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Argumentum Ad Baseless Demonization: Assessing Dr. John Wise’s Response to Anika Smith and Sarah Levy

Casey Luskin

It’s disheartening (and revealing) when people have to demonize their opponents in order to argue against them. Unfortunately, SMU biology professor John Wise has chosen this approach, opening his rebuttal to Anika Smith and Sarah Levy by stating, “Deceptive tactics seem to be a recurring theme at the Discovery Institute,” and continuing for the entirety of his response to supply nothing more than a string of misdirected or misinformed ad hominem attacks.

Baseless ad hominem attack 1–Of Pandas and People: Wise attacks the Of Pandas and People textbook as if it is dishonest, and as if that affects the Discovery Institute. But Wise fails to mention that the textbook was first published a year before Discovery Institute was even founded, and many years before Discovery got involved with intelligent design. In fact, the Pandas textbook pre-dates the vast bulk of the scholarship coming from the ID movement. So it’s not clear why the status of the textbook is relevant to judging Discovery Institute in particular or even intelligent design in general. Nonetheless, Wise’s attacks on the textbook itself are misinformed.

Dr. Wise apparently read the Dover opinion and accepts it uncritically, taking the “Judge Jones Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It” approach to intelligent design and the Dover case. He claims that the Pandas textbook deceptively aimed to create a “new alias” for creationism when it started using term intelligent design. Yet when certain pre-publication drafts of Pandas used terms such as “creation” and “creationist,” they used them in a way that rejected “creationism” as defined by the courts and popular culture:

In Edwards v. Aguillard, the U.S. Supreme Court declared creationism to be a religious viewpoint because it required a “supernatural creator.” Yet many pre-publication drafts of Pandas juxtaposed “creation” and its cognates with statements to the exact opposite effect, noting that science cannot scientifically detect a supernatural creator. (For example, one pre-publication draft stated: “Some master intellect is the creator of life. But such observable instances of information cannot tell us if the intellect behind them is natural or supernatural.

This is not a question science can answer.”) As Ms. Smith and Ms. Levy write, “Because intelligent design does not try to address religious questions about the identity of the designer, this test does not apply to ID.”

To summarize, the Pandas authors have made it clear that they adopted intelligent design terminology because their project was fundamentally distinct from common notions of creationism, and they wanted to make it clear they had a different project in mind. As one of Pandas‘ authors explained his reasons for adopting intelligent design terminology: “I wasn’t comfortable with the typical vocabulary that for the most part creationists were using because it didn’t express what I was trying to do. They were wanting to bring God into the discussion, and I was wanting to stay within the empirical domain and do what you can do legitimately there.” There is no deception or wrongdoing here, and Dr. Wise’s attacks against Discovery Institute here are misdirected and baseless.

Baseless ad hominem attack 2–The Dover School Board members: Wise also complains about the “deliberate deception” of some Dover School Board members during the Dover trial, as if that somehow indicts us at Discovery. But the Dover Board chose to ignore our policy advice that they should not mandate ID, and we have criticized them extensively for their mishandling of the Dover policy and case, both before and after the trial (for some examples, see here, here, and here). When Dr. Wise attacks the Dover School Board members, he is actually joining with us. This ad hominem attack is entirely misdirected.

Baseless ad hominem attack 3: Anika Smith’s article in the SMU Daily: Wise suggests that Discovery’s Anika Smith was deceptive because she co-authored an article in the SMU Daily which identified her as a “recent graduate of Seattle Pacific University.” He suggests that perhaps she “purposefully meant to hide” and intentionally “omi[t]” her “relevant affiliation” with DI. This ad hominem charge, again, is baseless.

In fact, the SMU Daily Campus was very specific in its request for author information. According to what Ms. Smith wrote me, “They asked for my name, head shot, email address, and university affiliation. That’s what I sent them. If they had asked for my employer, political affiliation, ethnicity, or income level, I’d have given them that, as well, but they didn’t. They wanted my university affiliation, and because I have no reason to hide the fact that I graduated from Seattle Pacific University (go Falcons!), I gave it.”

For someone who claims that he “personally do[es]n’t care how [Anika] refers to herself,” Wise certainly devotes an awful lot of time and energy to impugning her integrity on how she refers to herself (5 of his 6 paragraphs, to be exact, deal with this issue). But it’s not like Ms. Smith tries to hide her affiliations: she writes regularly for Evolution News & Views and is listed on our staff page. It obviously wasn’t hard too for Dr. Wise to discover and verify her affiliations. Again, Dr. Wise has reached out to defend his viewpoint by attacking others (but conspicuously not rebutting their viewpoint), and he failed.

Baseless ad hominem attack 4: Sarah Levy: Not content to simply make baseless character attacks against Anika Smith and the Discovery Institute, Dr. Wise turns to a student at his own school, Sarah Levy, wondering “if there are any important ethical questions to be asked of … a third year law student here at SMU?” It is most disturbing that a professor would publicly question the integrity of one of his university’s own students simply because she co-authored an article supporting intelligent design. Who is supporting academic freedom here?

In conclusion, Ms. Smith and Ms. Levy wrote a direct rebuttal to the scientific and philosophical objections that Dr. Wise posed against intelligent design. Dr. Wise responded by attacking their character but addressing none of their arguments. It’s a song we’ve all heard many times before, but the question remains: Does Dr. Wise have anything to say that is both accurate and rises above personal attacks? From reading his article, it doesn’t appear so. And that reveals more about the state of this debate than anything else written in this exchange.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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