October 22, 2005

Expressing concern

I was heartened by this NYT article today, reporting that interim Cornell president Hunter R. Rawlings III finds the movement to have intelligent design taught in science classrooms "very dangerous". But I was also disheartened to read this at the end (bold emphasis added):

John G. West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, which is a leader in the intelligent design movement, said he was concerned that Cornell's president was "fanning the flames of intolerance."

"A college president is in a unique position to create an atmosphere of free speech," Mr. West said. "If he's implying that faculty don't have the right to discuss ideas, I'm very concerned."

The problem I have is that this bolded statement really doesn't entail anything significant at all, even though it appears to. All we can derive from this statement is that Mr. West believes that President Rawlings is "implying that faculty don't have the right to discuss ideas", and that Mr. West is "very concerned" should this belief turn out to be fact. (He might be "very concerned" either way, but that's a somewhat separate issue.)

This is not what Mr. West technically said; in fact, he could easily deny that this is what he meant by this statement. In the end, though, a critical connection is made between the comments made by President Rawlings and the fragility of academic freedom, which is (I'm sure) exactly what the ultimate purpose of Mr. West's statement was.

Speaking of (the fragility of) academic freedom ...

A couple of commenters on one of my posts from earlier this month took me to task for misrepresenting Intelligent Design (ID). I had mistakenly equated belief in ID with belief in a "young Earth", when in fact the NYT article that I was commenting on in that post says specifically that "[e]ven the intelligent design movement, which argues that evolution alone cannot explain life's complexity, does not challenge the long history of the earth." So yes, my bad.

However, after reading yet another relevant NYT article from a few days ago, I've decided to just go ahead and forgive myself for this misrepresentation. I'm convinced that the ID "movement" is being (over)run by creationists who are trying their best to get around, in whatever way they can, the 1987 Supreme Court decision on Edwards v. Aguillard.

The article is about Prof. Michael J. Behe, the "biochemist at Lehigh University [who] is the first expert witness for the school board of Dover, Pa." It's short and worth reading in its entirety, but here's what I found particularly noteworthy:

In two days on the stand, Professor Behe has insisted that intelligent design is not the same as creationism, which supports the biblical view that God created the earth and its creatures fully formed. [...] The cross-examination of Professor Behe on Tuesday made it clear that intelligent-design proponents do not necessarily share the same definition of their own theory. [...] [A]n excerpt from the ["Of Pandas and People"] textbook [says]: "Intelligent design means that various forms of life began abruptly through an intelligent agency with their distinctive features already intact, fish with fins and scales, birds with feathers, beaks and wings, etc." [...] [C]ouldn't the words "intelligent design" be replaced by "creationism" and still make sense? Professor Behe responded that that excerpt from the textbook was "somewhat problematic," and that it was not consistent with his definition of intelligent design.

So whose definition of ID are we to take to be the definition of the "movement", and more importantly, which definition is going to be taught in the science curriculum (or in schools more generally), should it come to that? This seems to be the heart of the matter, and yet we're getting conflicting points of view from what's supposed to be a unitary (and non-creationist?) group.

The article goes on to report that Prof. Behe was asked why he didn't object to this excerpt when he reviewed the "Of Pandas and People" for publication:

Professor Behe said that although he had reviewed the textbook, he had reviewed only the section he himself had written, on blood clotting. Pressed further, he agreed that it was "not typical" for critical reviewers of scientific textbooks to review their own work.

No kidding. But look who's impressed with Prof. Behe's testimony:

Listening from the front row of the courtroom, a school board members [sic] said he found Professor Behe's testimony reaffirming. "Doesn't it sound like he knows what he's talking about?" said the Rev. Ed Rowand, a board member and church pastor.

Mr. Rowand said the "core of the issue" is, "Do we have the academic freedom to tell our children there are other points of view besides Darwin's?"

I think I understand now why evolution is so often reduced to "Darwin's point of view", "just a theory", etc. A point of view is exactly all you have if you only review your own work. If your work is subjected to more penetrating external inquiry, however, and you (might) have something more. Perhaps folks like Mr. Rowand think that all scientific work is "reviewed" in the same way that "Of Pandas and People" was? Is this some folks' definition of academic freedom?

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at October 22, 2005 03:35 PM