Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Case of Dean Kenyon

Dean Kenyon was a distinguished senior biology professor at San Francisco State University and co-author of a standard work on the origin of life on earth, “Biochemical Predestination.” Kenyon eventually became disillusioned with efforts to explain life as a product of purposeless and unguided chemical reactions. He became a proponent of intelligent design.

When Kenyon taught the prevailing naturalistic theories of biological origins in his introductory course for non-majors he also explained his own scepticism about whether these theories are consistent with the evidence and argued that intelligent design is a legitimate alternative to naturalistic explanations of the origin of life.

A handful of students complained, and the department chairman immediately endorsed their complaints. He announced that he would not allow Kenyon to teach this course in the future, on the ground that Kenyon was improperly introducing his religious opinions into the science curriculum.

Was the department chairman right?

18 Comments:

Blogger Lifewish said...

Let's move this into another context so that we're less emotionally attached to it.

Say an undergrad-level American History teacher were to explain the views of mainstream historians on the American Civil War, but also said "personally I think the Confederate side actually won rather than suffering humiliating defeat" and gave a bunch of arguments that hadn't passed peer review in any historical journal. Would that be acceptable, or would that be abuse of the teacher's position as an educator?

Personally, I would class this behaviour as unacceptable for three reasons:

1) the teacher was working on the taxpayer's dollar here, being paid to teach mainstream History. If he'd done it in his own time, that would be a different matter

2) the audience was at a level of education where they're largely expected to accept what they're told as fact - if the teacher says that there's a genuine argument here, they'll assume there's a genuine argument

3) the audience, more or less by definition, didn't have the background knowledge necessary to critically analyse the arguments. They didn't know which bits of evidence are considered strong, which are considered weak, which are considered outdated, which bits they haven't been told about, etc

I'd say that teaching the "alternative hypothesis" in a class would be acceptable, but only where:

1) the audience was well-informed and ready to be sceptical
2) the teacher's remit was to challenge rather than simply to inform

That way, genuine cranks can't warp young minds*. About the earliest point where these criteria hold is when you're giving a seminar to post-grads.

So yeah, I'd say that Kenyon's dept chairman was in the right, but if I were him I'd have suggested that Kenyon do a seminar series instead of teaching the non-major, undergrad course.

* Whether Kenyon is such a crank is broadly irrelevant here - even if you don't think he is, the system still needs to be set up so that a crank in his position can't abuse it.

11:59 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,

The hypothesis that the Confederate States won the war is not equivalent to the hypothesis that life requires intelligence for its origin.

The scientists holding the "orthodox" view do not claim to have demonstrated the facts of the answer to the question and they generally acknowledge that this is the biggest mystery in biology.

I do not accept that the two cases are parrallel. It is a matter of historical fact that the Confederate Army surrendered. The "Orthodox" side do not claim that it is a matter of fact that Life originated without intelligent input.... or do they?

12:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly, Kenyon was not advocating 'Intelligent Design' but 'Creation Science' (a viewpoint that he supported in an affidavit in Edwards v. Aguillard).

His first presentation on the subject was given in 1980, pre-Edwards v. Aguillard, so the legal status of it would be ambiguous. His second presentation was in 1992, post-Edwards v. Aguillard, so the Department Chairman was on solid ground in claiming that it was inherently religious and therefore inappropriate for a Biology lecture. Since that time, Kenyon has apparently worked as an author of Creationist textbooks (most notoriously, Of Pandas and People) and as a Fellow of the Discovery Institute.

Your wording appears to indicate that you are basing your claims on an old (apparently written in 1995) article of Phillip Johnson's, entitled Is God Constitutional?. I would point out that he would by no means be an unbiased observer of this incident.

2:45 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

The hypothesis that the Confederate States won the war is not equivalent to the hypothesis that life requires intelligence for its origin.

I'm sure that the folks who believe that the Confederates won would say the same thing, albeit with the opposite meaning. That's why I focused less on the actual content of the claim and more on its relationship to the academic mainstream.

Even if you think that Kenyon's claims were 100% accurate, it's still possible to believe that he was abusing the system in teaching them to people who didn't have the knowledge or inclination to critically evaluate them.

I do not accept that the two cases are parrallel. It is a matter of historical fact that the Confederate Army surrendered. The "Orthodox" side do not claim that it is a matter of fact that Life originated without intelligent input.... or do they?

The concept of "historical fact" is somewhat tricky in these circumstances - it's conceivable that the apparent victory of the Union was indeed a conspiracy. It's just not deemed very likely - the model wherein the Union won is far superior.

Similarly, it's possible that an intelligent entity created life de novo. However, at present, the best models all fall under the umbrella label of abiogenesis.

Actually, to the best of my knowledge these are the only good models of life's origins, in the sense that no other with which I'm acquainted even attempts to explain why our cellular biology is the way it is. This leads us to anonymous's point about the nonscientific nature of Kenyon's claims (which would render them completely unsuitable for a science class).

3:52 pm  
Blogger Richard H said...

I am not against teaching Intelligent Design as a theory alongside Evolutionary Theory. The issue I have is that the design inference does not, and cannot, provide any evidence of who designed us and why.

If people like Kenyon want to teach Intelligent Design, all possibilities need to remain on the table;

- it could be one or more of the Gods of the numerous religions on the planet;

- it could be a God that is not reflected in any of the religions on the planet due to the "Chinese Whisper" effect over time;

- it could be that an advanced civilisation created us and dictated the words of the Bible to aid us in living in a morally acceptable way and having fulfilled lives;

- it could be that an advanced civilisation designed us and we have made up the Bible to explain what we could not understand;

- it could be that we have misinterpreted our findings about design and we have infact evolved;

- etc, etc, etc

The point is that beyond the design inference everything else is speculation as there is not a single shred of scientific evidence on the planet to identify the designer, other than words written by the hands of our human ancestors.

So if Intelligent Design is in the classroom, and the "By Whom" and the "Why" can only be speculated, then this only leaves the "How" and the "When"....ie. "How" does the design work, and "When" do we think we were designed. The "How" is the continuation of the scientific studies of the life forms on the planet, DNA, etc. The "When" is the continued scientific study of techniques such as carbon dating, etc to identify the age of things.

My point is that, to keep the design inference within science, and not speculation, we need to continue doing the same experiements and investigations we would be doing without the design inference; with an open mind that one day we may find evidence that prove's evolution, or we may find direct evidence of a designer, or we may never find evidence of either. But all the time we will be acquiring knowledge of ourselves and the universe within which we exist.

Is it not how we apply that knowledge for the improvement of ourselves, our planet and our universe that is important, more than a conclusion that we draw about our origins and our purpose?

4:52 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Anon,

You talk about a first and second presentation...

Are you talking about his personal remarks in his ordinary teaching?

1:56 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,
You said:
"This leads us to anonymous's point about the nonscientific nature of Kenyon's claims (which would render them completely unsuitable for a science class). "

It is the boundary issue that is under dispute and you assume that the naturalism boundary is correct.

Is science about exclusively naturalistic truth about reality OR is it concerned with simply the truth about real nature.

2:03 pm  
Blogger allygally said...

Andrew asks: "Is science about exclusively naturalistic truth about reality OR is it concerned with simply the truth about real nature."

Andrew, I get the impresion that you are trying (desperately) to avoid using the word "supernatural".

4:22 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Allygally,

I do not like the way the word "supernatural" has been tied in to the idea of a clear and neat boundary between natural and supernatural. A sort of impassible gulf. It is a term that has become part of a particular view of the boundary debate which is why I think it is now an unhelful term. I do not believe that there is a neat and clear boundary.

6:06 pm  
Blogger allygally said...

Andrew Rowell said... "I do not like the way the word "supernatural" has been tied in to the idea of a clear and neat boundary between natural and supernatural. A sort of impassible gulf."

So you think the natural "shades" (good word that)into the supernatural?

"It is a term that has become part of a particular view of the boundary debate!

What boundary debate? Just who is debating? With whom?

"which is why I think it is now an unhelful term."

I'll bet. "

I do not believe that there is a neat and clear boundary."

First you're alive. Then you're dead. Prove otherwise.

9:55 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Are you talking about his personal remarks in his ordinary teaching?"

I am talking about presenting religious Creationist content in Biology courses.


"It is the boundary issue that is under dispute and you assume that the naturalism boundary is correct."

This boundary issue is only under dispute from Creationists, who have an explicit axe to grind, and have yet to demonstrate how supernaturalism can work within science, let alone why it would be beneficial to let it in.

12:07 am  
Blogger Lifewish said...

It is the boundary issue that is under dispute and you assume that the naturalism boundary is correct.

No, I merely claim that Kenyon is not going about the procedure of determining his conclusions in a scientific fashion. I don't think WB has yet got back to me with that concrete, detailed, explanatory, ID-based description of life's creation that I asked for; if he does, I'll retract this claim.

Kenyon's views could, conceivably, be completely 100% right. However, if he hasn't gone about the process of getting to those views in a scientific fashion, they're still not appropriate content for a science class. Science is a process not a data set, and the reason we use that process is because it is in general far more accurate than any alternative approach.

(Corollary: there's a massively greater chance that Kenyon is completely wrong)

Is science about exclusively naturalistic truth about reality OR is it concerned with simply the truth about real nature.

It's about accuracy about reality. Over the centuries, it's been determined that the majority of non-naturalistic claims tend to be either impossible to test for accuracy (i.e. "God exists") or just plain wrong (i.e. "the Earth was created in 6 days"). It's also been determined that people tend to propose such conjectures repeatedly and loudly regardless of their testability or accuracy.

Hence, there's a guideline (one definition of methodological naturalism) which holds that including ghosts, goblins or gods in your work is in general a recipe for disaster. That doesn't mean that the scientific community wouldn't accept proof of a non-naturalistic conjecture; merely that they'd need to subject it to disproportionate amounts of scrutiny before accepting it.

10:39 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Anon,

You sound as if you have more data on this than I have...

Have you got the relevant references? I would be very interested to have more details about what was said when.

12:44 pm  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Lifewish,

"concrete, detailed, explanatory, ID-based description of life's creation"

Have you got the same for abiogenesis? (with ID replaced by chance)

12:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrew:

Kenyon's advocacy of Creation Science can be found in his Edwards v. Aguillard affidavit here: http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/edwards-v-aguillard/kenyon.html

I could not find any transcripts of his statements to his university classes, but I suspect the following quote is indicative of his position:
"Microevolution is well-documented, but macroevolution is far less documented and may not have occurred."
Macroevolution, in the form of speciation, is a well-documented scientific fact. It's denial is indicative of an anti-scientific Creationist religious viewpoint.

10:06 am  
Blogger Andrew Rowell said...

Anon:

"I am talking about presenting religious Creationist content in Biology courses."

Are you happy for the following words to be taken as the above?
"Microevolution is well-documented, but macroevolution is far less documented and may not have occurred."


Also I suspect that even at this point Kenyon would not have used "macroevolution" and "speciation" as synonymns as you seem to imply.

11:39 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Also I suspect that even at this point Kenyon would not have used "macroevolution" and "speciation" as synonymns as you seem to imply."

Speciation is a subset of Macroevolution, not a "synonymn." Therefore if Speciation has occured then Macroevolution must have occured. Macroevolution involves one or more (and quite often large numbers of) instances of speciation. A single speciation event is the smallest step in Macroevolution.

12:57 pm  
Blogger Lifewish said...

"concrete, detailed, explanatory, ID-based description of life's creation"

Have you got the same for abiogenesis? (with ID replaced by chance)


I provided one possible hypothesis for the creation of primitive organisms in some detail in this thread.

As I said at the time, the hypothesis I described is pretty much guaranteed to be badly wrong - I haven't read nearly enough about abiogenesis. However, it is concrete, detailed and explanatory, and would provide a starting point for further investigation which could either refine its accuracy or trash it completely.

Your turn.

2:48 pm  

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