It is sometimes said on behalf of student-edited law reviews that they at least subject articles to rigorous fact-checking. But apparently that doesn't apply to student-authored book notes in the Harvard Law Review. For the January 2004 issue contains a short "book note" offering lavish praise of Darwinism and Public Education: The Establishment Clause and the Challenge of Intelligent Design by Francis Beckwith.com, fellow of the Discovery [sic] Institute, who holds a PhD in Philosophy from Fordham University and an MJS (a one-year postgraduate degree in law) from Washington University, St. Louis. The lavish praise is only possible because the book note is riddled with factual errors and misleading innuendo from start to finish. Law professors have long had doubts about the intellectual integrity of student-edited law reviews; incidents like this suggest, if anything, that our doubts have been understated.
The author of this incompetent book note, according to this site, is one Lawrence VanDyke, a student editor of the Review. 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.
Mr. VanDyke's book note reads like a press release from the Discovery [sic] Institute--the Seattle-based public relations arm of the creationist movement--and not like a scholarly review of a book. Consider just a few of the factual errors and misleading innuendoes from the opening paragraphs of the review:
Book Note: "A perception common to laypeople, peripheral scientists, and scholars alike is that basic evolutionary theory is inherently an empirical scientific claim that does not purport to address metaphysical claims similar to those addressed by classical religions. In large part because of this perception, naturalistic evolution has long enjoyed a pedagogical monopoly in our nation's public schools."
Reality check: The common perception is, of course, correct, which is why the creationists must disparage it by innuendo. Fore more than 140 years, "the massing evidence from paleontology, genetics, zoology, molecular biology and other fields gradually established evolution's truth beyond reasonable doubt," as Scientific American notes. This is why evolution enjoys a pedagogical monopoloy in the schools, as it should.
Book Note: "However, its dogmatic [sic] presentation has not escaped significant controversy from a diverse group of critics. Most recently, a small but tenacious group of sophisticated and well-credentialed scientists, philosophers, and legal scholars have argued that the common perception of evolution as free from inherent naturalistic philosophical implications is simply mistaken."
Reality check: Note, again, the misleading innuendo: there is no "significant controversy" among scientists about the truth of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. There are exactly two credentialed scientists (one not even employed as such), neither distinguished biologists on anyone's account, who have joined cause with the creationists; their arguments have never passed muster in peer-reviewed scientific publications, and the arguments they have published elsewhere have been demolished repeatedly by other scientists (this is nowhere mentioned in the Book Note). Evolutionary theory, of course, has naturalistic implications--so do physics and chemistry as well: science has made tremendous progress by relying on naturalistic explanatory mechanisms. This lends support to a view of how the world works, but it is not an a priori metaphysics like those of religion or non-naturalistic worldviews. That is the crucial difference, which the creationists consistently elide.
Book Note: "This group, known as the Intelligent Design (ID) movement, also insists that 'intelligent agency' provides an origins paradigm that is better supported by the empirical evidence and gives greater coherence to our scientific observations and philosophical intuitions than does the philosophy of methodological naturalism underlying evolutionary orthodoxy."
Reality check: A footnote adducing the empirical evidence on behalf of ID would have been welcome, but there is none to be found, and for an obvious reason: none exists. (Fact-checkers, where are you?) The ID proponents have not published any articles in support of ID in peer-reviewed journals; indeed, they have never even stated a testable hypothesis in support of ID. "The philosophy of methodological naturalism" does not underlie "evolutionary" orthodoxy, it rather falls out of the tremendous success of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The enormous mass of genetic, paleontological, and zoological evidence in support of the theory lends support to evolution's naturalistic view of how the world works.
Book Note: "Not surprisingly, critics have loudly protested that the presentation in public school of any origins theory that alludes to a "designer" violates the Establishment Clause--even when, as is the case with the ID movement, the allusion is strictly predicated upon empirical and philosophical evidence without sectarian trappings."
Reality Check: As noted, there is no empirical evidence on behalf of ID. None is cited. None could be.
Book Note: "ID theorists maintain that, both philosophically and on the basis of the extant scientific evidence, intelligent agency in some instances may provide a better account of observed phenomena than MN and its workhorse theory, naturalistic evolution. Therefore, while lumping ID with creationism may be a good rhetorical strategy for ID's opponents, it only detracts from an independent and rigorous evaluation of the merits of ID's claims against those of naturalistic evolution."
Reality Check: ID's claims have been subjected to independent and rigorous evaluation and criticism by scientists, and have been found wanting. This is nowhere mentioned, or even noted in a footnote. Whoops. It makes sense to lump ID with creationism, since from a scientific point of view, they come to the same thing: ID is creationism for those who've consulted a lawyer and a public relations expert. By giving up the least plausible claims of the creationists (e.g., the literal truth of the Book of Genesis), ID avoids the major vulnerabilities of those trying to undermine science education. Whether that saves ID from constitutional challenge turns precisely on the scientific and empirical status of ID's claims--which is precisely what the Book Note never confronts, indeed, never acknowledges has been decisively challenged on numerous occasions.
Book Note: "ID theorists argue that within evolutionary theory an a priori philosophical commitment to MN has exerted much more influence on the interpretation of available evidence than is commonly acknowledged."
Reality Check: It is not an a priori commitment, and one line from the polemical Richard Lewontin doesn't show that it is.
Book Note: "Thus, ID theorists insist that strict adherence to MN has actually impeded, rather than facilitated, an open scientific study of origins."
Reality Check: Biologists would be more likely to credit this assertion if, in fact, ID theorists had any scientific advances to their credit, indeed, if they had even managed to state a testable hypothesis.
Shame on the Harvard Law Review for abandoning its own standard editorial practices in this case. This Book Note never could have survived real fact-checking. It never could have survived critical evaluation by experts. This is not the first time, of course, that the Harvard Law Review has published incompetent nonsense (it surely won't be the last, either!), but it's the first time I can recall where the incompetence of the piece turns so heavily on failure to state positions and arguments correctly and, relatedly, failure to cite relevant literature.
UPDATE: This blogger is correct that at many places in the preceding I should have referred to "cite-checking" not "fact-checking," though that doesn't affect the basic points.