Intelligent Design

INTELLIGENT DESIGN….A couple of weeks ago, while I was out of town, Brian Leiter unleashed a furious broadside against a student who wrote a note for the Harvard Law Review praising a book that defended the teaching of Intelligent Design in schools:

The author of this incompetent book note, according to this site, 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.

There was more along the same lines. My initial thought was (a) good for him, and (b) I’m sure glad Leiter doesn’t have a jones for me. Better to keep him on my good side.

Anyway, entertaining though it was, I was on vacation and didn’t post about it. But the story continued without me: a couple of days later NRO published a response to Leiter, who then revealed that the response had actually been written by the author’s teaching assistant. Considerable merriment has since ensued.

I’ve been following the whole thing with one eye, and while I have no sympathy for the ID jihadists I admit that all along I’ve had a sneaking feeling that, in fact, maybe it really was a bit inappropriate for an influential, tenured law professor to write such a blistering attack on a lowly student. Positions of power and all that, you understand.

Today, though, I finally got around to reading VanDyke’s note (warning: large, slow-loading file) and I immediately changed my mind: Leiter probably went too easy on this cretin. Here’s the damning sentence:

…while lumping ID with creationism may be a good rhetorical strategy for ID’s opponents, it only detracts from an independent and rigorous evaluation of the merits of ID’s claims against those of naturalistic evolution.

This sentence could be written only by someone entirely ignorant of both the history and substance of ID (which VanDyke surely isn’t) or someone who is simply a shill for creationism.

First, the history. For years, creationists have been trying to get their ideas into high school textbooks but judges consistently knocked them down because they were obviously just transparent attempts to smuggle religion into public schools. So they’d water things down a bit (“Look, we didn’t mention God!”) and try again, but the judges weren’t fooled. They just kept knocking them down. After several decades, the result of this was Intelligent Design, an attempt to make a sort of “clean room” case for creationism: it’s exactly the same as creationism but pretends to be based solely on scientific grounds. Naturally the ID proponents have to deny that ID is reverse engineered from creationism, but anybody who studies the issue for more than five minutes knows otherwise. So does VanDyke.

And then there’s the substance. What are the actual arguments in favor of ID? The primary one is to accept that science classes are indeed supposed to teach science, but that ID is science. Sadly, though, the scientific community has already passed unanimous judgment on this claim: it’s horseshit.

VanDyke (and Francis Beckwith, whose book he is reviewing) therefore try an end run: the very paradigms of science itself are deficient, they say. Well, perhaps they are? Who knows? But if so, then they’d better also start attacking the hegemony in our science classes of general relativity, plate tectonics, and quantum mechanics ? except that if they tried it the Harvard Law Review would reject it as the obvious crankery it is.

I expected that VanDyke’s book note (and Beckwith’s book) would claim that schools should be allowed to teach ID on the basis of some kind of abstract legal or philosophical basis, which might be a perfectly publishable argument. Not so. Instead they argue on the obviously specious grounds that (a) ID isn’t creationism and (b) ID is perfectly plausible science.

Leiter was right both on the facts and in the tone he took: it was scholarly fraud. The Harvard Law Review should be ashamed of itself.

POSTSCRIPT: It turns out there’s one silver lining to this whole dark cloud: it has apparently inspired a group of scientists to start a blog called The Panda’s Thumb, dedicated to debunking the daily assaults on evolution from the ID zealots and the religious right. It’s only a day old but already appears to be a terrific source. Check it out.