The purpose of teaching

I have been teaching for many years and encountered many wonderful students. I remember in particular two students who were in my modern physics courses that dealt with quantum mechanics, relativity, and cosmology.

Doug was an excellent student, demonstrating a wonderful understanding of all the topics we discussed in class. But across the top of his almost perfect final examination paper, I was amused to see that he had written, “I still don’t believe in relativity!�

The other student was Jamal and he is not as direct as Doug. He came into my office a few years after the course was over (and just before he was about to graduate) to say goodbye. We chatted awhile, I wished him well, and then as he was about to leave he turned to me and said hesitantly in his characteristically shy way: “Do you remember that stuff you taught us about how the universe originated in the Big Bang about 15 billion years ago? Well, I don’t really believe all that.� After a pause he went on, “It kind of conflicts with my religious beliefs.� He looked apprehensively at me, perhaps to see if I might be offended or angry or think less of him. But I simply smiled and let it pass. It did not bother me at all.

Why was I not upset that these two students had, after having two semester-long courses with me, still not accepted the fundamental ideas that I had been teaching? The answer is simple. The goal of my teaching is not to change what my students believe. It is to have them understand what practitioners in the field believe. And those are two very different teaching goals.

As I said, I have taught for many years. And it seems to me that teachers encounter three kinds of situations with students.

One is where students do not have much prior experience (either explicitly or implicitly) with the material being taught and don’t have strong feelings about it either way. This is usually the case with technical or highly specialized areas (such as learning the symptoms of some rare disease or applying the laws of quantum mechanics to the hydrogen atom). In such cases, students have little trouble accepting what is taught.

The second type of situation is where students’ life experiences have resulted in strongly held beliefs about a particular knowledge structure, even though the student may not always be consciously aware of having such beliefs. The physics education literature is full of examples that our life experiences conspire to create in people an Aristotelian understanding of mechanics. This makes it hard for them to accept Newtonian mechanics. Note that this difficulty exists even though the students have no particular attachment to Aristotle’s views on mechanics and may not have the faintest idea what they are. Overcoming this kind of implicit belief structure is not easy. Doug was an example of someone who had got over the first hurdle from Aristotelian to Newtonian mechanics, but was finding the next transition to Einsteinian relativistic ideas much harder to swallow.

The third kind of situation is where the student has strong and explicit beliefs about something. These kinds of beliefs, as in the case of Jamal, come from religion or politics or parents or other major influences in their lives. You cannot force such students to change their views and any instructor who tries to do so is foolish. If students think that you are trying to force them to a particular point of view, they are very good at telling you what they think you want to hear, while retaining their beliefs. In fact, trying to force or bully students to accept your point of view, apart from being highly unethical teaching practice, is a sure way of reinforcing the strength of their original views.

So Doug’s and Jamal’s rejection of my ideas did not bother me and I was actually pleased that they felt comfortable telling me so. They had every right to believe whatever they wanted to believe. But what I had a right to expect was that they had understood what I was trying to teach and could use those ideas to make arguments within those frameworks.

For example, if I had given an exam problem that required that the student demonstrate his understanding of relativistic physics to solve, and Doug had refused to answer the question because he did not believe in relativity or had answered it using his own private theories of physics, I would have had to mark him down.

Similarly, if I had asked Jamal to calculate the age of the universe using the cosmological theories we had discussed in class, and he had instead said that the universe was 6,000 years old because that is what the Bible said, then I would have to mark him down too. He is free to believe what he wants, but the point of the course is to learn how the physics community interprets the world, and be able to use that information.

Understanding this distinction is important because it is this type of misunderstanding of the purpose of education that leads to things like Senate bill 24, which seems to assume that students are like sheep who can be induced to believe almost anything the instructor wants them to and thus require legal protection. Anyone who has taught for any length of time and has listened closely to students will know that this is ridiculous. It is not that students are not influenced by teaching and do not change their minds but that the process is far more complex and subtle than it is usually portrayed. (This is a topic I will come back to in a later posting)

My own advice to students is: “Listen carefully and courteously to what knowledgeable people have to say, learn what the community of scholars thinks about an issue, and be able to understand and use that information when necessary. Weigh the arguments for and against any issue but ultimately stand up for what you believe and even more importantly know why you believe it. Don’t ever feel forced to accept something just because some ‘expert’ (whether teacher, preacher, political leader, pundit, or media talking head) tells you it is true. Believe things only when it makes sense to you and you are good and ready for it.�

Can ethical behavior be legislated?

If there is one underlying idea that drives the effort to pass Ohio’s Senate Bill 24, it seems to be the idea that college faculty cannot be trusted to behave ethically in their dealings with students, in what they teach and how they assess and grade.

College faculty are probably no better or worse than other people in their ethics. But in my experience, both university administrators and faculty know that it is in their interest to have everyone behave ethically. What this bill ignores is that there are already remedies available within the universities and in the courts for the most egregious violations of ethics, and tries to micromanage ethical behavior by detailing what can and cannot be read, taught, discussed, and examined in each course.

I am not convinced that people can be forced to behave ethically. The presence of rules can prevent the more obvious or overt forms of unethical behavior, but it cannot completely eliminate them. For example, we know that there are laws on the books, and official university policies, that prohibit discrimination against people based on their gender, ethnicity, or religion. We also know that we have to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.

But do we really believe that the existence of such laws and policies has eliminated discrimination? People who want to can always find ways within the laws to discriminate against people. In fact, the creation of lots of rules might work against more ethical behavior because it shifts the burden of proof. Now someone can say that as long as they are following the rules, they are behaving ethically, although they may be violating the spirit of ethical behavior.

People who value ethical behavior will, if left to themselves, of their own accord go beyond the letter of the law. Putting a lot of rules and regulations around them is likely to create resentment and hostility and a rule-following mentality.

For example, there are lots of things that instructors can do to help or hinder students that cannot be governed by rules. How an instructor responds when a students asks a question in class or asks for assistance outside of class can have a huge impact on a student’s attitude and learning. The amount of encouragement that an instructor gives, the level of guidance the instructor provides, even the letters of recommendation that they write, are very important for students, but such things cannot be legislated.

The same thing applies to students. An instructor who puts in a lot of rules designed to ‘make students learn’ is, in my opinion, doing something counterproductive. When confronted with a lot of rules and requirements, most students will simply do what is asked for and no more. What an instructor should do is to try and create the conditions which makes students want to learn and then give them the resources to do so. Learning is an inherently voluntary act and you cannot force people to learn any more than you can force them to act ethically.

There will be the rare student who will abuse this freedom, just as there will be the rare professor who abuses the freedom given to him or her. But they have to be treated as special cases and dealt with accordingly. Putting in a lot of rules to take care of such isolated cases results in the learning experience being spoiled for everyone else.

In my own experience most, if not all, students react very positively to being entrusted to take charge of their own learning. Our goal in universities should be to create students who are self-directed and ethical learners, people who enjoy learning even when no one is looking over their shoulders, and to encourage faculty to trust students and be ethical in their dealings with them.

How can people learn to achieve this higher level of self-direction if they are always viewed with suspicion and constrained by detailed rules? What we should be aiming for are fewer rules, not more.

Private grief and public spectacle

I have not posted anything so far on the big story that seems to be consuming the whole country, which is the sad, sad case of Terri Schiavo. This is partly because I intended this blog to be more concerned with reflections on slower-moving themes, and not consist of commentary on current events (which other people have the time to do much better), and partly because I felt that there was nothing that I could say that would add anything of value to the substance of the case. I have no moral or ethical wisdom to offer that would help people decide what should be done with the feeding tube.

But the non-substantive issue that depresses me most about the Schiavo case, and caused me to break my self-imposed silence, is the public circus that it has become. I can completely understand the grief that the immediate members of the family must be experiencing. This is an awful situation and as far as I can see, there is no ‘right’ answer to this problem. Whatever the outcome, there is not going to be a victory or a defeat for anyone, and no right or wrong.

While we can try and wrap this event up in big, overarching issues of national importance or see matters of grand principle, at its core it is just the sad story of a family tragedy. As such it is something that the immediate family has to come to terms with, with whatever help and strength that they can get from their close friends, the medical community and, as a last resort, the law. What surprises me that so many people who have little or no connection to the family have got so passionately involved.

I am fortunate that I have never had to make a decision that directly affected the life or death of a human being, especially someone close to me. Making that kind of decision about my much-loved dog caused me so much grief that I don’t even like to speculate about it happening to people that I care about.

I think that it is very risky to predict what one would do if placed in the kind of situation faced by Terri Schiavo’s family. I think none of us really knows until we are actually in that situation, because it is so extreme, so far removed from what we have experienced before, that hypothetical speculations are useless in such cases. I would like to think that, finding myself in such a situation, I would behave bravely, nobly, and selflessly, but I really cannot know in advance. This is why I refrain from judging the people directly involved in the Schiavo case or other cases like that.

I have only sympathy for the members of families who grapple with end-of-life questions for their loved ones. If any friend of mine had to make such a decision, I would simply stand by them and accept whatever decision they made, without urging them on or trying to tell them what to do, because the last thing that grief-stricken people need is gratuitous advice coming at them all the time from all directions. The rest of us should simply be thankful that we do not have to make the kinds of agonizing decisions that they must make.

If Terri Schiavo’s parents were my friends, I would accept their decision in their time of need. If her husband were my friend, I would accept his decision too, even though what he has decided is the opposite of what his parents have decided. The reason for my apparent indecisiveness is because I cannot know what either of them should do since I am not sure that I know what I would do if I were in their shoes. But since neither are my friends, I would just leave them alone to let them work their way through this with their real friends and their doctors, without the intense media scrutiny they are currently experiencing.

I also have nothing but respect for those doctors (and judges and juries) who are required to be involved in such decisions. It cannot be easy to do so and the fact that they have been put in this unpleasant position should make us refrain from criticizing them just because they make decisions with which we do not agree.

In cases like that of Terri Schiavo, there is enough tragedy and sadness to go around without it also becoming a media circus. The best thing we can do may be to just leave the family alone.

POST SCRIPT

The invaluable Juan Cole has a very interesting post on how the mixing of public advocacy with private lives in the Schiavo case has disturbing parallels with cases that have occurred in the Muslim world, where fundamentalist clerics have used that mixing to interfere in the private lives of private citizens. That posting is a must-read.

What should we teach?

I tend to be one of those ‘glass-half-full’ kind of people. Maybe it is because of my fundamental sense of identity as a teacher. I see most things, even things that I do not agree with, also as possible ‘teachable moments’ that can be used to obtain a deeper understanding of issues. This is why, even though I think that so-called intelligent design (ID) theory is not science, discussing why this is so can lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of science.

The same is true with the attempts to legislate a so-called “academic bill of rights� for students to supposedly protect them from alleged abuse by college professors and which in Ohio is taking the form of Senate Bill 24, currently pending in committee. While I think this is a really bad idea, articulating why this is so can lead to fruitful discussions on what education should be like.

Last Thursday I was on a panel that met to discuss the implications for universities if such a bill were to be enacted (Thanks to Veronica of the Case ACLU for organizing it.) A mix of faculty and students met over the inevitable pizza to discuss the issue.

As I said in my opening comments to the group, it is my belief that it is in such types of informal gatherings of faculty and students to discuss issues of mutual interest that real learning occurs. We should have a lot more of such gatherings and fewer structured courses in college. But since formal courses and grades are a seemingly unchangeable component on the current educational structure, what we should try to do is to replicate as much as possible this kind of informal atmosphere in our formal courses.

This means that we should, as far as possible, move away from highly detailed syllabi and course requirements, and allow for more flexibility so that the direction each course takes can be driven by the shared interests of students and faculty, while still maintaining the integrity of the overall curriculum. Of course, it is only in small enrollment courses (say with fifteen students or less) that achieving this kind of consensus becomes feasible and in my own small enrollment SAGES course I have been moving in this direction and will keep doing so.

With large enrollment courses, however, many of the course and curricular decisions have to be made even before the course begins, in order to manage the logistical issues. But even there we should try to build in room for as much flexibility as possible.

I have addressed in a previous posting that things like Senate bill 24 will move things in the opposite direction, in effect writing curricula and mandating what should be in syllabi and exams, and the mind boggles as to where this can lead. For example, section A of the bill says that “curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social studies shall respect all human knowledge in these areas and provide students with dissenting sources and viewpoints.� This immediately raises problems of interpretation and enforcement.

For example, when discussing history can the instructor assume that the concentration camps of World War II are an established fact or is he/she obliged to also provide readings of holocaust deniers and use class time to discuss their ideas? If the instructor does not do so, does this mean that a student who does not believe that the holocaust occurred has grounds for complaint?

Also Marxist economics and social theory are not taught much in US universities although they have had a major influence worldwide. Should instructors be forced to have more of it and to analyze each topic in the light of what this theory says? If an economics course ignores Marxist theory, does a student have grounds for complaint? And even the terms “Marxist economics� or “capitalist economics� are open to many interpretations, with diverging schools of thought. Which schools of thought are worthy of inclusion?

If a student does complain in either of the above situations, who should be the judge of whether the instructor acted appropriately or not? Who gets to decide what is worthy and not worthy of inclusion? It is not hard to see that this kind of thing can lead to a bureaucratic nightmare.

What this bill does is infantilize faculty and students. It assumes that faculty cannot be trusted to exercise their trained judgment on what should and should not be allowed in curricula, and that students are not capable of judging when their professors are doing their job well. This bill also underestimates students’ ability to hold on to their beliefs in the face of opposing views, a topic I will discuss further in future postings.

Other panelists addressed the political and legal implications. I learned from Professor Durschlag some very interesting information about how the US Supreme Court has in the past interpreted the first amendment’s application to university education and the precedents that have been set. I will write about that at a future date when I get hold of the actual ruling. It involves a trek to the Law school library.

POST SCRIPT

There is an interesting post and discussion going on at Research in Progress about the Lawrence Summers controversy about the representation of women in academia and the professions, and the connection to Stephen Pinker’s work and talk at Case last week. You really should visit.

Update: There is also now a new post on the topic, also well worth reading.

Safe Zones

As you enter my office, directly across from the door is a bulletin board and on it is a little sticker. It has the words ‘SAFE ZONE’ in large purple letters over an inverted pink triangle background.

It was given to me by the Spectrum group at Case which, according to its website seeks to “provide an environment where GLBTQQIA (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexed, and allied) persons can socialize, learn, and grow.�

The sticker on my bulletin board is meant to be a signal that a student who fits into any of those categories can let me know without fearing any adverse or hostile reaction from me.

I have to say that I feel a little sad whenever my eye falls on that sticker. Have we come to this, that we have to publicly announce zones of safety for people for no other reason than their sexual orientation? Shouldn’t that be something that is taken for granted? The fact that it is not is a sign of how far we are from creating a tolerant society.

I have never quite been able to understand why some people get so upset by other people’s private lives. Yes, I can understand that because of your own religious beliefs or culture or upbringing or whatever there are certain things that you personally might not approve of. But you are always free not to do them. But why should the private lives of other consenting adults, even total strangers, matter to you?

And yet, it seems that many people are concerned about just such things. To me, one of the more disturbing features on last November’s election was the adoption of so many anti-gay measures across the nation. In Ohio Issue 1, that sought to prohibit gay couples from getting some of the benefits that married heterosexual couples take for granted, was adopted by 62% to 38%, an alarmingly large margin.

It seems pretty clear that there are at least two groups who currently run the risk of open discrimination – non-heterosexuals and Arabs/Muslims. It seems to be perfectly acceptable to say disparaging things against either of these two groups without being shamed or called to account.

When it comes to Arabs, for example, Third-Tier Pundit™ Hall of Famer Ann Coulter recently in her column referred to veteran journalist Helen Thomas as “that old Arab.� James Wolcott speculates as to the outrage that would ensure if that kind of language was applied to other groups. And Coulter’s fellow traveler on the Third-Tier Pundit™ circuit Michelle Malkin’s approval of the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War II and her advocacy of racial, religious and nationality profiling now is another example of this appalling tendency to select specific groups for discriminatory treatment.

Back to the issue of ‘safe zones’, I am not naïve. I know that people who are not ‘straight’ run the risk of being discriminated against, or much worse, in the broader society and that they are justified in being cautious about who knows about them. But it is a little disheartening that even in a university there is this fear of intolerance. A university should be different, even though it is populated by the same kinds of people as elsewhere, because in the university there exists something that does not exist outside in any organized way and which should act as a uniting force that overcomes the friction and divergence that can be caused by differences.

This unifying force is the love of learning and a respect for academic values that universities are built upon. If we immerse ourselves in that shared love of learning, then we will find that people who are sometimes very different from us can be the very sources of our own intellectual, spiritual, and moral growth.

In a university you will find people who are different in many ways, not just in terms of their sexual orientation. It is such individual differences that make life so interesting and enjoyable and these same qualities have been the fuel for some of the most creative people that ever lived. Our society, and our universities, should find room for all these people and not seek to shred them of their distinctiveness and make them conform to some idealized ‘norm.’

In other words, we need to make the whole university a safe zone for everyone.

What do creationist/ID advocates want-III?

It is time to tackle head-on the notion of what is meant by the “materialism” that the creationist/ID camp find so distasteful. (See part I and part II for the background.)

The word materialism is used synonymously with “naturalism” and perhaps the clearest formulation of what it means can be found in the writings of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson who said in Tempo and Mode in Evolution (p. 76.):

The progress of knowledge rigidly requires that no non-physical postulate ever be admitted in connection with the study of physical phenomena. We do not know what is and what is not explicable in physical terms, and the researcher who is seeking explanations must seek physical explanations only.(Emphasis added)

Simpson was not an atheist (as far as I can tell) but he is saying something that all scientists take for granted, that when you seek a scientific explanation for something, you look for something that has natural causes, and you do not countenance the miraculous or the inscrutable. This process is properly called “methodological naturalism”, to be contrasted with “philosophical naturalism.”

Despite the polysyllabic terminology, the ideas are easy to understand. For example, if you hear a strange noise in the next room, you might wonder if it is a radiator or the wind or a mouse or an intruder and you investigate each possible cause, looking for evidence. For each question that you pose, the answer is sought in natural causes. You would be unlikely to say “The noise in the next room is caused by God knocking over stuff.” In general, people don’t invoke God to explain the everyday phenomena of our lives, even though they might be quite religious.

Methodological naturalism is just that same idea. Scientists look for natural explanations to the phenomena they encounter because that is the way science works. Such an approach allows you to systematically investigate open questions and not shut off avenues of research. Any scientist who said that an experimental result was due to God intervening in the lab would be looked at askance, because that scientist would be violating one of the fundamental rules of operation. There is no question in science that is closed to further investigation of deeper natural causes.

Non-scientists sometimes do not understand how hard and frustrating much of scientific research is. People work for years and even decades banging their heads against brick walls, trying to solve some tough problem. What keeps them going? What makes them persevere? It is the practice of methodological naturalism, the belief that a discoverable explanation must exist and that it is only their ingenuity and skill that is preventing them from finding the solution. Unsolved problems are seen as challenges to the skills of the individual scientist and the scientific community, not as manifestations of God’s workings.

This is what, for example, causes medical researchers to work for years to find causes (and thus possibly cures) for rare and obscure diseases. Part of the reason is the desire to be helpful, part of it is due to personal ambition and career advancement, but an important part is also the belief that a solution exists that lies within their grasp.

It is because of this willingness to persevere in the face of enormous difficulty that science has been able to make the breakthroughs it has. If, at the early signs of difficulty in solving a problem scientists threw up their hands and said “Well, looks like God is behind this one. Let’s give up and move on to something else” then the great discoveries of science that we associate with Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, etc. would never have occurred.

For example, the motion of the perigee of the moon was a well-known unsolved problem for over sixty years after the introduction of Newtonian physics. It constituted a serious problem that resisted solution for a longer time than the problems in evolution pointed to by creationist/ID advocates. Yet no supernatural explanation was invoked, eventually the problem was solved, and the result was seen as a triumph for Newtonian theory.

So when creationist/ID advocates advocate the abandonment of methodological naturalism, they are not trying to ease just Darwin out of the picture. They are throwing out the operational basis of the entire scientific enterprise.

Philosophical naturalism, as contrasted with methodological naturalism, is the belief that the natural world is all there is, that there is nothing more. Some scientists undoubtedly choose to be philosophical naturalists (and thus atheists) because they see no need to have God in their philosophical framework, but as I said in an earlier posting, others reject that option and stay religious. But this is purely a personal choice made by individual scientists and it has no impact on how they do science, which only involves using methodological naturalism. There is no requirement in science that one must be a philosophical naturalist.

The question of philosophical naturalism is, frankly, irrelevant to working scientists. Scientists don’t really care if their colleagues are religious or not. I have been around scientists all my life. But apart from my close friends, I have no idea what their religious beliefs are, and even then I have only a vague idea of what they actually believe. I know that some are religious and others are not. It just does not matter to us. Whether a scientist is a philosophical naturalist or not does not affect how his or her work is received by the community.

But what the creationist/ID advocates want, according to their stated goal of “”If things are to improve, materialism needs to be defeated and God has to be accepted as the creator of nature and human beings” is to enforce the requirement that scientists reject both philosophical and methodological naturalism. They are essentially forcing two things on everyone:

  • Requiring people to adopt the creationist/ID religious worldview as their own.
  • Requiring scientists to reject methodological naturalism as a rule of operation for science.

In other words, creationist/ID advocates are not asking us to reject only Darwin or to turn the clock back to the time just prior to Darwin, they want us to go all the way back to before Copernicus, and reject the very methods of science that has enabled it to be so successful. They want us to go back to a time of rampant and unchecked superstition.

This is probably not a good idea¦

The strange story of David Horowitz and the “Bush-as-war-criminal” essay

I apologize for the length of this post but I felt a responsibility (especially since I had a role in creating this rolling snowball) to provide a fairly comprehensive update on the convoluted, strange, and suddenly fast-moving, saga of David Horowitz, the organization he founded called Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), and the college professor who allegedly asked his class to write a mid-term essay on “Why George Bush is a war criminal,” and then gave an F grade to a student who had been offended by the assignment and had instead turned in one on “Why Saddam Hussein is a war criminal.”
[Read more…]

What do creationist/ID advocates want-II?

We saw in an earlier posting that a key idea of the creationists is that it was the arrival of Darwin, Marx, and Freud that led to the undermining of Western civilization.

The basis for this extraordinary charge is the claim that it was these three that ushered in the age of materialism. These three people make convenient targets because, although they were all serious scientific and social scholars, they have all been successfully tarred as purveyors of ideas that have been portrayed as unpleasant or even evil (Darwin for saying that we share a common ancestor with apes, Marx with communism, Freud with sexuality).
[Read more…]

Universities as a reality-based community

In a previous posting I described the disturbing phenomenon that so many Americans seemed to be living is a reality-free world. I argued that this was because they were being systematically misled by people who should, and do, know better.

Further support for my somewhat cynical view comes from an article by former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind that appeared in the October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine and that deserves to be better known because of the light it sheds on the extent to which the current administration is ideologically driven. His article has this chilling anecdote:

“In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”

What you have on display here is a world-view that is so arrogant that it believes that it has the power to create its own realities.

It is not unusual in the hey-day of empires for its leaders to have the feeling that they alone can direct the course of events, that they can overcome the realities they face, and that nothing can stop them from achieving their goals, whatever they may be.

What is perhaps extreme in this case is that this arrogance seems to be causing the leaders to ignore the actual realities and to think that they can create their own version of it. In other words, they believe that what they want to believe actually exists. Now, in some ways, it is always possible to do this. Reality is a complex business, composed of many disparate elements, and it is always possible to pick out those elements that support one’s fantasy, ignore the rest, and act accordingly.

But what is happening here is deeper and more disturbing. What this administration is doing is trying to make reality irrelevant by creating an alternate “reality.” They do this by quickly and repeatedly and strongly saying the things that they wish the public to believe are true and depending on the media or the Democratic Party to not call them on the lack of support for the assertions. As a result, after a short time, the administration’s assertions enter the public consciousness, become the new “reality”, and thus become the basis for vacuous ‘policy debates’ that have nothing to do with the actual situation.

We saw this happen in the run-up to the war with Iraq and we are seeing it again with the recent killing in Lebanon of Rafik Hariri. Using a combination of innuendo and bombast, the administration has managed to make people think that Syria is the culprit even though, until today, no evidence in support of this claim has been presented and there even exists some counterevidence. On the other hand, Robert Fisk reports today that the UN investigation team is due to make a report that will allege that there may have been a cover-up of the investigation by Lebanese and Syrian authorities, so that the situation is still murky.

What most reality-based people realize is that while forcing your own version of reality on events can win you short-term political victories, it is a prescription for long-term disaster because eventually the contradiction between the ‘virtual reality’ and reality become too stark to make your actions viable. The “judicious study of discernible reality,” sneered at by the senior Bush advisor, is the way to arrive at reasoned judgments that have a chance of producing policies that make sense.

In many ways, universities have to be reality-based. The work of universities rests on empirical bases, on data, on evidence. This does not mean that they restrict themselves to describing just what is. Speculative ideas are the life-blood of academia because that is how new knowledge is created. Making bold speculations and pushing the limits of theories is part of the job of universities.

But such efforts must always rest on an empirical basis because otherwise they cease to be credible. You can build on reality, but you can’t totally depart from it. Academics know that their credibility rests on their ability to balance speculation and theorizing with empirical data. For example, a physicist who proposes theories that do not have a basis in data would be ridiculed.

But no such constraints seem to restrain the current political leaders. At one time, the media might have played the role of injecting reality into the public discussion, by comparing official statements with the facts on the ground and providing historical context. But now that the press has largely abdicated that role (see the previous postings on The questions not asked part I and part II) in favor of either acting as a mouthpiece for the fantasies of political leaders or debating tactical points while not questioning the core fantasies, it is up to the universities to fill that void.

This is why efforts like Ohio’s Senate Bill 24 that seek to restrict what university instructors can and cannot say are so dangerous. They seek to bring universities also under political control, to suffocate one of the few remaining viable reality-based institutions. While opponents decry universities as being too “liberal”, what really make universities “dangerous” is that they are fundamentally reality-based institutions that cannot be easily co-opted into accepting fantasies as reality.

It seems ironic that universities, long derided as ivory towers occupied by pointy-headed intellectuals out of touch with the “real world”, may in fact need to be the force that brings reality back into public life.

POST SCRIPT 1

On Thursday, May 17) in the Guilford Parlor from 11:30-1:00pm there will be a forum on Ohio’s Senate Bill #24 (the so-called academic bill of rights. I will be on the panel along with Professor Mel Durschlag (Law), Professor Jonathan Sadowsky (History), and Professor Joe White (Political Science).

POST SCRIPT 2

Update on a previous posting:

I received a call yesterday (March 14) from a person associated with Students for Academic Freedom informing me that my op-ed had triggered the release of more information on their website, where more details are given.

Although the student referred to had not in fact given this testimony at the Colorado Senate hearings as had been alleged earlier, the level of detail (which had not been released until now) provided on the SAF website is sufficient to remove this story from the category of urban legends since it does give some names and places and dates. But a judgment on whether this constitutes academic bullying will have to await more details on what actually transpired between professor and student. My contact at SAF says that the incident is still under investigation and confidentiality prevents the release of more information.

Update on the update (3/15/05): It gets curioser and curioser.

The blog Canadian Cynic reports that new information on this case has come out and that Horowitz is now backtracking on almost all of the key charges that were originally made. Canadian Cynic highlights Horowitz’s statements now that “Some Of Our Facts Were Wrong; Our Point Was Right” and “”I consider this an important matter and will get to the bottom of it even if it should mean withdrawing the claim.”

See the article on the website Inside Higher Education. It seems to be the most authoritative source of information on this case.

What do ID advocates want?

In an earlier posting, I spoke about how those who view Darwin’s ideas as evil see it as the source of the alleged decline in morality. But on the surface, so-called “intelligent design” (or ID) seems to accept much of evolutionary ideas, reserving the actions of a “designer” for just a very few (five, actually) instances of alleged “irreducible complexity” that occur at the microbiological level.

This hardly seems like a major attack on Darwin since, on the surface, it seems to leave unchallenged almost all of the major ideas of the Darwinian structure such as the non-constancy of species (the basic theory of evolution), the descent of all organisms from common ancestors (branching evolution), the gradualness of evolution (no discontinuities), the multiplication of species, and natural selection.
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