Jonathan Wells (2006) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.Amazon
Jonathan Wells has recently written The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Wells’s book is stuffed full of misrepresentations, distortions, and plain falsehoods. My Thumb colleagues are reviewing whole chapters, but my purpose here is to focus in some detail on just one of Wells’s claims to illustrate his scurrilous tactics.
The claim I focus on is from Chapter 16, “American Lysenkoism”. Mark Perakh has already documented how Wells manipulated partial quotations from Perakh’s earlier essay on Lysenkoism to create misrepresentations of what Perakh actually wrote. Here I will describe Wells’s dishonesty about a specific episode in Ohio last year.
In chapter 16 Wells wrote
… some Darwinist professors at Ohio State University (OSU)—a public institution—are now trying to destroy another student’s career by preventing him from getting his doctorate.(p. 189)
This is the infamous Bryan Leonard affair that I described on the Thumb as it was happening; see “ID vs. Academic Integrity: Gaming the System in Ohio” for the full story. Wells accuses three Ohio State University professors of torpedoing Leonard, saying
Although Leonard had gone through normal procedures and received proper approval to conduct his research … [the three professors] accuse Leonard of “unethical” conduct primarily on the grounds that his research was predicated on “a fundamental flaw: there are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution”.(p. 189)
The next sentence in the letter was “Mr. Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise”. As noted below, what Leonard was teaching was Wells’s Icons of Evolution trash, so he was indeed misinforming his students.
Furthermore, Wells claimed
The OSU Darwinists then invoked some procedural techicalities—widely ignored in the case of other Ph.D. candidates—to demand that Leonard’s dissertation defense be postponed.(p. 190)
Like all creationists, Wells stuffs his screed with false claims (a tactic immortalized as the Gish Gallop, each claim expressed in a sentence but requiring paragraphs to rebut). With respect to the Leonard affair, Wells makes two specific claims, that the professors accused Leonard of unethical behavior and that he failed to follow some “procedural technicalities” that are allegedly widely disregarded at Ohio State. Both of Wells’s claims are misrepresentations, and in making them he also produces some peripheral garbage that requires examination.
As background one must know that the three professors—an evolutionary biologist, a paleoanthropologist, and a mathematician—all have appointments as Members of the Graduate Faculty of the Ohio State University. As such, they have specific responsibilities with respect to that university (for the ‘umbrella’ University policy governing those responsibilities see here, especially 3335-5-30 (B)). If they have reason to believe that the regulations of the graduate school are not being followed, as part of their affirmative duty to their employer they must bring that to the attention of the Graduate School. Just as a police officer has the affirmative duty to enforce the law and a physician has the affirmative duty to treat a patient with the patient’s best interests in mind, the members of the graduate faculty have an affirmative duty to ensure that the policies and regulations of the Graduate School are followed. When they become aware of a violation of those policies and regulations they are bound to report it. Failure to do so would violate the terms of their appointment to the graduate faculty.
The Ethics Question
Now consider the ethics question regarding Leonard’s research. As a graduate student, Leonard had already thrust himself into a policy-making environment as a member of a committee writing lesson plans to instantiate the new state science standards in Ohio, in particular 10th grade biology. He drafted a lesson plan that contained classic creationist objections to evolutionary theory (the misnamed “critical analysis of evolution”). As originally submitted to the State Board of Education the lesson plan contained nine “aspects of evolution” to be “critically analysed”. Eight of the nine came straight out of Wells’s Icons of Evolution, a collection of misrepresentations, distortions, and flat falsehoods. The lesson plan also contained irrelevant “web resources”, including a number of creationist web sites, and at least one outright fake reference, a paper allegedly in Nature that has no existence outside creationist web sites. It was a shoddy piece of creationist propaganda masquerading as a lesson plan.
In the Kansas creationism hearings Leonard claimed to have been teaching that creationist trash for years and that his doctoral research focused on whether doing so influenced students’s learning about evolution. When Leonard drew public attention to his work at the Kansas creationist hearings, the three OSU professors, aware of Leonard’s status as a graduate student, asked whether Leonard’s dissertation research had been properly reviewed and approved by OSU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). Operating under federal laws and regulations, IRBs are charged with ensuring that research performed with human subjects are ethical and meet legal requirements for informed consent, among other things. Failure to conform to requirements can have substantial negative effects on a university. IRBs are particularly vigilant about the use of minors as subjects of research. Given that Leonard’s lesson plan draft contained a series of falsehoods about evolutionary biology, and given that in Kansas Leonard testified about his (as yet unpublished) research, the question arose as to whether Leonard had appropriately informed the IRB and the parents of his students that he was teaching scientific trash in order to assess its effects on their children and whether he had received appropriate permissions to do so. To my knowledge that question has still not been answered.
The “Procedural Technicalities” Question
As noted, Wells claimed that in addition to the IRB question, the three OSU professors “invoked some procedural technicalities—widely ignored in the case of other Ph.D. candidates—to demand that Leonard’s dissertation defense be postponed” (p. 190).
What “procedural technicalities” did the professors raise? Simple: They pointed out that contrary to Graduate School requirements, Leonard’s dissertation defense committee had no members from the program in which he was seeking a degree. That is, while Leonard was seeking a degree from the program in science education, no one from that program was on his committee. Instead, there was a member from the technology education program (his advisor), one from entomology, one from human nutrition, and a “graduate school representative” from the Department of French & Italian! It’s as though Leonard were seeking certification in neurosurgery before an examining committee consisting of a dermatologist, a ob/gyn, a chiropracter, and a truck driver. Not even Leonard’s advisor is in the program from which he sought a degree! As one commenter on my earlier post remarked, looking just at that committeee one has no idea where Leonard was supposedly seeking a degree.
Two of the members of Leonard’s committee have one property in common: they are “intelligent design” activists. Glenn Needham and Robert Disilvestro are publicly self-identified with the “intelligent design” movement. DiSilvestro testified (note his denial of common descent) in the Kansas creationism hearings with Leonard (who also denied common descent), and Needham testified to the validity of Leonard’s lesson plan at the Ohio State Board of Education. In addition, until the brouhaha erupted Leonard’s advisor, Paul E. Post, had links to a variety of Christian sites, including at least one “intelligent design” site, on his personal OSU web site, When the fiasco became public those links immediately disappeared. The fourth member of Leonard’s committee, an assistant professor of French & Italian, had never before served as graduate school representative on a defense committee and had no qualifications appropriate to Leonard’s area of research.
The three professors who brought the anomalies to the attention of the graduate school did not “… demand that Leonard’s dissertation defense be postponed”, as Wells falsely claims, but rather requested that the Graduate School look into very serious questions surrounding the conduct of Leonard’s research and the composition of his defense committee. [See erratum below.] An administrator in the Graduate School and the head of the program from which Leonard was seeking a Ph.D. began inquiries regarding the anomalous composition of Leonard’s committee. At that, the graduate school representative (the assistant professor of French & Italian) withdrew, and a replacement—the Dean of the College of Biological Sciences, who was qualified to evaluate a dissertation on the teaching of evolution—was appointed. Within 24 hours of that replacement, Leonard’s defense was postponed at the request of his advisor. The graduate school did not postpone Leonard’s defense, his advisor did so when a qualified person was appointed to the defense committee.
Finally, Wells’s claims that this “procedural technicality”—not having any qualified examiners on a dissertation defense committee—is “… widely ignored in the case of other Ph.D. candidates …”. Wells is here claiming that the Ohio State University routinely awards Ph.D.s to students whose committees are unqualified to assess the students’s work! That is a breathtaking accusation to make about the Graduate School of the Ohio State University. Wells provides no evidence whatsoever for this extraordinary claim. It merely stands in unsupported thin air. Wells flatly libels a distinguished research university in aid of his sectarian agenda.
I have to say it must be easy to write as Wells does. Need a “fact”? Make it up. Find an inconvenient fact? Ignore it. Need a quotation? Quotemine a genuine scientist, pasting together bits and pieces from pages apart in the original to make it say something the original wouldn’t recognize. Wells has no shred of intellectual honesty, and has a true soulmate in Salvador Cordova, who was quoted in Nature as saying
The critical thinking and precision of science began to really affect my ability to just believe something without any tangible evidence.
Wells hasn’t been affected one whit by the precision and critical thinking of science. He blatantly misrepresents an episode for which documentation exists in the public domain that flatly contradicts his distortions. He wholly ignores that documentation in favor of a tissue of misrepresentations and plain falsehoods, and libels a distinguished university to boot. But Wells can’t be bothered with that. He has an agenda: to destroy Darwinism for purely religious reasons, and the facts—and the Ohio State University—be damned.
Did You Know?
The Ohio State University requires that faculty members on dissertation defense committees be qualified in the subject matter of the dissertation? Wells calls that requirement a “procedural technicality”. Did Wells have anyone qualified on his committee?
Erratum added 9/1/06: One of the three OSU professors contacted me this evening and sent me the partial text of the letter he and the other two sent the Graduate School. The letter did in fact refer to a postponement, saying “We believe that the integrity of OSU’s graduate program may be compromised should Mr. Leonard’s examination proceed as scheduled. We are requesting that it be postponed until these issues can be resolved.” So, they requested a postponement, rather than demanded as Wells claims. Neverthelessit was Leonard’s advisor who actually postponed the defense, not the graduate school.