One of the best blogs to read on both legal issues and evolution is that of Brian Leiter, director of the Law and Philosophy Program at the University of Texas Law School. He writes fairly extensively on evolution and the ongoing controversy of Intelligent Design. Recently, he took to task a young Harvard law student named Lawrence VanDyke, who had written a positive review of a pro-ID book in the Harvard Law Review. Leiter wrote a rather scathing review of VanDyke’s book note on his blog. The book in question was Darwinism and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design by Frances Beckwith, a fellow with the Discovery Institute, who argues that ID could be included in a public school science curriculum and still pass constitutional muster. That remains to be seen, of course, and I suspect that both Beckwith and Leiter would be involved fairly deeply in any court fight over that issue.
That court fight may be coming soon, as recent events in Ohio and Montana may either provide the test case that has been inevitably brewing for the last several years. Such a case is inevitable, of course. Attempts by creationists to gain equal time in public school science classrooms were pretty much wiped out in 1987 by the Edwards v Aguillard decision, which essentially made federal the district court decision in Mclean v Arkansas in 1981. But since then, they have regrouped and put that old wine into the new skin of “intelligent design theory”, which is not a theory at all. They have been frantically busy lately pushing ID in states and local school boards for years now, hoping to get a bill passed and fight it out in court. They are hoping, of course, that since they’ve left out all the overt “Godtalk”, this will now pass an establishment clause test.
If and when such a case takes place, it will likely be something of a repeat of the McLean case, which was undoubtedly one of the most fascinating court cases of the 20th century. Dozens of prominent scientists, philosophers and legal scholars, including Landon Gilkey, Stephen Jay Gould, Michael Ruse, Brent Dalrymple, George Marsden and Francisco Ayala, were asked to testify in that case and their collective testimony comprises one of the best introductions to the history and philosophy of science and the vacancy of creationist responses to it that one could hope for. A few friends of mine, including Wes Ellsberry, Don Frack and Troy Britain, have been collecting and digitizing the testimonial transcripts (which has been a long and difficult process, believe me), making them available to the world. I would wager that both Beckwith and Leiter would both be involved in the sequel to this trial when it happens, as advisers to the two sides and perhaps as witnesses or litigants as well. But I digress…
Leiter’s response to Van Dyke’s glowing review of Beckwith’s book was strongly worded, to be sure. He began by saying,
The lavish praise is only possible because the book note is riddled with factual errors and misleading innuendo from start to finish. Law professors have long had doubts about the intellectual integrity of student-edited law reviews; incidents like this suggest, if anything, that our doubts have been understated.
The author of this incompetent book note…is one Lawrence VanDyke, a student editor of the Review. Mr. VanDyke may yet have a fine career as a lawyer, but I trust he has no intention of entering law teaching: scholarly fraud is, I fear, an inauspicious beginning for an aspiring law teacher. And let none of the many law professors who are readers of this site be mistaken: Mr. VanDyke has perpetrated (intentionally or otherwise) a scholarly fraud, one that may have political and pedagogical consequences.
Mr. VanDyke’s book note reads like a press release from the Discovery [sic] Institute–the Seattle-based public relations arm of the creationist movement–and not like a scholarly review of a book.
Pretty harsh, I think we can all agree, but right on the money. After this introduction, Leiter goes on to take the book review claim by claim and pretty much take it apart. But now along comes Hunter Baker writing in the National Review Online and he’s not at all happy with Leiter’s criticism of the Harvard student’s review:
VanDyke found Beckwith’s arguments convincing and said so in his book note.
Such a sin could not go unpunished or unpublicized by those who hold to the inerrancy of the Darwinian scriptures. The Book of Scopes, 2:12-14 reads, “Thou shalt not admit that any explanation of origins outside the neo-Darwinian synthesis may have merit. Verily, thou must proclaim that any alternate explanation is of the same religious origin as witch burning and will be struck down by the Establishment Clause before ever being discussed in a public school.”
He goes on to accuse Leiter of threatening the career of VanDyke, saying,
One doesn’t need to work very hard to read between the lines. Leiter seems to be threatening VanDyke’s career if he should dare to set foot in the academy. The tone of his post makes clear that he means this student editor of the Harvard Law Review harm. Leiter’s statement is the equivalent of an academic temper tantrum and is likely to backfire. The attack by a high-powered academic on an intellectually open law student is not the stuff of which great reputations are made. Leiter’s peers, some of whom may actually have believed all the hype about academic freedom, will probably wonder just how this sort of proposed blacklisting squares with long-cherished ideals.
He does at least admit that this is “reading between the lines”, but it’s a rather fanciful reading. Leiter has responded, quite reasonably:
The italicized portion is alluding not to consequences for Mr. VanDyke (what would “pedagogical” or “political” consequences be for him?)–I would have thought that obvious–but to the consequences for public school education and battles over science education by handing the ID scam artists a new weapon in their arsenal: a favorable review of one of their key texts in the Harvard Law Review. Already, as this site reports, this public relations victory is being exploited by the proponents of pseudo-science. Thousands of hours were spent by dozens of Texans like me this past summer and fall defeating the efforts of the ID scam artists to destroy science education in Texas; in a great victory, the Texas State Board of Education rebuffed Beckwith & co., sizing them up for the proponents of pseudo-science that they are. If the reader detects I’m a bit irritated with Mr. VanDyke, perhaps it is because I’d rather not spend significant portions of my time defending the integrity of science education for my children. Mr. VanDyke has made my job and the job of all those who want high standards in education a bit harder.
Mr. VanDyke has injected himself in to a serious political debate by misrepresenting in a prestigious, professional publication the state of the relevant science and empirical evidence. Mr. VanDyke must own his words and own the consequences of those words: he is a professional, publishing in a professional journal. Those consequences include the likelihood that the vast majority of educated readers, knowledgeable about the relevant science, will be astonished that the Harvard Law Review could publish such slipshod work and will likely take a dim view of Mr. VanDyke’s scholarly competence. They are correct, in my view, to draw those conclusions.
He also responds to the charge that he is somehow impinging on VanDyke’s academic freedom:
Academic freedom protects the right of Beckwith et al. to cast their lot with pseudo-science; it protects my right to call them on it. It also protects my right to express the view that pseudo-science and scholarly incompetence are, as I put it, “an inauspicious beginning for an aspiring law teacher.” Although I’m amused by how much power NRO thinks I have, the fact is I have an impact on hiring at Texas, and that’s about it, except to the extent I am asked to evaluate candidates in legal philosophy by other law schools.
But as the NRO article notes:
For his part, VanDyke is not backtracking. He defends the substance of his book note and charges that Leiter’s attack represents “an effort to make sure all students recognize that if they step outside the bounds of Leiter’s orthodoxy, their careers will be in serious jeopardy.” He adds, “This is pretty amazing considering my book note actually talks about the ‘hostility and censorship of the evolutionary establishment.’ If anything, Mr. Leiter acts as if it his goal to prove me correct.”
This is pretty standard stuff for ID proponents, who seem to strike the martyr pose – Help, help, I’m being repressed by the big bad Darwinian Orthodoxy! Come and see the violence inherent in the system! – as reflexively as a baby sucks a nipple. But there’s something really important missing in this little Don Quixote story – substance. Leiter’s original response to VanDyke’s book review contained an almost line by line dismantling of the claims it contained. Not only does the NRO article fail to mention any of the substantive criticisms that Leiter offers, it doesn’t even link to them on Leiter’s blog. Not a single word in Baker’s article disputes the substance of Leiter’s review. Not a single word from either Beckwith or VanDyke quoted by Baker even attempts to discuss any of the substantive criticisms that he made. Were his criticisms wrong? If they are, none of the principles involved in this attempts to make a case for it, yet they reflexively jump immediately to the cry of repression from the Darwinian Establishment.
Another person, using just the name Greg, also reacted negatively to Leiter’s post, but he at least attempted to argue with the substance of Leiter’s criticisms. He did so quite badly, however, and Leiter pretty much shreds his arguments. Paul Myers joins in on the fun and points out that the citations that he gives for allegedly pro-ID articles in the scientific literature have been completely distorted by the ID crowd. As a side note, it was pretty amusing to read Greg claiming to have gone to the scientific literature and found material that supports ID and getting haughty with Leiter for his supposed laziness in not doing the same “in-depth research”:
Actually, in looking for that citation, I found some more examples:
D.D. Axe, “Extreme Functional Sensitivity to Conservative Amino Acid Changes on Enzyme Exteriors,” Journal of Molecular Biology, 301 (2000): 585?595. This work shows that certain enzymes are extremely sensitive to perturbation. Perturbation in this case does not simply diminish existing function or alter function, but removes all possibility of function. This implies that neo-Darwinian theory has no purchase on these systems. Moreover, the probabilities implicit in such extreme-functional-sensitivity analyses are precisely those needed for a design inference. W.-E. Loennig & H. Saedler, “Chromosome Rearrangements and Transposable Elements,” Annual Review of Genetics, 36 (2002): 389-410. This article examines the role of transposons in the abrupt origin of new species and the possibility of an partly predetermined generation of biodiversity and new species. The authors’ approach is non-Darwinian, and they cite favorably on the work of Michael Behe and William Dembski. D.K.Y. Chiu & T.H. Lui, “Integrated Use of Multiple Interdependent Patterns for Biomolecular Sequence Analysis,” International Journal of Fuzzy Systems, 4(3) (September 2002): 766-775. M.J. Denton & J.C. Marshall, “The Laws of Form Revisited,” Nature, 410 (22 March 2001): 417; M.J. Denton, J.C. Marshall & M. Legge, (2002) “The Protein Folds as Platonic Forms: New Support for the pre-Darwinian Conception of Evolution by Natural Law,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 219 (2002): 325-342.
No doubt this is simply the tip of the iceberg. If I, as a non-scientist, could find this in 15 minutes, imagine what Leiter could have done with an hour of fact-checking.
This might be something other than pathetic if the entire passage hadn’t been copied word for word from Dembski’s website.
Leiter is correct when he says that ID proponents are peddling nonsense. He is correct when he says that VanDyke’s book note in the Harvard Law Review was based on ignorance of the subject matter and read more like a fawning press release from the Discovery Institute than like a serious book review. Leiter is correct that the Discovery Institute is little more than “the public relations arm of the creationist movement”, repackaging the same old nonsense in fancy-sounding terminology, distorting the scientific literature to make it appear as supporting them, and failing to publish anything like a testable model that explains the evidence. Striking the martyr pose is good public relations because it distracts attention from the real issues. When you don’t have any actual science to offer, you claim to be oppressed by the “establishment” that is afraid of your Truthtm. But the scientific world doesn’t work that way. Scientists tend to be sticklers for substance over hand-waving. If you have a real model that explains the evidence, by all means offer it up and let’s debate it. But since they don’t have that, they are left with casting themselves in the role of the oppressed in the hope that no one will notice that they didn’t actually address any of the substantive criticisms, that after all the frantic hand waving, there simply is no there there.