Apr 24 2008

Academic Freedom Laws Similar to Health Care Freedom Laws

The Florida State Senate yesterday passed the Evolution Academic Freedom Act. The bill now goes to the House for a vote. The bill is partly a reaction to the inclusion of evolution in the Florida state science standards. Proponents claim that:

“This bill is a freedom of speech bill,” said Senate sponsor Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.


“It’s not about religion,” said Alan Hays, the House sponsor of the bill. “It’s about science.”

Wrong and wrong. I wonder if anyone really believes such nonsense even for a moment. Here are some excerpts from the bill:

The Legislature finds that current law does not expressly protect the right of teachers to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding chemical and biological evolution.

Every public school teacher in the state’s K-12 school system shall have the affirmative right and freedom to objectively present scientific information relevant to the full range of scientific views regarding biological and chemical evolution in connection with teaching any prescribed curriculum regarding chemical or biological evolution.

Public school students in the state’s K-12 school system shall be evaluated based upon their understanding of course materials through normal testing procedures. However, students shall not be penalized for subscribing to a particular position or view regarding biological or chemical evolution.

The purpose of the bill is crystal clear – to give teachers who reject evolution and prefer some form of ID/creationism to spread anti-evolution propaganda to their students as if it were legitimate science. This is simply the next phase in the creationist attack against the teaching of evolution. But let’s look at the key components of this bill.

First, it states that current law does not expressly protect teachers who simply want to present objective scientific information. I am no expert in Florida state law – but I question the necessity of such “express” protection. I would be surprised if there were any laws prohibiting teachers from presenting objective, valid, and relevant scientific information in their science classes. I would further be surprised if such freedoms were not already adequately protected in practice, if not expressly. I therefore do not think such a law has any legitimate purpose.

So what, then, is the purpose of the law? Well, typically there is a balance between the academic rights and freedoms of teachers and the responsibilities of educational institutions (and with regard to public schools, the legislators who control them) to maintain quality control. Also, the higher up you go in the educational system the more this balance favors individual teachers. But there must always be some balance. A teacher should not be allowed to teach their personal brand of abject pseudoscience as if it were science, and completely neglect the curriculum. Academic freedom is therefore always constrained by quality control.

The criticism of evolution that this law intends to allow in public school science classrooms are pseudoscientific nonsense – not legitimate science. The mechanisms of quality control in education, functioning appropriately, should keep them out of science classrooms. This is not a violation of academic freedom, but an expression of a standard of quality in public education.

The core “unstated major premise” of this law is that science teachers are being restricted from discussing legitimate science critical of evolution in their classrooms. No one, however, has been able to make this case. Appropriate and legitimate criticism of the various components of evolutionary theory and lines of evidence for evolution can be freely discussed in science classrooms – as they should. Students should learn the messy process of science to better appreciate how science works and how we know what we know. Science is self-critical.

But evolution deniers want to admit false criticisms of evolution, arguments that have already been soundly refuted, and gross misinformation as if it were authoritative. This is an abuse of academic freedom for the express purpose of promoting a personal religious view (or at least one aspect of it) in the guise of science and is rightly curtailed by the appropriate mechanisms of quality control in eduction. This Florida bill, and others like it in other states, is about subverting this balance between academic freedom and quality control on one specific issue that has religious implications. They’re not fooling anyone.

The other components of the bill, the third paragraph quoted above, is more tricky. This basically says that students will be judged on their knowledge of the material as demonstrated through normal testing procedures. The purpose of this is also clear – students cannot be given a lower grade because they do not accept the scientific consensus on evolution. All depends, however, on how this law is enforced.

There are two schools of thought on such issue among defenders of science education and critics of pseudoscience. Larry Moran, who writes an excellent blog called Sandwalk, has this to say:

This is one of the reasons why I would flunk them if they took biology and still rejected the core scientific principles. It’s not good enough to just be able to mouth the “acceptable” version of the truth that the Professor wants. You actually have to open your mind to the possibility that science is correct and get an education. That’s what university is all about.

This can be interpreted as requiring that students not only learn the science but actually believe it. I find myself in the other camp – I think that students should demonstrate that they understand the science, but we simply cannot be in the business of enforcing (even through grades) what students believe. Belief is personal, science is public.

From a practical point of view what this means is that science teachers can demand not only that students learn the facts but that they demonstrate that they understand the arguments of science – the process and logic by which science arrives at its conclusions. Teachers should also be free to use various methods to determine student understanding – written tests, essays, and oral presentations. But belief does not have to enter the equation.

If the Florida law does nothing but enforce what I just described, then I find no fault with that provision. However, it is likely to be abused just as with the provision about teachers – namely to protect students who present pseudoscientific arguments against evolution as part of class activity that can reasonably be used to determine their grade.  The worst case scenario is that students who demonstrate that they have memorized facts about evolution, but cannot demonstrate that they understand the science, or who demonstrate that they are profoundly confused by pseudoscience, cannot be graded appropriately under the guise of protecting their freedom.

Health Care Freedom Laws

There is a parallel in this new legal strategy to the so-called “health care freedom” laws passed in over a dozen states, including Florida. The laws purport to protect the freedom of patients to access whatever healthcare they desire. What they really do, however, is protect the freedom of quacks and charlatans to commit fraud and practice incompetent medicine without being held to an appropriate standard of care.

The political framing of this issue is identical to that of the academic freedom movement as the latest attempt to attack evolution. Efforts to maintain a standard of care are being attacked as repression, and institutions that are designed to protect and maintain the standard of care are being undermined under the flag of “freedom.” This is the same strategy as attacking those who are trying to maintain an academic standard as engaging in repression and then trying to pass laws that undermine the ability of educational institutions to maintain academic standards under the guise of “freedom.”

Unfortunately, this tactic often works. It is much easier to sell to the public the notion of freedom than the necessity and complexity of maintaining necessary standards – whether in academia or health care.

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