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Should Advocating Intelligent Design Be a Criminal Offense?

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If a speech ban directed against scientific support for intelligent design is appropriate at one large public university, Ball State in Indiana, why not at others? What, in fact, is the limit of state action that could and should be used to discourage the dissemination of "science denial"?

If these sound like outlandish questions, then you haven't been following the news enough or reading the opinions of would-be censors like Jerry Coyne -- or Lawrence Torcello.

Coyne, of course, is the University of Chicago biologist that, along with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, instigated the successful drive to muzzle ID-friendly Ball State physicist Eric Hedin. The efforts of Coyne and the FFRP motivated Ball State president Jo Ann Gora to issue a campus-wide speech ban against ID. Lately, thank goodness, some legislators in Indiana have taken an interest in the case.

Dr. Torcello is a philosopher at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies the "moral implications of global warming denialism, as well as other forms of science denialism." In an essay published by The Conversation, he asks, "Is misinformation about the climate criminally negligent?" Answer: Yes.

Torcello holds that funders of "misinformation" campaigns directed at encouraging doubts about global warming should be subjected not only to public criticism but actual criminal penalties. "My argument," he concedes, "probably raises an understandable, if misguided, concern regarding free speech."

But be assured, Professor Torcello has thought of this already, and there's no problem:

We must make the critical distinction between the protected voicing of one's unpopular beliefs, and the funding of a strategically organized campaign to undermine the public's ability to develop and voice informed opinions. Protecting the latter as a form of free speech stretches the definition of free speech to a degree that undermines the very concept.

What are we to make of those behind the well documented corporate funding of global warming denial? Those who purposefully strive to make sure "inexact, incomplete and contradictory information" is given to the public? I believe we understand them correctly when we know them to be not only corrupt and deceitful, but criminally negligent in their willful disregard for human life. It is time for modern societies to interpret and update their legal systems accordingly.

Criminal negligence, he explains, "is normally understood to result from failures to avoid reasonably foreseeable harms, or the threat of harms to public safety, consequent of certain activities." Funders of "global warming denialism" would be liable to prosecution under such a framework, but so would those who accept money from them:

The charge of criminal and moral negligence ought to extend to all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public's understanding of scientific consensus.

Why should this dark logic not apply to other "science deniers"? If "global warming denialism" is criminal, why not "denial" of Darwinian evolution as the explanation of the development of complex life? Sound crazy? The whole thing is crazy, but stick with me and follow their logic.

Many would-be enforcers of scientific orthodoxy have lumped climate and Darwinism skeptic together as being not only in error but as posing dire threats to the future of our country and to civilization itself. Paleontologist and frequent ID-critic Donald Prothero wrote a book on this theme, Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future.

Published by Indiana University Press, the volume appears in part to be hastily cobbled together from blog posts -- Prothero even refers readers to previous posts ("As we saw in previous posts"), something the editor didn't seem to notice (p. 329). The book is shabby, stocked with the usual canards about ID. See how Casey Luskin takes it apart here. But once again, it's valuable for giving the flavor of an influential way of thinking.

Prothero treats all kinds of Darwin doubts, including intelligent design, as species of "creationism." It's the typical dishonest conflation of very different things, repeated so often he may even believe it by now. This "creationism is a serious threat not only to the United States, but also to civilization as a whole." It is, he writes, among other things "a direct threat to our health and well-being" (emphasis in the original).

Under the sway of "creationism,"

we would never be able to fight the bacteria and viruses that evolve rapidly and infect over and over again, or battle insects that evolve resistance to pesticides and destroy.

This is an absurd charge even against genuine Biblical literalist creationism. Writing in The Scientist, National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell memorably explained the irrelevance of Darwin's theory to the development of modern medicine. But once more, let's grant Prothero his assertion.

In his view, evolution denialism may be even worse than global warming denialism. The former "is one of the most pernicious and far reaching [dangers] because it affects a higher percentage of Americans than global warming denialism or anti-vaxxers." He perceives not only a danger to health but a looming return to the "Dark Ages."

Is it hard to imagine our own society sliding back into darkness and preindustrial conditions? Well, it has happened before.

To judge from Jerry Coyne's blog, Why Evolution Is True, he and Donald Prothero are buddies or at least intellectual seatmates. Prothero often comes in for praise by Coyne. So what I would want to ask them, or Lawrence Torcello, or anyone who sat complacently by as Ball State University became the latest public institution to silence support for intelligent design, is this: Where does it end? Where should it end?

Ball State's President Gora easily intimidated Eric Hedin, an untenured academic in a perilous job market. But what if a tenured professor on Gora's campus spoke up for intelligent design?

Coyne has written that "adherence to ID...should be absolute grounds for not hiring a science professor." But what if she has already been hired and granted tenure? If Ball State's gag policy is appropriate, then in a scenario where a scientist chose to defy it, what should happen to her? Dock her pay? Some other financial penalty or withholding of privileges? Fire her?

These are not idle questions. We know that ID has sympathizers on campuses where at the moment they feel compelled to remain in stealth mode. Ball State harbors at least one other scientist with known ID sympathies, who is wisely keeping his mouth shut. This is how the scientific "consensus" is maintained. What should happen when the next Eric Hedin comes along, and perhaps refuses to go gentle into that good night?

If an anti-ID speech ban is good policy for Ball State, what about, oh, Indiana University, just a couple of hours away? What about all the other public universities in the country?

Ramping up a bit, if Professor Torcello is right, why stop with silencing professors? Remember, according to the censors, science denialism is a threat to public health and the future of civilization. Granting Torcello's concession that a private citizen might legally hold and express obnoxious views, what about those who fund research and advocacy of heterodoxy on evolution?

He would criminalize funders who support climate skepticism. But Donald Prothero regards Darwin skeptics as arguably more "pernicious and far reaching" in the dangerous we pose. Surely then, still following the logic, those who support intelligent design research and advocacy -- and don't forget, those who receive such support -- should face criminal penalties.

Look, any ID advocate with an easily available email address knows the depths of hatred we stir. I regularly get emails wishing such things as, "I hope You ALL GET CANCER AND PRAY FOR A CURE." Or, "dar morons, you kind will die off and the world will get better then, until then i will fight you f****** morons." These are just from the past couple of days. Our higher-toned critics don't publicly wish death on us, but it's fair to start asking what other penalties they would subject us to.

Given the premises of men like Torcello, Prothero and Coyne, these questions are simply prudent. Coyne, to my knowledge, has never said where he would get off the escalator of censorship. Someone should pose the query to him, preferably in public, and to anyone who has explicitly or implicitly supported the muzzling of pro-ID speech.

Don't expect a candid reply. But yes, they owe us an answer.

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

Image source: Dawn Endico/Flickr.