Posted by Richard B. Hoppe on July 14, 2005 04:47 PM

A month ago I described the Bryan Leonard dissertation story, reporting that in light of several concerns raised by three senior faculty members at the Ohio State University, Leonard’s supervisor had requested a delay in Leonard’s defense.  Now the Discovery Institute spin machine has ramped up its whining with this publication of a statement from the two ID creationist members of Leonard’s committee, Robert DiSilvestro and Glen Needham (hereinafter “D&N”).  While one could fisk it in detail, I will here just touch on a couple of the highlights (lowlights?).

More below the fold.

The first misrepresentation is right up top in the Discovery Institute’s title: STATEMENT BY BRYAN LEONARD’S DISSERTATION COMMITTEE.  But what follows is not a statement from Leonard’s dissertation committee.  It is a statement from the two ID creationist members of the committee.  Neither Paul Post, Leonard’s advisor who requested the delay in the defense, nor Dr. Joan Herbers, the Graduate School Representative on the committee, are signers of the D&N statement.  So in fact it’s a statement from the creationist half of Leonard’s committee.

The D&N statement claims

At the last minute, certain persons in the OSU community appeared to be trying to derail Mr. Leonard’s candidacy using highly questionable tactics. Rather than first contact his dissertation committee or dissertation advisor directly with any concerns they might have had, they have campaigned against Mr. Leonard in the news media and on blog sites.

That’s simply false.  In fact, none of the three persons in the “OSU community” who raised concerns about the affair have sought out the press or blogged anything.  I wrote the original blog entry on Panda’s Thumb, and notification of that entry to the press went out over my signature.  While I know people in the “OSU community”, I am wholly independent of that institution.  One of the three faculty members appropriately released the letter to a reporter when asked for it, knowing (after consultation with the graduate school) that it is a public document.

The D&N statement goes on

If these persons have legitimate concerns, they ought to be raised through proper university channels, not in the media.

And in fact, that’s exactly what the concerned faculty members did: raised their concerns through the appropriate university channels.  DiSilvestro and Needham, on the other hand, are using the Discovery Institute as a conduit.  Channels, anyone?

D&N’s statement then lists several specific points of complaint.  The first is an interesting one, and provides a nice insight into the thinking of creationists.  D&N claim that because the Ohio State Board of Education adopted (in 2002) a standard “… encouraging teachers to teach about ‘how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory’”, Leonard was justified in asking (in his research) “When students are taught the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution, do they maintain or change their beliefs over time?”  Note the slide from the standards language — “how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze” — to the creationist-tinged “both supporting and challenging macroevolution”.

We don’t know exactly what “scientific data” Leonard taught that allegedly challenges “macroevolution”, but if the original model lesson plan he wrote is any guide, it came straight out of Jonathan Wells’s Icons of Evolution.  In the original model lesson plan that Leonard wrote there were nine so-called “Aspects” of evolution that were offered as debate topics for students.  Eight of the nine were straight out of Wells, including such Wellsian favorites as homology and peppered moths, all of which Wells butchered (see here and here and here for general reviews of Wells’s book by scientists, and especially see here for detailed critiques of each of Wells’s claims).  Wells’s book was among the “resources that supports (sic) or challenges (sic) aspects of evolution”, along with a hodge podge of references to the scientific literature, including one reference to an alleged Nature paper whose only existence is on creationist web sites.  The creationist “resources” Leonard provided in the original lesson plan also included a so-called “National Association” with no employees and no dues-paying members, whose sole income is tax-deductible donations from the Washington tax attorney who is its executive director.  After considerable debate, the Ohio State Board of Education eliminated Wells’s book from the references, along with stripping out other inappropriate creationist material. 

If Wells’s “Icons” were what Leonard taught as “how scientists continue to investigate and critically analyze aspects of evolutionary theory” the suggestion of the three faculty members that Leonard was unethically teaching false information seems perfectly appropriate.  Teaching creationist-inspired trash science to high school students in the course of doing doctoral research is not ethical.

The chronology of events contradicts D&N story line.  D&N claim

Instead, it [Leonard’s dissertation] looks at the impact on students of teaching a curriculum that includes scientific information and interpretations for and against macroevolutonary theory (an approach called for in the Ohio science standards).

  The new science standards were adopted in 2002 and the scrubbed model lesson plan was accepted by the State BOE in March 2004.  But in his testimony before a committee of the Kansas State Board of Education earlier this year, Leonard said he has been using the approach in question for years:

Q.  And in your high school you’re teaching 10th grade biology?

A.  Yes, I am.

Q.  Teaching it how?

A.  Well, the way in which I teach it is similar in a way in which basically we wrote the lesson plan that was— that— that serves as the curriculum mono [sic] lesson, entitled Critical Analysis of Evolution.  So that particular  lesson plan, I was the original drafter, however I had a number of people who were involved in generation, shaping and the molding of that particular lesson.  Went through an extensive peer review process.  And the way in which I teach evolution in my high school biology class is that I teach the scientific information, or in other words, the scientific interpretations both supporting and challenging macroevolution.

Q.  How long have you been doing it?

A.  I’ve been doing it for about— I think this is probably about my fifth year.  About five or six years now.

In other words, Leonard’s been “doing it” since around 2000, years before any Ohio State Board of Education actions.  D&N’s appeal to some sort of sanction for Leonard’s teaching by the Ohio State BOE would require time travel.

One final note.  D&N’s story about the composition of Leonard’s committee boils down to a simple claim: It’s someone else’s fault.  They absolve both themselves and Leonard of any responsibility for adhering to the requirements of the program in which Leonard seeks a Ph.D., instead blaming it on bad advice from unnamed “appropriate university offices”.  When I did my degree, it was my responsibility to ensure that the process conformed to the requirements of my department and the graduate school, right down to the width of the margins in my dissertation and the nature of its binding.

That’s all I intend to comment on now.  DiSilvestro’s and Needham’s claim that the three OSU faculty members did not follow appropriate channels is false, their claim that the faculty members “have campaigned against Mr. Leonard in the news media and on blog sites” is flatly false, and the concern that Leonard may have unethically taught trash science in the course of his disssertation research is valid.

I invite commenters to elaborate on their favorite misrepresentations in the DI’s spinning of this matter.  I’ll moderate comments as I deem necessary and appropriate.

RBH