Science or Religion?

Ball State agrees to investigate course -- taught by professor of physics and astronomy -- that critics say is too focused on Christian views for a science class at a public university. Is this issue one of church and state, or of academic freedom?

May 17, 2013

Ball State University has agreed to investigate complaints that a course taught by a physics and astronomy professor has crossed a line from being about science to being about Christianity.

Science blogs have been discussing the course for a few weeks now (although the professor who teaches the class, who did not respond to requests for comment, hasn't weighed in publicly). Ball State did not issue a statement until Thursday night, after it received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation charging that the course -- "The Boundaries of Science" -- is being used "to proselytize students and advance Christianity."

The letter states that the course's description makes it seem "to be an honest objective investigation regarding the intersection of science and religion." But the letter notes that the syllabus and reading list includes creationists and "Christian apologists who lack any scientific credentials whatsoever," while leading proponents of the idea that evolution is true (embraced by a wide scientific consensus) are not represented.

The foundation says that the syllabus is full of "ID-speak," language promoting the ideas of intelligent design, a theory discredited by leading scientists as a tool to try to undercut the teaching of evolution. The letter states that there is nothing wrong with teaching about religion at a public university, but argues that the course crosses a line into endorsing a religious view -- which the letter says is inappropriate for a science course or for a public university.

Ball State needs to investigate the issues involved and assure a separation of church and state, and the upholding of academic standards, the letter says.

The letter was sent to Ball State's president, Jo Ann Gora, on Wednesday.

On Thursday, the university issued this statement: "The university received a complaint from a third party late yesterday afternoon about content in a specific course offered at Ball State. We take academic rigor and academic integrity very seriously. Having just received these concerns, it is impossible to comment on them at this point. We will explore in depth the issues and concerns raised and take the appropriate actions through our established processes and procedures."

The university's statement did not identify the faculty member -- Eric Hedin -- but his course has been much discussed in recent weeks on science blogs.

'Why Evolution Is True'

The debate over Hedin's course started on the blog "Why Evolution Is True," which is written by Jerry A. Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the the University of Chicago.

Coyne examined the materials for the course and wrote that it "is little more than a course in accommodationism and Christian religion, with very little science. It’s my firm opinion that teaching this course at a state university not only violates the First Amendment, but cheats the students by subjecting them to religious proselytizing when they’re trying to learn science."

For example, Coyne noted that one course objective on the syllabus is to study "implications relating to the significance and value of human life, and as possible indications of the nature and existence of God." Coyne asked why a science course is looking for indications of the existence of God. Further, he noted that the syllabus lists as topics to be explored intelligent design and "miracles and spirituality," and he again asked why these would be taught in a science course.

Coyne said that he wrote to the chair of the physics and astronomy department at Ball State, Thomas Robertson. Coyne wrote that Robertson responded, but had not granted permission for his response to be published. But Coyne said that Robertson confirmed the accuracy of the syllabus and said that the course helped students challenge the ideas they had upon enrolling in college. Coyne said that the course must be stopped because it is a violation of the separation of church and state.

Robertson did not respond to requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed. (UPDATE: On Friday morning, after this article was posted, Robertson responded to the questions with an e-mail saying: "The information provided to me by Jerry Coyne contains nothing in addition to information that has been in my possession for some time.  The syllabus published was approved by our department Curriculum and Assessment Committee.  We review faculty performance regularly through student and peer/chair evaluations.  I receive complaints and concerns from students familiar with faculty performance in their classes and investigate when appropriate.  Given the totality of information available to me at this time, I do not share the opinions expressed on the web sites cited below.  We will continue to monitor our faculty and their course materials and practices and take appropriate action when deemed necessary.")

The Coyne postings have prompted an unusual disagreement within the anti-creationist science blogging world. PZ Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota at Morris and a prominent critic of those who try to promote doubt about evolution, examined the issue on his blog Pharyngula. Myers called the Ball State course "crap" and "bad science," and endorsed Coyne's analysis of the reasons the course is flawed.

But Myers disagreed that the course should be blocked on legal grounds. "[A]cademic freedom is the issue here, and professors have to have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective," Myers wrote. "The First Amendment does not apply; this is not a course students are required to take, and it’s at a university, which students are not required to attend. It’s completely different from a public primary or secondary school. A bad course is an ethical problem, not a legal one. It’s also an issue that the university has to handle internally."

Similarly, Laurence A. Moran, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto, wrote on his blog that he also agrees with the critique of the course, but not the idea that the professor should lose his right to teach it. "I defend the right of a tenured professor to teach whatever he/she believes to be true no matter how stupid it seems to the rest of us," he wrote. "I'm troubled by the fact that some people are calling for the instructor's dismissal and writing letters to the chair of his department. We really don't want to go down that path, do we? Academic freedom is important and it's especially important to defend it when a professor is pushing a view that we disagree with."

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, said he has been watching the emerging debate with interest. Branch said he doesn't think enough facts are clear to know whether the course has crossed a line. Via e-mail, he called the syllabus and reading list  "suggestive but hardly dispositive." While Branch said that there are academic freedom issues when discussing what professors say in the classroom, "it is possible for a professor's religious advocacy, even if not breaching the separation of church and state, to go so far as not to be protected by academic freedom considerations."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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