Dispatches from the Creation Wars

ID Books and Peer Review

The ACLU-PA blog has an interesting post on a key point in the cross examination of Michael Behe in the Dover trial. Behe was asked whether his book, Darwin’s Black Box, had gone through a peer review process similar to the process used for articles submitted to scholarly journal:

It has been stated here before that Behe has not submitted his own work on intelligent design for peer review. At the same time, Behe agreed, when asked by plaintiff’s counsel Eric Rothschild if the “peer review for Darwin’s Black Box was analogous to peer review in the [scientific] literature.” It was, according to Behe, even more rigorous. There were more than twice standard the number of reviewers and “they read [the book] more carefully… because this was a controversial topic.”

One such reviewer, said Behe, was Dr. Michael Atchison, head of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school. “He was selected,” Behe said, “because he was the instructor of the editor’s wife.”

The plaintiff’s attorneys quickly brought the judge’s attention to this article by Dr. Atchison, one of the allegedly high number of reviewers who “read the book more carefully” than they would a normal book because it was a controversial topic. As it turns out, the process wasn’t quite as rigorous as Dr. Behe had claimed. In fact, it wasn’t rigorous at all:

While I was identifying myself as a Christian in Philadelphia, a Biochemist named Michael Behe at Lehigh University was writing a book on evolution. As a Biochemist, Behe found the evidence for Darwinian evolution to be very thin. In fact, when he looked at the cell from a biochemical perspective, he believed there was evidence of intelligent design. Behe sent his completed manuscript to The Free Press publishers for consideration. The editor was not certain that this manuscript was a good risk for publication. There were clearly theological issues at hand, and he was under the impression that these issues would be poorly received by the scientific community. If the tenets of Darwinian evolution were completely accepted by science, who would be interested in buying the book?

The editor shared his concerns with his wife. His wife was a student in my class. She advised her husband to give me a call. So, unaware of all this, I received a phone call from the publisher in New York. We spent approximately 10 minutes on the phone. After hearing a description of the work, I suggested that the editor should seriously consider publishing the manuscript. I told him that the origin of life issue was still up in the air. It sounded like this Behe fellow might have some good ideas, although I could not be certain since I had never seen the manuscript. We hung up and I never thought about it again. At least until two years later.

After some time Behe’s book Darwin’s Black Box (The Free Press, 1996) was published. It became an instant best-seller and was widely acclaimed in the news media. It is currently in its 15th printing and over 40,000 copies have been sold. I heard about it, but could not remember if this was the same book that I received the call about from the publisher. Could it be? In November 1998, I finally met Michael Behe when he visited Penn for a Faculty Outreach talk. He told me that yes, indeed, it was his book that the publisher called me about. In fact, he said my comments were the deciding factor in convincing the publisher to go ahead with the book.

There you have it, folks, the ID version of rigorous peer review. The editor of the book wonders if anyone will buy it, and his wife knows a guy who might have an opinion. So he spends 10 minutes on the phone with the guy, gives him a brief overview of the book, and the guy says yeah, that sounds good to me? The key reviewer – the one whose comments were the deciding factor on whether the book got published – spent 10 minutes talking to the book’s editor, never even saw the book and was so ignorant of it that he didn’t even know that it was the same book after he saw it in published form. And this, Behe claimed under oath, constitutes peer review that is more rigorous than the process for a normal scholarly article in a refereed journal. I don’t think that answer was very intelligently designed.

Comments

  1. #1 raj
    October 20, 2005

    This sounds more like the fact that the publisher was looking for a “blurb” for the book’s jacket than for peer review.

    But this is strange. An article by the purported peer reviewer on Leader U? If memory serves, that is a wacky far-right wing web site maintained by the Young Americans for (some people’s) Freedom.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    October 20, 2005

    Leader U is a pro-ID site originally organized, I think, by Phillip Johnson.

  3. #3 raj
    October 20, 2005

    Sorry, should have done more research. LeaderU is an affiliate of the Campus Crusade for Christ.

    http://www.leaderu.com/menus/aboutus.html

    Far right wing, nonetheless.

  4. #4 mark
    October 20, 2005

    Just remember, this is not about religion…
    I would have more respect for Behe if he simply admitted that his popular-audience book had NO peer review than I have after reading how he considers a 10-minute phone call to consittute rigorous peer review. I’m sure lots of evolutionary scientists have written popular books and columns that did not receive much, if any, peer review. But oh, those scientists were only writing about ideas that they had already subjected to peer review in the scientific journals–where Behe has been scarce or absent, at least with respect to intelligent design.

  5. #5 Ed
    October 20, 2005

    Um, Ed, have you called this to the attention of the Piper Hamilton crew in Harrisburg? They might have it, but they might not.

  6. #6 Ed
    October 20, 2005

    Oops. I see Mr. Landon notes that Mr. Rothschild introduced the Atchison piece to impeach Dr. Behe’s testimony. I withdraw my question.

  7. #7 Dave S.
    October 20, 2005

    Intelligent Design Theory is dead….All hail SUDDEN EMERGENCE THEORY (SET)!!!

  8. #8 Matthew
    October 20, 2005

    To be fair, it’s not as if there’s any science that needs to be double-tested for validity. What need do they have for peer review anyways, asides from correcting their grammatical mistakes.

  9. #9 Dave S.
    October 21, 2005

    In many respects this stumbling performance by one of the stars of the ID movement is more important than actually winning the case. Too bad Dembski never got on the stand.

    Imagine if Behe had acquitted himself well all around and the judge still rules in favour of the plaintiffs. Then that “loss” would be seen only as a martyrdom….here we have a respectable thoughtful scientist espousing a scientific theory that just happens to coincide with some forms of theism…and STILL it’s shot down by the evolutionary establishment….even though all they wanted was just to mention that the theory exists. Surely that can only be seen as a secular attack in the schools on religion itself.

    I think the actual ruling, while itself important, is second in importance to the exposing of ID as a sham to a wider audience. I’d rather lose the case and have people saying, “Wait a minute, is ID is really no better than astrology”? than win it and have people saying, “See, even when we present a science not based on any religion you stamp it out, just because the findings suggest there must be some kind of creative force. So much for science being neutral.”

    That is, if that wider audience is listening.

  10. #10 Jim Lippard
    October 21, 2005

    “And this, Behe claimed under oath, constitutes peer review that is more rigorous than the process for a normal scholarly article in a refereed journal.”

    Out of accuracy and fairness, the “rigorous review” that Behe referred to need not (and better not) refer to Atchison’s nonexistent “review,” but to the other four reviewers (Shapiro, Morrow, the Washington U. biochemist, and the forgotten one).

    Four reviewers is more than the typical journal article gets, isn’t it?

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    October 21, 2005

    Jim-

    I wasn’t aware that the identities of the other reviewers had ever been revealed. Still, Behe himself says that Atchison’s nonexistent review was the key to getting it published.

  12. #12 Pieter B
    October 22, 2005

    More accurately, Ed, Atchison says that Behe said that Atchison’s ten-minute conversation was the key to getting DBB published. People do sometimes stretch things to make points.

  13. #13 Ed Brayton
    October 22, 2005

    Pieter wrote:

    More accurately, Ed, Atchison says that Behe said that Atchison’s ten-minute conversation was the key to getting DBB published. People do sometimes stretch things to make points.

    But there’s no reason to think that Atchison would lie about that, and Behe did not dispute that during his testimony. There is another interesting part of the testimony, where he admits that the other reviewers of the book disagreed with much of it and didn’t think the science was solid. And the fact is, his claim that the book underwent stronger review than a scholarly paper is way off base. Bear in mind the difference between a refereed journal and a book…

    The journal’s primary concern is that the quality of the work they present is consistently high. Their readership is pretty much fixed, it doesn’t go up or down in the short run because of specific articles in it, but it might in the long run if the quality of the work is consistently bad. So a review for a scholarly journal is more likely to focus on the science. A book publisher, on the other hand, cares primarily about selling books. In Behe’s own testimony, it is acknowledged that the editor of the book called Atchison and was concerned primarily with whether the book would sell or not. And Behe himself admits that there was a good deal of criticism of the book from the sceince reviewers, and that Atchison’s “review” was the key to getting it published. By any measure, this is very weak peer review.

  14. #14 Pieter B
    October 22, 2005

    there’s no reason to think that Atchison would lie about that

    You are younger and less cynical than I. I have seen way too much license taken with the truth by those who have a religious axe to grind.

    I have not read Behe’s entire testimony, relying on your and a few others’ summations. It’s got to be morbidly fascinating in a train-wreck sort of way.

    his claim that the book underwent stronger review than a scholarly paper is way off base.

    We are of one mind about that, certrainly.

  15. #15 Jim Lippard
    October 23, 2005

    Ed:

    I still think you’re missing the most charitable scenario:

    * The other four reviewers gave it a rigorous review. Behe’s saying that they had plenty of criticism is indicative that they did far more review than Atchison.
    * Atchison wasn’t a reviewer, but his approval was the decisive factor in the publisher’s decision to go ahead.

    That is, passing a rigorous peer review was a necessary but not sufficient condition for publication–as you note, “A book publisher, on the other hand, cares primarily about selling books.”

    The real question is, did Behe revise his book in response to the criticisms of the other four reviewers, and did the other four reviewers give a thumbs-up for publication despite their criticisms? If so, then the claim of rigorous peer review is substantiated, isn’t it?

  16. #16 Ed Brayton
    October 23, 2005

    Jim Lippard wrote:

    That is, passing a rigorous peer review was a necessary but not sufficient condition for publication–as you note, “A book publisher, on the other hand, cares primarily about selling books.”

    I may be wrong, but I doubt that passing a rigorous peer review was even a necessary condition for publishing the book. Whether the book will sell is the primary consideration, regardless of the validity of the book. I would guess that the peer review is only nominal, of the “at least tell us this guy isn’t a complete crackpot” variety so as to avoid embarrassment. We’ve contacted Shapiro and he says that he thinks Behe made some decent points about current OOL research, but that his conclusions were untenable (and I would agree on both statements). We’ll be contacting the others as well, if we can. If it turns out that 3 out of 4 reviewers say what I suspect they will say – “Well he’s not a crank and he makes some good points, but overall his thesis just doesn’t hold up for me” – then I think we will have shown that the peer review was only nominal for this book and the primary consideration was whether it would sell or not.

    I would argue that peer review done after publication is more important than that done before publication. And in this case, Behe’s work was pretty much universally panned by his fellow biochemists and molecular biologists. He does a decent job, if you take out the hyperbole, of identifying areas where scientists need to do more work to get a viable explanation, but his conclusion from that is quite illogical. He really does just have a god of the gaps argument here, and those just aren’t worth much.