Thursday, June 16, 2005

Heddle Shows His True Colors

A recurring theme at this blog is the willingness of prominent ID supporters to stoop to the rankest sort of deceit and dishonesty in making their case. It is rare, however, for an ID supporter to openly embrace such tactics.

Which is why David Heddle's June 15th blog entry was so interesting.

In this entry, Heddle comes to the aid of Bryan Leonard, whose case I reported on in Tuesday's posting. Recall that Leonard is a PhD candidate in science education at Ohio State University. His dissertation apprently addresses the utility of teaching evidence both for and against evolution in science classes. It seems that Leonard chose his thesis committee in a way that violated OSU's guidelines, and did so to ensure that the only two known ID supporters at OSU would be present. There are also some questions regarding Leonard's ethics in using human subjects in his research.

Heddle writes:

A massive spin is underway, insisting that the sole reason behind the uproar is the fact that Leonard tried to “game” his committee, the makeup of which did not follow university guidelines.

It's no wonder. Leonard was between a rock and a hard place. Follow the rules and face certain failure (regardless of the quality of his work) or break the rules in an attempt to achieve a fair reading of his dissertation.

The spin is that Leonard was stacking the deck. The reality is that this was his only chance to receive a scholarly evaluation.

No matter. This is not really about the composition of a committee. That's just a red herring.

Heddle has no basis at all for the claim that following the rules would have made it impossible for Leonard to achieve a fair hearing. He also has no basis for claiming that the ID friendly committee Leonard managed to assemble would be anything other than a rubber stamp for his dissertation.

So how does Heddle back-up his charges? Well, it seems that three professors at OSU, in writing a letter exprssing their concerns to OSU's graduate dean, did something unsavory. Heddle writes:

Ohio State University Graduate student (and high school teacher) Bryan Leonard, who apparently argues in his thesis that the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution should be taught in high school, is under attack by unscrupulous professors.


The three yahoos at the heart of this story are OSU Professors Rissing, McKee, and McEnnis.


Actually, this trio of cowards is not bright enough to hide their real motivation.


The three fundamentalist professors also wrote...


The ethics of these professors is so twisted that to be regarded by them as unethical is undoubtedly a good thing.

Golly! That's tough talk. After all of this repetition you'd think Heddle would get around to telling us what, exactly, the three professors did to merit all of that invective. But you would be wrong.

Instead Heddle simply offers two brief quotes taken not from the letter itself, (which does not appear to be available online and which Heddle gives no evidence of having actually read) but rather from this article published in Inside Higher Education. Here's Heddle's first quote:

…the letter [from the three professors] noted that two of the committee members were the only two Ohio State faculty members who have spoken publicly in defense of Leonard’s views on evolution. “The only qualification that these gentlemen bring to Mr. Leonard’s dissertation committee is an assurance of a non-critical hearing.”

Now I get it! Heddle believes it is cowardly and unscrupulous to argue that members of a thesis committee be chosen for their expertise in the relevant subject areas, and not for holding political views sympathetic to the student.

Here's the second quote:

There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution. Mr. Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise. His dissertation presents evidence that he has succeeded in persuading high school students to reject this fundamental principle of biology. As such, it involves deliberate miseducation of these students, a practice we regard as unethical.

Wow! Bad enough that these scumbags believe that students should follow the rules in forming their thesis committees. But now they're actually defending the doctrine that lying to students is a bad thing. I see why Heddle is so upset.

Of course, two brief, second-hand quotations are not Heddle's only evidence that the gaping maw of the Darwinian establishment is poised to swallow Mr. Leonard whole. Certainly not. He has also uncovered a blog comment left by P.Z. Myers:

Yes -- I know some who failed, too. However, I don't know of any who failed the oral defense. I've seen one defense that was shockingly bad, and I was sure the person had failed...but she passed, and I was told that they simply don't allow the defense to get to the stage of the final oral defense if the work is worthless.

Leonard is nothing unusual in that sense. He's doing sub-standard work, and he's going to get stopped in his tracks. The disgraceful thing here is that his committee allowed him to get this far without administering many needed corrections.

Heddle siezes on Myers' description of Leonard's work as sub-standard. How could he know the work is sub-standard, since he has not read the thesis? Zing!

We will come back to this in a moment, but first consider this further thought from Heddle:

Spinmeisters like The Panda's Thumb would have you believe that Rissing, McKee, and McEnnis (who by all accounts have not read Leonard’s thesis) are valiant guardians of academic integrity, who undoubtedly investigate all Ph.D. committees for bureaucratic violations, and when found, respond just as quickly and forcefully regardless of the thesis topic.

See the original for links.

Uh-oh. Looks like Heddle's got 'em. How could Myers, and the three OSU professors, know that Leonard's work is sub-standard when the actual dissertation is not even available to the public? Heddle must be right. I guess these Darwinian bigots are just pre-judging work that is critical of their cherished ideology. I mean, it's not as if Leonard testified in public about the work he's doing for his dissertation, and that this testimony is readily available to anyone who cares to do a Google search on the usbject, right? Even Heddle wouldn't overlook something that obvious.

Oh, wait a minute, he did so testify, and his testimony his readily available. Leonard appeared for the creationists in the recent evolution hearings in Kansas. His testimony is available here (PDF format). If you decide to wade through it, you will find all the ammunition you need to describe Leonard's work as substandard (as I will discuss in a future post).

How does Heddle think that the three OSU professors found about this situation? As he says, they surely don't investigate the committees of every graduate student at OSU. So what does Heddle think happened? Obviously they found out about it because of Leonard's public testimony, in which he explicitly describes himself as a doctoral candidate at OSU and goes on to describe obviously substandard work. In possession of such information, should the three professors not have looked into the situation a bit further? And having found clear evidence that university procedures were not being followed, were they supposed to do nothing about it?

As it is, all they did was write a letter expressing their concerns. That's it! That's what gets them referred to as unscrupulous, cowards, yahoos, fundamentalists, and unethical. They are in no position to stop anyone outside their respective departments from defending his thesis, and have not tried to do so here.

So here's the situation. On the one side you have people who believe that university rules should be followed in forming a PhD thesis committee, and that breaking those rules for ideological reasons is especially egregious. They believe that presenting false information to schoolchildren is unethical, and that all relevant guidelines should be followed in conducting research on human subjects.

On the other side you have people like Heddle who believes it is perfectly acceptable to violate whatever rules you wish as long as you fear that following the rules would make it impossible to obtain your degree. He believes that on the basis of a letter written by three OSU professors, and one comment left by a blogger, he is justified in implying that virtually the entire OSU faculty is incapable of giving Leonard's thesis a fair reading. He believes it is perfectly acceptable to pack your thesis committee with ideological sympathizers, even if those sympathizers are not in departments relevant to your work.

Pick a side.


At 2:18 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...

You are trivializing the evidence that his dissertation was judged by those who hadn't read his thesis.

It doesn't matter squat what and where he testified, all that he should be judged on is the content of his dissertation. It is clear that professors Myers, Rissing, McKee, and McEnnis are incapable of performing this standard and honorable professorial responsibility.

I don't know what I would have done if I knew I had to break the rules or face certain failure because my work was prejudged. What would you do?

It would be interesting if someone investigated all recent OSU theses to see if any others violated the guidelines. My experience is that flexibility in the composition of a committee is not so rare.

You wrote:

”…Heddle who believes it is perfectly acceptable to violate whatever rules you wish…”

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Jason said...


It is you who have presented no evidence that Leonard's dissertaion has been prejudged. You quote the three OSU professors, but the only comment they make about the content of the dissertation is this: “His dissertation presents evidence that he has succeeded in persuading high school students to reject this fundamental principle of biology. As such, it involves deliberate miseducation of these students, a practice we regard as unethical.” That is an attack on Leonard's ethics, not the content of his dissertation.

And even if the three OSU professors have prejudged the thesis (which I dispute) that would not be evidence that Leonard's only recourse was to violate the rules. The OSU faculty is very large, after all. And you also provide no evidence that the pro-ID professors Leonard chose have not also prejudged the thesis in the other direction.

You also quote Myers, but he only commented on Leonard's “work” not his dissertation specifically. Myers comment was fully justified by Leonard's own description of his work, given in the Kansas hearings.

I agree that Leonard should be judged entirely on the content of his dissertation. The question is who will do the judging.

Furthermore, in his testimony Leonard specifically discusses the nature of his doctoral work. Indeed, that work was the main reason he was testifying at all. So I don't think it's unreasonable to form some conclusions about what Leonard's thesis contains, based on his testimony.

You clearly think it is acceptable to violate some rules in the pursuit of an academic degree. If you think it is hyperbole to attribute to you the view that any rule is fair game, perhaps you will catalog for us which rules you think can fairly be broken, and which can not be.

At 4:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dave--you don't know anything about biology. You're better in service to ID Physics. So drop this evolution crap, and help the Discovery Institute's Jay Richards write up for publication his analysis of why Einstein's special relativity is wrong and confused. More quality science from the ID folk.


At 5:30 PM, Blogger PZ Myers said...

Yep. I say, give him a solid, respectable committee and let the dissertation go forward. If it's acceptable stuff, it'll pass. If it's not, it'll get ripped apart.

At 6:40 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...

I do not have evidence that the profs he selected were fair--but I assume they are--that assumption is what used to make the system work.

I do not think it is acceptable to violate rules. I am acknowledging that he was between a rock and a hard place. I'm not sure what I would have done--I might have broken the rules.

I would also speculate that others have been shown flexibility in the makeup of their committee, but that is just a guess based on experience.


Not that I mind, but your comment is so dumb it does a disservice to PT's project Steve.

We are in agreement. Hell has no doubt frozen over.

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dumb? Hey, at least I'm not the retard who said that to estimate the probability of a result in an interval, you didn't need anything at all about the distribution, but just the size of the interval. That's not even mockable, that's just sad.


At 9:40 PM, Blogger Beck said...

I also agree with PZ, let him present it to an impartial committee and let it get ripped to shreds fairly. Then the committee can also address the ethics side of things...

At 4:47 AM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


You sound like an OSU professor. I suppose Leonard should be forced to take someone with your attitude on his committee.


Have you notified Krauss yet to tell him to stop talking about fine tuning without knowing about the probability distribution of cosmological constants? You never seem to get around to that.

At 1:43 PM, Blogger Jason said...


You're incredible. You give the pro-ID professors the benefit of the doubt, but you impugn the entire science education department of OSU by implying they are too bigoted to judge Leonard's work fairly. You have no evidence at all for that belief. You cite only a letter from three professors, written after Leonard chose his illegal committee, none of whom are in the science ed dept, to support your contentions.

You have simply created a fantasy world for yourself in which defending evolution is taken as evidence of bigotry and prejudice, but defending ID is evidence of fair-mindedness.

You have the nerve to talk about assumptions of fair-mindedness making the system work. But it's not as if Leonard initially chose a committee in compliance with the rules, faced irrational bigotry as a result, and then felt forced to violate the rules to get a fair hearing. Based on what we know at this point, it seems it was Leonard who cynically chose obviously inappropriate professors for his committee specifically to avoid getting a critical reading. To believe otherwise is to believe that a nutritionist and an entomologist are more appropriate reviewers for a science ed dissertation than the entire science ed department.

You talk about flexibility in forming the committee. If you do manage to find an instance of the OSU ed department relaxing its perfectly common sensical guideline I can almost guarantee that they did so to for the purpose of including someone with obviously relevant expertise who nonetheless was not in the science ed dept.

I don't think you will find any cases to parallel this one; where people far outside the subject area of the thesis were placed on the committee for obviously ideological reasons.

I am pleased that you agree it is unacceptable to break the rules. But then explain to me what the three professors did in writing their letter to merit being called yahoos, cowards, fundamentalists and all the rest. It seems that all they did was to call the graduate dean's attention to behavior you yourself describe as unacceptable. What's wrong with that?

If an OSU professor had found out that a history graduate student had written a thesis on holocaust denial, and had chosen for his committee a geologist and a sociologist who were known for their anti-semitism, would you heap abuse on that professor for writing an angry letter about it?

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


I'll tell you what's wrong with it. I don't believe they (the three Amigos) cared one iota about the makeup of his committee. I don't believe they routinely investigate committees for compliance. I believe they were incensed at the content of this thesis and looked for any means to derail it. The irregularity of the committee composition was a perfect opportunity. And their letter provided evidence for their duplicity.

I can also believe that Leonard knew which profs were highly antagonistic toward his views, and I can believe such an attitude was nearly unanimous.

Now it is your right to lambaste me for stating my opinion as opposed to what I can prove. But if you are consistent, you'll level the same criticism at those who (a) judged his thesis without reading it and/or (b) implied that the committee members he selected were nothing more than stooges chosen to rubber stamp their approval.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger Jason said...


I invite you to provide me with a single plausible reason, aside from their status as ID supporters, for why Leonard would have chosen a nutritionist and an entomologist for his science ed committee. Just make one up.

In reply to my query about what was wrong with what the three OSU professors actually did, you offer a screed about what you think their motivations were. The fact remains that all they did was write a letter calling the dean's attention to behavior you yourself describe as unacceptable. What's the problem?

And what about their motivations? To me it looks like the situation is this: Leonard testifies in Kansas, specifically discussing his thesis work. The three professors find out about this testimony, probably read it online or elsewhere, and realize that the work being described is highly dubious (as I said before, I'll comment on Leonard's testimony in a future post). Since they probably know people in science ed, it would have been easy to find out more about what was in the thesis. And since the defense was already scheduled it would have been easy to find out who was on the committee. It was immediately obvious that the committee did not meet university guidelines. End of investigation.

You're simply going to have to explain to me what is duplicitous about informing the Dean about a clear violation of university guidelines. A violation that, on its face, seems to have occurred for obviously ideological reasons.

I'm glad that you have now made it clear that your slurs against the integrity of the OSU faculty are based on nothing more than your own beliefs (dare I say prejudices?). Let me suggest that if you are correct that virtually the entire science ed department is hostile to Leonard's views, that is because Leonard's views are entirely without merit.

And I will slam those who have prejudged Leonard's thesis as soon as you produce evidence that anyone has done so. Even the three OSU professors you're so upset about have only commented on things that are public knowledge. I would want to read the whole letter before coming to a final decision. But the two quotes you provide do not merit the invective you heaped upon them.

Incidentally, what do you think of my example of the holocaust denying graduate student?

At 4:08 PM, Anonymous David Heddle said...


I'll let you have the last word and decline to comment an analogy to holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger MichaelBains said...

I can also believe that Leonard knew which profs were highly antagonistic toward his views, and I can believe such an attitude was nearly unanimous.

LOL! So can I! But there it is. Because Leonard has chosen whom he did, he has set himself up to be doubted. Those who act guilty may not be guilty, but they are certainly more likely than not to be investigated. “Without even reading it” you are making the case that it IS scientifically viable and NOT ideological. And YOU DON’T EVEN SEE YOURSELF DOING IT!

Like PZ M said, and I think all agree, if Leonard trusted his work, he would have chosen appropriate professors to review it and THAT should still be done.

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