25 March 2011

Protect intelligent design? Let’s protect all unpopular research

I am about to do something I rarely do: Agree with a politician. I agree with Texas representative Bill Zedler.

Zedler, you may recall, authored a bill that would prohibit higher education institutions from discrimination of people conducting research on intelligent design.

The problem with Zedler’s bill is that it doesn’t go far enough. We should have a system in higher education that protects all faculty from being summarily removed from their job because administrators don’t like their research.

Now, I know there are issues with that. I mean, how can we have a system that wouldn’t just encourage people to do nothing?

Since past performance is usually a good indicator of future performance, what we should do is to have probationary period. Give faculty a chance to show that they are going to make ongoing contributions to research, that they are excellent teachers, and that they are committed to serving their profession and their community.

Let’s give them say, six years or so to prove that they have what it takes.They’ll have annual reviews from more senior faculty to give them feedback on their performance.

Now, in those six years, it may well be that people are going to be too scared to speak their minds. But in the great scheme of things, that’s a pretty short period of time in the career of an academic.

After that first major evaluation point where we decide to give faculty some enhanced job security, let’s have a regular, but less-frequent review, to ensure people are continuing to be effective at their jobs.

And we need a short, snappy name for this system to protect academic. We could call it...


I want you to remember that, just in case someone in Mr. Zedler or anyone in his political party were ever to happen to suggest that tenure is useless and should be abolished. Mr. Zedler’s bill reeks of scientific ignorance, but reminds us that there needs to be a system to protect unpopular research by university faculty.

The trick is to remember that we don’t get to have protection just for the stuff we like.

There are probably more cases where the tenure system has protected faculty members working on intelligent design than tenure failing to protect them. For instance, Michael Behe still works at Lehigh University, even though his department has a statement (perhaps better called a “disclaimer”) about “intelligent design” on its homepage. We can argue about the appropriateness of that statement some other time, but the fact remains: Behe is still a tenure faculty member who is able to pursue his research interests there.

Despite Zedler saying in an interview that people conducting research on intelligent design “lose their tenure,” I am still waiting Zedler to provide one clear example of where a tenured faculty member has lost tenure over intelligent design research.

I suspect I’ll have a long wait.

The College Guide blog also comments on Zedler’s bill.

Really? Because the United States is one of the few places on earth that will even pretend to consider alternative theories to evolution a legitimate subject for discussion.

Picture from here.

Update, 15 April 2013: Representative Zedler is at it again.

Update, 7 May 2013: And his bill has died in committee again.

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