Is Intelligent Design Too "Transgressive" to Tolerate? More on the Investigation of Ball State University Physicist Eric Hedin - Evolution News & Views

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Is Intelligent Design Too "Transgressive" to Tolerate? More on the Investigation of Ball State University Physicist Eric Hedin

Having sent off the 7000+ signatures we gathered in support of besieged Ball State University physicist Eric Hedin, it's good to find the Muncie, IN, Star Press getting things exactly right in an article noting our concerns about Hedin's treatment ("Group claims prof review panel bias"). Our worry, as John West articulated it to reporter Seth Slabaugh, is that BSU has set up a kangaroo court, implicitly tasked with reaching a predetermined outcome. Officially, the panel is evaluating Dr. Hedin's honors course on “The Boundaries of Science."

Writes Mr. Slabaugh:

Three of the four panelists are connected to groups opposed to intelligent design, says John West, vice president of the Seattle-based, intelligent-design think tank The Discovery Institute.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation last month filed a complaint with BSU President Jo Ann Gora asserting the course is “a one-sided monologue by a government-paid employee whose agenda is to show that science proves the truth of religion -- in this case one particular religion, Christianity.”

In response, Provost Terry King named a faculty review panel, whose members are Catherine (Caty) Pilachowski, a professor of astronomy at Indiana University and past president of the American Astronomical Society (AAS); and three BSU faculty: Gary Dodson, professor of biology; Juli Thorson Eflin, professor of philosophy; and Richard Fluegeman Jr., professor of geological sciences.

West is complaining that:

  • Pilachowski was on the governing council of AAS when it issued a declaration denouncing intelligent design in 2005 and stating it shouldn’t be taught in science classes.
  • Dodson signed an anti-creationism petition circulated by the pro-Darwin lobbying group the National Center for Science Education. Dodson is currently listed as an official scientific consultant for The Clergy Letter Project, another staunchly anti-intelligent design and pro-Darwin group. In 2009, Dodson was a presenter and discussion leader for the Darwin Day conference organized by the Ball State Freethought Alliance, an avowedly anti-religious group.
  • Fluegeman delivered the opening lecture at the same Darwin Day conference in 2009.

This sure sounds like a group deliberately stacked against Hedin. As Slabaugh reports, Dr. West also brings out the fact that, in selecting the investigatory panel, Ball State administrators decided to exclude any scientist from Hedin's own Department of Physics and Astronomy. Instead, BSU imported astronomer Dr. Pilachowski from Indiana University in Bloomington.

That in turn sounds like a slap at BSU's physics department, as if the administration does not have full confidence in Hedin or his departmental colleagues. It's another hint that the "investigation" of Hedin is biased against him and was so from the moment it was initiated at the insistence of atheist activists Jerry Coyne and the Freedom from Religion Foundation. The more you learn about what's happening at Ball State, the worse it sounds.

Meanwhile, no one from the panel would speak with Slabaugh:

Pilachowski and Dodson declined comment, referring questions to Ball State’s office of marketing and communications. Fluegeman couldn’t be reached for comment. Eflin is unavailable.

Professor Juli Eflin may be the wild card here. She, like Dr. Hedin, received her PhD at the University of Washington. Her field, philosophy, is certainly relevant but her specialty in feminist ethics and epistemology may be less so.

Or so I thought until I looked a little more closely. Dr. Eflin's most recent publication, according to her faculty webpage, is “Enabling Change: Transformative and Transgressive Learning in Feminist Ethics and Epistemology," co-written with her Ball State colleague David W. Concepción, in the journal Teaching Philosophy.

From the Abstract:

Through examples of embodied and learning-centered pedagogy, we discuss transformative learning of transgressive topics. We begin with a taxonomy of types of learning our students undergo as they resolve inconsistencies among their pre-existing beliefs and the material they confront in our course on feminist ethics and epistemology. We then discuss ways to help students maximize their learning while confronting internal inconsistencies.

Well, it would not be implausible to describe intelligent design and the related scientific critique of Darwinian theory as constituting together a "transgressive topic," the study of which may indeed be "transformative," involving the critical examination of "inconsistencies among...pre-existing beliefs." Such ideas are among our reasons for supporting a "teach the controversy" approach to science education on Darwinian evolution in public schools, intended to "maximize" learning on that subject. It appears that, in planning his own course exploring the theory of intelligent design as discussed by its supporters and critics, Dr. Hedin had something similar in mind.

Eflin and Concepción add:

While we focus on feminist topics, our approach is broad enough to be relevant to any teacher of a course that addresses a transgressive topic, and particularly relevant to teachers of courses that emphasize “controversial” topics (e.g., critical race theory, queer theory, Marxism, etc.).

Clearly she is sympathetic to teaching "controversial" subject matter, and not only in the area of feminist studies. That ought to work in Dr. Hedin's favor -- though, don't worry, I'm not naïve. I realize that in academic life some "transgressive" topics may be considered as going too far. Some may be implicitly approved, while others are not -- whether for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reasons.

Dr. Eflin and Dr. Concepción conclude poignantly, reflecting on the perils of teaching a course on feminist ethics and epistemology:

We end with one caution: It takes courage to teach the way we do, to expose what we do to our students (about themselves, ourselves, and our shared reality) in this class. We were lucky to have each other’s support through the process. Nevertheless, we find the risk worth it, for we receive the reward of having students tell us that we have changed their lives for the better.

Again, coming from a scholar strongly in favor of tolerance, curiosity and open inquiry, as Dr. Eflin appears to be, this ought to translate into a ringing endorsement of Hedin's own "courage." We'll see.

A more realistic perspective, perhaps, comes in a letter to the editor of the Fort Wayne, IN, Journal Gazette, from Ball State University alumnus Eric A. Ether. On the subject of Eric Hedin under siege, Ether writes:

Faced with the threat of a long-running and expensive lawsuit, the quiet but primary aim of the panel and the university will be “how do we make this go away?” It will not be “let’s do what is right and principled.”

The claim against Hedin is that he is in violation of the First Amendment for teaching religion.

Nowhere is Hedin charged with talking about the Bible or Jesus. That would be discussion of religion. Through his class, he has simply raised the possibility of intelligent design of life and our cosmos. That is not teaching religion.

This matter is not complicated -- but resolving it fairly would require a tremendous amount of courage on the part of the university.

This is probably correct. BSU has an obvious stake in making the Hedin affair go away. If his case is resolved soon, fairly, with a due respect for the freedom to teach about even challenging, controversial, "transgressive" subjects, it will go away. Turned aside briskly and decisively, Coyne and his friends at the Freedom from Religion Foundation will go after other targets of opportunity. They'll find new scholars and scientists to bully. I can't see them continuing to hound Professor Hedin if the physics department, the provost and the university's president all come out in Hedin's favor.

BSU's administration should see that. It will be different, I think, if Hedin is censored, damaging his career and serving as a warning to other scholars. The case of Eric Hedin -- what it reflects about how Darwinian orthodoxy in academic life is enforced by fear and intimidation -- will not go away. We won't let it.