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Prominent Columnist for Indiana's Largest Newspaper Weighs in on the Ball State Affair

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The Ball State University case receives treatment today in Indiana's largest newspaper, the Indianapolis Star. Trying, perhaps to a fault, to be fair to BSU president Jo Ann Gora, columnist and editor Russ Pulliam casts Dr. Gora as seeking to balance competing legitimate interests even as four Indiana legislators ask questions about her policy on teaching about intelligent design in science classrooms.

Curiously, although Gora already issued a gag order against such teaching, Pulliam portrays her as if the matter were still up in the air: "[S]he'll need the wisdom of Solomon in handling the latest controversy over intelligent design vs. evolution." Perhaps he means that how she responds to the inquiries of Senate Education Committee chairman Dennis Kruse and his colleagues remains to be seen. Which it does.

Pulliam is, gratefully, well informed on most of the basics of the case:

The Ball State controversy began when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint because physics professor Eric Hedin included intelligent design in a course on the boundaries of science. Some students defended Hedin's approach, but others objected. "I'm an agnostic and I find nothing wrong with his teachings," one student wrote. "It is one of the most innovative classes I have had during my time at Ball State."

A Ball State committee looked into the controversy last year, and Hedin's course was shut down.

But last year the university also hired Guillermo Gonzalez, another intelligent design advocate. An astronomer, Gonzalez, who came to the United States as a refugee from communism in Cuba, has a doctorate from the University of Washington. His book, "The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery," was published in 2004.

Now, Indiana Senate Education Committee Chairman Dennis Kruse and other members of the General Assembly wonder if intelligent design will be off-limits for Hedin and Gonzalez.

I don't think there's any question that ID is currently "off-limits" for Hedin and Gonzalez, and for every other scientist at Ball State. As President Gora has informed her university, "[I]ntelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses." Remember, both of these scientists are untenured and they are not fools. Pulliam goes on to say:

Gora seems to be looking for middle ground, allowing Hedin to teach and adding Gonzalez to the faculty, but steering them away from talking about intelligent design in the classroom.

This seems to elide the fact that even as Hedin and Gonzalez have, for now, retained their jobs, they are forbidden from exercising their own best scientific judgment in deciding what to say about a fascinating scientific controversy. Remember that Dr. Gora as president of Ball State hired these men because they are excellent scientists. Her training is in sociology. Second-guessing Dr. Hedin and Dr. Gonzalez, allowing them to teach but not granting them the freedom to decide what to tell students, is not a "middle ground." It is censorship.

FreedomUnderFire.jpgOn the other hand, as a journalist who has covered affairs in his state for a long time, Mr. Pulliam may be aware that the situation is more fluid than seems to be the case to outsiders. Perhaps, indeed, Pulliam is subtly offering Dr. Gora a way out, a suggestion that in the final months before her retirement she gracefully reconsider rather than sticking with an all-out gag order on ID in science.

As Pulliam points out, Gora "is being praised for a job well done as she prepares to wind up her leadership of the university." Her legacy should not include a dangerous, frightening and precedent-setting speech ban on a scientific idea.

If I had Russ Pulliam's ear I would suggest that he look at the other Ball State course we've been writing about here, "Dangerous Ideas," which uses as its sole text a collection of articles strongly tilted toward using science to cast doubt on religion.

In a post today, "Casey Luskin admits that Intelligent Design is religious," Jerry Coyne, who got the censorship ball rolling at Ball State, puffs about how a letter that Discovery Institute's Casey Luskin wrote to the Muncie Star Press amounts to an admission that ID equals religion. Casey had noted the disparity in Gora's treatment of the two courses.

If I follow Coyne's logic -- no easy task -- he says Casey was complaining that a course tilted to atheism (even if taught by a theist) should be balanced by a course tilted to theism, namely intelligent design. Ergo, thinks Coyne, ID is religion.

Wrong. Casey's complaint is that Gora "shut down" Hedin (in Pulliam's apt expression) for teaching an interdisciplinary course, "The Boundaries of Science," that according to its syllabus employed science to "illuminate the central questions of the purpose of our existence and the meaning of life."

Intelligent design is clearly relevant to "illuminating" such questions. As Pulliam observes, "Most scientists say that evidence overwhelmingly supports the theory of evolution" -- that is, the Darwinian theory of evolution -- "but a smaller group of scientists and philosophers see evidence of design as pertinent in a discussion of origins."

In its handing of scientific evidence, intelligent design points to, makes room for, a purpose at work in the eons-spanning history of life and of the cosmos itself. That doesn't make it religion. It isn't religion, any more than Darwinism, which points away from such purpose, is atheism per se. Gora's speech ban, however, singled out ID as being forbidden in the context of Hedin's course, or in any scientist's classroom. That is the main scandal here. It also raises troubling First Amendment issues. See Discovery Institute attorney Josh Youngkin's analysis here.

Meanwhile, Gora allowed a course, "Dangerous Ideas," that also in its way tries to illuminate ultimate questions. But it does so by hammering away at the theme, as one essay in the course's text puts it, that "Science Must Destroy Religion." No, not every page or every essay in the book sounds that theme, but an intelligent reader will not be surprised to learn its editor, John Brockman, is an "influential atheist." Gora's spokesman, Tony Proudfoot, has grossly misrepresented the contents of that text. Neither Coyne nor anyone at Ball State has admitted this.

So under Dr. Gora's administration, bowing to bullies like Coyne and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, science may be presented in class as being corrosive of faith. It may not be presented as even potentially supportive of it. No matter how Gora's own scientists weigh the scientific evidence!

Allowing the triumph of bullies to stand unchallenged is an encouragement to bullying -- a theme in international news today, of course, as the world watches to see how the U.S. handles Russia's grab for Crimea. The academic world is also watching Ball State, and the state of Indiana. As Casey observes, this kind of treatment of science should indeed be of interest to "Indiana taxpayers and BSU donors."

I'm now on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.

Photo credit: susi.bsu/Flickr.