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).
According to VanDyke, “Even if I did see fit to attack ID the way Leiter imagines, it wouldn't be in the introduction, where detailed empirical research would be structurally inapposite.” Unfortunately, there was no “imagination” required: I quoted VanDyke, and showed that his claims were either false and/or unsupported. If VanDyke hadn’t repeatedly made claims about the empirical questions, it would not have been possible for me or anyone else to take issue with them.
But now we get to the heart of the matter; my comments are interspersed with VanDyke’s spectacular misrepresentations of the philosophical issues in what follows:
VanDyke: “the only thing [in Leiter’s critique] remotely [sic] related to the actual argument in my Note was Leiter's comment that ‘one line’ from the ‘polemical Richard Lewontin’ does not indicate that evolution has an a priori commitment to Methodological Naturalism. This is false on several fronts. First, regarding the a priori commitment to MN, it is widely accepted by non-ID philosophers of science that Leiter is simply wrong.”
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.
VanDyke: “Leiter's comments in this regard reveal a palpable ignorance.”
Leiter: Things are bad enough, kid, don’t overreach!
VanDyke: “The number of works that have addressed the issue of philosophical presuppositions and non-scientific understandings on the formation and maintaining of scientific theories is enormous.”
Leiter: That, of course, is true: one thinks of Quine, Feyerabend, Bachelard, Kuhn, Hanson, Lakatos, Laudan, Kitcher, Shapin, Barnes & Bloor, and many others. But, of course, I didn’t deny that this literature existed. The difficulty is that the existing literature doesn’t support what VanDyke is after, and he, of course, quotes nothing to suggest otherwise.
VanDyke: “If [Leiter] had even perused Dr. Beckwith's book he would have come in modest contact with some of the leading lights in this literature including Larry Laudan, a philosopher of science who is currently on the faculty at the University of Texas and whose greatness Leiter himself extols (see here).”
Leiter: I’ve not only perused Beckwith’s book, I’ve read large parts of it, and it might be said on VanDyke’s behalf that the book is, in many respects, as misleading as VanDyke’s review (Beckwith is a bit more careful on certain crucial points than VanDyke, to be sure--but a competent book reviewer might have noted, rather than parotting, Beckwith's misleading claims). My colleague Larry Laudan is, needless to say, well beyond being amazed anymore by the gross misrepresentations of his views--and of issues in the philosophy of science--in law reviews and by proponents of ID. (Didn’t it occur to VanDyke that I might walk down the hall and point out his nonsense to Laudan? He just rolled his eyes and chuckled.)
Beckwith invokes Laudan on two main points.
First, Beckwith notes that Laudan, like every other major philosopher of science now alive, thinks that the “demarcation problem” that exercised mid-20th-century philosophy of science—how do we demarcate science from non-science, or genuinely cognitive domains from nonsense—can not be solved. This now banal piece of philosophical wisdom goes no distance, obviously, towards showing that ID and creationism aren’t bad science, with nothing to commend them as research programs--which Laudan clearly believes, as Beckwith correctly notes. Has VanDyke read Beckwith’s book?
If so, he might have also noted that Beckwith quotes Laudan [at 25] noting that ID “is inconsistent with methodological naturalism and ontological materialism...[b]ut that fact has no bearing whatsoever on the plausbility of the arguments for ID.” Why does Laudan say that? Because methodological naturalism is an a posteriori doctrine, which means if ID generated any empirical results incompatible with it—it has not, of course—then so much the worse for MN. The problem is purely a posteriori: ID has no research program and no empirical support, so it presents no challenge at all to the reliance on naturalistical explanatory mechanisms. Laudan thinks talk of "pseudo-science" is misleading in the absence of a solution to the demarcation problem; Laudan has no reservations about talk about "good" and "bad" science as measured by their results and the evidence on behalf of their claims.
Second, Beckwith calls attention to Laudan's acknowledgment of “the existence of a certain degree of dogmatism about core commitments in scientific research [think Lewontin!]" and of the fact that "such dogmatism plays a constructive role in promoting the aims of science.” Now what does this mean? It means that scientists engaged in science make a lot more progress if they take for granted an awful lot of stuff, than if they view everything as “up for grabs” all the time. It goes no distance, whatsoever, to showing that the stuff they “take for granted” at a particular moment in the history of scientific inquiry is “a priori”: this Laudan, like everyone else who knows anything about the subject, denies.
Beckwith obscures this by moving straight from Laudan’s point to one reading of Kuhn’s views (see 26). Since Beckwith isn’t the least bit interested in the philosophical issues—his book, rather obviously, is a brief for a particular position, namely, that teaching ID in the public schools is constitutional--he nowhere notes that one of the major critics of Kuhn is none other than...Larry Laudan! (This kind of opportunistic philosophy of science--invoke Laudan when it suits you, forget him a moment later when he critiques exactly the point you want to make--is all-too-typical of this literature.) But an ignorant reader of Beckwith—of whom VanDyke appears to be one-will be led to believe that Laudan’s points, noted above, are part of the science-debunking program of one reading of Kuhn (a reading Kuhn himself rejected).
VanDyke: “However, my quote from Richard Lewontin...wasn't simply to make the prosaic and uncontested point (or at least, uncontested by any save Leiter, apparently) that MN underlies science....”
Leiter: Leiter didn’t contest that point. He contested that it was fairly described as a priori, which everyone who knows anything about the subject contests. (VanDyke invokes another non-philosopher blogger as "authority," though this individual appears to be equally confused on this subject--see, e.g., the comments here.)
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.