“Academic freedom” for pseudoscience?

Readers may have noticed (or maybe they haven’t) that I haven’t commented at all on the Guillermo Gonzalez case. As you may recall, Gonzalez is an astronomer at Iowa State University, as well as advocate of “intelligent design” creationism. In May 2007, ISU denied tenure to Gonzalez. Not surprisingly, the ID movement in general and its propagnda arm (Discovery Institute) in particular have done their best to try to portray Gonzalez as a martyr who was “persecuted” for his beliefs and denied his “academic freedom.” Despite the attempts of the DI to milk it for all its PR value, as usual, the story was not as it was portrayed in that there were multiple other reasons why Gonzalez might have been denied tenure, such as lack of grant funding and an unimpressive publication record. Of course, none of this stops the Discovery Institute from loudly proclaiming that the Gonzalez case is a violation of “academic freedom.” Fortunately, not even the American Association of University Professors is buying that sort of claim, as a recent article published in Inside Higher entitled Academic Freedom and Evolution points out in reference to both the Gonzalez case and the case of a Woods Hole postdoc who was fired because he does not accept evolution and would not do research related to evolution:

But what of Woods Hole or other scientifically oriented institutions that may not want to hire people or who may want to fire people who would teach against evolution in the classroom or refuse to do laboratory work based on evolution? The fears are not just theoretical — the lawsuits over such dismissals are very real, and many academics fear that the “Academic Bill of Rights” or similar measures backed by some conservatives would make it hard for them to keep out people whose teachings might run counter to science.

Knight said he could not think of a case where the AAUP had been asked to investigate the claims of anti-evolution professors.

AAUP documents have explicitly and implicitly affirmed the right of departments to recognize evolution as something that is established fact. The association’s recent statement on “Freedom in the Classroom” states that “it is not indoctrination for professors of biology to require students to understand principles of evolution; indeed, it would be a dereliction of professional responsibility to fail to do so.”

And a 1986 AAUP document, “Some Observations on Ideology, Competence and Faculty Selection,” says it is legitimate in some cases for departments to intentionally exclude certain perspectives when doing hiring. “Not just any currently debated approach to a subject has a degree of importance which should guarantee it time in the classroom, and classroom time not being unlimited, choices have to be made,” the statement says. “An institution of higher learning should welcome those who offer to bring it new ideas; but there is not evading the substantive question whether the new ideas a candidate offers to bring it really are that — as opposed, perhaps, to mere passing fads or fancies.”


I like this statement, except for the bit about “passing fads or fancies” at the end. Evolution denial, be it in the form of classical young earth creationism or its bastard offspring ID, is anything but a “passing fad or fancy.” However, it is indeed a “viewpoint” whose consideration can legitimately be used as a big black mark against a faculty member seeking tenure in disciplines in which evolution is important, particularly if that faculty member actively promotes such a view. Leaving aside the mendacity of the Discovery Institute and Gonzalez’s apparent acquiescence to being a publicity dupe for its campaign to rid the world of Darwinism at the expense of his own career, specifically any chance he might have still had for appealing ISU’s tenure decision or finding another tenure-track faculty position, the Gonzalez case does raise a number of interesting issues that extend beyond ID to pseudoscience and crankery in a variety of disciplines. The question is a difficult one: What viewpoints can legitimately be held against a candidate for tenure? The natural followup question is, of course: Is it denying academic freedom to include support for ID as part of an evaluation for tenure? If there’s one common tactic that advocates of pseudoscience resort to whenever challenged by science, particularly academic science, it is to cloak itself in “academic freedom” and represent any attacks against it as attacks against that freedom.

Although from my perspective ID creationists appear to be the best and most vocal at playing the “academic freedom” card, but they are far from alone in this proclivity. Given another favorite tactic of creationists, namely claiming that “Darwinism” led to Nazi eugenics programs and, ultimately, the Holocaust, I can’t resist picking one example in particular of cranks who like to cloak themselves in “academic freedom” when criticized for their pseudohistory. Yes, it can be argued that Holocaust deniers come in second to creationists in this area, loving, as they do, to play the same card whenever they can. For example, it was a cry heard often at the gathering of Holocaust deniers in Iran earlier this year, and it was the cloak of martyrdom deniers tried to place around the shoulders of Hans Joachim Kupka, a graduate student in the German department at Waikato University who denies the Holocaust and has been associated with neo-Nazi groups, and Joel Hayward, a graduate student at Canterbury University who parroted Holocaust denier canards in his masters thesis, citing the discredited Leuchter Report to conclude, “A careful and impartial investigation of the available evidence pertaining to Nazi gas chambers reveals that even these apparently fall into the category of atrocity propaganda.” The cry of “academic freedom” also arises in defense of the notorious Arthur Butz, an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Northwestern University and author of The Hoax of the Twentieth Century: The Case Against the Presumed Extermination of European Jewry. Of course, the reason that Butz got away with his blatant Holocaust denial is because he is not a historian and was at least smart enough not to mention his views on the Holocaust in any of his classes.

The reason this question is starting to interest me even more than it did before is because it’s not just biology and astronomy that are being invaded by pseudoscience. In particular, academic is being infiltrated by purveyors of unscientific and non-evidence-based treatments. I pointed this out a while back by making a list of the medical schools in the U.S. that I could find on the web that either teach or provide non-evidence-based services such as reiki and therapeutic touch. Some even offer uncritically that quackery of quackery, homeopathy. (It’s a list that I need to update already, even though I assembled and posted the list less than a month ago.) As I watch these developments, I wish that medical schools showed the sorts of standards when it comes to pseudoscience that ISU did. Pseudoscience seems to be making its way stealthily into academic medicine with little attention and even less protest, except by a few “microfascists” like myself. Not only that, but whole divisions and institutes are being created to “study” these dubious modalities, although the lack of supportive evidence for them doesn’t seem to prevent some of these schools from offering them outside the context of clinical trials and billing for them, which raises some rather thorny ethical questions.

There’s no doubt that academic freedom is generally a good thing, but it’s not absolute. Higher education is a profession, and standards have to apply. Academic freedom does not protect, nor should it protect, an academic who is proclaiming or teaching information or ideas that simply are not supported by the evidence and scholarship within his or her field. I’m not referring to controversial ideas here; academic freedom can and should protect the right of academics to investigate such controversies. What I’m referring to are ideas that are demonstrably incorrect and are supported only through distortion of the evidence, logical fallacies, and lies. That’s why it is not a violation of academic freedom to exclude Holocaust deniers from departments of history, because Holocaust denial is not history. They have every free speech right to spew their lies, but that doesn’t mean that universities are obligated to give them a forum. That’s also why it’s not a violation of academic freedom to exclude ID creationists from departments of biology, because ID is not science and it is, to the best scholarship, demonstrably incorrect.

Which brings me back to the infiltration of woo into academic medicine.

Given that few seem to have a problem enforcing academic standards in history with regards to Holocaust denial or in biology with regards to evolution, I’m puzzled why woo is finding a hospitable home in so many academic medical centers. True, it’s the “soft” woo, like therapeutic touch and acupuncture which, while not doing any good, at least probably do no harm in the vast majority of cases. Moreover, “alternative medicine” is a rubric under which a wide variety of disparate “therapies” fall, and therapies vary from somewhat plausible (herbal medications) to the implausible (acupuncture, chiropractic), to the wildly implausible (reiki, homeopathy). I fail to see why an advocate of reiki or homeopathy shouldn’t be subject to the same sort of treatment as Gonzalez was when it comes to tenure decisions. The magical thinking that it takes to accept the existence of qi as given or the concept that diluting a remedy to the point where not a single molecule is left actually makes the remedy stronger should disqualify one for academic medicine. Hell, it should disqualify one for medicine, period. After all, medicine is a profession about directly treating people’s illnesses and trying to save lives; the stakes are even higher and the consequences potentially even more severe if pseudoscience is allowed an entrance.

No doubt I’ll be labeled as “intolerant” and wanting to deny academic freedom for saying this. But remember, I’m only talking about the hard core, truly implausible therapies that to work would not only have to contravene the laws of science as we understand but demonstrate that much of what we understand about chemistry and biochemistry is wrong. I wouldn’t say the same thing about advocates of, for example, herbalism or even acupuncture. Even though I highly doubt that acupuncture works as anything more than a placebo, sticking needles into the body is a physical act that likely has physiological consequences. They’re probably not therapeutic consequences, but there’s a small chance that they are.

Perhaps one reason why there is this difference is because it’s more than “academic” freedom that supports the infiltration of woo into medical schools. In reality, “alternative” medicine practitioners don’t actually need to be in academia. They can thrive quite well on their own, probably even better; it is the legitimacy conferred by academia that they crave. In medicine, “academic freedom” to practice non-evidence-based treatments is but a subset of the larger “health freedom” movement, a movement dedicated to dismantling the FDA and, under the banner of patient choice, allowing patients to choose quackery if they want. Also, unlike many of the basic sciences, like biology, medicine is to some extent a consumer-driven affair. If patients want it, chances are that some doctors will provide it–even if those doctors are in academia–and delude themselves into thinking that they’re doing science. Moreover, academic medicine provides a safe haven for such people, as tenure is not nearly as important an issue in an academic medical career as it is in a basic science career. For one thing, tenure doesn’t actually cover all of an academic physician’s salary. It’s usually only around half or even considerably less. Consequently, tenure is not as valuable a protection in academic medicine. Moreover, you don’t really need tenure to thrive; indeed, most academic physicians do not have tenure and most probably never get tenure.

Still, I’d feel a lot better about the scientific standing of medicine as a profession if we actually enforced standards in a manner similar to the way that our basic science colleagues do, whether it’s for tenure or other purposes. After all, standards and guidelines for patient care tend to be written and validated mostly in academia, and over the last decade or two there has been a concerted movement to make all of medicine as science- and evidence-based as possible. The infiltration of woo into academic medical centers runs counter to and jeopardizes this trend, which leads me to ask: If we’re not willing to enforce standards in academic medicine how long will it be before patient care standards decline as well?