Intelligent design – a pig that doesn’t fly

We’re talking past each other now over at Right Reason[*], on a thread that started out lamenting Baylor’s initial decision to deny Dr. Francis Beckwith tenure last year, but quickly changed once news got out that Beckwith’s appeal of the decision was successful.

I noted that Beckwith’s getting tenure denies ID advocates of an argument that Beckwith is being persecuted for his ID views (wholly apart from the fact that there is zero indication his views on this issue had anything to do with his tenure discussions). Of course, I was wrong there — ID advocates have since continued to claim persecution where none exists. Never let the facts get in the way of a creationism rant, is the first rule of creationism.

Steve Sack cartoon in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Steve Sack cartoon in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Discussion has since turned to the legality of teaching intelligent design in a public school science class. This is well settled law — it’s not legal, not so long as there remains no undisproven science to back ID or any other form of creationism.

Background: The Supreme Court affirmed the law in a 1987 case from Louisiana, Edwards v. Aguillard (482 U.S. 578), affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment against a state law requiring schools to teach creationism whenever evolution was covered in the curriculum. Summary judgment was issued by the district court because the issues were not materially different from those in an earlier case in Arkansas, McLean vs. Arkansas (529 F. Supp. 1255, 1266 (ED Ark. 1982)). There the court held, after trial, that there is no science in creationism that would allow it to be discussed as science in a classroom, and further that creationism is based in scripture and the advocates of creationism have religious reasons only to make such laws. (During depositions, each creationism advocate was asked, under oath, whether they knew of research that supports creationism; each answered “no.” Then they were asked where creationism comes from, and each answered that it comes from scripture. It is often noted how the testimony changes from creationists, when under oath.)

Especially after the Arkansas trial, it was clear that in order to get creationism into the textbooks, creationists would have to hit the laboratories and the field to do some science to back their claims. Oddly, they have staunchly avoided doing any such work, instead claiming victimhood, usually on religious grounds. To the extent ID differs from all other forms of creationism, the applicability of the law to ID was affirmed late last year in the Pennsylvania case, Kitzmiller v. Dover.

Against this legal background, Dr. Francis Beckwith has been arguing that school boards may legally inject creationism into their curricula. His analysis is long and off the point; among other things he thinks that, philosophically, courts should not inquire into the religious motives of school boards and other legislative bodies when they pass such silly laws. In this argument, Beckwith appears to miss the essential elements upon which the courts rule: That there is no demonstration of science in the various flavors of creationism, and consequently no valid, secular reason to put it into school curricula.

In my days in intercollegiate debate, we called such cases “squirrels.” They depend on one’s roping in the opponent to an off-topic discussion on some point where you actually have a case, in order to avoid arguing on all the issues where you are weak. In the case of creationism, the ID advocates wish to avoid arguing on the issues of whether they’ve done any significant or substantial lab work since 1981, because they haven’t. Having not paid the dues to be called science, having not purchased the research ticket to respectability the courts require, they need to argue something else to stay in the game.

The bottom line is this: Dr. Beckwith claims that it would or should be legal to teach intelligent design (ID) in public school science classes, as science. These claims are predicated on an assumption that science is behind the ideas of intelligent design — and that assumption is completely unwarranted. There is not enough science in ID to get a nomination for the IgNobel Prizes, let alone to warrant teaching it as science to innocent children.

Beckwith doesn’t see it that way, of course. He’s got a book out, Law, Darwinism, and Public Education, in which he argues that ID should be treated like just an alternative proposal, and in which he concludes that if a school district were to make the ruling just right, ID would be found to be good science to be taught to kids. I bought the book a couple of years ago — at a church conference featuring the Discovery Institute’s best videos and books, a science conference being something too scary for intelligent design, it appears — and I have intended at various times to make a good fisking of it. But there are problems: First and foremost, the book is so rife with error that I can’t get more than a couple of pages at a time without throwing it down in disgust at its lack of editing. Nor is there any financial incentive — one more analysis that shows ID is still outdated and bad science, and that the law has not changed since 1788, is not much in demand. Perhaps someday, when I get some real library time, I might fisk it anyway.

In other places I have likened Beckwith’s claim to a claim that, philosophically, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should regulate pig farms in air traffic lanes near major airports, since, if pigs could fly, they might pose a hazard to commercial and general aviation. Such a claim is nearly indistinguishable from Beckwith’s claims in the soundness of their reasoning and arguments, and in the utter failure of the argument due to the error in a major premise. ID isn’t science, and pigs don’t fly.

Pig flight is a good analogy to Beckwith’s claims, I think. Logically, one can make the case that the FAA would have jurisdiction over farms with flying pigs. One can make that case under current law, which charges the FAA with worrying over hazards to aviation, and which in practice requires FAA and airports and airlines to seriously consider risks from birds around airports, as well as things like deer on the runways (hello O’Hare?). So, logically, philosophically, the case makes sense. It is a perfect squirrel case, except for this issue: Pigs don’t fly.

At Panda’s Thumb, earlier, I put it this way:

You have assumed that ID is science. It’s not. You’ve assumed that the science can be well demonstrated in a courtroom. No one has tried. It is unjustified, therefore, to make the leap to the position that teaching ID in a government-sponsored science class could be constitutional. I think the repeating of this canard is part of what makes non-legal scholars, like Tom DeLay, angry when the judges merely apply the law that exists, instead of the law that non-party partisans have told DeLay and others could exist.

One could, philosophically, argue that the Federal Aviation Administration should regulate effluents from pigs, if it can be shown that pigs do fly. The effluents could, arguably, pose a hazard to commercial and recreational aviation, and they could have effects on the ground around pig airports. If the pigs fly in FAA-regulated areas, then the law is pretty clear that they fall into the purview of the FAA.

But if the FAA shows up at an Arkansas pig farm to inspect the pigs, the farmer would be well within his rights to throw them off the farm. Pigs don’t fly, no matter the philosophical validity of the FAA’s having jurisdiction, if they did.

ID is not science. That pig hasn’t even sprouted wings yet.

Dr. Beckwith, later in that thread, came as close as he ever has to dealing with the issue:

Ed. I don’t recognize my arguments in your comments. As you know, if you have read my book, I am not offering legal advice to teachers. I am assessing a debate over Constitutional Law. To employ an illustration, prior to our current First Amendment regime, lawyers argued in law reviews that hard core pornography is protected by the Constitution, even though those lawyers would not advise their individual clients to start purchasing pornography. So, there is a difference between the sort of advice one may give a client, and the more scholarly debate about the nature of our legal regime and what sorts of actions are permissible under it.

The difference between pornography and intelligent design being only that pornography really does exist, and can be found easily, and in some cases may be argued to have socially redeeming value (see, c.f., the Sistine Chapel).

In any case, I think we can conclude that Beckwith and I agree on this: Teachers, administrators, don’t try ID in the classroom. That pig won’t fly.

(update) Alas, they let that blog slip into the brine.  The link goes nowhere as of today, September 24, 2009.  I have not found an archive that kept the stuff (though I believe one exists).  Go here, to Tim Sandefur’s blog, and read a better discussion on Beckwith that Sandefur has all by himself.


10 Responses to Intelligent design – a pig that doesn’t fly

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Also, SMU students, how about leaving a comment about your experience in that class at SMU? Let us know what you learn.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Students from SMU Physics, coming from the “Intelligent Design Creationism Is Not Science” page: Welcome!

    This essay has been updated a couple of times; you may want to read later versions.

    2012 reposting: “Intelligent Design, a pig that still doesn’t fly”

    2007 reposting, if you want to compare changes

    Also, you may want to simply search this blog for other articles on intelligent design, creationism, creationists, and other silliness that clogs the learning arteries of schools; for example:

    “Fred Flintstone waded here: Hoaxsters ready to teach creationism to Texas kids”
    “Peppered moths”
    “Why study evolution” (testimony to the Texas State Board of Education in 2003)


  3. […] Educators and scientists, including especially those of faith traditions, may wish he had left the c…. Perhaps he has, or will, if the attacks from fundamentalists keep up — similar to the way such attacks on Charles Darwin encouraged him to distance himself from the church. […]


  4. Paul says:

    Pornography: “Sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal.”

    Is this the case with the Sistine Chapel ceiling? No.

    Does pornography, according to that definition, have socially redeeming value? Well, I suppose it may have some use in medical procedures, but that’s about it.

    “ID a universe where all nudity is bad”? Where on earth did you get that from? ID isn’t a universe anyway! And who is telling you that nudity is bad? Why do you think it might be?


  5. edarrell says:

    And, Paul: Notice that it was Beckwith who introduced the pornography argument. This was right after he said he is offering no legal advice to teachers, while two years earlier he had assured the Texas Education Agency (TEA) in official testimony that it was legal to teach ID. I suppose one could say that the TEA is not really teachers, but instead the advisors and regulators of teachers. In any case, if the TEA had purchased Beckwith’s arguments, teachers would have been teaching ID and a court suit would have cost Texas education several millions of dollars to lose like the Dover, Pennsylvania board lost.

    ID is a unique universe, where all nudity is bad, pornography is only a valid argument when used incorrectly as an argument to shore up the idea that the First Amendment should protect ID as it does pornography, and where forcing teachers to teach ID is not offering them “legal advice” to do so. In that universe, nonsense and non-science is science, too.

    Is there any argument from ID we should take seriously?


  6. edarrell says:

    Ah, well, you’re from overseas. You may miss the American definitions — the Sistine Chapel ceiling is most definitely pornography, being a picture of a nude. It is not obscene pornography, however. Many right wingers and reactionaries in this nation have a difficult time distinguishing between obscenity and pornography, and therefore seek to pursue a ban on all forms of nudity in art with a vengeance, while allowing all nature of obscenities to be displayed and broadcast.

    But then, I don’t expect you to take seriously any argument I make on ID, either. As I noted in that humorous reference, pornography actually exists, whereas ID as science does not exist. I find it difficult to take seriously the arguments of people who start by calling crackpottery “science” instead, and then insist that we use it.

    Do you seriously think the Sistine Chapel has no redeeming social value? Under U.S. law, then, in your community, you could ban it. Some communities here have. But why? That’s easily as silly as advocating ID.


  7. Paul says:

    “The difference between pornography and intelligent design being only that pornography really does exist, and can be found easily, and in some cases may be argued to have socially redeeming value (see, c.f., the Sistine Chapel).”

    Sorry, Ed, I find it difficult to take seriously somebody’s arguments who seems to be implying that the Sistine Chapel is pornography – or who is so shaky on what pornography is that he thinks that it might have socially redeeming value.


  8. […] Though you might think liberals would take anyone who applies, the Carnival of the Liberals #24 was limited to ten posts.  One of the posts from this blog made the cut, the one on intelligent design and pigs that don’t fly. […]


  9. Matt says:

    Intelligent Design is nothing short of a bad joke. It certainly isn’t science, nor is it based in logic or rational reasoning of any kind.


  10. […] So, to those like Mr Darrel and Mr Anderson, who read this site and are certainly not sympathetic to ID, I’d ask why this “bet” is considered not just throwing money away, but worthy of their scorn. […]


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