Law Review book note attacked

BY ADINA LEVINE

Lawrence VanDyke, 2L

Lawrence VanDyke’s Book review in the January 2004 Harvard Law Review was vociferously attacked by Brian Leiter, Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, for its “scholarly fraud.” VanDyke’s note was a review of Francis Beckwith’s 2003 monograph titled “Law, Darwinism, and Public Education” that concluded that a fair reading of current constitutional jurisprudence very well could allow presentation of Intelligent Design (ID) in schools.

“Shame on the Harvard Law Review for abandoning its own standard editorial practices in this case,” asserted Leiter in his online critique. “This Book Note never could have survived real [cite]-checking. It never could have survived critical evaluation by experts. 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.”

According to 2L VanDyke’s note, the Intelligent Design (ID) movement “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 (MN) underlying evolutionary orthodoxy.” ID is a broad movement, according to VanDyke, with its adherents sharing a “skepticism that Darwinism (natural selection) alone can fully account for life as we observe it today, and, second, that there appears to be significant evidence of actual design in the universe.”

Critics of ID insist that it is creationism, even though both of the major creationism groups (Answers in Genesis and Institute for Creation Research) have expressly disavowed ID as creationism, according to VanDyke.

“This isn’t to say ID doesn’t have implications for religion,” explained VanDyke. “But this doesn’t make ID religion, any more than the earnest belief by many people that evolutionary theory has implications for religion makes evolution religion. Leiter (and others) seem to think that if somebody is motivated by their religious beliefs, what they are pursuing is therefore religious. This is an elementary error – a scientist motivated by their earnest religious beliefs to pursue a cure to AIDS is no less practicing science. Leiter, and others, in continually referring to ID as creationism, appear to be hoping to discredit ID before ever evaluating ID on its empirical and philosophical merits.”

Leiter’s critique focused on the empirical merits of the Intelligent Design case, missing the point of his note, according to VanDyke. His note addressed the philosophical implications of ID, whether the link between naturalistic evolution and theology is similar to the link between ID and theology such that a condemnation of one represents a condemnation of the other.

“Contrary to most of Leiter and his cronies’ attacks on my piece, the actual argument of my note has really nothing to do with the empirical support for ID,” asserted VanDyke. “My note addresses a prior question – should ID be damned before ever even getting a fair hearing on the empirical merits? I say no – to do so with consistency would require similarly damning naturalistic evolution.”

Leiter responds that VanDyke’s defense is fraudulent.

“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 focusing on mere ’empirical quibbles,’ explained Leiter. “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. 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.”

Leiter has cited a host of “factual errors and misleading innuendos” on his site, while VanDyke responds that these are largely from the introduction to his note, and do not address its substance.

“A lot of the heavy lifting in naturalistic evolution is being done by a philosophical bias, not the strength of the actual empirical evidence,” explained VanDyke. “So, you could say that I found the ID arguments compelling, wondered why others didn’t, and came to the conclusion that the real sticking point for many people seems to be, in my mind, informed more by philosophy than empirics.”

The entire controversy has been centering around the empirical proofs for ID, – what VanDyke admits was “taking the bait,” by responding to Leiter’s “blatant mistakes and mischaracterizations” the he couldn’t pass up – between posts on the blog run by the Harvard Federalist Society, Ex Parte, and Leiter’s own site. Though Leiter asserts that he has heard from members of the Federalist Society who are “embarrassed, needless to say, to have their group associated with repackaged creationism,” the Federalist Society is pleased to encourage a wide variety of ideas, according to Federalist Society President Beth Schonmuller.

“We are happy to provide a forum that allows the free and open exchange of ideas,” stated Schonmuller. “Mr. VanDyke’s opinions are no more representative of the Federalist Society’s membership, however, than are those of any other individual member. If anything, the one defining characteristic of the Federalist Society is its members’ commitment to debate and dialogue on all issues – one would really be hard-pressed to find any policy position on which our members all agree.”

Some of the posted responses have criticized Leiter for being so harsh on a student.

“I must say that, at first, I was astonished by the ‘pity the poor student’ response of some of VanDyke’s defenders,” asserts Leiter in his cite. “Mr. VanDyke is … a member of the Harvard Law Review, who can, without a doubt, get any job at any prestigious law firm in the country that he wants. He chose to publish an incompetent book review in a prestigious, professional publication; in doing so, he entered the corridors of professional legal scholarship, and may be held accountable, accordingly. His book review was not prefaced by a disclaimer saying, ‘This review was written by a mere student, and therefore should not be thought reliable or accurate.’ If one purports to be a professional, one is in no position to complain about being assessed by professional standards.”

VanDyke responds that he does not ask for any special treatment because he is a student, but simply asks for a rational response.

“I think that academics is the quintessential marketplace of ideas, and that ideas shouldn’t be sheltered because they originate from some student any more than because they are some famous professor’s,” VanDyke stated. “I have no problem with anyone attacking my Note on the merits…I would be flattered to have a professor engage my argument – positively or negatively. However, the problem I have with Leiter’s attack is that it was basically irrelevant to my Note’s argument.”

VanDyke asserts that this “irrelevant” response is especially damaging given the power imbalance between professors and students.

“When people read such a vitriolic attack by a professor on a student’s scholarship, and they don’t bother (or have the time) to actually read the student’s writing, the simple truth is that they are likely to credit the professor’s opinion somewhat,” he said. “Only to this extent do I believe that Leiter abused a position of power – mischaracterizing my Note, knowing that by virtue of his professorship he could do irreconcilable damage to my Note’s reputation.”

At this point, VanDyke does not plan on responding any further since he believes that Leiter misconstrues everything he says.

“Leiter’s inability to refrain from the intellectual equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum doesn’t bother
me that much – I think it does more to discredit him than anything,” asserted VanDyke. “Leiter’s intent is pretty clear: smear me to keep me out of academia and make sure everyone else knows this topic is off limits. Budding scholars can write about anything they like, as long as Leiter agrees with it!”

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