Does Jerry Coyne Support Creationism?

Okay, maybe I’m just mad because he poked fun at “humanities” types like me. But I can’t help wondering if Jerry Coyne’s love for free speech is really as consistent as he implies. Does Professor Coyne support creationist “free speech” laws for K-12 schools? Colleges?

Here’s what we know: Right-wing eminence gross Steve Bannon is planning to speak at the University of Chicago. Students and some faculty are protesting. Professor Coyne criticizes the protesters, calling their “tiresome” ideas “reprehensible.”

UChicago sit in

Protesting against unfettered free speech at Chicago…

I tend to agree with Prof. Coyne that almost all speakers should be allowed to speak on university campuses. We need a high bar to prohibit speech, especially for guest lectures at universities. There are exceptions. If someone is likely to directly incite violence, they shouldn’t be allowed to speak. Universities, moreover, are under no obligation to financially support disruptive tactics—the kind of intentional provocation used by the likes of Richard Spencer. That is, when speakers plan to cause riots in order to draw attention to themselves, universities are not obligated to pay for the show. That’s not about free speech, but simple administrative common sense.

White supremacists and Trumpy trolls aren’t the only ones pleading for their right to free speech. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, creationists these days demand free speech in schools. Many current school bills insist that they will give teachers “academic freedom” to teach ideas critical of mainstream evolutionary theory. Missouri’s 2015 bill, for example, promises the following:

Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, superintendent of schools, school system administrator, or public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of biological or chemical evolution whenever these subjects are taught within the course curriculum schedule.

I’ll say it: I don’t think this kind of “freedom” is good policy. Sponsors of bills like these, IMHO, are mainly trying to cram a wedge into public-school science classes. I’m suspicious of the “scientific weaknesses” that such bills hope to teach about. If they really wanted to teach the various disagreements about the details of evolutionary science, fine. Great, even. But in fact, teaching those “scientific weaknesses” usually means teaching creationist critiques of mainstream evolutionary science as a whole. Teachers in public schools should not consider themselves free to tell students that worse creationist science is just as good as better mainstream academic science.

“Academic freedom” creationist gambits are not limited to K-12 schools. A few years back, for example, Professor Eric Hedin won tenure at Ball State despite accusations that he taught creationism-friendly ideas.

Does Professor Coyne support free speech in cases like these? In the case of Eric Hedin, we don’t have to wonder. Coyne outed Hedin early and often. Coyne protested that no professor at a publicly funded university had the freedom to teach creationism-friendly ideas as if they were science.

In creationist cases, then, Professor Coyne agrees to strict limits on free speech. How does he choose which free speech to prohibit?

A few possibilities:

  • Professor Coyne might say that he only objects to tax-funded religious preaching, as when a public university pays Hedin’s salary.

But tax money supports lots of religious talk on public college campuses. At many schools, religious groups use tax-funded facilities as meeting rooms. They use tax-funded student lists to recruit possible converts and members. Moreover, nearly every decent public university teaches lots of classes about all sorts of religious ideas. Why single out this particular instance?

  • Professor Coyne might object that Hedin taught religious ideas as science.

Surely Prof. Coyne knows better than me how difficult it is to articulate a simple definition of “science.” Shouldn’t scholars have the freedom to explore those boundaries?

  • Professor Coyne might say that he is against schools paying salaries for the promulgation of bad ideas; he doesn’t want intelligent design afforded the prestige of appearing in a college class.

If so, he would be repeating the ideas of the anti-Bannon UChicago protesters and their ilk. They do not want to legitimize hateful trolls such as Steve Bannon by paying him to speak at Chicago. They do not want to afford Bannon the prestige of such an affiliation.

  • Professor Coyne might say that teachers should stick with the curriculum.

But I don’t think he would. The heart and soul of academic free speech is the freedom to explore ideas not dictated from above.

Or, even if Professor Coyne could convince people that Professor Hedin was a special case, a case in which a teacher falsely claimed the freedom to preach religion on the public dime, what would he say about other free-speech schemes out there, like the one in Wisconsin?

Lawmakers in Madison have proposed a law to protect free speech on campus. If a creationist student were told that his “speech” about a 6000-year-old earth was incorrect on an exam, he could complain to an ominously named Council on Free Expression.

I just can’t imagine that Professor Coyne would protect creationists’ freedom to equal status for their ideas. In fact, I’m hopeful he would join me in strident opposition to this sort of thing.

The point, in the end, is not that students, faculty, and outside speakers are all engaging in the same sorts of speech. When a professor teaches a class or a student writes an exam, they are obviously engaged in different sorts of speech than when an outsider comes for a one-off lecture. They’re not all the same, but that’s not the point. Rather, the central point is that some assertions of free speech are strategic manipulations. In the case of most creationist “free speech” bills, the true goal is to make creationism seem legitimate.

When I (and maybe Prof. Coyne would join me) argue against such creationist free speech laws, our motives and goals are not “reprehensible.” We are trying to protect a vital idea—that mainstream science and creationist alternatives are not merely equally valuable scientific understandings. Academic freedom for instructors and free speech for students doesn’t include the right to teach and preach worse science as if it were equal science. People are certainly free to speak their minds about creationism, but schools do not have to pay people to engage in that kind of speech.

Given all that, I don’t understand why Coyne is so quick to bash his Chicago colleagues. Sure, he may disagree with them, but he should recognize his own objections to some purported “free speech” claims. If he did, he would likely have a different take on the “reprehensible” actions of his Bannon-busting colleagues.

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6 Comments

  1. Have you emailed this to Jerry? Not sure he would respond, but from my perspective, the answer is fairly straightforward. There is a distinct difference between speech that is allowed on campus versus what is taught in the classroom. Example – while working at Pepperdine, the Natural Science Division was approached to sponsor Stephen Meyer from the DI to talk about Intelligent Design. We declined, and also responded that the Department is unanimous in determining that ID is not science and not an alternative theory to evolution – indeed it is not even a theory. Hence it is not part of the science curriculum other that noted that it is not explanatory of the data. However, the University did allow a student group to invite Meyer to make a presentation at a non-required event, and the Division did not protest. In his presentation, Meyer accused the Division of trying to censor his participation on campus, and I quickly disabused him and the audience of such an disingenuous claim. As you well know, free speech is not carte blanche.

    Reply
    • Very true, and a great story. To my mind, the important point is that some people–including the likes of Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, as well as a variety of creationist activists–simply abuse and manipulate the notion of free speech. They protest too much that they have a right to freedom of speech, when what they are really after is a redefinition of the boundaries of legitimate politics or science. I think what skeeved me in Prof. Coyne’s post was his nonchalant attitude toward the UChicago protesters. I agree in this case that Bannon’s speech should go forward, but I think these cases deserve lots of discussion and debate. I don’t think it’s simply “reprehensible” to argue in favor of banning some speakers. To the contrary, I think it is worth talking about.

      Reply
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