Thursday, September 13, 2007

Academic Unprofessionalism

HT: Ed Brayton

In Ed's post, linked to above, he criticizes Casey Luskin's take on an anti-ID course at SMU as whining. I don't wish to participate in that particular debate, for I certainly do my share of criticizing the ID Movements big shots as whiners. Instead I'll offer a secondary observation.

The SMU course is entitled "The Scientific Method - Critical and Creative Thinking (Debunking Pseudoscience)."

Fair enough—it is quite legitimate for a university to offer a course explaining why ID is not science. I would not be against such a course, even if I believed that ID was science, which I don't. It goes without saying that universities are supposed to offer courses on timely subjects. It also goes without saying that in anything but science, mathematics, and engineering (and even there, but to a lesser extent) courses will, to a certain and hopefully manageable extent, reflect the biases of the professors. That's always the case.

Here is the expectation, as I understand it. If a die-hard capitalist is going to teach a class on comparative economic systems, it's OK that the students come to realize the professor's opinion. That is unavoidable. It is not OK if the professor makes the "right answer" apparent in the syllabus and belittles those of another view. And his course materials must be professional. They are not supposed to be a joke. Keep that in mind.

I would expect that to be the case with this course. While there would be little doubt as to the slant, the course materials should be professional and at least have the appearance of being scholarly.

That's not the case here, not at all. Here the course materials look as if they were ghost written by Paul Mirecki while totally immersed in his "Evil Dr. P" persona. In other words, by some sort of adolescent-level intelligence with a severe self esteem problem.

Luskin points to this page, and rightly so. He may be "whining" as Ed claims, but to be honest I don't care—and in fact I didn't read Luskin's article beyond reaching this link.

The aforementioned page is perhaps the most unprofessional, unscholarly piece of official course material I have ever seen.

We can begin at the beginning. There is a quote from Bill Maher:

Bill Maher on Intelligent Design - "You don't have to teach both sides of a debate if one side is a load of crap."

The message that sends is simply unfriggin' believable as it pertains to a college level course of this type (a course that is not a science class, but one that essentially asks: what is science?) Here, absolutely, both sides should be presented if only so that ultimately one view can be discredited. The amusing thing (and so embarrassing for the unwitting professors) is that they couldn't have picked a worse spokesman for their mission of debunking pseudo-science, because Bill Maher is an anti-vaccine, germ-theory denying, (and therefore anti-science) crackpot.

Back to the hideous web page. Now, I have no objection to the fact that it looks like a web page circa 1995. Simple is good, and at least they didn't use blinking text.

What I object to are the unprofessional, childish editorial comments sprinkled throughout the page. For example, in commenting on Dembski's explaining his failure to publish:

Or maybe, Bill, you can't get your work past the editors and reviewers because it's BAD SCIENCE. It's interesting to compare this with the AIDS deniers' reasons for not publishing their nonsense in peer-reviewed research journals.

Yes folks, they even use boldface capitals to let us know it is REALLY IMPORTANT! Now, readers know that I agree that the reason Dembski can't publish is because ID is bad science. But I would never put such a pimply faced comment in course materials, and if I did, I'd expect my Dean to call me in on the carpet. And I wouldn't put a gratuitous comparison to AIDS deniers (and I think they actually mean HIV deniers.)

Here is their editorial comment (a quote from Robert Park) about Gonzalez, on a page that is allegedly a set of reference links:

Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure at Iowa State University. The Discovery Institute was shocked at this blatant disregard of the cherished principle of "viewpoint diversity." With Jay Richards, a theologian, Gonzalez wrote The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery. It's a daffy twist on the anthropic principle, which was already daffy enough. The simple fact is that his colleagues voted him off the island. It's not like he was tenured and then fired.

Truly, I find it impossible to believe that a professor included this quote on reference course material. (And it contains a scientifically disputable statement, namely that "the anthropic principle was already daft enough." No so daft, I'll point out, that Weinberg couldn't use it to correctly predict a tiny value for the cosmological constant.)

Further down the page we have a list of marquis IDers. The heading for the list:

Intelligent Design Proponents (IDiots)

Whoever wrote this is a jackass. The term IDiot was arguably funny somewhere back in the last millennium. Since then it so overused that up to now I thought only Larry Moran still thought it was clever. But even Larry Moran, as far as I know, only uses it on his blog, not for course material.

Finally, the list of links to pro-ID books is headed by:

or read these and get stoopider

Badly done, professors. This page really makes you look "stoopid." If I were your department chair, I'd make you change it. This is pathetic, not worthy of anything at the university level, and even the most anti-ID students and their parents should ask more of SMU's faculty—namely that they do a better job, a professional job.

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