Forrest Responds to Beckwith

by Barbara Forrest,

Francis Beckwith has communicated to me via e-mail (May 3, 2009) his disagreement with my referring to him as an “ID supporter” in the abstract of my recently published paper entitled “The Non-epistemology of Intelligent Design: Its Implications for Public Policy,” Synthese, April 15, 2009. (See also Tim Sandefur’s post in response to Beckwith’s complaints about Sandefur’s classifying him as a creationist.) Here is the abstract:

Intelligent design creationism (ID) is a religious belief requiring a supernatural creator’s interventions in the natural order. ID thus brings with it, as does supernatural theism by its nature, intractable epistemological difficulties. Despite these difficulties and despite ID’s defeat in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District(2005), ID creationists’ continuing efforts to promote the teaching of ID in public school science classrooms threaten both science education and the separation of church and state guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. I examine the ID movement’s failure to provide either a methodology or a functional epistemology to support their supernaturalism, a deficiency that consequently leaves them without epistemic support for their creationist claims. My examination focuses primarily on ID supporter Francis Beckwith, whose published defenses of teaching ID, as well as his other relevant publications concerning education, law, and public policy, have been largely exempt from critical scrutiny. Beckwith’s work exhibits the epistemological deficiencies of the supernaturally grounded views of his ID associates and of supernaturalists in general. I preface my examination of Beckwith’s arguments with (1) philosopher of science Susan Haack’s clarification of the established naturalistic methodology and epistemology of science and (2) discussions of the views of Beckwith’s ID associates Phillip Johnson and William Dembski. Finally, I critique the religious exclusionism that Beckwith shares with his ID associates and the implications of his exclusionism for public policy.


My assessment of Dr. Beckwith as an ID supporter stands with the evidence, which is substantial. His published work, both as a fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture and as a scholar, seemed to have received comparatively little scrutiny—less than that of anyone who has been prominently involved with the Discovery Institute; this was an important gap that needed to be filled in the critical scholarship concerning intelligent design creationism. Close scrutiny of his published work and his actions shows that his denials are not the least bit believable. For the better part of a decade, he has rendered logistical support to the Discovery Institute’s promotion of intelligent design through his published work stating that teaching ID is constitutional. (For the record, it should be noted that Dr. Beckwith is neither a lawyer nor, properly speaking, a constitutional scholar. See Forrest, Synthese, pp. 3-4. All page references are to the online pdf edition.) In fact, as recently as 2007—_after_ the Kitzmiller verdict—in his article, “Intelligent Design, Religious Motives, and the Constitution’s Religion Clauses,” he went even further when he stated that ID could constitutionally be not only permitted but required:

. . . I do not think [intelligent design] can be constitutionally prohibited from the public-school classroom. . . .

. . . [I]t is incorrect to think of ID as “stealth creationism,” as some, including Judge [John] Jones have labeled it. . . . [T]his word creationism is a term of art in constitutional law that refers to a belief that a literal interpretation of Genesis’s first thirteen chapters is true. . . . [See note 1 below.]

Because ID arguments do not contain Genesis and its tenets as propositions, and because ID advocates build their cases from inferences that rely on empirical facts and conceptual notions, ID does not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution. Of course, the cases for ID may indeed fail as arguments, but that is not a violation of the establishment clause. [See note 2 below.]

As a matter of policy, I believe there are good reasons why a public school should not require the teaching of ID. Nevertheless, there are no good constitutional reasons to prohibit a teacher from teaching it or a school board from permitting or requiring it. [bold underlining added; italics in original]

(Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski & Michael Ruse in Dialogue, ed. Robert Stewart, Fortress Press 2007, pp. 90, 94)

[Note 1: Beckwith’s narrow, legalistic definition of creationism is incorrect, as I note in Synthese, p. 18. I am indebted for this point to Prof. Steven Gey, who, unlike Beckwith, is both an attorney and a constitutional scholar.]

[Note 2: Beckwith conveniently fails to mention that ID is based on the New Testament Gospel of John, which I also point out in Synthese, pp. 9–10. In addition, his description of ID as consisting of inferences based on “empirical facts and conceptual notions” differs very little from the description that Michael Behe repeatedly offered on the witness stand in the Kitzmiller trial.]

Even more recently, on February 4, 2009, Beckwith showed up in Louisiana (see below), promoting the ideas in this 2007 article. However, his position that teaching ID is constitutional is not new, as I also point out in my Synthese article (p. 15):

In Law, Darwinism, and Public Education, aimed at the mainstream audience, [Beckwith] invokes the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate of religious neutrality by the state in Epperson v. Arkansas(1968), which struck down an Arkansas law against teaching evolution, as “the strongest argument to allow (or perhaps require) . . .ID to be taught in public educational institutions” (Beckwith 2003b, p. 13). In the Christian Research Journal, an apologetics journal for the popular audience, he is totally forthright: “To require or permit the teaching of ID in public schools . . .is constitutional” (Beckwith 2003a, p. 1). [emphasis added]

All of the tendentious, incorrect points that Beckwith serves up in defense of ID have been dissected many times over both in my work and the work of other scholars and scientists, not to mention Judge John Jones, whose opinion in the Dover case Beckwith presumes to analyze in his 2007 article. (See an earlier analysis of Beckwith’s claims in Brauer, Forrest, and Gey, “Is It Science Yet? Intelligent Design Creationism and the Constitution,” Washington University Law Quarterly, Spring 2005.) As I have shown in great detail, the substance of Beckwith’s substantial body of published work belies his claim that he is not an ID supporter:

In short, although Beckwith asserts that “my primary concern . . .is not with the soundness or persuasive power of the scientific and philosophical arguments of ID proponents” (Beckwith 2003b, p. xxii) but with the question of ID’s constitutionality, he presents ID exactly as ID leaders do–their arguments are _his_arguments, restated without hedge or criticism.”

Synthese, p. 16

Moreover, his claim to be nothing more than a disinterested constitutional analyst of the question of whether ID can be taught in public schools is at odds not only with his words but his actions.

  • Beckwith was a fellow at the Discovery Institute’s creationist Center for Science and Culture from 2000-2007. He had his name removed in July 2007 only after an earlier article that I wrote highlighted his involvement in the ID movement. (See Barbara Forrest, “Understanding the Intelligent Design Creationist Movement: Its True Nature and Goals,” Center for Inquiry, July 2007. Beckwith also complained about this article. See my response in the appendix, pp. 31-33.)
  • From 2002-2003, he served on the advisory board of Casey Luskin’s IDEA [Intelligent Design & Evolution Awareness] Center, for which a requirement was then and still is that advisors must “take a pro-intelligent design perspective to their academic and professional work” and “share . . . a . . . belief in the scientific merit of intelligent design theory . . . and a commitment to promoting a better understanding of these issues to the public.” (Forrest, Synthese, pp.14-15. See also the IDEA Center website.)
  • In July 2003, Beckwith testified before the Texas Board of Education during the much-publicized textbook selection process, into which the Discovery Institute inserted itself. Although he claimed not to be representing the Discovery Institute (see note 3 below), he was on the roster of fellows at the time, and his testimony—right down to his thinly veiled, laudatory remarks about the “scholars” who have raised “critical questions . . . about aspects of evolutionary theory in general and neo-Darwinism in particular”—was nothing more than an apologia for the Discovery Institute’s effort to influence the content of state biology textbooks, as even a snippet of Beckwith’s testimony shows: > According to TEKS [Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills], students should be taught how to, quote, analyze, review and critique scientific explanations including hypotheses and theories as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information, unquote. . . . I am here to make the modest suggestion that this principle be applied to the contents of textbooks that cover the subjects of biological and chemical evolution, that these textbooks appropriately convey to students some of the critical questions raised about aspects of evolutionary theory in general and neo-Darwinism in particular. These questions have been raised by scholars who have had their works published by prestigious presses, academic journals, have aired their views among critics in the corridors of major universities and other institutions and have been recognized by leading periodicals both academic and non-academic. They are affiliated with a number of institutions, including the University of Texas, Texas A&M and Baylor. > > Francis Beckwith to Texas Board of Education, July 2003, pp. 23-26 The academic affiliations that Beckwith mentions are references to DI fellows such as Robert Koons (UT-Austin), Walter Bradley (Texas A & M), and, of course, William Dembski, who was still at Baylor in 2003. [Note 3: For Beckwith’s denial that he was representing the Discovery Institute, see the National Center for Science Education.]
  • Beckwith has written no fewer than five major pieces of work, one of them a book, arguing for the constitutionality of teaching ID. The most prominent feature of his arguments in these writings is that he has swallowed whole the Discovery Institute creationists’ own rationale for their promotion of ID as science. See, for example, these articles:
    1. Beckwith, F. J. (2003). Public education, religious establishment, and the challenge of intelligent design.Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics, & Public Policy, 17(2), 461-519.
    2. Beckwith, F. J. (2003). Science and religion twenty years after McLean v. Arkansas: Evolution, public education, and the new challenge of intelligent design. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, 26(2), 455-499.
    3. The introduction of his book, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education (Rowman & Littlefield 2003), includes a virtual hagiography of the accomplishments of his Discovery Institute colleagues (pp. xiii-xvii). DI provided Beckwith with a $9,000 fellowship to work on this book. (See introduction, p. xi, and “Curriculum Vitae: Francis J. Beckwith”.) (See bibliography, Forrest, Synthese, p. 45).
  • Not only has Beckwith provided support to the Discovery Institute’s promotion of ID for the better part of a decade, but he continues to do so even today. On February 4, 2009, in the company of Darrell White, an operative with the Louisiana Family Forum (LFF), which is an affiliate of Focus on the Family, Beckwith was at the Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to give a talk with the same title as his 2007 article, “Intelligent Design, Religious Motives, and the Constitution’s Religion Clauses.” The talk was sponsored by the student chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal society with chapters on many university campuses. In 2008, the LFF spearheaded the push to get the Louisiana Science Education Act passed; the legislation was introduced by a state senator on the LFF’s behalf. The writing and passage of this law were a joint project of the LFF and the Discovery Institute. DI is heavily invested in Louisiana as a result of its being the first, and so far the only, state to pass a version of DI’s “academic freedom” legislation. Casey Luskin and Caroline Crocker (of Expelled fame) appeared at the Louisiana State Capitol on May 21, 2008, where Crocker testified in favor of the bill before the Louisiana House Education Committee. DI fellow David DeWolf helped craft the legislation. (See DI’s interview of DeWolf, “David DeWolf on the Louisiana Academic Freedom Bill,” June 13, 2008.) Three weeks before Beckwith’s visit to Baton Rouge, Darrell White, along with LFF executive director Rev. Gene Mills, had convinced the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to gut the board’s policy implementing the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act by striking out a section of the policy that prohibited the teaching of creationism, ID, and the supernatural creation of humankind. (See Barbara Forrest, “Louisiana Open for Business–Creationists Welcome,” Louisiana Coalition for Science, January 25, 2009.) During Beckwith’s talk, in which he was essentially reading chunks of his 2007 article, interspersed with extemporaneous commentary, he offered a definition of intelligent design that he contended “differs from both factions in this debate” (recording, February 4, 2009). Whereas, he said, “intelligent design advocates want to make the argument that intelligent design theory is science,” the “other side” wants to say “no, it’s not science, it’s religion.” According to Beckwith, “it doesn’t matter,” since “for me, it’s a question of whether arguments work or not. What you call it doesn’t really matter.” For Beckwith, ID is “a shorthand name for a cluster of arguments that offer a variety of cases that attempt to show by reasoning unaccompanied by religious authority or sacred scripture that intelligent agency rather than unguided matter best accounts for apparently natural phenomena or the universe as a whole.” He continued: “Some of these arguments challenge aspects of neo-Darwinism. That is to say, they don’t think the Darwinian account of the development and the origin of species is in fact correct. Others make the case for a universe designed at its outset, and thus do not challenge any theory of biological evolution. [He attempted at this point to include ID critic Kenneth Miller as an intelligent design supporter.] . . . Nevertheless, they all have in common the notion that the human intellect has the capacity to acquire knowledge of or at least have rational warrant to believe in the inference that mind rather than non-mind best accounts for some apparently natural phenomena or the universe as a whole.” He asserted that “a good way to understand what I mean by ID” is “to contrast it with its polar opposite, the view that extra-natural agency is unnecessary in order to account for the order and nature of things.” So here—in typical Beckwith-speak, in which he studiously avoids the term “supernatural” by using euphemisms such as “extra-natural”—we have his definition of ID. According to Beckwith, a good way to understand ID is to view it as the opposite of a naturalistic account of the world, i.e., a supernatural account of the world. And how is this different from the way the creationists at the Discovery Institute view it? The answer is that it isn’t. The entire ID project rests on the rejection of the naturalistic explanations of modern science in favor of supernatural (“extra-natural”) ones. Moreover, Beckwith’s definition of ID on February 4, 2009, in Baton Rouge, LA, is essentially the same as it was in 2003, when he wrote an article for the Christian Research Journal arguing that “To require or permit the teaching of ID in public schools, nevertheless, is constitutional.” In order to make this case, he then wrote, “we must first define creation, evolution, and intelligent design.” Not only is his 2003 definition of ID the same one that the creationists at the Discovery Institute use, but he actually gives a nod to them, i.e., a “small, though growing, platoon of academics.” Here he has defined ID in essentially the same way he defined it in Baton Rouge: > Intelligent Design. Intelligent design is a research program. A small, though growing, platoon of academics embraces this program and maintains that, rather than the blind forces of unguided matter, an intelligent agency better explains the specified, and sometimes irreducible, complexity of some physical systems. These systems include biological entities as well as the existence of the universe as a whole. > > Francis Beckwith, “Intelligent Design in the Schools: Is It Constitutional?” Christian Research Journal 25 (4), 2003 One of Beckwith’s hallmark techniques is to use verbal sleight-of-hand to make a distinction without a difference, apparently hoping that his use of euphemisms such as “extra-natural” are not subjected to close scrutiny (or possibly assuming that his audiences/readers are not capable of picking up on this). At this point in his talk, after prefacing his remarks in this fashion, Beckwith offered the view that has been integral to his logistical support of the ID movement: “I think it’s incorrect to think of intelligent design as ‘stealth creationism,’ as some, including Judge Jones, have labeled it.” There was only one reason for him to say this in the state that had just passed legislation intended to permit the teaching of intelligent design. (See Barbara Forrest, “Analysis of SB 733: ‘LA Science Education Act,’” Louisiana Coalition for Science.)
    The complete context of Beckwith’s lecture is available in his 2007 article, but he omitted from his Baton Rouge talk the statement that concludes this section of his article: “As a matter of policy, I believe there are good reasons why a public school should not require the teaching of ID.” And in the very next sentence, he writes, “Nevertheless, there are no good constitutional reasons to prohibit a teacher from teaching it or a school board from permitting or requiring it” (p. 94). (bold underlining added)

Beckwith’s attempt in his Baton Rouge talk to distance himself from the ID movement, and now his protestations about being called an ID supporter, are merely an attempt to perpetuate his charade as a disinterested scholar concerning ID. It was no coincidence that, barely three weeks after the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education gutted its policy so as to create an opening for teaching ID, he appeared in Baton Rouge to deliver a lecture in which he argued that ID is not “stealth creationism,” a statement taken verbatim from an article in which he argues that not only permitting but requiring ID in public schools is constitutional. There were only two possible beneficiaries of Beckwith’s visit: the creationists at the LA Family Forum and the Discovery Institute, who are the only ones with anything invested in this piece of legislation.

Beckwith wants to have his cake and eat it, too. On the one hand, over a period of almost ten years (given the February 2009 talk in Baton Rouge, it’s fair to include the present), he wants to publish articles and a book and make public appearances that any reasonable person would interpret as pro-ID, while on the other hand, he wants to deny that he is an ID supporter. But he doesn’t get to have it both ways. As Tim Sandefur noted in his response, at the very least, if one lies down with dogs, one gets up with fleas. Does Beckwith really think that he could do these things and no one would ever comment on them? His writings and actions are what they are, and he now must live with them.