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Window into the ID vs. Evolution Debate


Frank Beckwith and Steven Thomas Smith had a mini-debate at Harvard last week (Beckwith was officially debating Jay Wexler from Boston University, but Smith had a lengthy exchange with Beckwith during the Q&A). What follows are Smith’s reflections on the encounter as well as Beckwith’s as taken from the Pandasthumb (go here for the exchange — it is embedded in lots of comments). While reading it, ask yourself who is being rational and measured and who is out of control.

According to Smith (with preface by Nick Matzke):

The following is a guest post from Steven Thomas Smith. Steve is on the Senior Technical Staff in the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, and more importantly is a Project Steve Steve. He attended the Jay Wexler/Francis Beckwith debate on the constitutionality of teaching ID in public schools at Harvard Law School, and gave us this report. We welcome this submission and encourage others to send us well-reasoned and insightful guest blog essays, particularly if your name is Steve. –Nick Matzke

Harvard Law School, said by some to be the world’s second best, demands of its students a “record of marked distinction.” Last year, Harvard Law Review editor Lawrence VanDyke, 2L, achieved this lofty status by publishing a besotted review of Francis Beckwith’s book about the constitutionality of Intelligent Design creationism in public schools. VanDyke’s insipid and error-filled piece (“not even wrong” in Pauli’s words) would have been eminently ignorable had it not appeared in the often respected Law Review, and this fact alone attracted a dogpile of criticism involving political columnists, science policy writers, lawyers, biologists, and the Panda’s Thumb. VanDyke, revealing that his motives were those of a clueless dupe, and not a Machiavellian operator, actually responded to this withering barrage with an even more cluelessly clueless post at HLS’s Federalist Society (in which he cites “Project Steve” as proof that 1% of scientists doubt evolution!), ensuring that much fun was had by all.

Aside from the fun, this affair generated a few potentially positive results: it revealed the unscrupulous conduct of Francis Beckwith’s graduate assistant Hunter Baker, and it prompted HLS’s Federalist Society to invite Beckwith to come to Harvard to debate the constitutionality of ID with Jay Wexler. I attended this debate last week, and offer the following observations.

The room, a medium-size lecture hall at the law school, was filled to capacity with about 45 people, apparently with many law students, and as far as I could tell a handful of ID supporters, and even one person from Boston University Law who told me after the debate that he posts at the Pandas Thumb. The debate itself was organized into two 17-minute statements, followed by two 7-minute statements, with audience questions allowed afterwards. Professor Beckwith went first.

Before going, I read some of Beckwith’s posts on the Pandas Thumb — his presentation contained nothing new that I could discern, but it was remarkable that that Beckwith parroted long discredited arguments (invoking William Dembski and Michael Behe; he even brought a copy of the Axe article to support the claim that ID is published in peer-reviewed scientific journals). Nonetheless, his presentation of ID was very polished and, I would imagine, speciously appealing to many not familiar with the facts. Beckwith himself is personally charming, handsome, well-dressed, and well-spoken. Though his statements about ID are factually baseless, Beckwith is a skillful rhetorician.

Jay Wexler’s presentation was competent, but bloodless. He focused much more on the subject at hand — the legal aspects of teaching ID in public schools. One of his main themes was the reasonable person test. I don’t believe that Beckwith addressed Wexler’s legal criticisms well, and though I am not knowledgeable about scoring debates, would judge that the victory would have to have gone to Wexler on the weakness of Beckwith’s response to Wexler’s legal points.

But certainly Beckwith was not at Harvard to “win” a legal debate. His presentation was consistent with one whose goal is to sow doubt about evolution, and to gain more recruits and allies than he already has. Toward these ends, I judge that Beckwith performed well.

I did have concerns about Wexler’s performance addressing Beckwith’s claims that ID is scientifically valid. Everything Professor Wexler said was correct (“there is no scientific controversy about evolution”, “there are zero peer-reviewed ID papers or possibly a few, but it’s not mainstream”), but I will say that I was disappointed by Wexler’s handing of this issue — he said the absolute bare minimum of what could have been said, and I’m not sure if allayed any doubts about the science sowed by Beckwith. I want to emphasize that I am not criticizing Wexler — he could have great reasons for his treatment that I do not know, e.g., debate strategy or knowledge of the arguments that would appeal to the largely legal audience. But his treatment allowed Beckwith to score a few points, like waving Axe’s journal paper around in support of ID; Wexler simply responded that he didn’t know about this paper.

Interestingly, Beckwith said that he had been asked but declined to testify as an expert witness in the Dover, PA ID creationism trial in September. (Too bad.)

I did not have the impression that there was a great deal of knowledge about the true state of science in the audience — indeed, it was my impression that not too many people were not aware of the relevant facts, and a vigorous defense of science did not seem forthcoming.

During the audience question period, I identified myself and mentioned that I am a participant in Project Steve (of which some in the audience seemed to be aware), then challenged Beckwith’s introductory assertions that ID is scientific, not religious, by citing the following three facts:

1. Religious motivations are behind ID, as they admit themselves:
“Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions”

2. ID is funded by religious fundamentalists, especially Howard Ahmanson Jr., who has also funded Christian Reconstructionism, which wants the the U.S. “under the control of biblical law.” Mr. Ahmanson has said his goal is “the total integration of biblical law into our lives.”

3. ID and ID’s criticism’s of evolution are nonsense. For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s statement on ID says
“the ID movement has failed to offer credible scientific evidence to support their claim that ID undermines the current scientifically accepted theory of evolution”

Also, Scientific American magazine’s article “15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense” explains why ID claims are nonsense.

After making a well-received joke about how many Stephanies were in the audience, Beckwith responded most immediately to the mention of Ahmanson and biblical law. He said that I was making the fallacy of association, that Barbara Forrest belonged to the ACLU, that Howard Ahmanson doesn’t “believe in Christian Reconstructionism anymore”, and suggested that sometimes people are criticized for their Christian religious beliefs. He was clearly off guard and somewhat clumsy in making these points, allowing me to point out the inconsistency of the first two, ridicule the third, and express resentment at the suggestion of the fourth, thus closing our exchange on the subject of Beckwith’s misguided defense of his religious beliefs. He never addressed or even hinted at a defense of ID as science.

I do not know what the audience’s general reaction was — one person clapped (briefly) at my remarks, and I had cordial and respectful discussions with a few of Beckwith’s supporters afterwards, as well as Beckwith himself. None of his supporters were at all aware of the scientific response to the anti-evolution arguments they had (e.g., evolution violates 2LoT[!]), so all I could do was listen to them, respond very briefly, and direct them toward the talkorigins archive for comprehensive details.

The big thing I learned is that much more attention in pro-science circles should be given to speaking events/debates given by Wedge members. At an event at Harvard Law School, I actually heard uninformed muttering from a person in the audience about reading in the Wall Street Journal of a pro-ID scientist being fired from the Smithsonian Institute.

This is not a scientific debate — this is a rhetorical conflict, and the Wedge does a much better job with rhetoric than scientists, who are trained to convince each other with facts and evidence alone.
Because there is no scientific debate about the validity of evolution, or the fatuity of Intelligent Design creationism, scientists must not debate these subjects on the same stage as creationists because they will only serve the creationist rhetorical end of being taken seriously. But that does not mean that scientists and supporters of scientists cannot attend discussions where nonscientific issues are the focus, and employ the same rhetorical methods used by our opponents. After all, Aristotle calls upon us to use rhetoric in the service of truth and justice:

Aristotle wrote:

“Rhetoric is useful because the true and the just are naturally superior to their opposites, so that, if decisions are improperly made, they must owe their defeat to their own advocates; which is reprehensible. Further, in dealing with certain persons, even if we possessed the most accurate scientific knowledge, we should not find it easy to persuade them by the employment of such knowledge. For scientific discourse is concerned with instruction, but in the case of such persons instruction is impossible.” — Aristotle, Art of Rhetoric, Book 1
Debunking Intelligent Design creationism is important not simply because ID is wrong — it’s downright dangerous in these times of DNA economies and bioterrorism.

While this subject is in the public’s eye, no Wedge member should be able to speak in public without a strong challenge to their claim that Intelligent Design creationism is scientific and not religiously motivated.

According to Beckwith:

A couple of initial points. First, it is “guilt by asociation fallacy,” not “association fallacy.” As I pointed out to Steve at the debate and for about 10 minutes afterwards that this is mistake in reasoning, one that apparently is not considered mistaken at MIT. (The MIT comment did get a rise out of the Harvard students, it seemed to me). My citation of Forrest’s connection to the ACLU was an illustration of the sort of arugment I WOULD NOT MAKE precisely because it is “guilt by association.” My point was to show that if people on my side offered the same sort of reasoning, it would be just as bad. Steve cut me off before I could complete the Forrest illustration fully, but the audience got it. That’s why when I told him that he misunderstood me and that in fact I was using this as an example of why his argument is bad, the audience giggled, with numerous members smiled to ear to ear, since they clearly knew that Steve did not get it. The complete illustration, which Steve, because of his continuous interruptions did not allow to make, was to go like this: the ACLU believes that child porn is protected by the First Amendment; Forrest is associated with the ACLU in some leadership capacity (or at least has been); Forrest opposes ID; the ACLU opposes ID; therefore, ID opponents are linked to defenses of the First Amendment protection of child porng. That would be a really, really, bad argument to make, since it is a fallacy, “guilt by assocation.” It has no bearing on the quality of the case against ID.

Second, Steve is completely mistaken about my presentation. I did not defend ID. My purpose at the debate was merely to offer an argument as to why teaching ID was not unconstitutional. In fact, I made the point, as I have always made the point, that as a matter of policy I am against school districts requiring the teaching of ID. I also told the audience that my views on ID are not fully formed, though I think some of the arguments offered by ID advocates raise important philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge and science, even if they turn out to have no place in public school classrooms. I did offer an overview of the sorts of cases presented by ID advocates, but it was purely descriptive and made no pronuncements as to their quality or strength. So, Steve was not listening very carefully, since he probably heard what he wanted to hear rather than what I actually said in my prepared comments.

Third, during our interaction, I was completely transparent about my own Christian pilgrimage, sharing with the audience my concern as a Christian philosopher to understand the philosophical implications of my faith and how best to articulate that in a world of contrary points of view. I then went on to tell Steve and the audience that the best I can do is to offer my case, and that those that disagree should focus on the veracity of my premises and the validity and strength of my inferences. If my arguments fail, so be it. But they fail or stand regardless of the vessel that carries them. To target that vessel—me—rather than the arguments I offer, is a disreputible tactic, one that will not take us very far.

Fourth, Steve didn’t tell you that I specifically addressed Howard Ahmanson in a very personal way. I told him and the audience that between 1997 and 2002, my wife and I attended St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, California. There we had the opportunity to meet Howard, a long-time member. I had no idea about his support of Discovery until around 2000 or so. When I caught wind of his reconstructionist views, it troubled me as well, since I am a strong defender of liberal democracy and strong proponent of religious liberty. So, I asked him about it. He said that he had abandoned those views years ago. I informed Steve and the audience of this and told him to stop recycling the NCSE talking points without doing the sort of research that he accuses his enemies of not doing. Apparently, this made no impression on him, for, without scruple or conscience, he posts this falsehood yet again, even though he was informed that it was false. (Now, I understand why he may not take my word for this. But in that case, he should abstain from mentioning it until he finds out for sure).

Fifth, you pandasthumb guys should know that Steve’s public decorum was not flattering to your point of view. He came across as someone who was vidictive, hurtful, and obssessed with associations and connections, and not very interested or conversant with the debate that had happened right in front of him. The audience seemed uneasy with his injection of religious motivation as a litmus test to exclude certain points of view from the public square, since these very bright members of the Harvard community understand all too well that an argument’s soundness is not contingent upon the motivation of its defender.

Sixth, I don’t think I was flustered at all. I was chomping at the bit from the very moment I knew where Steve was going with this. (Maybe this is “Steve projecting”). If there’s anything I love to do is to expose people’s logical fallacies and use the incident as a teaching opportunity for the audience. Because Steve was facing me and not the audience, he did not see their faces when they realized that his “guilt by association” argument was a logical fallacy. To me, it looked like a beatific vision: one cycloptic lone ranger sounding like Joseph McCarthy exposing communists. Frankly, I thought he was a gift from God. When debating in front of an intelligent crowd you hope for one guy with an axe to grind and a cluster of logical fallacies.

Seventh, I wish Colin had been there. He would have been proud of the good quetions offered by the students of his alma mater. One student in particular stood out. I found out later that he is a 1L with an MA from Oxford under philosopher Richard Swinburne. It was clear from his question that he fully understood the underlying issues in the philosophy of science.

Eighth, Professor Wexler was most gracious. He and I started off with pretty good jokes. Mine went like this: “My wife asked me when I would ever be invited to speak at Harvard Law School. I answered, `the day the Red Sox win the World Series.” Wexler opened up by telling us of a time when he was undergrad at Harvard and a member of the debate team. He said that they had lost an important match to Baylor and he hoped that this was not a preview of things to come. Very classy.

Ninth, Ed, I do have a PhD in philosophy (Fordham) as well a graduate degree in law from the Washington University School of Law, St. Louis (Master of Juridical Studies). As part of that degree, I wrote a thesis called “Rethinking Edwards v. Aguillard?,” which eventually (in revised form) became my book and three law review articles. I am not a lawyer, but I do have academic training in the field.

Tenth, my wife thinks I’m handsome too. 🙂

I’ve been really lazy on putting together a summary of the debate for my blogs. Thanks to Steve, he’s inspired me to write all this stuff and speed it up. Thanks.

[...] s and the ones interested in stymieing debate, discussion and inquiry. Wonder why?” (#) get a free ride. To quote the commented, I do have to ‘wonder why’ [...] Tom Morris :: Dembski can’t handle common dissent :: May :: 2005
[...] s and the ones interested in stymieing debate, discussion and inquiry. Wonder why?” (#) get a free ride. To quote the commented, I have to ‘wonder why’. [...] Tom Morris :: Dembski can’t handle common dissent :: May :: 2005
It seems the most fanatical arguments are made from the unyielding proponents of Darwinian evolution. They are the name callers and the ones interested in stymieing debate, discussion and inquiry. Wonder why? wes1ste
Seems ironic that the Darwinists fundamentalists don't realize they are being talked through and not to.Ironic too that they are being out competed in their specific niche. jonejinx
if all the darwinists have to offer against id is to mention 1) religious motivations, 2) donors of the discovery institute, and 3) mention of a citation-less papal proclamation from the aaas, then i think the future for id looks very bright. sounds like the debate was fun... Art

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