in eight sections of Astronomy 100 three questions. "What is the meaning or purpose of your existence?" "What one question would you most wish to have answered?" and "Are there things which lie outside the scope of science?" He got a remarkably high response rate. The most lopsided set of answers came from the third question, to which 85 percent answered, "Yes." As a science educator, he took this as a caution "not to proceed with over-blown confidence that students will take everything we teach in science at face value." He also made extra effort, he wrote, "to explain how knowledge is obtained and to acknowledge when science does not have the full answer."
"Cease & Desist"
Ten years later, Dr. Hedin suddenly found himself in the hot seat over a course that explores just this line of thought. The first objective listed for "The Boundaries of Science," an honors elective for science majors, is "to give a scientifically accurate introduction to the origin and development of the physical universe (cosmology)." The course description goes on to say: "The complexity of physical life (on the molecular level) and the mystery of human consciousness will also be briefly examined. These and other topics will provide examples of features of our existence which may lie outside the naturalistic boundaries of science."
To a handful of atheists, this is intolerable in the extreme.
The furor erupted in late April. Based on an anonymous tip, Jerry Coyne, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, complained about Hedin to the head of Ball State's physics and astronomy department. When that failed to produce the desired result, Coyne contacted the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) and then spilled his spleen in a lengthy harangue on his blog. Soon thereafter, the president of Ball State, Jo Ann Gora, received a four-page dispatch from FFRF staff attorney Andrew Seidel regarding "disturbing reports of a Ball State professor proselytizing in the classroom." Although Seidel gave no indication of exactly how he knew what went on in the classroom—the letter referred to "our information" and "our reports"—he did venture to render a judgment. "[A]s taught," he warned, "this class crosses ethical and constitutional lines." The threat was clear: shut it down or be sued.
"Fall in Line, Heretic"
Seidel also ventured to make recommendations about how science should be done. But the really shrewd onlooker might observe how science is being "done" here by the inquisitors. Coyne fired the opening shot in this altercation based on an anonymous tip and three student comments on the online forum ratemyprofessors.com. FFRF took up the charge from there. (Interestingly, and much to Coyne's chagrin, few fellow atheists have rallied to the cause. PZ Myers, for example, said academic freedom allows Hedin to teach his "weird views," however ignorant they might be.)
One comrade lent support. Fellow New Atheist and FFRF member Victor Stenger weighed in via the Huffington Post. Stenger told of a 1987 lawsuit involving a parapsychology instructor who taught material that professors and community members protested "was not accepted knowledge." The instructor sued and lost. "I interpret this to mean that instructors are not free to teach whatever they want but are obligated to present the best knowledge of the day on their particular subject," Stenger opined. "Once upon a time science professors might have taught that the world was flat—when that was a consensus belief. But they can't do that now." Apparently it didn't register with him that his intended dig tacitly acknowledged that a consensus belief can be wrong.
At any rate, what the Hedin affair boils down to is this: a ragtag cadre of accusers insists—on threat of legal action—that Dr. Hedin teach the "accepted knowledge" of the day, which happens to coincide with their viewpoint. Seidel counseled President Gora that Hedin's course, "properly taught," would include material "espousing the other side of the argument." Why? Because "the vast majority of scientists are nonreligious and many take the view that science disapproves a creator-god." In other words, Hedin should teach the consensus because it's the consensus. And the consensus is the consensus because most scientists "take the view" of atheism. With presumably straight faces, they call this science.
Science Done the Science Way
Standing in contrast to this heavy-handed tactic of dispensing with competing theories by scientistic fiat is authentic science. Of course it includes teaching the consensus view, but it also allows for thoughtful examination of it. "Students need to know about the current scientific consensus on a given issue, but they also need to be able to evaluate critically the evidence on which that consensus rests," says Dr. John G. West.
They need to learn about competing interpretations of the evidence offered by scientists, as well as anomalies that aren't well explained by existing theories. . . . [T]he effort to promote thoughtful discussion of competing scientific views is pro-science.
As Charles Darwin himself acknowledged, "a fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question."
Balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of certain questions about origins and human existence is precisely what Dr. Hedin is doing in "The Boundaries of Science," and it's beyond ironic that his accusers insist he include material espousing "the other side." With materialistic naturalism holding the privileged position of consensus, "The Boundaries of Science" is the other side.
How does the Darwin lobby respond to this authentic, more open-minded approach to the current consensus? "John G. West is an idiot," writes "RWA" on the online forum Darwin Central. Dr. Hedin teaches "weird views," says PZ Myers. And Eric Hedin should toe the line, say Coyne, the FFRF, and Stenger. Whether they call names or call for censure, one thing is clear: Hedin's accusers aren't engaging in science. They're engaging in obscurantism, which is antithetical to science.
"Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels," quipped science fiction author Michael Crichton. "It is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled."
Exactly. One might venture to call it anti-science. •
Update: BSU President Gora issued a statement on July 31 calling intelligent design religion, not science: "Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses." According to a BSU spokeswoman, "[Provist] Terry King and professor Hedin . . . are working together to ensure that course content is aligned with the curriculum and best standards of the discipline." In other words, BSU caved to the atheist attorneys. Dr. West characterized the move as an "Orwellian Attack on Academic Freedom."
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