Eric Hedin and the Care and Feeding of Young Scientists

Scientists aren’t necessarily stupid.  Yet, as we’ve seen, some academic scientists demonstrate a curious ignorance or even proud self-delusion about important aspects of science and culture.

Perhaps the continuing kerfuffle over Professor Eric Hedin and Ball State University can shed some light on this puzzle.

The case began, it appears, with complaints by University of Chicago scientist and science activist Jerry Coyne.  Coyne complained that the teaching of Eric Hedin at Ball State University represented the indoctrination of students by a religious zealot. Professor Hedin taught a course cross-listed as “The Boundaries of Science” or “Inquiries in the Physical Sciences.”  True enough, Hedin’s reading list leaned heavily on old-earth creationism and intelligent design.  Worst of all, Professor Coyne argued, Hedin’s course proselytized for a specific sort of Christianity and called it science.  The university and department reluctantly agreed to investigate Hedin’s teaching.

Professor Coyne hoped the university would pressure Professor Hedin to stop his preaching.

Other leading science bloggers disagreed.  PZ Myers argued that Hedin’s teaching, though lamentable, must be allowed as an issue of academic freedom.  “If we’re going to start firing professors who teach things that are wrong,” Myers insisted, “we’re all going to be vulnerable.”

The debate between these science activists on the boundaries of acceptable university teaching might help us understand why so many scientists are so strangely unaware of the cultural context of their work.  Neither Professor Coyne nor Professor Myers seems to think that Professor’s Hedin course might actually be of value to the scientists-in-training at Ball State.  Myers defends the classes as a protection of Hedin’s rights, not the protection of student interests.

Is it not possible that such intellectual diversity could be a positive good?

In issues of race, the US Supreme Court has ruled that diversity is a legitimate goal of university admissions.  Racial diversity, in other words, is not only good for members of racial minority groups.  Diversity is good for everybody who wants to learn.

Does not the same principle apply here?

Of course, we would want to avoid the absurd extension of this principle.  We would not want to teach people things that were obviously not true only to give students some sort of intellectual workout.  But the ideas taught by Hedin are not the ravings of some isolated madman.  Rather, they represent an influential and important tradition in our culture.  Though these ideas do not qualify as representatives of mainstream science, they are nevertheless ideas about science.  Scientists should know about them.

Raising young scientists in an ideological or cultural hothouse produces fragile flowers.  It helps explain why so many smart people emerge from this training so remarkably dumb about important ideas.

If we looked into this question as one of encouraging intellectual diversity, we could shift the debate in useful ways.  Everyone can agree that students can benefit by being exposed to a diversity of ideas.  The question becomes, then, at what level and in what format should students learn about heterodox ideas?  What courses should count as requirements, and what courses should be elective?  Most important, where are the boundaries of acceptable diversity?  These are questions with which university faculties have long experience.

In my field, for instance, it would not make sense for introductory courses in American history to teach only a Marxist interpretation of the past.  Students from all sorts of fields take those introductory courses.  For many students, such a course may be their only collegiate exposure to American history.  It would not make sense for those students to learn that history is the unfolding of the class struggle.  But for history majors, students will benefit from having one or more advanced courses taught about specific interpretive traditions, whether or not the instructor is a Marxist.   Even though I do not think a Marxist interpretation is the best approach, I support the inclusion of such courses in university programs.  Not only to defend the teaching rights of professors, but more importantly, to ensure students experience a true diversity of intellectual approaches.

In the case from Ball State, it does not seem as if Professor Hedin’s religion-heavy course should be the ONLY exposure students have to science.  Nor should this course be taught as an introduction to science as a whole. But students who take a full course load of science classes could certainly benefit from considering such ideas.  Even if taught by an instructor who embraces the theological implications.  Other courses might study other aspects of science, and might usefully be taught by professors with strong intellectual commitments to a particular worldview.

Making the debate a question of when and how students encounter intellectual diversity is not as exciting as debating if religious ideas can be taught as science.  It is not as exciting as arguing whether professors have the academic freedom to teach heterodox ideas.  But it seems to me the most productive way to discuss Professor Hedin’s case.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Patrick

     /  May 28, 2013

    Well said.

    Reply
  2. ladyatheist

     /  May 11, 2014

    Hedin’s course had no pre-requisites, and it covered astronomy, something most students have no exposure to in high school. The course counted toward a science credit amongst distribution credits, so it had to be real science, not theology dressed up as science. If it had been a generic seminar course or a religion course, it would not have been objectionable.

    Reply

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