A New Blog is Born

Announcing the formation of a new group blog, The Panda's Thumb. Like a father with a new baby, I'm excited about this project and I'm telling everyone about it.

The Panda's Thumb is a group blog that will focus primarily on explaining the theory of evolution, critiquing the claims of the anti-evolution lobby, and defending the integrity of science education in America and around the world. The list of contributing authors is long and distinguished, representing a variety of scientific disciplines as well as a variety of academic and business backgrounds. The list includes recognized scholars in biochemistry, genetics, marine biology, immunology, molecular biology and more, as well as one businessman who uses evolutionary algorythms to model the world's financial markets. It's an extraordinary pool of knowledge and brilliance, and I expect to add a few more people to the author's roll in the next couple of weeks.

My thanks goes out to the many brilliant men and women who have volunteered their time and their energies not only to this project, but to the larger project of defending the integrity of science education.

The Panda's Thumb is a brand new project. I've spent most of today tweaking the templates and setting up the page. But keep your eye on that page over the next few weeks and I promise that you will learn a great deal about this very important issue. It is my goal to make The Panda's Thumb the most read science blog in the world, and to do for science what the Volokh Conspiracy does for law, which is bring together some of the finest minds in the field to share their expertise on an area where the public is often confused and misled.

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Ed, there are many things to be said about the Volokh Conspiracy, but one of them is not that it "brings together some of the finest minds in the field to share their expertise"! It brings together some rather good and rather mediocre legal scholars, all of whom share some typical right-wing biases and parochial prejudices.

I expect better of the Panda's Thumb.

By Brian Leiter (not verified) on 24 Mar 2004 #permalink

Wish you the best of luck on the new blog (with all my own typical right-wing biases and parochial prejudices intact). Looks to be a great project.

In "Celebration" of your new blog, I post my final reply to Leiter and Company

One Final Response to Leiter and Company:

So far Leiter and Meyers have labeled me, among other things, a demonstrably ignorant ass, a pompous jerk[], intellectually dishonest, and incompetent. Recognizing that a further response will likely prolong this unpleasantry, I nonetheless wish to clarify several things that have been lost amid all this sound and fury.

I probably erred in my initial response to Leiter, not because the content of my reply was substantively wrong (I believe it was predominately accurate), but because I responded directly to Leiters accusations without addressing the question of whether his challenges were themselves responsive to the actual content of my piece. In my zeal to react to what were clearly some gross errors in Leiters attack, I ignored the important point that Leiters accusations are unrelated to the central argument of my Note. This was unfortunate because it focused the resultant debate on the empirical status of ID. While the empirical issues are indeed critically important to the ID/evolution debate, and should be carefully evaluated, my Note eschewed this already well-trodden ground to look instead at a more fundamental question one that relies not at all on the empirical status of ID.

Following the traditional format of student book reviews in law journals, my Note has three parts: a short introduction, a synopsis of the book being reviewed, and an analysis. The analysis is the only part in which the book review author may appropriately make a distinct argument or unique contribution. In my Book Note, which was strictly limited to 8 pages, approximately one page is introduction, five pages relate Beckwiths book, and two pages constitute my analysis.

Interestingly, Leiters attack focused on my introduction. The purpose of the introduction, however, is simply to capture the readers attention and set up the rest of the review it is a hook, not a freestanding argument. Even if I did see fit to attack ID the way Leiter imagines, it wouldnt be in the introduction, where detailed empirical research would be structurally inapposite. As it is, the introduction is quite short, and clearly indicates that my Note addresses a philosophical question of constitutional significance, not an empirical one. The thesis sentence, found at the end of my introduction paragraph, states this fairly clearly: However, while a principled constitutional analysis would suggest permitting the presentation of ID in schools [this from Beckwiths book], the linchpin of the movements success likely turns on better educating relevant legal actors about the practical relationship between evolution and MN (emphasis added).

What Leiter apparently took umbrage at is that I didnt, in the introduction, provide a detailed caveat listing the grievances methodological naturalists have with IDs scientific claims. Yet even as it stands, I indicate in the introduction that ID is a minority position. The reason I neither provide nor respond to empirical critiques of ID is that such analysis would not only grossly exceed the 8-page scope of the review, but would also distract from the central contention of my Note.

In Leiters initial attack on my Note, the only thing remotely related to the actual argument in my Note was Leiters comment that one line from the polemical Richard Dawkins does not indicate that evolution has an a priori commitment to Methodological Naturalism. This is false on several fronts. First, regarding the a priori commitment to MN, it is widely accepted by non-ID philosophers of science that Leiter is simply wrong. As I previously noted, John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, has unequivocally stated: A central tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism. In fact, I could have included quotes from Churchland, Hull, Searle, Flew, Crick, Rachels, Futuyama, Strickberger, and P. Z. Meyers, to name just a few thinkers who understand evolutionary theory as applied materialism.

Leiters comments in this regard reveal a palpable ignorance . The number of works that have addressed the issue of philosophical presuppositions and non-scientific understandings on the formation and maintaining of scientific theories is enormous. If he had even perused Dr. Beckwiths book he would have come in modest contact with some of the leading lights in this literature including Larry Laudan, a philosopher of science who is currently on the faculty at the University of Texas and whose greatness Leiter himself extols (see http://webapp.utexas.edu/blogs/archives/bleiter/000806.html).

However, my quote from Richard Dawkins (along with quotes from six other evolutionary pundits Leiter neglected to mention) wasnt simply to make the prosaic and uncontested point (or at least, uncontested by any save Leiter, apparently) that MN underlies science, but to make the more subtle point that evolution as conceived by many of its most influential and vocal proponents clearly implicates naturalistic philosophy. This is interesting precisely because in past creationist cases (most notably McLean), it was association with outspoken religious proponents that constitutionally doomed the teaching of creationism as much as did the content of creationism itself. Beckwith argues that this genetic fallacy of associating a movement with its vocal spokespeople is wrong, and I think he is right, but my addition (if I may be so bold) to Beckwiths analysis is a pragmatic one: until relevant legal actors begin to recognize that the genetic fallacy evenly applied might knock evolution out of schools, they probably wont recognize how mistaken it is to apply the genetic fallacy as a principle of constitutional jurisprudence to other contenders. Until ostensibly neutral judicial actors realize that the high priests of evolution are no less evangelical than the high priests of its competitors, they will give legal weight to ad hominem arguments of the sort Leiter has been mustering.

Once this central argument of my Note is recognized, it is fairly obvious why I wouldnt spend precious pages investigating the scientific merits or failings of ID as Leiter apparently craved. Thats not what my Note is about. Its not even relevant. The important question whether ID is empirically valid is conceptually separable from whether ID should be excluded a priori simply by applying some variation of the genetic fallacy. ID will never get a fair consideration on the merits until the genetic fallacy has been debunked. My Note (and Beckwiths book to a certain extent) concentrates on addressing this issue not the empirical one. So while I still insist that many of Leiters critiques regarding IDs empirical evidence and its acceptability were flat out false at worse (exactly two credentialed scientists and his misunderstanding the relationship between science and MN) and misleading at best (leaving out my small characterization and erroneously applying my significant controversy to scientists), the fact is that they are irrelevant to my Notes argument.

My concern is that precisely by bypassing my critique of the genetic fallacy, Leiter has succeeded in waging the empirical argument on uneven ground: readers steeped in the anti-ID propaganda of the high priests of evolution will simply discount or outright disregard any empirical evidence provided by ID scientists. Thus, Leiter relies on the very fallacy on which my article was focused, while attacking empirical claims that were outside the scope of the Note. While I suspect that Leiters subterfuge in this regard was simply second nature and not deliberate, it is nevertheless fortuitively illustrative of exactly the problem my Note meant to address.

I hope that by presenting this argument, I will be able to move at least some of the discussion on my Note towards its actual content. It may well be that I am no less pompous, dishonest, ignorant, and incompetent in arguing against the genetic fallacy but Leiter could at least do me the courtesy of damning me for what I wrote, rather than for what I didnt.

By Lawrence VanDyke (not verified) on 24 Mar 2004 #permalink

From VanDyke's post:

[T]he linchpin of the movements success likely turns on better educating relevant legal actors about the practical relationship between evolution and MN. [that is, evolution specifically, and science in general, proceed from Methodological Naturalism]

[E]volution as conceived by many of its most influential and vocal proponents clearly implicates naturalistic philosophy. [that is, evolution both assumes and requires "naturalistic philosophy"]


Mr. VanDyke quotes Beckwith, who in turn parrots Philip Johnson's pet argument that a commitment to methodological naturalism (MN) leads inexorably to a commitment to philosophical or ontological naturalism (ON). This is so, Johnson would say, because a commitment to MN excludes the possibility of considering "evidence" for the supernatural, which in turn leads to an a priori rejection of supernaturalism in general (Darwin on Trial; Defeating Darwinism; Objections Sustained; The Wedge of Truth).

This is the Wedgies' party line: that because philosophers of science (and scientists, generally) state forthrightly that science cannot, by definition, investigate supernatural events, that they also commit of necessity to the non-existence of supernatural phenomena, a priori.

Whether the MN / ON distinction is logically justifiable, however, we're talking about personal and institutional commitments here, not whether the adherents to those commitments can justify them. That's the bait-and-switch to which Johnson, Beckwith, and now VanDyke want their readers fall victim: if judges and legislators buy into the argument that scientists hold to the notion that MN is equivalent to ON, they can persuade the lawgivers to accept the proposition that MN requires a philosophical commitment to "naturalistic philosophy," which they equate to atheism.

And, of course, atheism constitutes a position on religion, which the government may not assume by the dictates of the First Amendment. (Nevermind that the DI also espouses an alternative interpretation of the Establishment Clause.)

If the electorate competently understands the distinction between MN and ON, on the other hand, Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) is dead in the water: the Discovery Institute and their Harvard Law Review apologists cannot constitutionally insinuate IDC into public school science curricula unless science itself demands a quasi-religious commitment. If it doesn't, then lawmakers are free to distinguish between the those things within purview of science, and everything outside of that boundary.

If that happens, the vacuous philosophy, derived from Paley and embodied in IDC, is not constitutionally entitled to "equal time."

The pro-IDC argument in this regard compels me to conclude, as does Mr. Leiter, that Mr. VanDyke has in fact been both intellectually dishonest and logically incompetent. In context, the so-called "Genomic Fallacy" should be regarded as an invalidity only at such time that any one of IDC's proponents offers an argument that is not so sublimely fatuous.

Good point Eon.

My own pet peeve is that there seems to be some kind of assumed paradigm among IDC proponents [i.e. MN to ON/PN conflaters] that science is powerless or worthless when investigating supernatural events. And that this failure is somehow indicative that science is 'wrong'.

That's just plain silly. It's not a rational assessment at all.
There are to date no supernatural events to investigate with science [or any other methodology], and as Eon and I recently discussed on another message board, there's not even a consensus definition on what the hell a supernatural event *would be*.

On this MN/ON issue, the Wedgies appear fixated on criticizing science because it 'fails' to address processes which DO NOT, as far as can be determined, even exist.

I have a difficult time visualizing exactly how science is supposed to investigate non-existent processes. Or why the failure of science to explain non-existent processes would indicate a serious problem with the underlying scientific methodology.
IMO it seems a little desperate to attack science or scientists for having a pre-existing 'bias' to disregard non-existent phenomena.

We could clear this confusion up with one example of a supernatural event...
Give us an example of a supernatural event Mr. Van Dyke, and let's see how science deals with it?