Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Stephen Meyer and John Angus Campbell of the Discovery Institute had an op-ed piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Sunday concerning the recent flap over evolution in the science curriculum in Georgia. In a way, you have to admire how skillfully the Intelligent Design (ID) movement has mounted the ongoing public relations campaign, with a boatload of clever catchphrases and the language of inclusion and reasonableness. But that is all the more reason to respond to them and show the reality behind the word games. They begin simply by briefly discussing the recent controversy, then say:

Is there any approach that will satisfy — if not everybody — at least most reasonable people?

Surprisingly, there is a way to teach evolution that will benefit students and satisfy all but the most extreme partisans and ideologues. Rather than ignoring the controversy (as many educators have tried to do), teachers should teach about the scientific controversy that now exists over Darwinian evolution.

This is very clever propaganda, as it offers a solution and casts it in terms that make those who would not find it satisfactory to be “extreme partisans and ideologues.” It’s also part of their ongoing strategy of creating controversy, then using the fairness-invoking catchphrase “teach the controversy” to make it all seem so reasonable. But here we are dealing with the curriculum in a science classroom. The job of a science teacher is to “teach the science”, not to teach the controversy that surrounds a particular scientific theory in some religious circles.

Is ID science? On this question, Meyer and Campbell play sleight of hand, referring to beliefs held by scientists as though that answered the question of whether ID itself is a legitimate scientific model that deserves equal time in a science classroom. For example, they say:

When credible experts disagree about a controversial subject, students should learn about the competing perspectives.

In such cases, teachers should not teach as true only one competing view — just the Republican or just the Democratic view of the New Deal in history class, for example. Instead, teachers should describe competing views to students and explain the arguments for and against these views as made by their chief proponents. We call this “teaching the controversy.”

And we’re back to the clever catchphrases. But notice that they didn’t actually present anything like an actual scientific model or theory that “competes” with evolutionary theory, did they? The mere fact that there are people with PhDs who believe that ID is credible doesn’t mean that ID is a competing scientific theory. In virtually every field of science you will find genuine scientists who believe things in their field that are patently absurd. Gerardus Buow, for example, is a man with a genuine degree in astrophysics from a real university who advocates geocentrism, the notion that the earth is the center of the universe that was disproven by Copernicus centuries ago. He has an organization and a publication and is forever railing at the astronomy establishment for believing the damnable lie that the earth moves.

Scientists are just as prone to believing nonsense as anyone else, the only difference is that science operates in a manner that allows such nonsense to go by the wayside. That is the purpose of peer review and open examination of evidence. That’s why scientists must make their case before their fellow scientists at conferences and in journals. The inevitable cry, of course, is that the scientific community is so bent on shutting out God for their own immoral purposes that they will never give the thought of creation by design a fair hearing. How many times have we heard that refrain from the ID creationists? But that is all the more reason to be suspicious of what is really going on. Martin Gardner, who literally wrote the book(In The Name of Science, in 1952) on crank science, says:

Cranks typically do not understand how the scientific process operates, that they need to try out their ideas on colleagues, attend conferences and publish their hypotheses in peer-reviewed journals before announcing to the world their startling discovery. Of course, when you explain this to them they say that their ideas are too radical for the conservative scientific establishment to accept.

And he sets out a list of telltale signs of crankhood that includes the following:

(3) He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to “enemies” for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work….

(4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father-symbol of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein….

(5) He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined.

And this was written 50 years ago! Gardner is of course referring to a single crank but it applies just as well to a collection of them, and it couldn’t apply any more perfectly than to the ID movement. Phillip Johnson rails to no end about the hidebound scientific priesthood jealously guarding “naturalism” against the Truth of God; hence the need for the “wedge of truth”. There is no more dominant theory in science than evolution, which is the central organizing theory of at least a dozen fields of study. And I’m not sure there has ever been a group of people who has invented more scientific-sounding and ill-defined jargon than the IDers, what with “complex specified information” and “irreducible complexity” and the like. When ID critics point out the shifting or inconsistent definitions of such catchphrases, they are inevitably told that they just didn’t understand the real meaning of it as used, in this case, by Dembski or Behe.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, science is as science does. If the ID crowd has a genuine scientific model, then they should let us all know what it is, beginning with their fellow scientists. So far they have yet to offer a real testable hypothesis, something that can actually distinguish designed objects from undesigned objects in the real world. What they do offer, ad nauseum, are criticisms of evolutionary theory, as though poking holes in evolution will automatically confirm the scientific nature of ID. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. And true to form, Meyer and Campbell spend most of the rest of their op-ed piece pointing out what they claim are flaws in evolutionary theory, such as the alleged Cambrian explosion (vastly overclaimed and oversimplified by the anti-evolution crowd) and the entirely false claim that evolution requires a “gradual branching-tree pattern” in the fossil record. They also trotted out this old chestnut:

Recently, more than 300 scientists, including professors from institutions such as MIT, Yale, Rice and the University of Georgia, signed a statement questioning the creative power of the selection/mutation mechanism.

I presume they are referring to the ad that the Discovery Institute took out in response to the PBS evolution series which listed scientists who had agreed with the following statement:

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

They present this list quite often, presumably to show that lots and lots of scientists doubt evolution. But does that statement really say that? Absolutely not. Hell, I agree with that statement. In fact, I’ll flat out declare right now that random mutation and natural selection cannot and do not account for the complexity of life. Why? Because it leaves non-adaptive mechanisms out of the equation. Biologists recognize that there are several ways by which mutations can spread and become fixed other than natural selection, including genetic drift. So agreeing with that very narrow and specifically worded question does not, in any way, provide a reason to doubt evolution or to accept ID. In other words, it’s clever propaganda, but it’s simply not true.

The Discovery Institute loves to play word games like this. Another great example of this is the bibliography provided to the Ohio Board of Education in March of 2002 by none other than the same Stephen Meyer whose article we are critiquing here, when they were pushing for inclusion of ID in science classes in that state. Since they couldn’t provide anything establishing ID as a valid scientific theory, they tried instead to tear down evolution by giving to the school board a bibliography of references from the scientific literature that they alleged would show the problems with evolution. In their preface to this bibliography, Meyer and Jonathan Wells wrote,

The publications represent dissenting viewpoints that challenge one or another aspect of neo-Darwinism (the prevailing theory of evolution taught in biology textbooks), discuss problems that evolutionary theory faces, or suggest important new lines of evidence that biology must consider when explaining origins.

The NCSE smelled a rat, and they contacted every single author of all 44 citations in this bibliography to get their response, telling the school board what they learned by the responses of those authors. Did the authors of those articles believe that the articles in question provided any reason to doubt evolution or support ID? Nope:

NCSE sent a questionnaire to the authors of every publication listed in the Bibliography, asking them whether they considered their work to provide scientific evidence for “intelligent design.”[5] None of the 26 respondents (representing 34 of the 44 publications in the Bibliography) did; many were indignant at the suggestion. For example, Douglas H. Erwin (author of [8]), answered, “Of course not [intelligent design] is a non sequitur, nothing but a fundamentally flawed attempt to promote creationism under a different guise. Nothing in this paper or any of my other work provides the slightest scintilla of support for ‘intelligent design’. To argue that it does requires a deliberate and pernicious misreading of the papers.”[6] Several respondents even went so far as to say that their work constituted scientific evidence against “intelligent design.”

Similarly, on the basis of the explanation prefaced to the Bibliography, it would have been reasonable for the Board to assume that the publications included in the Bibliography challenged evolution. But they don’t. None of the respondents to NCSE’s questionnaire considered their work to provide scientific evidence against evolution. David M. Williams (coauthor of [18]), for example, simply remarked, “No, certainly not. How could it possibly?” Almost all of the respondents emphasized that their work provided scientific evidence for evolution. Kenneth Weiss (author of [21]), for example, remarked, “I state clearly that evolution is beyond dispute based on all the evidence I am aware of.”

Which did not stop our man Stephen Meyer from publishing an op-ed piece in the Cincinatti Enquirer a few weeks later declaring that the citations in that bibliography “raise significant challenges to key tenets of Darwinian evolution”. I think Mr. Meyer is playing fast and loose with the facts.

Here’s the bottom line. They can’t provide any genuine scientific research supporting their own theory. In fact, they can’t even tell us what this theory that they allege “competes” with evolution says, or give us a single testable hypothesis that flows from the premise of ID, or show us how their model manages to distinguish objects in nature that are intelligently designed from objects that are not. Yet they want equal time in the science classrooms because, they claim, ID is a “competing theory” and it’s sound pedagogy to teach competing theories. But as I noted in an earlier essay, at least one of their own ID scholars, Bruce Gordon, has been honest enough to admit that ID is not ready for prime time yet and that it’s being pushed into schools for all the wrong reasons:

design-theoretic research has been hijacked as part of a larger cultural and political movement. In particular, the theory has been prematurely drawn into discussions of public science education where it has no business making an appearance without broad recognition from the scientific community that it is making a worthwhile contribution to our understanding of the natural world…

If design theory is to make a contribution to science, it must be worth pursuing on the basis of its own merits, not as an exercise in Christian ‘cultural renewal,’ the weight of which it cannot bear.

Need it be said that the name of the Discovery Institute’s organ that pushes ID was originally the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture? They dropped the “renewal” a while back, all the better to disguise their goals. Which is what this whole thing is all about, as I’ve argued in more detail previously. In 1999, the ID advocates nearly succeeded in taking Kansas to Oz. If Georgia and the rest of the country want to avoid the same thing, it’s time to look behind the curtain.