Science - October 7, 2004

Debate/ New-age subjects

There is room for a certain amount of alternative subjects at all Dutch universities, but according to the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland, Wageningen takes the prize. The opinion weekly homed in on Professor Iteke Weeda who lectures on spirituality and such matters in Wageningen. WUR Spokeswoman Annette van de Wetering sprang to her defence: ‘A university is where the boundaries of conventional thinking are challenged.’

Professor Johan van Leeuwen, chair of experimental animal science:
‘The university should concentrate on the scientific domain. There are other domains within society, such as religion, but these should be kept separate from each other. A university should be associated with clear analytical thinking, not with woolliness. I do not want to say anything about Weeda’s lectures, as I have never been to one, and don’t know how she positions herself. There should be room for different noises, but woolliness is something I prefer not to be associated with.’

Spokeswoman Annette van de Wetering in Vrij Nederland, on the question of who monitors the quality of lectures:
‘The core programme is subject to all manner of tests and quality criteria. That’s where the quality control is, and not in the optional programme. Yes, students can earn study points from the optional subjects, and you can ask yourself whether that is as it should be. We will have to look into the matter in the future.’

Professor Pim Brascamp, candidate director of the new education institute:
‘It is the job of the head of a department to see that no rubbish is imparted during lectures. I don’t think it is possible to cover this in rules and procedures. You can only set the limits by having a debate. Forbidding things is dangerous. I see nothing wrong with exposing students during their degree to other ways of thinking that do not fit within the tight paradigm of hypothesis formulation and testing, as long as the course is intended to be critical. That we are adrift in this matter? I don’t think so.’

Molecular biologist and column writer Professor Ronald Plasterk in Vrij Nederland:
‘Guest lectures like these are absolutely out of the question. It’s one thing to explain that different cultures have different ideas of reincarnation, but you can’t seriously start trying to explain how these work. That is not scientific.’

Professor Iteke Weeda herself did not feel the need to add anything to the article in Vrij Nederland:
‘I have no need now either to go into the matter more deeply. It only leads to misunderstandings. About seven years ago there was a commotion about my lectures in Groningen. I am glad with Van de Wetering’s reaction, which was similar to that of the board in Groningen at the time. Just put up the umbrella and wait for the shower to blow over.’

Korné Versluis