Columnist at Austin Chronicle Offers Poorly Designed Arguments

Francis J. Beckwith
Discovery Institute
July 30, 2003
Print ArticleThere are many mistakes in Michael May's July 18 Austin Chronicle column, "Ignorant Design at the SBOE," in which he mentions, and quotes from, my testimony at the July 9 meeting of the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE). The first two mistakes are factual.

(1) May writes that I am a professor of philosophy at Baylor University. I am not. I am an associate professor of church-state studies at Baylor, though I do have a PhD in philosophy (as well as a graduate degree in law).

(2) May writes that The Discovery Institute (DI) "supports Beckwith's work and that of a small stable of `creation scientists' who disagree with the principles of evolution." Neither the Discovery Institute nor I advocate "creation science," a term of art in Constitutional Law referring to a particular religious doctrine derived from a literal reading of the first chapters of the Book of Genesis. But the cases offered by contemporary critics of evolution propose conclusions whose premises do not contain the Book of Genesis and its tenets as explicit or implicit propositions. They offer public reasons fully accessible to all citizens. These critics are well-credentialed scholars who hold academic appointments at prestigious institutions and have published peer-reviewed monographs and anthologies with academic presses. This is something I carefully explain, and document, in two articles I recently published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy and the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy as well as my recent monograph Law, Darwinism, and Public Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).

Instead of engaging this case, Mr. May chooses to offer the ugly and disreputable "label and dismiss" strategy, charging that the "scholars" I cite are "mostly Christian." Although some critics of Darwin are not Christians (e.g., David Berlinski), it is not clear how the arguments offered by these scholars are made more or less plausible when readers of those arguments become aware of the religious beliefs of those offering the arguments. For example, are the equations proposed by Albert Einstein to establish his theory of relativity more or less compelling when we discover that he is Jewish? Of course not. For arguments are either sound or unsound, and their premises either true or false. Knowing the religious beliefs of those who offer these arguments does not change the quality of those arguments. When someone proposes an argument, a response that calls attention to the person's religion is not a response to the argument--it's called bigotry.

May's third mistake is conceptual. May writes: "Unlike evolution, intelligent design can't be tested or demonstrated experimentally, because it presumes what it purports to prove -- so it's really no more scientific than its threadbare cousin, creationism." Four problems here.

(1) Darwinists claim that evolutionary theory has refuted design hypotheses, which means that design can in principle be tested.

(2) ID scholars do offer rigorous criteria by which they hold one may detect or not detect design. See William A. Dembski's two monographs: The Design Inference (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and No Free Lunch (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001).

(3) As I noted above, ID is not creationism.

(4) The claim that a theory must be testable in order for it to be scientific is itself not testable, and thus, according to its own standard, not a claim of science. Therefore, May offers a philosophical, and not a scientific, objection to design theory, violating his own principle that philosophy has no place in science.

It should be noted, however, that, contrary to Mr. May's piece, neither I nor the Discovery Institute is advocating the inclusion of intelligent design in Texas textbooks, though DI's report to the school board does correct mischaracterizations of design theory when the textbook covers the issue. The DI report evaluates the accuracy of a number of textbooks currently used in Texas schools, showing that they contain scientific and historical inaccuracies that ought to be corrected. Consequently, the disagreement between participants at the school board meeting was not over whether evolution should be taught in science classes, but rather, over whether the textbooks offered to the school children of Texas should include scientific findings, and accounts of the history of science, that would correct many mistakes in current editions of the textbooks.

There are fine scholars and good citizens on all sides of this debate. My hope is that we treat each other with dignity and respect, that we carefully listen to and weigh each others’ arguments, and that we not resort to worn-out stereotypes that result in more heat and very little light.

Francis J. Beckwith is Associate Director, J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, and Associate Professor of Church-State Studies, Baylor University. His web page is http://francisbeckwith.com.