ID at Kitzmiller+10: They still don't get it

Well, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years, but the anniversary of the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision is finally upon us. Looking at the Discovery Institute’s posts over the last few days, and comparing them to the discussion that was going on in December 2005 (see the Panda’s Thumb archive for 2005 – John West is all over that feed as well!), I guess the main thought I have is: just like 2 days after the decision, 10 years later, the ID guys still don’t get it.

The last ten years have been one long bout of the following:

  • Excuse-making: Trying to pretend the courtroom defeat in Dover was due to something other than the evidence and the arguments. The Discovery Institute, especially Luskin, have spent years pouring over the court record, trying to spin tiny excerpts into major points that Judge Jones allegedly missed. One of Luskin’s favorites is to cite Behe and Minnich asserting that peer-reviewed literature existed – as if such assertions were evidence without the specific articles being mentioned. Every article the Defense actually mentioned received extensive attention at trial, and the ones that weren’t mentioned, weren’t mentioned because they would have been even more easily challenged. In contrast, the Plaintiffs introduced dozens of peer-reviewed articles into evidence, the vast majority authored by scientists who had nothing to do with the case or the political fight about evolution. To have any hope at all of moving forward, the ID movement would at least have to admit the weakness of its case as of 2005. It would have to admit that, to a neutral observer, the ID movement had a high ratio of talk to published, peer-reviewed substance. Do you think Luskin will ever admit even the minor point that, if the ID side really thought they had peer-reviewed journal articles on their side, they should have introduced them all into evidence? And that vaguely mentioning them in passing in testimony is not a particularly compelling argument?

  • Revisionist history: Trying to pretend that the Discovery Institute had never wanted to teach ID in schools. Never mind Discovery’s promotion of Of Pandas and People over the previous 9 years, the making of its authors into DI Fellows, the fact that Pandas was the first book to use the term “ID” systematically, and it was a high school biology textbook, the Wedge document’s statements endorsing attempts to push ID into schools, the DI’s Legal Guidebook, and the rest.

  • Amateur-and-not-in-a-good-way arguments about the science. The fundamental flaw with everything they have produced here, during the trial, and in the 10 years after, boils down to lack of book research and lack of training. Almost every science-y argument (I won’t say scientific argument) produced by Meyer, Luskin, and the rest of the gang is based on nothing but wishful thinking that is underwritten by misunderstanding the relevant terminology, context, methods, or data. I’ve found that my sensitivity to this point became greatly heightened after I went through graduate school, as I learned the details of the statistical and other methods used in evolutionary biology, eventually learning how to develop new methods myself. Listening to the ID movement talk about evolutionary biology and biology generally reminds me of an experience I once had reading an encyclopedia published by the old USSR, wherein, the Boy Scouts of America were described as a paramilitary organization like the Hitler Youth. The only analogies that successfully capture the scale of the ID movement’s misunderstandings of the field of evolutionary biology are analogies to other denialist movements – moon-landing deniers, 9/11 truthers, climate change deniers – and, yes, Holocaust deniers. Selective and tendentious reading of interpretation of every datum and quote is combined with a lack of ability to think statistically, a conspiratorial mindset, a deep sense of victimization, and a complete lack of any detailed training, ability, or familiarity with relevant fields, to create a kind of alternative reality that is impervious to correction or new information.

This insular and conspiratorial community is the key to everything. Unfortunately, the only way people can break out of this is by exposure to the actual science and the actual people doing it. If some billionaire wants to have an impact on the creationism/evolution debate, they should try something like paying people like Luskin whatever it takes to convince them to go to graduate school in evolutionary biology, on the understanding that they have total freedom to maintain whatever beliefs they like, but that they have to learn enough to earn good grades, including in courses in statistical methods, and they have to do a real project constituting original research in the field, and they have to attend many scientific meetings and present their work.

  • Amateur-and-not-in-a-good-way arguments about the law. I’m no lawyer, but it doesn’t take a genius to spot the twisting and turning and self-contradictions in the ID movement’s statements about the science portion of the Kitzmiller ruling. The absolutely key things they never address are:

(1) Science was addressed because it was the Defense’s defense. Their argument for why ID had a secular purpose and secular effect was that ID was science, and there is a secular purpose and effect for teaching science in science class. This was the entire reason the ID movement was aimed at schools in the first place, and most of the reason it ever got much attention at all. If Judge Jones had ignored this argument, the last 10 years would have been spent complaining about how Judge Jones ruled without considering the ID side’s argument that ID was science and therefore constitutional. The entire thing, from start to finish, was aimed at getting a judge to rule on the science, and to rule in ID’s favor. The idea that Judge Jones should not have addressed the question is just sour grapes because the ID guys didn’t get the ruling they wanted.

(2) The idea that judges shouldn’t make judgments about scientific issues in general is, well, just wrong. Judges make decisions about complex scientific issues all the time in this modern age – litigation about criminal forensics, product liability, environmental issues, etc., all require judges to make these determinations. That is was judges are for, in part. Yes, judges should listen to scientific experts, but judges have to make judgements about the credibility of experts; this is what the Daubert standard is for. All of these exact issues were themselves much-discussed in the Kitzmiller litigation, and it’s just bizarre to see the ID movement prancing about in an alternate universe where judges don’t judge issues directly material to the case before them.

(3) A final thing the ID movement never, ever, considers about the Kitzmiller ruling is that District Court judges worry about having their decisions overturned on appeal. While the Supreme Court can issue an opinion saying “the first prong of the Lemon test was violated, that’s enough to declare something unconstitutional,” and leave it there without a chance of appeal, a District court judge has to face the possibility that a ruling based on a single line of argument might get overturned if a higher court finds something problematic in that single line of evidence. It is safer, more thorough, and more likely to be persuasive, to make a ruling based on multiple lines of evidence. Even if a particular case suddenly looks like it won’t be appealed (this only happened in November 2005, after the trial, when a new school board came in in Dover), all the same arguments apply to issues like the persuasiveness of an opinion to the parties, to the public, and to future possible litigants and courts, which are all perfectly reasonable goals. Why do you think opinions are written in the first place? For kicks?

Anyway, my final thought is on how similar the ID movement’s arguments are now to how they were mere hours and days after the Kitzmiller decision. They really have not learned anything, very much like the creationists (and the early IDists) spent decades complaining about McLean v. Arkansas and Edwards v. Aguillard. After a long enough period, creationists tend to really start to believe their own rhetoric about how previous decisions were wrongly decided, and start to think that it’s just obvious that they will win if the issue goes to court again. And the cycle repeats. I think that Kitzmiller was sufficiently devastating that we still have awhile yet before this happens again. But time will tell.