Spindizzy in Seattle

On the blog of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, John West throws a hissy about my recent dissection of the statement of two members of Bryan Leonard’s dissertation committee published by the DI. Mr. West takes umbrage at several remarks I made.

More below the fold.

What dissertation committee?

First, I noted that the headline on the statement falsely claimed that it was from Leonard’s dissertation committee:


As I noted earlier, the statement is in fact from just two of the members of that committee, and conspicuously does not include Paul Post, Leonard’s supervisor. West’s complaint is that it was not the Discovery Institute’s title but was supplied by the authors of the statement, DiSilvestro and Needham. Fair enough, but it’s inaccurate regardless of who put it on the statement. In fact, that DiSilvestro and Needham label themselves “Leonard’s dissertation committee” raises interesting questions about their perception of Paul Post’s role – if any – in supervising Leonard’s dissertation research.

West correctly pointed out that I erroneously called Dr. Joan Herbers a member of the dissertation committee. Herbers is a member – the Graduate Faculty Representative – of the oral defense committee. But West goes on

It certainly looks as if Dr. Herbers (an evolutionary biologist) was added at the last minute because of political pressures exerted by Darwinists who are determined to prevent Leonard from obtaining his doctorate. If Dr. Herbers was appointed because of Darwinsts political pressure, and if Leonard was subjected to differential treatment simply because of his views about evolution, the university may have violated Leonard’s constitutional rights to due process and equal protection.)

According to the 2004-2005 Ohio State University Graduate School Handbook,

In addition to being a full voting member of the Final Oral Examination Committee, the Graduate Faculty Representative reports a judgement of the quality of the examination, of the dissertation or document, and the student’s performance to the Graduate School. (p. 34)

Now, it’s not necessarily the case that the GFR must be qualified in the candidate’s research area. The assumption is that the other ‘regular’ members of the oral defense committee are so qualified. For Leonard’s defense committee, where his dissertation concerned the teaching of evolutionary biology, that was not the case. None of the ‘regular’ members of Leonard’s committee – Post, DiSilvestro, and Needham – have professional credentials in secondary school science teaching or in evolutionary biology, the joint focus of Leonard’s work according to his testimony in Kansas. The Graduate School appointed a genuinely qualified person, Dr. Joan Herbers, as GFR to the committee, and the next day Leonard’s advisor requested a postponement of the defense. The Graduate School would have let the defense go ahead; Leonard’s advisor bailed out.

Not having a qualified faculty member on Leonard’s committee would have constituted an abandonment of its duty by the University. West’s blathering about “due process” and “equal protection” are just that: empty blather. The University not only has the right, but has the affirmative duty to ensure the academic integrity of the degrees it grants, and requiring that qualified people are on doctoral defense committees is part of that duty.

What creationists?

West complains that

Third, Mr. Hoppe falsely claims that Professors Glen Needham and Robert DiSilvestro are “creationists.” Prof. DiSilvestro (a biochemist) supports intelligent design, and Prof. Needham (an entomologist) has expressed skepticism toward neo-Darwinism on scientific grounds. That doesn’t make them creationists. Hoppe adopts the slimy tactic of labeling anyone who disagrees with Darwinism as a creationist.

West really ought to keep himself better informed about what his troops are saying in public. They do tend to wander off-script when left to their own devices. Consider this from the transcript of DiSilvestro’s testimony at the Kansas Board of Education subcommittee hearings in May:

(Irigonegaray) Q. Do you accept the general principle of common descent, that all of life is biologically related back to the beginning of life?

(DiSilvestro) A. I’m unconvinced of that idea.

Q. Do you accept that human beings are related by common descent to prehominid ancestors?

A. I’m unconvinced by that idea, also.

Q. If you were unconvinced by that idea, do you have an alternative explanation for how the human species came into existence?

A. I think design is a reasonable alternative.

Q. And the design you suggest is by a creator?

A. I would put that in and I would say it’s reasonable, though there’s other blind forces and other things that people might adapt.

**Q. Doesn’t intelligent design mean that human beings and other species were specially created since they weren’t born of parents?

A. I would say intelligent design says that.**

(Emphasis added)

As Michael Behe helpfully reminded us in his recent NYTimes OpEd,

… if it looks, walks and quacks like a duck, then, absent compelling evidence to the contrary, we have warrant to conclude it’s a duck.

Let’s see: Denies common descent? Check. Affirms special creation? Check. Yup, DiSilvestro meets the defining criteria for “creationist”. Special creation of humans is the irreducible core of creationism. DiSilvestro’s affirmation of the special creation of other species is a no-charge bonus. (Given his association with Reasons to Believe, it’s probably most accurate to describe DiSilvestro as an old-earth creationist.)

Does anyone want to make a bet on how Needham would respond to those questions? Consider this excerpt from a March 5, 2004, letter to the Columbus Dispatch by one of Needham’s colleagues in entomology at OSU:

Needham’s concept of balance and critical thinking is very strange. The following quote is from his spring 2001 midterm examination in Entomology 102, a course he once described in testimony to the State Board of Education as “bugs for dance majors”:

“When examining the issue of insect diversity, we compared evolution and creation, with the former (evolution) capable of describing the (blank), while the Bible (for example) focuses on the (blank).”

Thus, to earn a grade, students were required to interpret the Bible and specifically to hold it in opposition to evolution.

There’s that creationist duck again.

Not surprisingly, Leonard agreed with DiSilvestro about common descent in the Kansas hearing. While Leonard repeatedly evaded (eight times!) a question about his view of the age of the earth, like DiSilvestro he denied both the common descent of living things in general and the descent of humans from prehominid ancestors in particular, the irreducible core of creationism. In contrast to DiSilvestro’s forthrightness in affirming special creation, though, Leonard (four times) evaded identifying an alternative. Another creationist duck quacks, methinks.

What timing?

West questions the timing of Leonard’s teaching of anti-evolution, writing

Presumably, Leonard’s dissertation research took place after his dissertation proposal was approved. Thus, Leonard’s research for the dissertation occurred after 2002, when the science standards were adopted. The point made by the dissertation committee stands.

But as Leonard testified in Kansas, he has been teaching anti-evolution for years, well before his dissertation research and well before the standards were adopted. That he presumably gathered data only after the research was approved by the IRB in 2003 does not alter the ethical question: is teaching crank pseudo-science to high school students pedagogically appropriate? Mr. West blathers about academic freedom. Does a high school teacher have the academic freedom to teach junk science?

What’s Hoppe doing in this?

West is worried about how I came to be involved and how I know of various events. When Leonard testified at the Kansas Board of Education’s Creationist Kangaroo Court hearings last May, part of his claim to fame was that he was a doctoral student in science education at the Ohio State University. He spent some time in his testimony describing his research and its results. He himself drew attention to the nature and content of his research. In his testimony Leonard tied the Ohio “Critical Analysis” lesson plan, of which he was primary author, to his research. Not amazingly, those of us in Ohio took some interest in his testimony. As it was originally presented in Ohio, well after Leonard says he started teaching that way, that lesson plan had nine “Aspects” of evolution to be “challenged”. Eight of them came straight out of Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution. I myself had testified before the Ohio State Board of Education, calling the draft model lesson plan “trash science”, “a snow job”, and “a bizarre caricature of science”. But Boards of Education are political bodies, not scientific organizations, and the flawed lesson plan, somewhat amended and modified, was in the end adopted by that political body.

Given Leonard’s use of his research to attempt to influence public policy in Kansas, it became of interest to learn more about Leonard’s thesis research. That led to finding that his committee was stacked with intelligent design creationism supporters and lacked any representation at all from the program in which he is seeking a degree. And that led to all else that has followed.

What’s the real issue?

Finally, West persists in trying to cast the graduate school’s inquiry into the matter as being focused on Leonard and the content of his dissertation. That’s an egregious misrepresentation. The central issue for OSU is the integrity of the degree-granting process of the University and the academic responsibililty of two of its graduate faculty members who collaborated in the subversion of that process. Rather than spinning Leonard’s dissertation defense, DiSilvestro and Needham might give some honest thought to their own role in the debacle and to its potential consequences for them.