Jan 05 2016

Creationists and Academic Freedom

berlin specimenThis is old news, but attention is being freshly paid to the issue of creationists using academic freedom as an excuse to teach creationism in public schools, in violation of the First Amendment. This attention is due to an anonymous whistle-blower from the Discovery Institute confirming what everyone already knew.

According to reports:

“Critical thinking, critical analysis, teach the controversy, academic freedom—these are words that stand for legitimate pedagogical approaches and doctrines in the fields of public education and public education policy,” said the former Discovery Institute employee. “That is why DI co-opts them. DI hollows these words out and fills them with their own purposes; it then passes them off to the public and to government as secular, pedagogically appropriate, and religiously neutral.”

Whether or not you believe this anonymous source, the DiscoTute has objectively caused a lot of mischief. They authored model anti-evolution laws that have been used in various states, including successfully in Louisiana.

Nicholas Matzke recently published an evolutionary analysis of anti-evolution laws, showing how they evolve over time through adaptive radiation.

What is interesting is that the arguments creationists have used against evolution have not changed at all since Darwin, but their strategies have changed. They just keep wrapping the same arguments in different presentations and strategies.

For example, the design argument is not new. It is essentially William Paley’s watchmaker argument that he published in 1802.  Paley argued that apparent design, such as in a watch, implies a designer. Life appears designed, therefore has a designer, i.e. God. Darwin destroyed that argument by showing how natural processes can produce apparent design in nature.

The big picture is that these arguments were had by scientists and philosophers, and evolution emerged victorious. Creationists have simply refused to accept the defeat of their arguments, and so they keep bringing them back, over and over again, sometimes in new forms, and sometimes not even bothering, just forgetting the history of their defeat.

The notion of irreducible complexity is not new. Darwin himself dealt with that objection to evolution. Contemporary critics, for example asked, “what good is half a wing, or half an eye?” Darwin elegantly argued that complex structures can evolve from simpler but still functional structures, that may have served a different function. Half a wing may not be good for flying, but may be good for something else, like gliding, or leaping, or even display.

Creationists have been arguing for over a century that the fossil record lacks transitional forms. In 1865 they had a point, but they have failed to keep up with the evidence.

As Matzke and others have pointed out, creationists strategies have evolved. Their first strategy was to ban the teaching of evolution. This was eventually declared unconstitutional. Next they argued for equal time for creationism and evolution, and this too was struck down. Then they tried to rebrand creationism as Intelligent Design, but this failed 10 year ago at Dover.

Now their strategy is to make the same tired and refuted creationist arguments under the guise of academic freedom. They cannot mandate the teaching of creationism in public schools, so instead they write laws saying that teachers can use supplemental material. The DiscoTute then helpfully provides supplemental material that consists of the same anti-evolution arguments and lies that creationists have been peddling for a century.


The Louisiana Science Education Act that passed in 2008, just three years after Kitzmiller v Dover, is still on the books. Creationism is unapologetically being taught in Louisiana public schools, using the law as cover.

Zack Kopplin, a student from Louisiana, now graduated, has been fighting the law for years. He cannot get traction in the State congress, however. There just isn’t the political will.

It seems that the law needs to be challenged at the federal level. I’m actually not sure why this has yet not happened. As with Dover, I guess we need Louisiana families to sue the state and have the case work its way up to the federal level.

Academic freedom laws need to be struck down, because they are not about academic freedom. They transparently use the notion of academic freedom to sneak creationist arguments into public schools.


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