What is the intelligent design bill protecting?

These days, political figures and organizations swarm everywhere attempting to impose their personal world view on our school curriculum. On Jan. 9, the National Association of Scholars released a report for the Texas Legislature’s consideration accusing UT and Texas A&M of focusing introductory history course syllabi too heavily on issues of race, class and gender. A month earlier, state Rep. Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) filed a bill, HB 285, that aims to prohibit “discrimination by public institutions of higher education against faculty members and students based on their conduct of research relating to intelligent design.” According to UT spokesman Gary Susswein, the University “embraces academic freedom and does not penalize or discriminate against professors based on the content of their research.” So it appears Rep. Zedler wrote the bill in advance of the 2013 session as a preemptive measure rather than a correction of past discrimination.

The bill reads: “An institution of higher education may not discriminate against or penalize in any manner, especially with regard to employment or academic support, a faculty member or student based on the faculty member’s or student’s conduct of research relating to the theory of intelligent design or other alternate theories of the origination and development of organisms.”

This bill would effectively permit and protect academic fraud. It would prohibit universities from holding faculty and students responsible for the conduct of their research.

Significantly, Zedler’s proposed legislation addresses only research relating to intelligent design. But if its proposed protections were applicable across all disciplines, it would cast doubts about all research conducted by Texas public universities. Zedler doesn’t want faculty or students to be able to draw errant conclusions and call them “research” about every subject — just the one specific theory of biological origin he mentions in his bill. But his proposed bill is one development among many that represent increased political intervention in academia, whether it be compromising research standards or revising curricula for ideological purposes 

By allowing faculty and students to conduct unchecked science, Zedler and proponents of his legislation show little to no faith in researchers’ potential to prove the theory of intelligent design through peer-reviewed science. If research supporting the theory of intelligent design held up to academic review, creationists would benefit much more than if such efforts were without scrutiny and therefore not credible. Perhaps Zedler doesn’t foresee intelligent design research surviving such scrutiny, which would explain his attempt to restrict public universities from penalizing academic fraud when it comes to creationism.

The need for the University to safeguard against flawed research became apparent in 2012 when Dr. Charles “Chip” Groat, then a UT faculty member, led a study by UT’s Energy Institute that claimed that hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”) does not cause groundwater contamination. After the study was released it was revealed that Groat had held but not disclosed a position on the board of a company engaged in fracking and had received compensation more than twice his University salary for that role. An independent review of Groat’s study concluded that his research itself was flawed, and the University pledged to strengthen its conflict of interest rules. Groat retired and Energy Institute Director Ray Orbach resigned following the incident. Also last year, a study by UT sociology professor Mark Regnerus that claimed that children of homosexual parents fared worse was also called into question after he was accused of bias because of funding from a conservative political organization. A UT investigation determined that Regnerus had not committed scientific misconduct, but his study was still subject to criticism that its methodology was unsound. Regnerus acknowledged several flaws in his study and released revisions several months later.

Given the recent episodes with Groat and Regnerus, the purpose of Zedler’s bill — to  protect intelligent design researchers at UT from scrutiny or consequences — is foolish and should not be allowed to succeed.