Saturday, August 26, 2017

#1888: Bryan Leonard

Bryan Leonard is one of the alleged martyrs featured in the creationist movements dishonest “academic freedom” campaigns, people having been the victim of what Intelligent Design creationists would describe as oppression by the Darwinist establishment (i.e. actual scientists with actual expertise and a commitment to science). A more comprehensive description of the so-called Bryan Leonard affair can be found here. We’ll just provide a brief recap:

Leonard was (or perhaps is) a high school biology teacher at Hilliard Davidson High School in a suburb of Columbus (yes, he was teaching the controversy and promoting creationism to the high-school kids; surprised?), and – a decade ago – an appointee to the Ohio State BOE’s model curriculum-writing committee, where he authored the creationist-friendly “Critical Analysis” model lesson plan adopted by the Ohio State Board of Education in 2004. Leonard also testified for the pseudoscience side at the Kansas Creationist Kangaroo Court hearings (excerpts from his testimony here). Leonard himself appears to be a young-earth creationist.

Now, by 2005 Leonard was also a doctoral candidate in science education at Ohio State University, doing dissertation research on the academic merits of an ID-based “critical analysis” approach to teaching evolution in public schools. Scheduled to defend on June 6, the defense was suddenly postponed to the shock and horror of conspiracy theorists and pseudoscientists everywhere. And of course, in real life the postponement was due to the questionable tactics and strategy of the creationists, in particular the composition of Leonard’s committee. You see, the OSU requires that the committee must reflect the expertise needed for the dissertation and must have at least three members: two from the science education program area and one from outside the science education program area. Leonard’s final dissertation committee did not meet those requirements – in particular, it contained no member from the science education program area – and one suspects this was because his advisor, Paul Post, realized that it would not pass if they included, you know, actual experts on biology on the committee. Instead, the committee included, in addition to an assistant professor in French & Italian, Glen R. Needham of the Department of Entomology and Robert DiSilvestro of the Department of Human Nutrition, both of whom have track-records as champions of creationism and pseudoscience – both are signatories to the Discovery Institute’s petition A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, for instance, and DiSilvestro, surely coincidentally, also testified for the anti-science side at the Kansas evolution hearings. (He was also at that time contact person for the Ohio Intelligent Design Movement’s 52 Ohio Scientists Call for Academic Freedom on Darwin’s Theory petition; and Needham was a signatory). Leonard’s advisor Paul Post has no relevant qualifications to comment on evolution either.

So, when members of the faculty of the OSU brought these and other anomalies to the attention of appropriate administrators in the Graduate School, the assistant professor of French & Italian asked to be relieved and was replaced by the Dean of the College of Biological Sciences who was an evolutionary biologist. At that time, the defense was suddenly postponed, apparently at the request of Leonard’s advisor; it was never rescheduled. And note: It was Leonard’s advisor who asked for the postponement, after it became clear that he wouldn’t be allowed to violate the guidelines in his attempt to fix the jury in Leonard’s favor (which rather strongly suggests that the creationists on the committee had little confidence in the actual merits of Leonard’s pro-creationist thesis). The pattern of behavior from the Intelligent Design community is rather striking – even if Leonard’s thesis were perfectly OK, the attempt of the Intelligent Design community to subvert the process is telling, isn’t it? Being caught in the act, the Intelligent Design community responded by claiming “violation of academic freedom”, of course. Indeed, a decade later the case remains one of their go-to examples of howChristians are oppressed in academia.

Diagnosis: We haven’t heard much from Leonard since 2005, but the Bryan Leonard case is occasionally revived by pseudoscientists who aren’t that concerned with what actually happened. Now, one can reasonably argue that Leonard was, indeed, a victim in that particular case – a victim of the shenanigans of established creationists, of course – but his activities on the Ohio State BOE’s model curriculum-writing committee and role in the Kansas Kangaroo court hearings still qualify him for an entry in our Encyclopedia.

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