Attention DI: Skepticism != Dissent

Mike has some astute observations about the Disco. Inst.’s Dissent from Darwinism List. Noting that Rob Crowther claims:

Signers of the Dissent List have signed the list because it is their professional opinion that the evidence is lacking for the claims for the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Period. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Mike proceeds to point out that most of the signers have no professional basis for such an assessment. This is a fair and important point, but it misses an even fairer and more important point: the barrier to signing the list is far, far less than feeling that “the evidence is lacking for the claims for the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life.”

In fact, all one has to do to sign the damned list is be “skeptical” of the claim that natural selection and mutation alone can explain this range of biological phenomena. Since I think Mike would agree that neutral drift, gene flow, endosymbiosis, and recombination are also important factors, he would probably have no problem agreeing with such skepticism. Even strong selectionists, people who think that selection and mutation really do dominate evolutionary history would agree that skepticism of that claim, like any scientific idea, is healthy.

Given how trivial the Disco. statement is, it’s truly astonishing that only 700 scientists have backed it. Yeah, examine evidence for every scientific idea, and be skeptical about them, too. It’s important to be open-minded. But, as they say, not so open that your brain falls out. Perhaps scientists don’t want their thoughts misrepresented, and either don’t sign, or ask to be withdrawn from the list after signing.

NCSE has got 861 scientists backing a much stronger statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

These scientists have examined the evidence, considered it with appropriate scientific skepticism, and drawn that conclusion.

Now, having 161 more scientists may not seem impressive, but we’re a little choosier than the Disco. Inst. We won’t take any old person with a doctorate. No, no, it has to be in a field relevant to evolution.

Plus, the person has to be named Steve, Stephen, Stephanie, Esteban, etc. How many Steves has Disco. got?


  1. #1 SteveF
    January 24, 2008

    I think you are being excessively nuanced here Josh. In principle you are correct; it’s a statement that’s vague enough that quite a few evolutionary biologists would be happy to sign. However, in practice, I reckon it’s a fair bet that a significant majority of “dissenters” have signed it simply because they don’t accept evolution. If they reworded it to say “we are sceptical of evolution”, I doubt the list would change much.

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    January 24, 2008

    Perhaps. And perhaps if they dropped the “sceptical” dodge and went, as Crowther did, with “the evidence is lacking,” they’d still have as many signatures. At this point, though, the evidence for that claim is… lacking.

    Most of the signers are, indeed, creationists. But Bob Davidson isn’t the only person who got sucked in by the seemingly moderate language of the statement, and then to withdraw.

  3. #3 Kevin W. Parker
    January 24, 2008

    We won’t take any old person with a doctorate. No, no, it has to be in a field relevant to evolution.

    This is incorrect. Just perusing the list, I see a physicist (Addison), a psychiatrist (Altchuler), a political scientist (J. Anderson), a linguist (Robert Anderson), and a chemist (Arnold), just to name a few.

  4. #4 Josh Rosenau
    January 24, 2008

    Those fields all can be involved with evolution. I don’t know specifically about those people, but we do screen signers to make sure their particular work gives them professional competence. Thus, an historian of science would be OK, but not just any old historian.

  5. #5 Ken
    January 24, 2008

    I have been checking out some of the signatories on the “dissenters” list and found that almost all I’ve looked at have strong religious affiliations and views (see Who are the �dissenters from Darwinism�?). This suggests to me that the overwhelming majority on the list have signed it for religious motives, not scientific ones.