The Discovery Institute is Mad at Ball State University for Offering the Most Awesome Class Ever

A couple months ago, I wrote a bit about Ball State University, its president, Jo Ann Gora, and a science class that was not very scientific.

I was pretty excited to be writing about BSU because Gora was taking a stand for all that is good and true in this world — namely, teaching science in science classes.

After Ball State hired a professor (Eric Hedin) who was encouraging the “theory” of Intelligent Design in his physics class, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint. In a great move, Gora and Ball State put the kibosh on that situation, drawing the ire of The Discovery Institute. A representative from the pro-creationism group criticized Gora, calling her insistence of teaching science in science courses “Orwellian.”

Since then, it seems that they have been keeping their beady little eyes on Ball State, ready to spring into action for any real or perceived religious offenses.

They found what they were looking for in an honors course called “Dangerous Ideas.”

Here’s the description from the course textbook (edited by John Brockman, who runs the popular website):

From Copernicus to Darwin, to current-day thinkers, scientists have always promoted theories and unveiled discoveries that challenge everything society holds dear; ideas with both positive and dire consequences. Many thoughts that resonate today are dangerous not because they are assumed to be false, but because they might turn out to be true.

What do the world’s leading scientists and thinkers consider to be their most dangerous idea? … From using medication to permanently alter[ing] our personalities to contemplating a universe in which we are utterly alone, to the idea that the universe might be fundamentally inexplicable,What Is Your Dangerous Idea? takes an unflinching look at the daring, breathtaking, sometimes terrifying thoughts that could forever alter our world and the way we live in it.

I think the book sounds awesome, and I would kill to go back and take that course, so it is of no surprise to me that The Discovery Institute is throwing a fit over it.

John West, the vice president of the Discovery Institute, wrote a 10-page letter to Gora. 10 pages. That’s a lot of space to expound on one’s ignorance. It includes lines like this:

This completely one-sided book appears to be one long argument for atheism.

Indeed, its contributors declare that ‘Science Must Destroy Religion,’ that ‘There is no God, no Intelligent Designer; no higher purpose to our lives,’ and even that science should assume the role currently played by religion and that scientists should function as our ‘high priests.’

Here’s the thing. The reason religion probably comes off as the villain in some of these essays is that… well… it’s kind of been the villain when it comes to the progress of science. Remember that whole Galileo incident? Yeah, us too.

But the Institute insists that this course violates a policy that Gora put in place that forbids “faculty from favoring or endorsing one side of a religious debate over another.”

Further complicating the issue, the course is in the English — not science — department, so it’s not as simple as whether or not Creationism has a place in the science class room (hint: It does not).

Ball State is responding by formally reviewing all of its honors classes, according to university spokeswoman Joan Todd.

The review will include the qualifications of the faculty member to teach the course material, the course content, and the appropriateness of the course pedagogy. It will occur prior to the semester in which the course is offered. Courses scheduled to be offered in spring 2014, as well as those about which concerns have been expressed, are currently under review.

Kind of sounds like a massive waste of time and resources, but as long as it quiets the Discovery Instituters, I guess that’s one problem solv–Wait… what’s that you say? They still aren’t satisfied? Color me shocked!

We are seriously concerned about whether the subcommittees being established will apply the same standards fairly and equally to all faculty. In particular, we will be looking at the make-up of the various committees to see if they are as ideologically one-sided as the ad hoc committee appointed to investigate Eric Hedin.

I’ll give you a second to recover from the fact that the Discovery Institute is accusing anyone else ever of being “ideologically one-sided.”

West’s letter to The Star Press continued:

We gave BSU an opportunity to clarify what it is doing, and to show that it is applying its policies in a fair and legal manner. Because BSU has refused to clarify what it is doing or answer our questions, we will be forced to seek another remedy.

Christ. Now they’re going to sue Ball State? According to The Star Press, the Institute wants the qualifications of three other faculty members to be investigated in what appears to be retaliation for the FFRF questioning the qualifications of Hedin, the science teacher who was reportedly touting Christianity in his science class.

I don’t want to jump to any conclusions about the Dangerous Ideas course because I haven’t seen the course description. However, I do think that there is a massive difference between teaching students that science must destroy religion and teaching students that someone said “Science must destroy religion,” which seems a more likely subject matter for an honors English course and something worth debating.

Assuming the latter is what’s really going on here, I don’t think the Discovery Institute really has a leg to stand on. I would love for Gora to take this opportunity to take another stand for academic integrity.

Gora is conferring with BSU’s board of trustees before giving a response to the Institute’s letter later this week.

About Jessica Bluemke

Jessica Bluemke grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and graduated from Ball State University in 2008 with a BA in Literature. She currently works as a writer and resides on the North side of Chicago.

  • Sven2547

    Education and critical thought are the biggest threats to superstitious fundamentalism.
    The Discovery Institute’s reaction is as predictable as it is pathetic. It’s the same mentality that drives the Taliban and Boko Haram to attack students (although DI fortunately does not resort to such tactics).

  • Heidi McClure

    If the DI people do sue, I hope Ball State seeks reimbursement of their legal costs when they win.

  • RobMcCune

    The DI is just grasping at straws here, the idea that science is controversial is not at all controversial. It takes a particular amount of gall for people who complain about science being materialistic and nihilistic to complain about a class that examines these very questions. The very same questions these fucking IDiots demand be brought up in science class!


  • Artor

    I think it’s a failing strategy to even acknowledge the Disco’Tute’s whining. Ball State would be better off ignoring them, and if a lawsuit really does materialize, then they can handily win it and have the Dico’Tute pay the bill. Trying to appease them won’t work, unless you’re ready to sacrifice any credentials you have and turn into a cut-rate Liberty University.

  • Frazzah

    This and those billboards… I’m just loving this. They’re grasping at straws.

  • DKeane123

    I think we need some new examples other than Galileo. Darwin waited to publish due to fear of the religious consequences (good one for the DI), also Giordano Bruno was burned to death as a heretic.

  • Gus

    I think they made a huge mistake in creating a policy that forbids “faculty from favoring or endorsing one side of a religious debate over another,” in the first place. That’s not academic freedom. This is higher education, not high school.

    We can have standards for scientific content in a science class, but we can’t prevent professors from advocating a position or discussing religion in other classes.

    My own department took a different approach and allowed a professor to create and teach a “Great Earth Debates” class, which was actually just about examining “both sides” of evolution. I expect that a class outright advocating creationism wouldn’t have gotten through. Still, I wonder what the effect was of a class for undergraduates that was set up by a creationist professor to look like a debate, but in which the evidence he presented was designed to give creationism the edge. His TA was my carrel mate and was in no way a creationist (the professor was actually quite good in his particular area of expertise, in spite of being a creationist and moon hoaxer in his spare time) and I talked to him about the class sometimes. I wanted him to pick out a smart undergrad in beginning of the class so I could prep them to ensure the evidence for evolution was really presented well…

  • David Kopp

    I think you missed an important quote. I’m pretty sure this one gives complete insight into the Discovery Institute’s intractability:

    “that science should assume the role currently played by religion and that scientists should function as our ‘high priests.’”

    The thing is, many religious people don’t seem to understand how people can function without high priests of any kind, especially the Ken Hams and Discovery Institutes of the world. We don’t hold ANYONE up as infallible or in charge just because they seem sure of themselves. They have to provide evidence.

  • Richard Wade

    Every idea that people now take for granted as sensible, obvious, and beneficial was once considered a “dangerous idea.”

    Representative democracy in America was an idea so dangerous that the proponents faced the prospect of having their entrails cut out and burned in front of them while they were still alive.

    There was this quirky guy a long time ago who had very dangerous ideas about not using the local religion to aggrandize one’s ego and increase one’s status and wealth, but to inspire love, good will, and generosity for everyone. His ideas were so dangerous that the local religious leaders had him publicly tortured to death by piercing, exposure, and dehydration.

    Other more recent ideas that are still considered to be “dangerous”:
    Equal rights for all ethnic groups
    Equal rights for women
    Equal rights for same sex couples
    Access to higher education for all
    Affordable health care for all
    Making it easy for poor people to vote
    Studying the history of “dangerous ideas”
    The internet
    Leaving our favorite fantasies behind and bravely following evidence wherever it leads
    Respectful treatment of atheists

  • TiltedHorizon

    I thought the “Discovery” Institute wanted to “teach the controversy”? How dare Ball State University give them what they wanted.

  • Richard Wade

    (although DI fortunately does not resort to such tactics).

    I think it should be said that this is true only because the DI and their cohorts are prevented from doing so by laws and people willing to enforce those laws, not because they have scruples that would prevent them from using those tactics if they could.

  • Sven2547

    Nigeria isn’t a lawless country either, but that’s not stopping Boko Haram.

    I’m normally the last person to give creationists the benefit of the doubt on anything, but I don’t perceive Behe, Egnor, or Dembski as the types of guys who would be into homicidal anti-intellectualism, even if given the opportunity.

  • Richard Wade

    I hope you are right. The mentality of ruthless religiosity is something that grows slowly, one little compromise at a time, one little concession at a time, one little expansion of what’s acceptable at a time. Behe, Egnor, or Dembski would probably not condone murder and mayhem to support their ideas, but one, two, or at the most three of their ideological descendants later, it could be de rigueur if it is not constantly and fiercely resisted.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Dembski is more into making childish animations with fart noises. link

  • Rain

    The attack gerbils, they are always on the move! They never rest!

    In particular, we will be looking at the make-up of the various committees to see if they are as ideologically one-sided as the ad hoc committee

    Who cares! Who cares what the attack gerbils “will be looking at”.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    That’s not academic freedom.

    I don’t think you know what “academic freedom” is. It does not concern classroom teaching, but faculty research. Jerry Coyne covered this very well at his blog Why Evolution Is True

    Inside Higher Ed: Academic freedom doesn’t allow you to teach junk science

  • GubbaBumpkin

    Every idea that people now take for granted as sensible, obvious, and beneficial was once considered a “dangerous idea.”

    “You have to breathe to survive.” I look forward to your evidence that this was once considered a dangerous idea.

  • alfaretta

    Aren’t the DI the folks that want schools to TEACH the controversy? (Oops, I see TiltedHorizon already posted that below).

    And it’s an English class, not a science class.

  • Don Gwinn

    I had a similar discussion with my son as he began his senior year in high school. He was going to refuse to do any work in his English course because there were references to “God Almighty” in the first essay (in explaining voice, the author was suggesting that writing or speaking “as if you are God Almighty” might betray a sense of insecurity.) He was also very upset that a much later essay, on page 400-something, was a piece by a Christian movie reviewer on the depiction of heaven and hell in mainstream Hollywood movies.

    He was actually trying to avoid doing the work because it was hard work and he was anxious about whether he was up to it, but in the process we had to have a conversation about the difference between being asked to read and criticize these ideas on the one hand and being asked to believe them on the other. Maybe the Discovery folks missed that in high school, too.

    (I’d like to take that course, too. That sounds fascinating!)

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    It does sound like it would be a very interesting course.

  • Gus

    I think you’d find there are quite a few academics who would disagree with that definition of academic freedom. But let’s set that issue aside. I would still take issue with a University setting a policy of forbidding professors from endorsing one side or the other of a religious issue. As I said, I think you can have content standards for science courses to keep junk science out. But a policy across the board for all courses that professors don’t “endorse” one side or the other of a religious issue? There’s no reason a University professor can’t express an opinion in class. Not all professors teach science. The class under discussion here is an English class. Philosophy professors talk about religion all the time. Are they allowed to demonstrate the arguments of one side or the other, or if they seem to be “endorsing” one view of religion are they breaking the rule?

    There’s no reason for this policy. It isn’t necessary to protect science classes. Simply having standards of scientific content for science classes will do that much better, without threatening open discussion in other classes. Why set a policy that opens you to arguments like those made by DI here and that might be used to silence professors when you can stick to simply having rigorous standards for science classes?

  • Gus

    Hmm, looking at Coyne’s blog, I don’t think he agrees with your definition of academic freedom either. He quotes the article he’s criticizing:

    Academic freedom protects professors’ scholarship and teaching — within limits. [emphasis mine]

    And he responds to the paragraph that opens with that quote with:

    So far so good…

    He seems to have no argument with academic freedom including classroom teaching.

  • trj

    Christians love to mention Newton, a deeply religious man, as an example of how Christianity fosters great scientists, although they never mention how exactly Newton’s religiosity contributed to his results.

    More importantly, they forget to mention that had it been publicly known Newton rejected the doctrine of a triune God he would have been severely punished by the RC Church, possibly sentenced to death. Feel free to bring this up the next time you hear someone mention Newton as an example of how Christianity championed science and critical thinking.

  • lmern

    I couldn’t agree more. Christians and others are constantly pointing to Atheists as being guilty of replacing their deity and traditions with similar models aimed at ‘worshipping’ science and scientists simply because they cannot fathom that anyone could possible function without an authority calling down the shots. That to my mind is a perfect example of the extreme indoctrination they must have undergone at some point. Those are the ones you’ll be hard pressed to argue logically with.

  • Richard Wade

    That has been a well-accepted idea for so long, I think we would have to go ask Splk, who was a nice scorpion-like arthropod who was one of the first animals to try out air. It might have been at least uncomfortable and difficult for Splk or her ancestors, so they might have considered it a dangerous idea. But she wasn’t much of a thinker or a conversationalist, and she’s been dead for 444 million years or so. We could consult even earlier oxygen-absorbing bacteria, who probably got a lot of guff from their friends who said, “Don’t breathe that stuff! It’s just a waste product! Ewww!” Whenever they’re interviewed, they never have much to say about their opinions either.

  • DesertSun59

    “faculty from favoring or endorsing one side of a religious debate over another.”

    It’s amusing how the Discovery Institute is calling science ‘one side of the religious debate’.

    Science isn’t a side of religion and there’s no debate.

    Case closed.

  • Ron

    Ah, the Disco Institute and their cadre of lawyers. Reminds of this comic:

    HUMANISTS IN LOVE–Deist On Top (Warning: NSFW)

  • Mick

    The ID crowd have got BSU jumping through hoops, so they’ll be quite happy about the way things are going.

  • Spuddie
  • Erp

    Bit tricky being severely punished by the RC church when Newton lived in England at a time when the state church wasn’t Roman Catholic and Roman Catholics faced various legal penalties. However, the government still looked very unfavorably on unitarians. Darwin might have faced social consequences for his views but no legal ones (and quite a few members of his family were unitarians so he was familiar with the legal situation); his reason for delaying was more to make his case as watertight as possible.

  • Erp

    A review of all is probably a good idea given that Hedin got his course into the Honors program.

    What DI probably hasn’t noticed is that the instructor for the Dangerous Ideas course, Paul Ranier, is so atheistic that he is faculty sponsor for a Catholic student group at Ball State and a reader for a Catholic journal.

  • suzeb1964

    If TDI wants to challenge this English course for advocating religion, then I think the following courses should be challenged as well:


    Intro to Religion in Culture 39 hours from RELS

    Intro Biblical Interpretation (3)
    Topics in Religion in America (3)
    Topics in Asian Religions (3-6)96 hours from RELS

    Adv Study of Western Religions (3)
    Adv Study Biblical Traditions (3)
    Religion and Ethics (3)
    Adv Study of Asian Religions (3)66 hours from RELS

    Reading and Special Study (1-3)
    Themes in Religion (3)
    Crit Issues in Study of Relig (3)
    Perspectives on Religion (3)

  • A3Kr0n

    I don’t know why they are reviewing anything, or forming any kind of response to anyone. Why would Ball State be bothered by any of this? I wouldn’t put any time or effort into this unless there was a judge willing to take the case.

  • dandaman

    More for his wife Emma


    The creationist crowd could end this argument permanently, by simply proving their own point. As it is, they flail away at poor old Darwin with the deluded belief that discrediting Darwin, means they win by default.

  • decathelite

    Not to nitpick, but I don’t think it’s entirely true he was crucified for inspiring “love, good will and generosity”. There was that whole part about him claiming to be the son of god. But yes, those other things were quite progressive ideas for the time.

  • DKeane123

    Good thoughts

  • WillBell

    Nigeria is pretty damn close however – although I do agree with your conclusion.

  • Buckley

    1. This is a public, secular University – DI can Suck It
    2. This will probably kill any state university from ever trying to hire a professor with Intelligent Design ideas – even if he doesn’t teach them.
    3. As the numbers of non-theists grow, the illogical attacks of the Fundies will only become more outlandish and vociferous.

  • kielc

    It’s a state school. What basis does The Discovery Institute, a private foundation, have to sue? They have no more legal standing to dictate what gets taught, or not, than I do to require that BSU teaches a course about how awesome I am.

  • Erp

    If you read the linked article carefully, Ball State is reviewing all the Honors courses as standard procedure not because DI is asking. Note review is good; it ensures (or should) that professors like Hedin don’t start teaching ID as science. It also ensures that courses that are suppose to be equivalent in workload are more or less equivalent (and perhaps adjust units to reflect relative difficulty) and that the short course description more or less reflects the actual course. Also that the overall Honors program reflects what the university wants it to be (e.g., does it need more science, are the fine arts or part of them being ignored, are there some new professors that should be recruited to teach in the program). Think of it as peer review.

  • Captain Cassidy

    Let ‘em waste their money. Nothing would please me more than seeing some judge completely humiliate them and their pseudo-science (again).

  • UWIR

    And what standing did FFRF have for doing anything about the professor pushing ID? Presumably, DI is going to look for a student willing to be the plaintiff of record.

  • UWIR

    Swearing allegiance to the Church of England was a requirement for attending university.

  • UWIR

    It’s not that in our culture, the Christians that rise to prominence are not maniacs, but in another culture, those Christians would be maniacs. Rather, in our culture, non-maniacs rise to prominence, while in others, maniacs do. Behe, Dembski, etc., are the Sinn Fein to Phelp’s IRA. They are the gateway drug of religious nuttery. They may not be maniacs themselves, but they represent, embolden, and provide the intellectual cover for those that are. There is a deep undercurrent of religious fanaticism that runs through American society that is barely restrained by our traditions of secularism and religious freedom, and creationism is an integral part of that.

  • UWIR

    However, I do think that there is a massive difference between teaching students that science must destroy religion and teaching students that someone said “Science must destroy religion,” which seems a more likely subject matter for an honors English course and something worth debating.

    Assuming the latter is what’s really going on here, I don’t think the Discovery Institute really has a leg to stand on.

    Even if it’s the former, DI should not have a leg to stand on. Science is implacably inimical to religion. That’s a fact. And stating facts should not be prohibited by the establishment clause, no matter how unwelcome they are for the religious.

  • LadyAtheist

    Presumably they would be behind an attempt by Hedin or a student (or two) to sue. Also, they coincidentally just hired a fundraiser who happens to live in Indiana and pay taxes here. Being a taxpayer doesn’t give him standing, but consider the average IQ of the DI…

  • LadyAtheist

    there’s no shortage of fundamentalist Christian students in Indiana!

  • LadyAtheist

    #2 – Ball State hired Guillermo Gonzalez in the middle of all this! Crazy!

  • Gus

    Your first point should have been their response to DI from the beginning. What should a University do when they get a nasty letter from the Discovery Institute? Chuck it in the recycle bin without opening it and go on with their day.

  • WallofSleep

    “A representative from the pro-creationism group criticized Gora, calling her insistence of teaching science in science courses “Orwellian.””

    Once, just once, I’d like to see one of these goobers get put in the hot seat for using the “Orwellian” line…

    “In what way(s) is this ‘Orwellian’? Please name the specific novel(s) and the specific parts or passages of Orwell’s writing that you are referencing”.

    My guess is there will be a lot of sputtering and indignation.

  • Buckley

    So very true unfortunately…

  • madphd

    Likely someone has already mentioned this, but if the BSU is also teaching religion courses (which are likely one-sided) then I don’t see the problem with the Dangerous Ideas course.

  • John Gills

    It’s actually a dangerous fact since oxygen’s free radicals damage and weaken our cells. I wonder if oxygen would pass today’s legislation regulating cancer causing agents.

  • Ladyatheist

    One correction: “After Ball State hired a professor (Eric Hedin) who was encouraging the “theory” of Intelligent Design in his physics class” – Hedin had been hired years ago but the ID-infused syllabus and reading list only came to light in the Spring. Apparently he had been teaching this course and prosletyzing in other classes for years and the department found it just hunky-dory

  • Ladyatheist

    There is a whole department of religious studies that has such courses

  • GubbaBumpkin

    It’s kind of sad. The DI’s letter of September 10, 2013, to which the current communication is a follow-up, is co-signed by John West and Josh Youngkin of the Discovery Institute, and by:

    Donald McLaughlin, M.A.
    Ball State University Alumnus and Resident of Indiana
    Regional Representative
    Discovery Institute

    It appears that having McLaughlin co-sign is an attempt to assert standing; but if so, it is laughable.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    And what standing did FFRF have for doing anything about the professor pushing ID?

    An anonymous student had contacted Jerry Coyne, who contacted the FFRF. If the issue had proceeded to a lawsuit, the student may or may not have been willing to supply the standing.

  • GubbaBumpkin

    I would hope that any instructor in a Religious Studies dept. in a secular university understands the distinction between teaching about religion and teaching religion as truth.

  • trj

    My mistake, I should have said the Church of England, of course.

  • Itarion

    Cliffhanger ending… MUST. HEAR. SEQUEL.