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Intelligent design and academic freedom

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Intelligent design is the assertion that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection."[1]

Academic freedom is the belief that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy.[2]

Intelligent design proponents like to make a lot of noise about academic repression and denial of academic freedom.Wikipedia Beyond the whining are very few specific examples, and usually upon closer scrutiny, even these examples seem duplicitous, often the results of things like personality conflicts and academic politics rather than the product of a vast conspiracy to suppress intelligent design.

Ultimately, intelligent design is just a newspeak rebranding of creationism; though it uses scientific jargon, it is not science because it violates the principle of methodological naturalism, is not falsifiable, and does not use scientific methodology. As such, it is pseudoscience, and shouldn't be propagated at places where actual science is done. However, universities have tended to bend over backwards — in the name of academic freedom — to be tolerant of staff advocating this blatant non-science.

Case studies[edit]

Guillermo Gonzalez tenure denial[edit]

In June 2007, Astronomer and Intelligent Design supporter Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure at Iowa State University. The Discovery Institute (of which Gonzalez is a fellow) was the primary group that managed the public relations campaign against the university and claimed that the denial was merely about an inherent prejudice against an ID supporter in academia.

The main argument by the DI that Gonzalez should have received tenure was that he had significantly more publications than were needed at Iowa State.[3] However, the number quoted by the DI is the total number of publications in Gonzalez's career (only those publications written while at Iowa State count), and the standards for tenure include much more than a publication record. Additionally, those papers were based on research done by Gonzalez as a post-doctoral student, not as an independent researcher.

One of the significant issues in deciding whether to approve tenure was the amount of research funding Gonzalez had secured. Since coming to Iowa State, Gonzalez has brought in about $22,661 in outside grant money; by comparison, his colleagues averaged $1.3 million in grant money before becoming tenured.[4] Whether people like it or not, money makes the world go round, and every researcher at any research-focused institute will be assessed heavily on their ability to get grant funding.[5]

Richard Sternberg and the Smithsonian[edit]

Richard Sternberg was an editor for the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, which is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute.[6] In 2004, Sternberg approved for publication an article by Discovery Institute "fellow" Stephen Meyer entitled: Intelligent Design: The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories.[7] After the publication, Sternberg came under fire for bypassing the normal peer-review process for the journal (specifically, not including another editor in the peer review process). Ultimately, the Council of the Biological Society of Washington released a press release that said in part:

The paper by Stephen C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," in vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 213-239 of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, was published at the discretion of the former editor, Richard V. Sternberg. Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history.[8]

After this, Sternberg claimed to have been singled out for ill treatment at his job as a staffer at the Smithsonian. Specifically, Sternberg claims that he:[9]

  • Was targeted to have his job removed.
  • Met with negative interactions from colleagues.
  • Had his keys taken away and lost access to his office.
  • Was denied access to specimens for his research purposes.

Sternberg filed a religious discrimination complaint against the Smithsonian, but the Office of Special Counsel ultimately dismissed his claim.[10]

Others have reported that Sternberg's primary complaints were mostly trumped up:[11]

  • No threats were made to Sternberg's face regarding his job.
  • Most of the ill will focused around professional malfeasance on his part.
  • Sternberg's keys and office were changed as part of a larger move that affected the whole museum.
  • Sternberg's access to resources and specimens did not change and were equal to that of anyone in his position.

Michael Behe's disclaimer[edit]

Michael Behe

Michael Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and a major proponent of intelligent design. The faculty at his university put up a general disclaimer on their website stating that they have unequivocal support for the theory of evolution and that Behe is the only dissenter.[12][13] While Behe may have had his feelings hurt, the university has afforded him plenty of freedom, including the right to teach an ID class:

Michael Behe, an intelligent-design advocate and biochemist at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, teaches an elective first-year seminar on 'popular arguments on evolution'. "The majority of my colleagues disagree with me," he says. "But my chairman supports my right to have my own views and argue them in a public setting."[14]

William Dembski and Baylor[edit]

William Dembski

In 1999, William Dembski was involved in setting up a new ID center at Baylor University in Texas. The center consisted of two people; Dembski and Bruce Gordon, another intelligent design promoter. Both individuals were hired directly by university president Richard Sloan without going through the usual channels of a search committee and departmental consultation.

The complete disregard for standard procedure, the embarrassingly anti-science nature of its mission, and Dembski's incessant prancing and preening led the faculty at Baylor to vote 27-2 to dissolve the center. The university president refused, but agreed to allow an outside review. That review pretty much agreed with the faculty, and the center was absorbed into existing structures at Baylor and disappeared.

Dembski, however, took this loss as a victory (as ID is wont to do) and issued a press release saying that the committee had given an "unqualified affirmation of my own work on intelligent design", that its report "marks the triumph of intelligent design as a legitimate form of academic inquiry", and that "dogmatic opponents of design who demanded that the Center be shut down have met their Waterloo. Baylor University is to be commended for remaining strong in the face of intolerant assaults on freedom of thought and expression."[15]

This outright lie and attack on the university faculty and integrity finally got to the university president, who asked Dembski to withdraw the press release. Dembski refused, calling Sloan's request McCarthyism. Sloan had Dembski removed from any real position at Baylor and kept on as an "associate", but never asked to teach or engage the university in any way. Finally, in 2005, Baylor and Dembski officially parted ways.

Caroline Crocker's dissent[edit]

Caroline Crocker was a part-time faculty member at George Mason University where she primarily taught introductory biology. In her last year at the university, she decided to give a series of lectures straight out of Kent Hovind videos. She ranted about the Cambrian explosion, the Miller-Urey experiment, and the multiple "kinds" "types" of evolution. After the year was over, her contract was up and it was not renewed. Crackpot Crocker claims it was because of her "lectures", while the university maintains it had nothing to do with that and that they just didn't need her services anymore.[16]

Regardless of why she wasn't rehired, the university would have been firmly within its rights to dump her based on what she taught. She was a non-tenured temporary professor hired to teach Biology 101, but instead opted to turn it into a tirade against established scientific principles — a professional risk she chose to take. She flat-out stated in her interview that she would not teach any evidence for evolution because there "really isn't any" and that she saw her role as being to fight the entrenched dogma of science education that her students brought into the classroom.[16] The university would have been within its rights and probably ethical responsibilities to show her the door the moment she started teaching lies, but they were tolerant and allowed her to finish out her contract.


These are the major examples of "oppression" that ID shills bring up when talking about academic freedom. What can be seen by these examples is that they are very few in number and are instigated by the ID promoter and not the university. In fact, most of the universities involved have gone out of their way to tolerate these noisy belligerents in the name of academic freedom. Most of them should have been out the door for their original violations of ethics and standards, but all were kept on in various positions for a significant time afterwards. If any pattern can be found here, it is that academia is far more tolerant of deluded professors than it should be.

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is the best known documentary arguing for ID, but a major problem for the movie is the lack of rationale for including ID in the curriculum or that ID is worthy of being called "scientific". Part and parcel with being discussed as a science are certain guidelines that scientists use to weed out pseudoscience and hypotheses that cannot be falsified. Expelled does not take on the criticisms leveled against ID, and instead almost seems to argue that ID should be included simply because it is an "alternative". If one follows through on this logic, then any "alternative" is acceptable. In fact, during the Kitzmiller trial, Michael Behe himself said that under the auspices of ID and Behe's revised definition of "theory", astrology would be considered science.

Double standard[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Hypocrisy

Even if there were some legitimate instance of a creationist being drummed out of academia on the basis of those views, there is some evidence that when creationists wave the banner of "academic freedom", they are just bullshitting about academic freedom without really believing in it. Based on these protests, you'd think that Christian colleges, the heart and soul of the creationist movement, would be especially lenient (if only to show that these claims are being made on good faith). You would be wrong. A number of evangelical scholars working at such colleges have written articles questioning the literal young-earth interpretation of Genesis, on account of which they were investigated and fired, with many winding up in secular schools.[17] Thus, the only places which actually teach ID (fundamentalist Christian colleges and universities) do so because they don't have academic freedom. Unlike these fundamentalist institutions, traditional, secular universities don't force their staff to adhere to any specific religious (or non-religious) creed as a condition of their employment, fundamentalist mythmaking notwithstanding.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. This is the first sentence of Wikipedia's entry on intelligent design,Wikipedia retrieved 2008-1-31. It is cited with two lengthy footnotes too messy to bring here.
  2. This is the first sentence of Wikipedia's entry on academic freedom,Wikipedia retrieved 2008-1-31.
  3. Evolution News and Views: University President Denies Appeal in Tenure Case of Intelligent Design Astronomer at Iowa State University 2 June 2007 (from
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Guillermo Gonzalez (astronomer) § Reasons for denial.
  5. Getting Tenure at a University by Neal R. Wagner (2006) The University of Texas at San Antonio.
  6. Intelligent Design and Academic Freedom by Barbara Bradley Hagerty (November 10, 200512:00 AM ET) NPR.
  7. The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories by Stephen C. Meyer (September 15, 2004) Center for Science & Culture (archived from September 15, 2004).
  8. BSW Strengthens Statement Repudiating Meyer Paper by David Almandsmith (10.24.2004) The National Center for Science Education
  9. The Branding of a Heretic: Are religious scientists unwelcome at the Smithsonian? by David Klinghoffer (Friday, January 28, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST) Opinion Journal from the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page (archived copy from November 15, 2005).
  10. The Panda's Thumb: Sternberg complaint dismissed 19 August 2005
  11. Creating a Martyr: The Sternberg Saga Continues by Ed Brayton (December 19, 2006 10:06 AM) Dispatches from the Culture Wars (archived from May 22, 2007).
  12. Department Position on Evolution and "Intelligent Design" (2003) Lehigh University Department of Biological Sciences (archived from October 13, 2005).
  13. Department position on evolution and "intelligent design" Lehigh University Department of Biological Sciences (archived from April 1, 2020).
  14. Box 1. Cast out from class. From: "Intelligent design: Who has designs on your students' minds?" by Geoff Brumfiel (2005) Nature 434:1062-1065. doi:10.1038/4341062a (archived from April 28, 2005).
  15. Polanyi official's e-mail concerns some faculty (October 19, 2000) Baylor University (archived from July 19, 2014).
  16. 16.0 16.1 Eden and evolution by Shankar Vedantam (February 5, 2006) The Washington Post.
  17. Minnesota Public Radio: Evangelicals Question The Existence Of Adam And Eve 9 August 2011