Not So Intelligently Designed Ph.D. Panel

Ohio State calls off dissertation defense amid criticism that faculty committee was set up to back questionable attacks on evolution.
June 10, 2005

Ohio State University called off a dissertation defense scheduled for this week amid faculty concerns that it was set up to favor a Ph.D. candidate's controversial views that question evolution.

Bryan Leonard, a graduate student in science education and a national leader on behalf of "intelligent design" theory, was scheduled to defend a thesis dealing with how students' attitudes change how  they "are taught the scientific data both supporting and challenging macroevolution." The theory of intelligent design holds that some intelligent force -- presumably a divine one -- set up biological structures, and that this force is ultimately more important than evolution.

Supporters of intelligent design have been pushing to include it in public school curriculums. A wide consensus among scientists rejects intelligent design, however, and many scholars see it as a cover for creationism.

Faculty critics have objected both to the idea that Ohio State appeared to be on the verge of awarding a Ph.D. for work questioning evolution and to the way Leonard's dissertation committee violated Ohio State rules. Beyond Ohio State, a blog for evolution scientists, Panda's Thumb, has been publishing criticism of the dissertation defense and of the way the review committee was set up. Despite all the criticism, Ohio State officials stress that the decision to call off the dissertation defense was made by Leonard's disssertation advisor, not by university administrators responding to the controversy.

Under Ohio State rules, two members of Leonard's dissertation committee should have been in the science education division. But the three members of the committee were in the fields of technology education, entomology and nutrition. "A dissertation committee that lacks any experts in the field is, to say the least, suspicious," said a letter three professors (Brian McEnnis, in mathematics; Jeffrey K. McKee, in anthropology; and Steve Rissing, in evolution, ecology and organismal biology) sent to Ohio State's graduate dean, protesting the planned dissertation defense.

Additionally, the letter noted that two of the committee members were the only two Ohio State faculty members who have spoken publicly in defense of Leonard's views on evolution. "The only qualification that these gentlemen bring to Mr. Leonard's dissertation committee is an assurance of a non-critical hearing," the letter said.

The letter also questioned whether Leonard should have been allowed, under Ohio State's auspices, to teach high school students information both supporting and attacking evolution. "There are no valid scientific data challenging macroevolution," the letter said. "Mr. Leonard has been misinforming his students if he teaches them otherwise. His dissertation presents evidence that he has succeeded in persuading high school students to reject this fundamental principle of biology. As such, it involves deliberate miseducation of these students, a practice we regard as unethical."

Leonard and two of his committee members did not return phone calls or e-mail messages seeking their comments for this article. One committee member, Robert DiSilvestro, the nutrition professor, said in an e-mail message that he wanted to hold off on discussing the matter until he received more information from Ohio State. "Unlike the people who started the controversy, I don't want to go public until we interact with the university," he said. The other committee members were Glen Needham and Paul Post.

For a dissertation defense at Ohio State, a fourth faculty member joins the three committee members. Earle M. Holland, a spokesman for the university, said that the university typically seeks faculty volunteers for this fourth seat, with the idea that someone not on the committee will provide some fresh perspective and also focus on whether university procedures are being followed. In the case of Leonard's scheduled defense, the faculty volunteer was an assistant professor of French and Italian. When she realized the controversial nature of the dissertation, she withdrew.

Holland said that the graduate school has replaced the fourth member of the committee with Joan M. Herbers, dean of the university's College of Biological Sciences. The university's graduate school is also now studying the situation, Holland said. "They will be looking at the nature of the research project as a whole and whether or not the process should proceed, what should happen. If it should not proceed, why. What was done right or wrong," he said.

Although some scientists are questioning how Leonard came so close to a Ph.D. legitimizing intelligent design, Holland said that was unfair. Leonard's dissertation may have been in the "latter stage of the process," he said, but it was also in "the most essential stages of the process" of being reviewed.

"It's a mischaracterization to say that the university was about to award a degree supporting intelligent design or anything else. What we had was a dissertation defense scheduled," Holland said. "The university was not anything close to legitimizing anything that was not close to the caliber for which we give doctoral degrees."


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