Friday, December 23, 2005

Tidbits from the Decision, Part Three

From page 121-122 (citations omitted):

In fact, one unfortunate theme in this case is the striking ignorance concerning the concept of ID amongst Board members. Conspicuously, Board members who voted for the curriculum change testified at trial that they had utterly no grasp of ID. To illustrate, consider that Geesey testified she did not understand the substance of the curriculum change, yet she voted for it. Moreover, as she indicated on multiple occasions, in voting for the curriculum change, Gesey deferred completely to Bonsell and Buckingham. Second, Buckingham, Chair of the Curriculum Committee at the time admitted that he had no basis to know whether ID amounted to good science as of the time of his first deposition which was two and a half months after the ID policy was approved, yet he voted for the curriculum change. Third, Cleaver voted for the curriculum change despite the teachers' objections, based upon assurances from Bonsell. Cleaver admittedly knew nothing about ID, including the words comprising the phrase, as she consistently referred to ID as “intelligence design” throughout her testimony. In addition, Cleaver was bereft of any understanding of Pandas except that Spahr had said it was not a good science book which should not be used in high school. In addition, Superintendant Nilsen's entire understanding of ID was that “evolution has a design.”

Despite this collective failure to understand the concept of ID, which six Board members nonetheless felt was appropriate to add to ninth grade biology class to improve science education, the Board never heard from any person or ogranization with scientific expertise about the curriculum change, save for consistent but unwelcome advices from the District's science teachers who uniformly opposed the change. In disregarding the teachers' views, the Board ignored undeviating opposition to the curriculum change by the one resource with scientific expertise immediately at its disposal.

I have often written that the only thing creationists know about evolution is that someone told them once that it contradicts the Bible. Now it seems they know scarcely more about ID. The unbelievable arrogance of thinking that major changes to science curricula should be made without any input from scientifically knowledgable people, or in voting for such changes wihtout actually understanding what they entail, pretty much defies comment.

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.

Nelson's Desperation

In this blog entry for the pro-ID blog IDtheFuture, Paul Nelson tries desperately to find anything in Judge Jones' opinion to be not depressed about:

In surveying the ecstatic reactions yesterday around the blogosphere to Jones' opinion, I didn't see any mention of problems with the reasoning. Endorphin rushes do that to one: oh we wow we won won WON.

And then one reads the opinion carefully, the next day, in a more sober frame of mind. Propositions such as the following (p. 66) jump up, looking not so felicitous as the day before:

This rigorous attachment to 'natural' explanations is an essential attribute to science by definition and by convention.

By definition and by convention. Let the words settle into your field of conscious attention. Did the convention of naturalism come first, as an historically contingent shift in practice...and then the definition followed? So science wasn't always defined as applied naturalism? If so, could practice shift again, in the light of new evidence, bringing a new convention, and hence a new definition? Then how can science be “rigorously attached” to any definition, given its history? (Emphasis in original).

I can't imagine what point Nelson thinks he's making here. How else could you define science but by examining its practical conventions? People have to be doing science for a while before you can give a definition of what it is, exactly, they are doing.

Of course scientific practice could shift in the light of new evidence. So what? The fact remains that the current conventions of science, in which people try to understand the natural world via experimentation and inductive reasoning (among other methods) have been in place for centuries. Surely that simple fact justifies the Judge's remark quoted above.

It's a bad sign that Nelson chose to quote only a single sentence from the decision. If we scamper back a bit to page 64 we find the Judge explaining some of the points I just made (citations omitted):

Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. This revolution entailed the rejection of the appeal to authority, and by extension, revelation, in favor of empirical evidence. Since that time period, science has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea's worth. In deliberately omitting theological or “ultimate” explanations for the existence or characteristics of the natural world, science does not consider issues of “meaning” and “purpose” in the world. While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science. This self-imposed convention of science, which limits inquiry to testable, natural explanations about the natural world, is referred to by philosophers as “methodological naturalism&rduqo; and is sometimes known as the scientific method. Methodological naturalism is a “ground rule” of science today which requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify.

As the National Academy of Sciences (hereinafter NAS) was recognized by experts for both parties as the “most prestigious” scientific association in this country, we will accordingly cite to its opinion where appropriate. NAS is in agreement that science is limited to empirical, observable and ultimately testable data: “Science is a particular way of knowing about the world. In science, explanations are restricted to those that can be inferred from the confirmable data - the results obtained through observations and experiments that can be substantiated by other scientists. Anything that can be observed or measured is amenable to scientific investigation. Explanations that cannot be based upon empirical evidence are not part of science.”

In light of this, I'm afraid Nelson will have to explain in more detail precisely what error he thinks the Judge has made. The only way Nelson's point makes any sense is if you think “rigorously attached” means that notions of what is considered scientific are eternal and unchanging. It is clear, however, that that is not what the Judge has in mind.

Of course, in a better world none of this would matter. What really ought to happen is that everyone examines the specific arguments ID folks are making, comes to the obvious conclusion that they are complete worthless nonsense, and then moves on with their lives.

Unfortunatly, in a legal context that is not adequate. The Judge's finding that ID is not science comes in a section of the opinion devoted to assessing whether the Dover ID policy constitutes an endorsement of religion. If ID could plausibly be called science (notwithstanding the religious motivations of the Board members or the theological implications of ID arguments) then it is possible the policy would pass constitutional muster. So one essential plank in the argument that the ID policy is an endorsement of religion is the fact that it is not science, as that term is currently understood.

But determining whether something is science requires an understanding of what science means. The Judge heard expert testimony on that question and came to the only reasonable conclusion.

Nelson will have to better if he wants to discredit the decision in this case.

Cooper Protests Too Much

Seth Cooper is a former attorney for the Discovery Institute (DI). He makes a brief appearance on page 100 of the Court's decision in the Dover case (citations omitted):

At some point before June 2004, Seth Cooper, an attorney with the Discovery Institute contacted Buckingham and two subsequent calls occurred between the Discovery Institute and Buckingham. Although Buckingham testified that he only sought legal advice which was provided in the phone calls, for which Defendants asserted attorney-client privilege, Buckingham and Cooper discussed the legality of teaching ID and gaps in Darwin's theory. The Discovery Institute forwarded Buckingham a DVD, videotape, and book which he provided to Nilsen to give the science teachers. Late in the 2003-04 school year, Baksa arranged for the science teachers to watch a video from the Discovery Institute entitled “Icons of Evolution” and at a subsequent point, two lawyers from the Discovery Institute made a legal presentation to the Board in executive session.

Buckingham refers to School Board member William Buckingham.

Cooper is not happy about this. In this indignant essay, posted at the DI's blog, Cooper presents his objections. He writes:

The opinion of the federal court judge in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School Board mischaracterized my role and actions on behalf of Discovery Institute in matters at issue in the case, making it necessary for me to set the record straight.

Sounds serious. It isn't. First, consider Cooper's own version of his contacts with Buckingham:

In the spring of 2004, through an e-mailed newspaper article, I became aware of the controversy in Dover Township, PA, concerning the teaching of evolution. Proceeding to call Dover Board Member William Buckingham, I told him that his Board would run afoul of the First Amendment of the Constitution should it choose to require students to learn about creationism or to censor the teaching of the contemporary version of Darwin's theory or chemical origin of life scenarios. I also made clear to Buckingham that Discovery Institute does not support the mandating of the theory of intelligent design. Although our phone conversations touched upon matters of legality, they also concerned matters of education policy and curriculum that I did not consider privileged. I clearly and unequivocally identified myself as a legal and policy analyst for the Discovery Institute.

In the hopes of persuading Buckingham away from leading the Dover Board on any unconstitutional and unwise course of action concerning the teaching of evolution, I sent Buckingham a DVD titled Icons of Evolution, along with a companion study guide. Those materials do not include arguments for the theory of intelligent design, but instead contain critiques of textbook treatments of the contemporary version of Darwin's theory and the chemical origin of the first life. The content of the materials is in keeping with the U.S. Supreme Court's pronouncement in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987) that public school students may be taught prevailing scientific theories along with “scientific critiques of prevailing scientific theories.” Even so, I never advocated that the material in Icons be given a preferred position in the curriculum or that it even be given “equal time.”

I defy you to find any difference between the Court's description of Cooper's actions and Copper's own description of those same actions.

We should also point out the extreme disingenuousness of arguing that the Icons of Evolution DVD only critiques textbook treatments of evolution but does not make arguments in favor of ID. As the Court discusses explicitly in its decision, ID is based almost entirely on a “contrived dualism” in which evidence against evolution is immediately interpreted as evidence for ID. There is no important distinction between the two.

So where is the mischaracterization? Well, Cooper insists his communications with Buckingham were not privileged. But then, the Court only states that the Defense asserted this privilege, not that the assertion was correct.

More to the point, thorughout his essay Cooper is very concerned that people understand that he advised the Dover Board against their ID policy. He writes:

Also, these references by the Judge leave open the impression that Discovery Institute somehow advised the Dover Board to adopt its ID policy. But that is completely false. The strong suggestions I gave to Buckingham prior to that vote touched upon legal matters, but my recommendations were disharmonious and completely at odds with the ID policy that the Board eventually adopted. Neither I nor anyone at Discovery Institute had any knowledge or role whatsoever in the drafting of the ID policy that the Dover Board adopted.

But there is nothing in the decision that says otherwise. In fact, the nature of the advice Cooper chose to give is totally irrelevant to any point the Court was making.

The statement from page 100 of the decision, given above, comes near the beginning of a long section in which the Court is reconstructing, based on the testimony and exhibits presented at trial, the actions of various Board members. The goal of this reconstruction was to determine whether the Board's ID policy had any legitimate secular purpose. Such a determination is necessary in applying the relevant precedents to cases of this sort.

The issue in the quoted passage was Buckingham's actions, not Cooper's. The Court was making the point that in seeking outside advice regarding the ID policy, Buckingham contacted only two organizations: The Discovery Institute and The Thomas More Law Center. Both of these groups have clear religious goals, and both were contacted in the hopes of receiving legal, not scientific advice. The significance of this becomes clear later, when the Judge summarizes his conclusions:

We initially note that the Supreme Court has instructed that while courts are
“normally deferential to a State’s articulation of a secular purpose, it is required that the statement of such purpose be sincere and not a sham.” Although as noted Defendants have consistently asserted that the ID Policy was enacted for the secular purposes of improving science education and encouraging students to exercise critical thinking skills, the Board took none of the steps that school officials would take if these stated goals had truly been their objective. The Board consulted no scientific materials. The Board contacted no scientists or scientific organizations. The Board failed to consider the views of the District’s science teachers. The Board relied solely on legal advice from two organizations with demonstrably religious, cultural, and legal missions, the Discovery Institute and the TMLC. Moreover, Defendants’ asserted secular purpose of improving science education is belied by the fact that most if not all of the Board members who voted in favor of the biology curriculum change conceded that they still do not know, nor have they ever known, precisely what ID is. To assert a secular purpose against this backdrop is ludicrous. (Emphasis added.) (p. 130-131)

Elsewhere in his essay, Cooper writes:

I take strong exception to the Judge's characterization of Discovery Institute--a secular public-policy think-tank and emphatically not a party to the lawsuit--as a culturally religious organization.

This is laughable, of course. At no point does the Court imply in any way that the Discovery Institute was a party to the lawsuit. And anyone who knows the history of the Discovery Institute knows perfectly well that they are hardly a secular think-tank. But just in case you're not aware of the DI's history, I would direct you to pages 28 and 68 of the decision, where the Court supplies ample justification for referring to the religious mission of the DI.

In fairness to Cooper, he is right that the Discovery Institute has spent the last few months distancing itself as much as possible from the Dover School Board. They know a budding legal fiasco when they see one. But his embarrassment over advising the losing side does not constitute a mischaracterization on the part of the Court.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Dover Round-Up

Just about every media outlet and the entire blogosphere is weighing in on the big Dover decision. I am currently working on a Cliff's Notes version of the entire thing for my next CSICOP column, and I hope to finish that tonight. In the meantime, though, here's a round-up of things that particularly caught my eye:

  • Pride of place must surely go to to this article from The New York Times. They assembled a truly stellar, first-rate panel of experts to provide quotes for the pro-evolution side:

    Mainstream scientists who have maintained that no controversy exists in the scientific community over evolution were elated by Judge Jones's ruling.

    “Jubilation,” said Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University who has actively sparred with intelligent design proponents and testified in the Dover case. “I think the judge nailed it.”

    Dr. Miller said he was glad that the judge did not just rule narrowly.

    Jason D. Rosenhouse, a professor of mathematics at James Madison University in Virginia and a fervent pro-evolution blogger said: “I was laughing as I read it because I don't think a scientist could explain it any better. His logic is flawless, and he hit all of the points that scientists have been making for years.”

    Heh heh heh.

    Also interesting from the Times article was William Dembski's reaction:

    William A. Dembski, a mathematician who argues that mathematics can show the presence of design in the development of life, predicted that intelligent design would become much stronger within 5 to 10 years.

    Both Dr. Behe and Dr. Dembski are fellows with the Discovery Institute, a leading proponent of intelligent design.

    “I think the big lesson is, let's go to work and really develop this theory and not try to win this in the court of public opinion,” Dr. Dembski said. “The burden is on us to produce.”

    Indeed it is. So far all they've produced is a lot of very bad arguments.

  • Salon has this interesting article on the subject:

    Intelligent design did not spread through culture on its scientific merits. It got a big push from religious and political advocates. Funded by millions of dollars from some of the same religious supporters that helped put President Bush in the White House (conservatives like Philip F. Anschutz, Richard Mellon Scaife, and Howard and Roberta Ahmanson), the Discovery Institute has pushed a fringe academic movement onto virtually all the front pages and TV sets in the country. The New York Times has reported that the institute has granted $3.6 million in fellowships to 50 researchers since 1996. Those investments produced 50 books on intelligent design, innumerable articles, and two I.D. documentaries that were broadcast on public television.

    Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins has said that Darwin's theory of evolution made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. Intelligent design, it seems, has made it possible for many fundamentalists to be intellectually satisfied creationists. Wesley Elsberry, a biologist at the National Center for Science Education, says millions of evangelical Christians craved a more science-like, sophisticated yet Bible-friendly theory to explain the diversity of life on earth.

  • P.Z. Myers' commentary on the Salon article is more important than the article itself.

    The Salon article mentions a series of public presentations, one on science, one on creationism, and one on ID. The science talk was given by Wesley Elsberry, mentioned above. The article's conclusion is that the creationism talks were more engaging than the science talks. Myers nails the important points:

    It's true: we aren't trained to be showmen. We are very good at talking to other scientists—I'm sure Wesley's talk would have been a pleasure for me to listen to, and I would have learned much and been appreciative of the substance—but most of it would have whooshed over the heads of a lay audience. I wrestle with this in my public talks, too. There's always this stuff that I am very excited about and that I know my peers think is really nifty and that gets right down to the heart of the joy and wonder of biology, but it's so far from the perspective of the audience that it is well nigh impossible to communicate. And I know that when I try, I usually fail.

    Another problem is that we're used to giving lectures that people are required to attend in order to absorb the raw information they need to do well on a test. I don't think my students show up for the visceral joy of hearing me talk.

    The two creationists in the series, on the other hand, are simple and clear (and the young earth creationist has the advantage of being entertainingly insane). They don't have any complex data to explain, so they aren't tempted to try, and they put everything in terms everyone can follow. An absence of evidence can be an advantage in a talk, because then everything rests on well-honed rhetoric; the scientist's reliance on actual information means we often skimp on the presentation.

    That's exactly right. I've attended enough creationist conferences to know that their speakers operate unencumbered by any sense of shame or conscience. This allows them to speak freely and enthusiastically on subjects they know nothing about.

    Any mathematician who has ever tried to explain the Monty Hall problem to a lay audience knows the frustration Myers is describing. It reminds me of something a professor told me in preparation for the first math class I ever taught. It was a low-level introduction to calculus for students with weak math backgrounds. The professor said something like, “Prepare yourself for a certain amount of frustration when you're teaching. There will be times when you think you are being so clear and explaining things in such simple terms that there is no way anyone could misunderstand you. Then you'll be hit by question straight from Mars.”

  • Anyway, moving on with the round-up, Ed Brayton has some favorable reactions from legal scholars on the decision. Of course, The Panda's Thumb has quite a few posts up on the subject as well.

  • And if that's still not enough, Tony Galucci gathers some more links here, as does Mike Dunford here.


Tuesday, December 20, 2005

250,000 Hits!

Major evolution-related court decisions sure are good for business! EvolutionBlog just recorded the quarter-millionth hit of its not quite two-year existence. A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has stopped by.

Tidbits from the Decision, Part Two

From page 64:

After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980's; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. As we will discuss in more detail below, it is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research.

This is exactly what scientific critics of ID have been saying for years. In fact, as I read through the opinion, I am struck by the extent to which Judge Jones' opinion, based entirely on the evidence before him and the relevant caselaw, matches almost perfectly what people on my side of this have been saying for years.

This is highly significant. Evolutionists are constantly being accused of being unwilling to engage proponents of ID. We are besieged by juvenile taunts like, “If the evidence for evolution is as strong as you say, then why are you so afraid to let a dissenting voice be heard?” Such bleats were especially loud in the wake of the decision by scientists to boycott the Kansas evolution hearings a while back.

We now see what nonsense this really is. Evolutionists are perfectly happy to engage their opponents, as long as the venue is one in which facts and evidence will be the basis for the verdict. Public debates in front of lay audiences are primarily about good theater and flashy rhetoric. The Kansas evolution hearings were about providing scientific cover for the foregone conclusion of an anti-science school board.

The people flinging the taunts are not really interested in having a fair and open hearing of the facts. Instead they are only interested in having a ready supply of cheap talking points to hurl in lieu of actually learning some scientists.

Tidbits From the Decision, Part One

I'm working my way through the 139 page opinion in the Dover case. It's too wonderful to take in fully in one sitting. There's just no substitute for reading the whole thing. Nonetheless, over the next few posts I will highlight certain portions of the opinion I found expecially cool.

Like this, from page 82:

This inference to design based upon the appearance of a “purposeful arrangement of parts” is a completely subjective proposition, determined in the eye of each beholder and his/her viewpoint concerning the complexity of a system. Although both Professors Behe and Minnich assert there is a quantitative aspect to the inference, on cross-examination they admitted that there is no quantitative criteria for determining the degree of complexity or number of parts that bespeak design, rather than a natural process.

Of course, such a quantitative criterion for detecting design is precisely what William Dembski claims to have produced. You might recall that at one time Dembski was slated to appear as an expert witness for the forces of darkness in this trial. I wonder if he's regretting that decision now.


By now I'm sure everyone has heard that the Dover evolution case has ended in a stunning defeat for the ID folks. The judge has ruled unambiguously not only that the Dover School Board acted unconstitutionally, but that ID is not science. A quick run-down of the facts is available in this brief article from The New York Times. From that article:

The plaintiffs challenging the policy argued that intelligent design amounts to a secular repackaging of creationism, which the courts have already ruled cannot be taught in public schools. The judge agreed.

“We find that the secular purposes claimed by the Board amount to a pretext for the Board's real purpose, which was to promote religion in the public school classroom,” he wrote in his 139-page opinion.

As I've written before on this issue, the only question in these cases is whether the School Board in question has managed to hide its real intentions with sufficient cleverness to survive a constitutional challenge. It's comforting that Judge Jones, a George W. Bush appointee, seems to have had little trouble getting to the truth.

I'll say more after I've had a chance to read the decision. In the meantime, Ed Brayton has some excerpts from it here and here. Here's a taste, from Jones' conclusion:

The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board’s ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.


To be sure, Darwin’s theory of evolution is imperfect. However, the fact that a scientific theory cannot yet render an explanation on every point should not be used as a pretext to thrust an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion into the science classroom or to misrepresent well-established scientific propositions. The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the Board who voted for the ID Policy. It is ironic that several of these individuals, who so staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks and disguise the real purpose behind the ID Policy.


Of particular interest is this:

Those who disagree with our holding will likely mark it as the product of an activist judge. If so, they will have erred as this is manifestly not an activist Court. Rather, this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial. The students, parents, and teachers of the Dover Area School District deserved better than to be dragged into this legal maelstrom, with its resulting utter waste of monetary and personal resources.

I say this is of particular interest because, while the decision is only a few hours old, the Discovery Institute already its spin:

“The Dover decision is an attempt by an activist federal judge to stop the spread of a scientific idea and even to prevent criticism of Darwinian evolution through government-imposed censorship rather than open debate, and it won't work,” said Dr. John West, Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture at Discovery Institute, the nation's leading think tank researching the scientific theory known as intelligent design. “He has conflated Discovery Institute’s position with that of the Dover school board, and he totally misrepresents intelligent design and the motivations of the scientists who research it.”


I believe it was Stephen Jay Gould who pointed out that while creationists do well in public debates in front of lay audiences, they are lousy in court. Courts, you see, have strict rules of evidence and are, generally speaking, completely devoid of theatrical flash. In such an environment, creationism can't win.

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Mirecki Situation

Update: December 20, 2005

In my original version of this post I included a sentence in which I accused the University of Kansas of caving in to outside pressure in relieving Prof. Mirecki of his chairmanship. While I suspect that sentence was accurate, I have decided upon further reflection that I can not back up that statement at this time. Consequently, I decided to remove it. This change does not alter the point I was making: that Kansas is currently a very inhospitable place for scholars to do their work.

Also, P. Z. Myers has offered his take on the issue. For the record, I disagree with all of his major conclusions.

Ed Brayton has an important post up about the Paul Mirecki situation. For those who do not know what I am referring to, here is Ed's introduction:

For those who may not know, Mirecki was, until recently, the chairman of the religious studies department at Kansas University. He was planning to teach a class there next year about ID as mythology, which caused quite a bit of controversy, especially when someone released several emails that he had written on the listserv of a campus skeptic's group that were rather crude and unprofessional. The ensuing brouhaha hit its crescendo when Mirecki ended up in the hospital after getting beaten up, and claimed it was done by two men who told him it was because of his views on intelligent design.

After learning the basic facts I was all set to do a bare-knuckles post about the evils of religious fundamentalism. But then I was told by people closer to the situation than I that there were some plausible reasons to be skeptical of Mirecki's account. Since I like having my facts straight before maligning large groups of people, I decided to hold off.

By now it has become clear that Mirecki was, indeed, attacked (some irresponsible bloggers had suggested, based on nothing, that Mirecki had faked his injuries). But whether the motive for the attack was his anti-creationist views or something else entirely is still obscure. At the moment I am not optimistic that this question will ever be resolved to my satisfaction.

Readers of this blog are aware that I am a contributor to The Panda's Thumb. As Ed describes, there was a great deal of discussion among the contributors about how PT should address the situation. Roughly speaking, one camp argued that the murkiness of things warranted a moderate approach, while the other argued that we should be coming to the aid of someone who was an ally in the fight against ID and creationism. I was in the moderate camp.

One person who was on the other side was Gary Hurd, who posted this mixed-bag of an essay on the subject. Hurd opens his post well, gathering together some of the more incendiary statements, particularly from those on the right, that had been made against Mirecki. Most notable was his collection of anti-Mirecki quotations coming from various Kansas politicians. These statements were infinitely more disturbing than any prattling in the blogosphere, and the speak volumes about the current environment in Kansas.

Sadly, Hurd then went a bit crazy, calling Mirecki a sissy for not making a better show of himself during the attack, and then launching into a groundless conspiracy theory about people in Kansas law enforcement being implicated in Mirecki's beating. Furthermore, Hurd was so incensed that other PT contributors would deign to disagree with him on this issue, that he has decided to end his association with the blog. His parting shot that, “There are contributors to PT whose personal politics are far closer to the rightist mob revealed above than to people with whom I will remain associated.” is completely untrue and uncalled for.

In comments left at other blogs I have seen some people wondering why PT would leave this post up, when so many contributors do not agree with it. The answer is simple. PT is a confederation of individual bloggers. There is no central authority, and no contributor has ever been censored in any way. We are united solely by our love of science, our concern for good science education, and our contempt for creationism in all its forms. As a group we agree on little else. Despite the heated exchange of e-mails on this issue, I still regard this as one of PT's great strengths.

On potentially incendiary issues we often have some discussion among ourselves about the best way to handle things. But in the end, the decision about what to say in a given blog entry lies entirely with the author of the post. As much as I dislike Gary's post, I think the precedent of having some central authority vote to take it down would be far worse than simply leaving it up.

Let me end on a personal note. My first job out of graduate school was a post-doc in the Mathematics Department at Kansas State University (not to be confused with The University of Kansas, where Mirecki works). I spent three very happy years there. But the fact remains that I would not even consider accepting a permanent position at a Kansas university right now. In fact, it's hard to imagine any young scientist accepting a position at KU if he or she had any options at all (and anyone KU is likely to find attractive will almost certainly have options). Regardless of whether the religious right has any culpability in Mirecki's beating, the fact remains that the current environment in Kansas is so right-wing and so hostile to science that I don't see how a scientist of any sort could feel comfortable working there. Apparently, merely being impolite towards the religious right is enough to get you condemned by high government officials in Kansas. Is there a scholar in the world who would consider Kansas a congenial place to work?