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Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Does disagreeing with Brian Leiter doom your academic career?

Apparently he thinks so. Professor Leiter continues his academic slash and burn campaign against Harvard Law student Lawrence VanDyke (who is, incidentally, quite a strapping lad, a fact that might inspire more respect from Professor Leiter if he had ever seen Lawrence) here.

VanDyke wrote a piece reviewing Francis Beckwith's book Darwinism and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design in the Harvard Law Review which prompted Leiter to post this in which he accused VanDyke of academic fraud.

Mr. VanDyke may yet have a fine career as a lawyer, but I trust he has no intention of entering law teaching: scholarly fraud is, I fear, an inauspicious beginning for an aspiring law teacher. And let none of the many law professors who are readers of this site be mistaken: Mr. VanDyke has perpetrated (intentionally or otherwise) a scholarly fraud, one that may have political and pedagogical consequences.

This prompted an article on National Review Online by Hunter Baker, a colleague of Professor Beckwith's, expressing concern about the apparent threats Leiter was making to VanDyke's career. Leiter responded here and here.

Almost two weeks ago, on March 24, VanDyke responded on Ex Parte. Then, today, apparently Leiter noticed and continued his academic crusade against VanDyke.

Some folks don’t know how to cut their losses. Lawrence VanDyke’s complete scientific and scholarly incompetence has been so thoroughly reviewed by me (here and here), biologists, political commentators, and those concerned with science education, that you’d think he might just admit what is now obvious: that he was out of his depth, scientifically and philosophically, and leave it at that. We’re all entitled to make mistakes, after all.

Not VanDyke. After being sliced and diced, he now comes back, once again, accusing others of “ignorance” and errors: see his latest here. His new fantasy is that his critics, me prominently among them, missed the “real point” of his 8-page book review; in calling attention to his total misrepresentation of the relevant science and the scientific status of Intelligent Design creationism, we were focussing on mere “empirical quibbles” (that’s VanDyke’s new phrase to describe his quasi-fraudulent portrayal of the scientific issues, which are central to the question of the constitutional status of teaching ID in the public schools). It may be that in his initial review, VanDyke was simply handicapped by ignorance and intellectual feebleness, not intentional dishonesty; but this latest reply seems to be more clearly a case of actual fraud (it seems the most charitable explanation for the dishonest rhetoric of the piece, but perhaps there is another story to be told).

So, while Leiter is not accusing VanDyke of "quasi-fraud[]", "actual fraud", and "complete scientific and scholarly incompetence", he is doing his best to act surprised that VanDyke would even respond to his accusations. Apparently, once Leiter speaks, everyone who disagrees is expected to simply recognize their error and move on to areas in which their opinions are more in line with the Leiter Truth. And it is an interesting irony that it is VanDyke who won't "leave it at that," considering the fact that it is Leiter who is responding two weeks after what VanDyke said would be his final response, and the fact that it is not Leiter's integrity and professional career that have been called into question.

So, you would expect accusations of academic fraud to be carefully and thoroughly defended, right? Apparently that is unnecessary in this case. All Leiter thinks he needs to do is continue to repeat claims of "fraud," "dishonest[y]" and "ignorance" and drop a bunch of names, and that will be sufficient for those who have not read "Quine, Feyerabend, Bachelard, Kuhn, Hanson, Lakatos, Laudan, Kitcher, Shapin, Barnes & Bloor, and many others" to simply take Leiter's word for VanDyke's intellectual incapacity and dishonesty.

Then, Leiter begins to comment on VanDyke's "spectacular misrepresentations."

Leiter: The only thing "simply wrong" is the claim that philosophers of science believe science manifests an a priori commitment to MN. Once again, VanDyke has no idea what he is talking about; he knows less about the subject than even an undergraduate philosophy major would know.

VanDyke: “As I previously noted, John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American, has unequivocally stated: ‘A central tenet of modern science is methodological naturalism.’”

Leiter: Unfortunately, that claim, which is perfectly reasonable, doesn’t show that the tenet is a priori, which is the only issue.

VanDyke: “In fact, I could have included quotes from Churchland, Hull, Searle, Flew, Crick, Rachels, Futuyama, Strickberger, and P. Z. Meyers, to name just a few thinkers who understand evolutionary theory as applied materialism.”

Leiter: VanDyke could not have included quotes showing that the philosophers among them think methodological naturalism is an a priori dogma—that’s the issue. Evolutionary biologists pursue a research program predicated on the search for naturalistic causal mechanisms because it’s turned out, as an a posteriori matter, that such a research program produces spectacular results. By contrast, there is no research program with any research or results utilizing supernatural causal mechanisms. That is why scientists are methodological naturalists. Their reasons are a posteriori. It really is that simple, VanDyke’s astonishing ignorance notwithstanding.

The closest Leiter gets to an actual argument (i.e., something beyond name-dropping and name-calling) is this last point that: "Evolutionary biologists pursue a research program predicated on the search for naturalistic causal mechanisms because it’s turned out, as an a posteriori matter, that such a research program produces spectacular results. By contrast, there is no research program with any research or results utilizing supernatural causal mechanisms. That is why scientists are methodological naturalists. Their reasons are a posteriori."

This is basically the same as Leiter's point here.

The difficulty, however, is that science did not "a priori pick a naturalistic methodology"; they adopted, based on evidence and experience (i.e., a posteriori), the methods that worked: it turns out that if you make predictions, test the predictions against experience, refine the hypotheses on which the predictions are based, test them again, and so on, you figure out how to predict and control the world around you. This is what the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and a few other ancient events apparently not covered in Mr. VanDyke's education, were about: the a posteriori discovery of the most effective ways to predict and control the world.

Stuart Buck made a fairly lengthy response to this point here, which Leiter does not even attempt to respond to accept by making a rather insulting reference to "another non-philosopher blogger" who "appears to be equally confused on this subject."

Here's the point Buck makes (and which VanDyke apparently agrees with):

Leiter's point may be true, but it is also irrelevant. This is because VanDyke and Leiter are using the term "a priori" in two very different senses.

VanDyke meant the term "a priori" to mean that scientists today tend to approach their work having already decided to exclude any non-naturalistic causes or explanations. That's why the most common objection to Intelligent Design Theory is something along the lines of, "ID is not Science. Science is only concerned with finding naturalistic causes and explanations for naturalistic phenomena. Supernatural explanations simply can't be part of science, because they aren't falsifiable. Period." (Citations are unnecessary; anyone familiar with the ID controversy has already seen countless variations on this sort of argument.)

But when Leiter purports to disagree with the above, he is using the term "a priori" in a Kantian sense, where "a priori" means some sort of transcendental or logical truth that is ascertained without any reference to any experience. That's why Leiter refers to the historical origins of methodological naturalism, which, as he points out, arose out of successful experiences seeking naturalistic causes for things.

But VanDyke's point still holds true: Even if they came by this belief due to experience, scientists today generally determine prior to investigating any new phenomena or event that there simply must be some naturalistic cause. One way of detecting the a priori nature of the commitment to naturalism is to conduct a thought experiment: Suppose that the history of life on earth is exactly as neo-Darwinists say, but with one exception: About 200,000 years ago, God specially created the first humanoids that were capable of abstract thought (call them mitochondrial Eve and Adam). Suppose, for the sake of argument, that this is really true. God really did it. And as a result, any attempt to find a naturalistic link to other humanoid ancestors will fail. But even if this were really true, there would still be some scientists who would rule it out a priori by insisting that an explanation that relied on God could not be "science." That's is what VanDyke meant by an "a priori" commitment: Stating that a particular type of explanation is ruled out even if it might be true.

In short, VanDyke was using "a priori" as did Harvard biologist Richard Lewontin in a 1997 article from the New York Review of Books:

We take the side of science despite the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, despite its failure to fulfil many of its extravagant promises, despite the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories because we have a prior commitment to materialism.

It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.

I would add to this that even if Leiter is technically correct about "methodological naturalism," it seems relatively clear to me that his defense of the a posteriori arrival at methodological naturalism is only possible if you make other a priori philosophical commitments: that our "evidence and experience" is sufficient to allow us to really understand what is going on, and that there is nothing relevant that is beyond our ability to observe and understand. I can certainly understand why people would feel that this is an attractive philosophical position, but it is hardly something that can be scientifically proven.

Perhaps my point proves too much: maybe science is, at its root, essentially unscientific. I am also relatively sure that Leiter will be able to throw a bunch of names at me of other people who have thought about this subject. I don't pretend to be the first person who has come up with this observation. But, seriously, why is acceptance of this unprovable assumption any more scientific than acceptance of the opposite?

Then Leiter talks about a bunch of people I have not read. I am not going to pretend I have anything intelligent to say about Kuhn and Laudan.

Leiter concludes:

Lawrence VanDyke has consumed more of my time than the intellectual content of his work is worth on the merits. But the good news is that his little apology for ID in the Harvard Law Review has been exposed for the piece of incompetent shilling for ignorance that it is--so much so that no one will dare cite it on behalf of teaching lies and misinformation to public school children ever again. And if they do, they will be immediately discredited as soon as someone references this whole, now extended demolition of VanDyke, Beckwith & co.

Meanwhile, some advice for VanDyke: the notoriety your incompetence has now acquired has, predictably, damaged your reputation among scholars; but there is a risk, judging from my e-mail, that if you continue, it will end up damaging your reputation among practitioners too (who, largely thanks to Kevin Drum, appear to have picked up on this debate). Let this whole topic drop. Pursue something else of legal importance, where your skills may serve you well. If you got good enough grades and high enough LSAT scores to get in to Harvard Law School, you must surely have marketable intellectual and legal skills that are unrelated to the parochial prejudices and intellectual dishonesty that have been on such prominent display throughout this affair. I wish you nothing but success in your endeavors--as long as you get out of the business of shilling for ignorance and those who want to harm schoolchildren.

I think the presumptuousness of this speaks for itself. I realize that I might now have my academic future threatened as a result of my unwillingness to quietly accept the Leiter Orthodoxy. Perhaps I am also now guilty, in Leiter's eyes, of academic fraud.

But if Leiter seriously thinks that Beckwith and VanDyke “want to harm schoolchildren,” I think he needs to look in the mirror when he wants to find “parochial prejudices,” “intellectual dishonesty,” and “ignorance.”

UPDATE: You can read more here and here.


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