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A Reply to Robert T. Miller

This is a letter I sent to First Things today.

Dear Editors of First Things:

Robert T. Miller argues that Judge Jones’ decision in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District was correct even though Miller admits that Intelligent Design (ID) is not religion (Darwin in Dover, PA, April 2006). Miller’s conclusion is plainly a non sequitur. The Establishment Clause has one and only one purpose – to prevent the establishment of religion. If Miller is correct and ID is not a religion, a policy promoting the teaching of ID does not, by definition, operate to establish religion. Therefore, such a policy cannot violate the Establishment Clause. The inescapable conclusion given Miller’s own premises? Judge Jones erred when he ruled that teaching ID violates the Establishment Clause.

Miller argues that Jones’ decision was nevertheless correct – not because ID is a religion, but because “Intelligent Design does not belong in a science class.” (emphasis in the original) This conclusion is also wrong. Judges – especially federal judges – have a limited role in our constitutional democracy. They do not have a roving warrant to run around setting perceived errors in judgment aright. Judge Jones was entitled to strike down the Dover policy only if it established religion. Miller admits that it did not, because ID is not a religion. Therefore, Jones was wrong even if we grant Miller’s aesthetic judgment about the unseemliness of combining the teaching of two non-religious subjects (assuming arguendo that ID and science are different subjects) during the same class time. This becomes clear if we posit the combination of science and another academic subject that is not as emotionally charged as ID. For example, if the Dover school board had enacted a policy requiring all science teachers in the district to use the last ten minutes of each of their classes to teach music, the policy would have been stupid, but it would not have been unconstitutional. The citizens of Dover’s remedy would have been to throw the rascals out at the next election and hope the new school board would repeal the policy. Their remedy would not be going to court to have the “science and music” policy struck down as unconstitutional.

Miller also argues that not just any explanation of observed phenomena can legally be admitted into the definition of science (or at least the type of science that can be taught in the government schools). He uses Sherlock Holmes’ methods in The Hound of the Baskervilles as an example of the sort of reasoning that is out of bounds. According to Miller, Holmes’ conclusions about the personal characteristics of the owner of a walking stick based upon his examination of the walking stick are not what we would normally call science, and, presumably for that reason, it would be illegal to teach Holmes’ epistemological methods as science in the government schools. The problem with Miller’s argument is that again, even if we grant Miller’s point that it might not be a good idea to teach Holmes’ method as science, it is not the role of federal judges to decide for school boards which epistemological methods they may require to be taught. If a local school board wants to define the sort of thing Holmes did as science, there is no constitutional barrier preventing it from doing so. Even if we agree that it is unwise to define Holmes’ methods as science, this lack of wisdom does not make the policy unconstitutional. Similarly, the epistemological methods used by ID proponents are not unconstitutional unless . . . well, unless they violate some provision of the Constitution. They do not. Therefore, there is no constitutional reason they cannot be used in the government schools.

Finally, Miller argues that ID should not be taught at the high school level because it is just too complicated for high school students to understand. He then goes on to argue that high school students should instead study the philosophy of Kant. High schoolers can understand Immanuel Kant but not Bill Dembski? Please.

BarryA

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4 Responses to A Reply to Robert T. Miller

  1. “Finally, Miller argues that ID should not be taught at the high school level because it is just too complicated for high school students to understand. He then goes on to argue that high school students should instead study the philosophy of Kant. High schoolers can understand Immanuel Kant but not Bill Dembski? Please.”

    The human mind is exquisitely designed to detect design, especially when it is transparently obvious, as in the case of the fine-tuning of the universe for life and the existence of highly complex and functionally integrated living systems. It takes a lot of fancy footwork and effort, not to mention a philosophically nihilistic predisposition, to explain it all away.

    Blind-watchmaker Darwinian explanations are too simplistic and too much in conflict with evidence and common sense for high school students to understand. That’s why the vast majority of them don’t buy it, despite more than half a century of government-imposed indoctrination in the public schools.

    My point is that Miller’s assertion that ID cannot be understood at some level by high school students is an obvious canard. Dembski points out on page 15 of “Intelligent Design,” that chapters 4 through 6 of the book are a popular treatment of the ideas in his scholarly monograph “The Design Inference.” Yes, it is true that the heavy duty math in the “The Design Inference” is beyond the ken of most high school students, but that does not mean they cannot understand the basic concepts written at a more popular level. — BA

  2. BarryA

    Unfortunately it appears to us legal laymen that the straightforward and unassailable logic of your analysis doesn’t mean very much in a courtroom where chicanery and obfuscation appear to rule the day.

    I once saw a quote attributed to Antonin Scalia dissenting in Aguillard where he said “If a school district were to teach that the earth is flat in science class it would be a shame but it wouldn’t be unconstitutional.” I never found words to that effect but if Scalia didn’t say that he should have.

    It seems glaringly obvious that teaching of bad science, pseudo-science, or non-science in a science class doesn’t amount to establishment of religion. The only salient question before Jones should have been whether teaching ID is religion or a subset of religion with no secular purpose in the teaching. Whether or not ID is science is irrelevant as the constitution has no prohibition against the establishment of non-science, bad science, or pseudo-science. It prohibits the establishment of religion. Instead it appears that Jones used a black and white dichotomy – there are only two things that can exist in a science class, science or religion, and if something isn’t science it must therefore be religion. How can such poor thinking find its way into a federal district court? It’s mind boggling to the logical mind. The law and logic don’t appear to have much in common, at least in Jones’ courtroom. Or am I being too harsh on Jones?

    No, I don’t think you are being too harsh. It is also true that what we call “constitutional law” has very little to do with the text of the constitution. This led one wag to suggest that the most important skill one must acquire when practicing constitutional law before the Supreme Court is the ability to count to five. — BA

  3. I meant to suggest that Barry is right: High school students are perfectly capable of understanding the arguments and logic of ID, including those of Bill Dembski. It is much more difficult to understand blind-watchmaker logic, because it doesn’t make much sense, and most people, including high school students, recognize this.

  4. Blind watchmaker logic is perfectly understandable: it is simply a purposeful denial of the ability to discern the effects of intelligence for polemical purposes.

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