Who's Your Daddy? Intelligent Design Creationism at Harvard Law School

The following is a guest post from Steven Thomas Smith. Steve is on the Senior Technical Staff in the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, and more importantly is a Project Steve Steve. He attended the Jay Wexler/Francis Beckwith debate on the constitutionality of teaching ID in public schools at Harvard Law School, and gave us this report. We welcome this submission and encourage others to send us well-reasoned and insightful guest blog essays, particularly if your name is Steve.

Harvard Law School, said by some to be the world’s second best, demands of its students a “record of marked distinction.” Last year, Harvard Law Review editor Lawrence VanDyke, 2L, achieved this lofty status by publishing a besotted review of Francis Beckwith’s book about the constitutionality of Intelligent Design creationism in public schools. VanDyke’s insipid and error-filled piece (“not even wrong” in Pauli’s words) would have been eminently ignorable had it not appeared in the often respected Law Review, and this fact alone attracted a dogpile of criticism involving political columnists, science policy writers, lawyers, biologists, and the Panda’s Thumb. VanDyke, revealing that his motives were those of a clueless dupe, and not a Machiavellian operator, actually responded to this withering barrage with an even more cluelessly clueless post at HLS’s Federalist Society (in which he cites “Project Steve” as proof that 1% of scientists doubt evolution!), ensuring that much fun was had by all.

Aside from the fun, this affair generated a few potentially positive results: it revealed the unscrupulous conduct of Francis Beckwith’s graduate assistant Hunter Baker, and it prompted HLS’s Federalist Society to invite Beckwith to come to Harvard to debate the constitutionality of ID with Jay Wexler. I attended this debate last week, and offer the following observations.

The room, a medium-size lecture hall at the law school, was filled to capacity with about 45 people, apparently with many law students, and as far as I could tell a handful of ID supporters, and even one person from Boston University Law who told me after the debate that he posts at the Pandas Thumb. The debate itself was organized into two 17-minute statements, followed by two 7-minute statements, with audience questions allowed afterwards. Professor Beckwith went first.

Before going, I read some of Beckwith’s posts on the Pandas Thumb – his presentation contained nothing new that I could discern, but it was remarkable that that Beckwith parroted long discredited arguments (invoking William Dembski and Michael Behe; he even brought a copy of the Axe article to support the claim that ID is published in peer-reviewed scientific journals). Nonetheless, his presentation of ID was very polished and, I would imagine, speciously appealing to many not familiar with the facts. Beckwith himself is personally charming, handsome, well-dressed, and well-spoken. Though his statements about ID are factually baseless, Beckwith is a skillful rhetorician.

Jay Wexler’s presentation was competent, but bloodless. He focused much more on the subject at hand – the legal aspects of teaching ID in public schools. One of his main themes was the reasonable person test. I don’t believe that Beckwith addressed Wexler’s legal criticisms well, and though I am not knowledgeable about scoring debates, would judge that the victory would have to have gone to Wexler on the weakness of Beckwith’s response to Wexler’s legal points.

But certainly Beckwith was not at Harvard to “win” a legal debate. His presentation was consistent with one whose goal is to sow doubt about evolution, and to gain more recruits and allies than he already has. Toward these ends, I judge that Beckwith performed well.

I did have concerns about Wexler’s performance addressing Beckwith’s claims that ID is scientifically valid. Everything Professor Wexler said was correct (“there is no scientific controversy about evolution”, “there are zero peer-reviewed ID papers or possibly a few, but it’s not mainstream”), but I will say that I was disappointed by Wexler’s handing of this issue – he said the absolute bare minimum of what could have been said, and I’m not sure if allayed any doubts about the science sowed by Beckwith. I want to emphasize that I am not criticizing Wexler – he could have great reasons for his treatment that I do not know, e.g., debate strategy or knowledge of the arguments that would appeal to the largely legal audience. But his treatment allowed Beckwith to score a few points, like waving Axe’s journal paper around in support of ID; Wexler simply responded that he didn’t know about this paper.

Interestingly, Beckwith said that he had been asked but declined to testify as an expert witness in the Dover, PA ID creationism trial in September. (Too bad.)

I did not have the impression that there was a great deal of knowledge about the true state of science in the audience – indeed, it was my impression that not too many people were not aware of the relevant facts, and a vigorous defense of science did not seem forthcoming.

During the audience question period, I identified myself and mentioned that I am a participant in Project Steve (of which some in the audience seemed to be aware), then challenged Beckwith’s introductory assertions that ID is scientific, not religious, by citing the following three facts:

  • Religious motivations are behind ID, as they admit themselves: > “Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”
  • ID is funded by religious fundamentalists, especially Howard Ahmanson Jr., who has also funded Christian Reconstructionism, which wants the the U.S. “under the control of biblical law.” Mr. Ahmanson has said his goal is “the total integration of biblical law into our lives.”
  • ID and ID’s criticism’s of evolution are nonsense. For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s statement on ID says > “the ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim that ID undermines the current scientifically accepted theory of evolution” Also, Scientific American magazine’s article “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense” explains why ID claims are nonsense.

After making a well-received joke about how many Stephanies were in the audience, Beckwith responded most immediately to the mention of Ahmanson and biblical law. He said that I was making the fallacy of association, that Barbara Forrest belonged to the ACLU, that Howard Ahmanson doesn’t “believe in Christian Reconstructionism anymore”, and suggested that sometimes people are criticized for their Christian religious beliefs. He was clearly off guard and somewhat clumsy in making these points, allowing me to point out the inconsistency of the first two, ridicule the third, and express resentment at the suggestion of the fourth, thus closing our exchange on the subject of Beckwith’s misguided defense of his religious beliefs. He never addressed or even hinted at a defense of ID as science.

I do not know what the audience’s general reaction was – one person clapped (briefly) at my remarks, and I had cordial and respectful discussions with a few of Beckwith’s supporters afterwards, as well as Beckwith himself. None of his supporters were at all aware of the scientific response to the anti-evolution arguments they had (e.g., evolution violates 2LoT[!]), so all I could do was listen to them, respond very briefly, and direct them toward the talkorigins archive for comprehensive details.

The big thing I learned is that much more attention in pro-science circles should be given to speaking events/debates given by Wedge members. At an event at Harvard Law School, I actually heard uninformed muttering from a person in the audience about reading in the Wall Street Journal of a pro-ID scientist being fired from the Smithsonian Institute.

This is not a scientific debate – this is a rhetorical conflict, and the Wedge does a much better job with rhetoric than scientists, who are trained to convince each other with facts and evidence alone.

Because there is no scientific debate about the validity of evolution, or the fatuity of Intelligent Design creationism, scientists must not debate these subjects on the same stage as creationists because they will only serve the creationist rhetorical end of being taken seriously. But that does not mean that scientists and supporters of scientists cannot attend discussions where nonscientific issues are the focus, and employ the same rhetorical methods used by our opponents. After all, Aristotle calls upon us to use rhetoric in the service of truth and justice:

Aristotle wrote:

“Rhetoric is useful because the true and the just are naturally superior to their opposites, so that, if decisions are improperly made, they must owe their defeat to their own advocates; which is reprehensible. Further, in dealing with certain persons, even if we possessed the most accurate scientific knowledge, we should not find it easy to persuade them by the employment of such knowledge. For scientific discourse is concerned with instruction, but in the case of such persons instruction is impossible.” – Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, Book 1

Debunking Intelligent Design creationism is important not simply because ID is wrong – it’s downright dangerous in these times of DNA economies and bioterrorism.

While this subject is in the public’s eye, no Wedge member should be able to speak in public without a strong challenge to their claim that Intelligent Design creationism is scientific and not religiously motivated.