Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor at Portland State University, was faced with a dilemma recently when a student in his “Science and Pseudoscience” class wrote this on her final exam:
“I wrote what I had [to] to ‘agree’ with what was said in class, but in truth I believe ABSOLUTELY that there is an amazing, savior GOD, who created the universe, lives among us, and loves us more than anything. That is my ABSOLUTE, and no amount of ‘philosophy’ will change that.”
She wrote that because he had tried (unsuccessfully) to “disabuse” her of Creationist beliefs.
Is that the proper role for a professor?
Is it enough that educators simply put the correct information out there, or is it our job to make sure students accept it?
Boghossian feels obligated to make them accept it:
… my role was not simply to provide evidence and counterexamples and hope for the best, but to help her overcome a false belief and supplant it with a true one.
I believe our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence.
Later on, he elaborates a bit. He’s not trying to convince students that gay couples, for example, should be allowed to get married. That’s a moral belief and he doesn’t feel any urge to impose his will on his students. But the Earth being 4.5 billion years old? That’s not a moral issue. That’s a fact. Doesn’t he have a responsibility to make sure they understand that and accept it?
He talks about the particular class the student was in and why he was so upset with her:
… we discuss a wide array of both scientific and pseudoscientific topics, including astrology, homeopathy, chelation therapy, and vaccinations. It is not enough for my students to know that vaccinations do not cause autism; they must also believe this and then eventually act accordingly. (In this case, action consists of not being afraid of vaccinating their children out of fear that they could cause their children to become autistic).
While I sympathize with him, I just don’t know how you can force students to accept reality against their will. If I’m teaching a class on evolution, and a student answered all my exam questions correctly — but told me privately that she didn’t buy into any of it — would her final grade change? That would strike me as unethical and, most likely, an example of religious discrimination.
It’s like the dissertation Marcus Ross completed at the University of Rhode Island to earn his Ph.D.
His subject was the abundance and spread of mosasaurs, marine reptiles that, as he wrote, vanished at the end of the Cretaceous era about 65 million years ago. The work is “impeccable,” said David E. Fastovsky, a paleontologist and professor of geosciences at the university who was Dr. Ross’s dissertation adviser. “He was working within a strictly scientific framework, a conventional scientific framework.”
Ross, however, was openly a Young Earth Creationist. He didn’t buy into his own dissertation. Should he have earned a Ph.D.? Well, he did all the work necessary for it, so yes. What he does with that information shouldn’t have a bearing on him earning his degree.
Boghossian doesn’t say what his student’s final grade was — It doesn’t sound like he changed it based on her godly views, though. It’s just the principle that he’s arguing — that a professor’s role ought to be to make sure students are well-versed in the basic mechanisms of the field in which they’re studying and that means buying into the notions that made them foundations in the first place. If you don’t accept the Scientific Method, how can you “discern true empirical claims from false empirical claims”? Isn’t it the educator’s responsibility to rid you of any competing ideas?