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Saturday, April 10, 2004

At least one liberal is reading this blog

On Tuesday, I wrote this about Brian Leiter and Lawrence VanDyke. Today a reader (who also happens to be a softball teammate of mine) weighs in:

Has Professor Leiter treated VanDyke and the Harvard Law Review fairly? I think not. The Law Review is certainly entitled to publish a favorable review of a creationist or any other screed. If Leiter is concerned about the low standards met by legal scholarship, he should exhort law faculty to take responsibility for it. Whining endlessly about the poor editorial skills of ignorant law students (and attacking one of them personally) solves nothing.

Did VanDyke commit "scholarly fraud"? I doubt it. He did betray a certain ignorance about evolutionary theory, and presented design theory with a sympathy few practicing biologists could muster. If "ID is not the same animal as creationism," it's not many mutations removed. Still, I doubt VanDyke understands the material well enough to knowingly lie about it. His discussion was reckless at worst, and the decision to publish it was if anything a questionable political decision.

Does dissemination of ID amount to an establishment of religion? I don't know the law well enough to say. This is, however, certainly a legal question and not a scientific one. The answer to it depends on your legal theory, not your philosophy of science.

Is dissemination of ID theory harmful to schoolchildren? Maybe. It would make them seem ignorant to students who obtained a more secular scientific education, and the appearance of stupidity is harmful. I think it's better to teach curiosity than dogmatism, and that MN is the best way to be curious in practice. Evolutionary theory is among the most successful in the history of science, behind perhaps only quantum electrodynamics. It has no real competition at this point; certainly not ID, which explains everything and predicts nothing. Arguing that we should teach ID amounts to arguing that we should teach philosophy of science in grade school. That sounds great to me, but I doubt that we have the resources to do so.

Finally, your question: Why is acceptance of the unprovable assumption that our "evidence and experience" is sufficient to allow us to really understand what is going on in nature any more scientific than acceptance of the opposite? It's not, unless you subscribe to "realism," that is, the philosophical theory that science describes the world as it really is. A lot of people don't ("anti-realists"), and there's a mountain of literature on the issue for anyone who wants to learn more. This whole controversy is another case of scientists trying to defend their turf and proponents of theology trying to defend theirs. The scientists are ahead right now, probably because they've put more men on the moon than religious theorists have. They've been winning at least since Galileo, and I'd bet on them in the long run. Still, I don't begrudge religious theorists their chance to speak. I'd just like to hear something worth thinking about.

I have a couple of reactions:

First, I think the "ID is harmful" argument only makes sense if you are talking about teaching nothing about Darwin and simply saying that everything was created and that's the end of it. I would prefer something like teaching the arguments people make about why naturalism alone is unable to explain everything (like the mathematical probabilities of spontaneous emergence of any life by random accident, or of that simple life somehow evolving into something way, way more complex) and about the problems in the scientific evidence cited as support for the theory of evolution. I think this makes students less ignorant than the way evolution was taught to me in tenth grade.

Second, my point about acceptance of the philosophical position of "realism" was not really a scientific point, but more of a legal point. When those such as Leiter try to use the First Amendment as a sword to keep particular philosophical positions out of school, they tend to try to obscure the fact that they are starting from a particular philosophical precept that is no more "provable" (and thus really no less "religious") than the philosophical precepts they think are unconstitutionally religious.

As for hearing something worth thinking about, I am not sure this is the page that will provide anything like that.


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