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Freedom of Speech vs. License


Posted: 4/11/07

It is noted that Aeschylus, in the 5th century B.C., wrote that truth is the first victim of war. As the conflict between science and religion once again heats up, truth is again in danger of being the victim. An academic campus is logically the appropriate setting for the science-religion debate, but it ought not to become a battlefield, lest truth be sacrificed by emotion and freedom become license.

It is for this reason that academics must be very careful not to tread heavily on either freedom of speech or its unreasoned license. Just as truth itself grows and changes with experience, so the pursuit of it without open debate has always the possibility of leading to falsehood.

It is understandable, then, that many of us in the sciences were taken by surprise and reacted strongly to the announcement that Seattle's Discovery Institute had scheduled a conference on "Darwin vs. Design" this semester in McFarlin Auditorium. This is not to be a debate or balanced discussion, but rather a partisan promotion of the assertion that design in nature constitutes scientific evidence for a creator, the so-called theory of Intelligent Design (ID).

Our protest (initially, a call for disallowing the conference until its legal scheduling was confirmed) immediately drew claims that we are trying to "censor scientists and scholars advocating Intelligent Design…." The Institute further claimed that we are "trying to intimidate people who are in some way associated with researching Intelligent Design into being quiet, rather than engaging in a civil debate about the scientific merits of their arguments."

This is patently untrue, and is but one reason for our objection to the venue. The conference will promote this and other false statements designed to discredit science and scientists. In fact, some of us have actively engaged in debate with creationists and ID supporters both in our own science classrooms and at public forums on campus. In 1992, the university hosted a three-day symposium on "Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference?" Five evolutionists and five anti-evolutionists gave presentations and engaged in friendly debate. No intimidation. No censorship.

We continue to encourage casting light on these issues and reducing the heat of passion. The coming ID conference is more likely to generate heat. We should not misunderstand the avowed intent of these conferences (an identical one was held this March in Knoxville). They are carefully planned to further the Institute's goal to "encourage and equip believers with new scientific evidence's [sic] that support the faith, as well as to 'popularize' our ideas in the broader culture." This evangelical motive is carefully disguised in their promotional material.

It is hardly censorship to demand both intellectual honesty and forthrightness in any public program on a university campus. The program purports, by its title, to be a scientific examination of "Darwin v. Design." Truth has already become victim, alas. The university erred in scheduling this.

About the writer:

Ronald K. Wetherington is a professor of anthropology at SMU. He can be reached at rwetheri@smu.edu.
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