Thursday, December 22, 2005

Saletan's Silliness

In this blog entry from last May, I criticized Slate's science writer William Saletan for caring more about puffing himself up than in saying anything worthwhile on the subject of evolution and ID. He's written several articels on the subject since then, of varying levels of quality. But in this essay about the Dover decision we find him reverting to form.

The essay begins:

In his 139-page ruling on the Dover, Pa., “intelligent design” case, federal district Judge John E. Jones sets out to kill ID's scientific pretensions once and for all. “After a six-week trial that spanned twenty-one days and included countless hours of detailed expert witness presentations, the Court is confident that no other tribunal in the United States is in a better position than are we to traipse into this controversial area,” he writes. Jones proceeds to tear ID limb from limb “in the hope that it may prevent the obvious waste of judicial and other resources which would be occasioned by a subsequent trial” on the same question.

Scientifically, Jones settles the issue. Culturally, he fails. And until we learn the difference, the fight over creationism in schools and courts will go on.

See the original for links.

“Culturally, he fails?” What on Earth could that possibly mean? Jones was settling a legal question: Did the Dover ID policy violate the constitution? In answering that question thoroughly he was forced to consider whether ID was science. He showed conclusively that it was not. That's all. There was no cultural issue before him.

Who, exactly, are these people who don't understand the difference between the cultural and scientific aspects of this issue? And how will educating those people about the difference bring about an end to the fight over biology curricula? Saletan's statement makes no sense.

Of course, the subtext here is not hard to spot. Saletan can't bring himself to write a column in which he states the obvious: That Judge Jones flawlessly exposed the scientific vacuity of ID and rightly overturned a blatantly unconstitutional policy. No, he has to find some angle that will make him look keen and insightful and totally able to see beyond his own biases (which, as he has made clear in other essays, are entirely anti-ID and pro-evolution).

So what, precisely, did Jones get wrong? Saletan has one point to make in this regard:

The “contrived dualism” objection pretty much captures what's wrong with ID. But it also captures what's wrong with Jones' opinion. “Since ID is not science, the conclusion is inescapable that the only real effect of the [Dover] ID policy is the advancement of religion,” he writes. The effect of the policy, in which the Dover school board instructed ninth-grade biology teachers to criticize evolution and mention ID, “was to impose a religious view of biological origins into the biology course, in violation of the Establishment Clause.” Note the dualism. ID theorists assume evidence against evolution is evidence for ID; Jones assumes any unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden.

See the original for links.

We can concede Saletan's small point without conceding his big one. Taken by itself the sentence he cites is, indeed, inartfully worded and does suggest a false dichotomy between science and religion. But in the context of the entire decision it was a reasonable thing to say.

First, as already mentioned the question before Judge Jones was the constitutionality of the Dover ID policy. Answering that question required that he make a determination about whether the policy served any legitimate secular purpose. There were only two purposes suggested to him at trial. The Defense argued that ID was a valid scientific theory, and as such its presentation served the secular purpose of advancing science education. The Plaintiff's argued that the purpose was to promote a particular religious belief. No one was arguing that ID fell into some third, ill-defined category. So in the context of all the evidence presented at trial, it was reasonable for Jones to frame his decision in terms of a science/religion dichotomy.

Second, and more importantly, Jones presents dozens of pages of evidence backing up the charge that the purpose of the ID policy was to promote a particular religion. It is quite clear that his ruling was not based on any simplistic dichotomies. To repeat, at issue was the constitutionality of the Dover policy. The scientific status of ID was being discussed solely for its relevance in settling the constitutional question. The finding that ID is not science is only one small piece in a very long argument.

So as a criticism of Jones' ruling, Saletan's essay falls flat. But perhaps he has another point:

Jones acts like it's no big deal to declare ID unscientific, since science is just one kind of learning. “Supernatural explanations may be important and have merit,” he says. “ID arguments may be true,” could have “veracity,” and possibly “should continue to be studied, debated, and discussed.” But if unscientific theories are religious, and religion can't be taught, it's unclear how notions related to ID could be debated in schools, or how their truth or merit could be entertained. And that's bad news for science, because it offers people with creationist sympathies—roughly half the American public—no outlet in the public education system outside of the science classroom.

This is parody of Jones' findings. Jones found, in effect, that it is unconstitutional to lie to students about the status of various scientific theories for the purpose of promoting a particular religious world view. I don't think Saletan really disagrees with that.

But if he is really concerned about America's creationists having an outlet for their views in public schools then I would ask him to make a concrete suggestion. What, exactly, should we do to accommodate them? Should we water down biology education because some people find evolution offensive? Should we provide sympathetic coverage to the scientific nonsense of creationism simply because a large fraction of a scientifically ignorant public finds it appealing?

When Saletan makes a concrete suggestion for how to placate the creationists without compromising science education I will happily consider it. Wihtout such a suggestion this paragraph is nothing more than a cheap talking point.

We can worry about the long-term cultural implications later. For now we should simply be happy that Judge Jones produced a lonely and long overdue victory for science and common sense.


At 6:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo. I have not seen a better summary of the judgement:

"Jones found, in effect, that it is unconstitutional to lie to students about the status of various scientific theories for the purpose of promoting a particular religious world view."

At 10:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jones ruling did not say that ID could not be discussed in schools in general. He said that it could not be discussed in public science classes. This leaves the option of social studies, philosphy, or comparative religion classes.

So there are outlets for discussion, just not in science classes. Which, in my humble opinion, is the way it should be.

At 5:42 PM, Anonymous darthwilliam said...

I agree with the previous poster. Of course, the fundamentalists fear the idea of comparative religion classes because it might actually give the kids some idea that there are other alternatives out there. I remember studying various creation myths in my public high school english class (junior year)

At 4:17 AM, Blogger sanjait said...

From his body of work, it's clear that Saletan, as you pointed out, has a journalist's habit of trying to split the difference on complex issues like this. When you know that you are right, this can be very irritating. When Saletan accuses the judge of making a false dichotomy, when he says "Jones assumes any unscientific theory is religious and therefore forbidden." (emph. added)
What he neglects to mention is that Jones makes this conclusion about ID with the knowledge that it is a religious based theory. He is not saying any bad science is religious, just ID specifically, and that is based on the evidence presented in this trial. Intent is considered in American law, so it is completely appropriate to examine evidence of the School Board's and other ID proponents mindsets to draw that conclusion.
Basically, it was a finding of fact in this trial that IDists were deliberately trying to mask their religious teachings as science to evade the Establishment Clause, and they didn't do it well enough to establish any plausible degree of deniability. That is certainly different from what Saletan implies.

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