The DI and the astonishingly tepid petition

Whoa. This is amazing. A NY Times reporter got a Discovery Institute press release, and he didn’t just accept it on their say-so—he actually went digging to find out how accurate it was. I have to give Kenneth Chang his due for going below the surface and investigating a claim.

The Discovery Institute has been circulating a petition since 2001, trying to get people to sign on to a statement of dissent from Darwin. They’ve now got over 500 signatures on it, but as the article shows, the majority are not biologists, and in interviews with some of the signers, many seem to have signed because of religious sensibilities. When asked, they did dig up two signers who were not religious, and one is David Berlinski, who is not a scientist but is instead a professional pompous ass and semi-supporter of astrology. The list includes Phil Skell, a major crackpot.

That’s why these petitions are meaningless: there will always be fringe characters who will sign on to anything that pokes the establishment in the eye.

As Josh Rosenau shows, there’s another reason the DI petition could get that many signatures: it’s meaningless and gutless. The thing is titled “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism,” for Odin’s sake…”Darwinism”? I dissent from “Darwinism”—it’s a theory that’s over a century old, that has been extensively revised, and Darwinism sensu strictu doesn’t exist as a major theory anymore. It’s a straw man that creationists flail at.

Look at the cowardly statement they ask people to sign:

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.

That’s it? They can’t even mention their pet guess of Intelligent Design, but instead ask people to sign off on a statement professing the values of skepticism and careful examination? Weak, man, weak. Pathetic.

Hey, I’ve got this idea that Martians are zapping George Bush’s brain with their orbiting lasers, causing it to shrivel and collapse. Do you think the NSA, FBI, CIA, EPA, NCD and RRB will pay attention to me if I get enough people to sign a petition deploring neurodegenerative diseases?


  1. #1 Glen Davidson
    February 21, 2006

    It is not unheard of for modern evolutionary theory to be referred to as “Darwinism”. Nature does so at times. Nevertheless, it is clear that the DI and ID proponents do equivocate, attacking the ancient Darwinian ideas as if they constituted the modern theory. “Darwinism” is an easy target if not explicitly defined as the present-day theory, which is one reason why they are attacking evolution by the name “Darwinism”. Another reason is that they wish to imply that “Darwinism” is an ideology created by some godless scientist.

    Berlinski we know. Isn’t even claiming to be “agnostic” mostly recognized today as being wimpy and meaningless? The term was useful in Thomas Huxley’s battles, but by now it is mostly used by gutless wonders like Berlinski and DaveScot. Both lack concise and meaningful conceptions of science and proper epistemological frameworks, so both sign up for the meaninglessness of “agnosticism”.

    For anyone lacking an experience of the scintillating styles and argumentation of the famed Phil Skell, here is his statement on PT, plus my response:

    Posted by Phil Skell on May 27, 2005 11:53 AM (e)

    I will not enter this discussion, except to note that all the criticisms of Wells’ position apply at least as well, probably better, to the Darwinian attempts at explanation of the phenomena; I challenge the critics to explain them with their favored beliefs.

    Comment #32426
    Posted by Glen Davidson on May 27, 2005 12:06 PM (e)

    Just entered into the discussion to make a mindless, unsupported accusation, eh Skell? Well, I’m sure you’re doing the best you can.


    Skell is credited by many with being a competent chemist, but get him into a discussion of biology and it’s like he thinks that baldly stating his prejudices is meaningful. I believe I was correct in noting that it was the best he can do in that situation.

    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.

    Of course the above is wide open to interpretation. “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.” Well who isn’t? The complexity of life appears to be the result of far more than just selection of random mutations, rather several relatively accidental processes tend to push for greater complexity than would be expected of just RM+NS.

    I do sometimes use RM+NS as shorthand for current evolutionary thought, but of course I know that evolution is rather more than just this. That is to say, at other times I make explicit that evolutionary theory is not just RM+NS, and I’m not even asking anyone to sign off on my posts. It remains to be known whether or not they are too obtuse to acknowledge the richness of evolutionary thought, or if they’re deliberately equivocating and hoping that those with a more complex understanding will be bamboozled into signing against simplistic notions of evolution.

    There are several “mechanisms” in evolution which tend to produce complexity throughout the biosphere. We should note here in passing that we are able to predict from our theories that life will be complex because of splitting, selection of several kinds (depending on how we count them), plus the accumulation of information left over from past adaptations coupled to randomly realized forms. ID, as usual, has no predictions of complexity, only a yawping incredulity in the face of complexity.

    “Careful examination of the evidence for “Darwinian theory,” has two effects that I’d like to point to. One is obvious, that it may sucker in some intelligent scientists into signing up for this platitudinous suggestion. The second is more sinister in that it suggests that evolutionary evidence is not considered skeptically by scientists, and that the DI is somehow inclined to rectifying this lack of examination. The whole of the ID ‘science through PR program’ is shot through with such carefully planted false suggestions, so it isn’t surprising that their petition would include these false implications as well.

    And of course the DI always tries to spin any skepticism about RM+NS into their criticisms of “naturalism”. On the one hand, there is some justification for this in that religious apologists comprise the vast bulk of the signatories. On the other hand, however, it is yet again their attempted sleight-of-hand of creating the false dichotomy of: either RM+NS or ID. What else could they do? Well, nothing, since they have no evidence for ID at all. But of course, if modern evolutionary thought ever proves to be inadequate to explain important aspects of evolution, we who prefer science to magic will be looking for another epistemologically sound “natural” explanation, not “poof, then a miracle happened”.

    So of course the DI petition is weak, but their whole program of criticism of legitimate science is weak. They simply hope that many will not notice its weakness, its equivocations, and its false implications, and thus the naive subject will accept the DI’s false dichotomy without critical thought.

    Glen D

  2. #2 Glen Davidson
    February 21, 2006

    I just realized that it was Jim Lippard’s quiz, not Myers’, while Myers’ blog points approvingly to Lippard’s quiz. My conclusion remains the same.

    Here’s Myers stating that he considers himself a strong atheist:

    And here is Myers’ little blog entry with the link to Lippard’s quiz. If it’s “stupid”, take it up with Lippard and Myers:

    Glen D

  3. #3 wamba
    February 21, 2006

    I don’t think I’ve ever read “sensu strictu” before. I’m guessing it means “in a strict sense.”

    Dealu bigu.

  4. #4 wamba
    February 21, 2006

    It’s also worth nothing that the latest “List of Steves” was attacked as argumentum ad populum (or whatever) over on IndecentDissent (despite clear warnings that it’s a parody), and then barely 24 hours later they post the “DI 500 List” to general noises of warm approval.

    See my comment above (February 21, 2006 12:28 PM) for Bruce Chapman playing both sides of that within the one NYTimes article.