I hang my head in shame for my profession a second time

Lately, I've been frequently lamenting how easily physicians can be seduced by the pseudoscience known as "intelligent design" (ID) creationism (or even old-fashioned young earth creationism). Yesterday, I even hung my head in shame after learning of a particularly clueless creationist surgeon, to the point of speculating that I might not be able to show my face in ScienceBlogs for a few days.

Then, just as I was getting set to show my face in ScienceBlogs again after only a one day absence (having decided not to let one clueless surgeon deter me), I see this on Bill Dembski's blog.


It's a mention of a new physicians group called Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity. Seeing my fellow physicians demonstrate such ignorance yet again is profoundly embarrassing to me. Guys, I'm beginning to take such support of pseudoscience personally. Look at the statement they want physicians to sign:


As medical doctors we are skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the origination and complexity of life and we therefore dissent from Darwinian macroevolution as a viable theory. This does not imply the endorsement of any alternative theory.

"This does not imply the endorsement of any alternative theory"? Heh. The statement to be signed is so vacuous as to be utterly meaningless. "Skeptical"? Lovely. As scientists we should always be skeptical of all scientific theories. Not surprisingly, PSSI is too spineless to back any "alternative theory." Why do you think that is? Could it be because at present there is no credible alternative theory to evolution that explains the diversity of life? All there is is a religion-inspired pseudoscientific variant of creationism known as ID. Gee, you don't think that, through its statement, PSSI is hoping that "skepticism" of "Darwinism" among physicians will translate into support for ID, do you? Perish the thought! They don't back any "alternative" theory. Believe them because they say so. They just express "skepticism" about "Darwinism" and want you to, too. Really. Trust them; they're doctors.

How disingenuous can you get?

In any case, as PZ and Josh have said about a similar petition, it's such a vague, meaningless statement that almost anyone could sign it. And, like so many backers of ID, PSSI then pulls out the old canard of "freedom of inquiry":

Sadly, academic freedom is no longer assured in America and other countries. This is especially true when it involves espousing views contrary to the theory of Darwinian macroevolution. Numerous instances have been documented where scientists and teachers have been censored and even removed from their positions for facilitating open discussion of the empirical problems of the dominant theory. In fact, one scientist who simply followed procedures in allowing a controversial article to be peer-reviewed and then published in the journal he edited, was publicly vilified and relentlessly persecuted.[1]

As academia has suppressed freedom of speech in this area, another avenue needs to be available to promote accurate knowledge and the free exchange of ideas concerning the debate over Darwinism and alternative theories on origins. To accomplish that goal, Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity (PSSI) has been established. PSSI is a means for physicians and surgeons to be counted among those skeptical of nature-driven Darwinian macroevolution. PSSI members agree to a "Physicians and Surgeons' Statement of Dissent" which states "We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the origination and complexity of life and we therefore dissent from Darwinian macroevolution as a viable theory. This does not imply the endorsement of any alternative theory." This statement is similar to that signed by over 500 scientists worldwide and posted by Discovery Institute at the web site www.dissentfromdarwin.org.

Allowing physicians and surgeons to speak on this subject with a united voice in significant numbers is one of the best ways to let the scientific facts be known, and to dispel falsehoods, innuendoes, fantasies, and distortions that recently have been flooding the media.

Wah wah wah. Whine, whine, whine. No one's stopping ID advocates from "espousing views contrary to the Darwinian theory of macroevolution"--except in public school science classes, where they don't belong because ID is not yet science and almost certainly never will be. No, it's ID advocates who want special treatment, for ID to be taught as a viable alternative to evolution before ever actually earning that right through evidence and experimentation. In fact, if these guys ever actually did any--oh, say--scientific research that truly called the present iteration of the theory of evolution into doubt or actually showed support for one of these "alternative theories" (and, of course, no they don't mean "intelligent design," nudge, nudge, wink, wink), the scientific community would be forced to take notice. Of course, ID advocates don't (and won't), and that's why they are widely viewed among biological scientists as nothing more than religion-inspired scientific poseurs. These doctors are no better. In fact, they're worse, because they plan to use their status as doctors to push their disingenuous "skepticism" about Darwinism, which in my opinion is in reality camouflaged advocacy of ID:

PSSI will be involved in activities and events to educate the public on this critical subject. These include the distribution of the UMOL DVD to high school and college students, teachers and professors, and sponsoring educational conferences, seminars and debates in the United States and internationally.

I was sorely tempted to join up in order to function as a mole and see what these guys are up to, but then I saw that they were publicly listing members. No way would I want my name to be associated with that group, even for the purpose of undercover work. So, for now, I'll just have to take comfort in the fact that, as of today (which, for some reason, they seem to think is May 6), there are only twenty physicians listed as members (with only one general surgeon) and that I don't recognize any of the names on the list. Even so, campaigns like this are one consequence of the woeful lack of understanding of evolution among physicians.

Between PSSI and PZ's mention of yet another clueless creationist physician named Geoffrey Simmons, who wrote a book (entitled What Darwin Didn't Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution) also explicitly trying to use his status as a physician to add a false air of authority to his fallacy-filled and inane denunciations of Darwin added on top of Dr. Jordan yesterday, this has been a bad week for physicians interested in sound science. Heck, Dr. Simmons, who gives speeches in which he makes ridiculous assertions that archeologists claim that the monkey skulls they find are pre-human in order to get their pictures in magazines and make more money, also uses one of the stupidest creationist canards of all--"Billions of years isn't enough time; nobody has shown that a dog can become a cat"--for cryin' out loud! It's almost as bad as Dr. Jordan's apparent belief that evolution states that amoebas "got together and designed" human beings.

All I can say is: Oh, the shame, the shame--again.

Geez, not showing my face around ScienceBlogs for a while might not be enough after this double whammy. Anyone got a paper bag that I can borrow?


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You know, I'm really tired of this. I'm tired of my fellow physicians with a penchant for spouting scientifically ignorant "attacks" on or "doubts" about evolution. It embarrasses the hell out of me around ScienceBlogs, and I really wish they would stop it. Sadly, it seems to be an increasingly…
I really, really wish the Discovery Institute would stop putting out idiocy like this: We have blogged in the past about the growing numbers of doctors who are skeptical of Darwinian evolution to explain the complexity of life. Those numbers are continuing to grow, and conesquently doctors are…
Nooooo! I thought I might be safe. It's been a really long time since I've had to hang my head in shame and contemplate covering it with a paper bag because of creationist pontifications of a fellow physician bringing shame upon our shared profession. It had even been longer since I had dealt with…

Don't run away just yet...Red State Rabble has a post called "Doctors in the Dark" that puts it into some perspective...

By afarensis (not verified) on 05 May 2006 #permalink

Don't run away just yet...Red State Rabble has a post called "Doctors in the Dark" that puts it into some perspective...

By afarensis (not verified) on 05 May 2006 #permalink

I know, and interact socially, with two physicians. Both are excellent people and have very good practices. Both accept evolution and think that ID has no place in science. Yet, both are dreadful as scientists. They think that there is no need for evolution in medicine. When I asked about the red queen hypothesis, and the relationship to the evolution of immune system, one indicated that there was no need to understand that in order to treat a patient, thus missing the point althogether.

By TrekJunkie (not verified) on 05 May 2006 #permalink

Don't feel too bad...we've got chemists and biochemists spouting this crap too. There's enough shame to spread around.

Nah, that's no reason to be ashamed. That's just differences of opinion. There are a lotta Christians in this country and, presumably, a few have become doctors.

The "Credibility Gap" in our nation's scientific journals, now that's worthy of shame -- in my opinion.

Hank B

By Hank Barnes (not verified) on 05 May 2006 #permalink

Even so, campaigns like this are one consequence of the woeful lack of understanding of evolution among physicians.

I would submit that we are now seeing the effect of stressing of didactic memorization over problem-solving and critical thinking skills in US medical schools.

I am open to and welcome thoughtful opinions and arguments of dissent from the mainstream (as the mainstream is often misled). But I am equally concerned the next time I go to my neurologist about my migraines for fear of a referral to a surgeon who will cut holes in my skull to release the evil humors.

I know its been said before, but it bears repeating, that the biggest argument against Darwin is the fact that these people haven't gotten any more intelligent as they grew older.

I'm considering grilling both my regular doctor and my wife's oncologist as to their views on the scientific method.

I would only differ on one point: Any statement that says

we therefore dissent from Darwinian macroevolution as a viable theory

is not

such a vague, meaningless statement that almost anyone could sign it

Whatever they may be in support of, there's no doubt what they are against: the modern synthesis and the whole of the Theory of Evolution. Just because there are a lot of corners they can scurry to in order to get out of the light doesn't alter the fact that it's the light they're running from.

After reflecting upon this public statement a little further, I think it ultimately serves the public interest very well. I plan to consult this list on a regular basis in order to be certain that no physician attending to my (or my family's) care has failed to grasp one of the pillars of modern science. On the other hand, other folks will seek out these doctors for precisely the same reason, possibly increasing their practice. Everybody wins.

By great_ape (not verified) on 06 May 2006 #permalink

One of the nurses on my ward told me she didn't believe in evolution. My jaw hit the floor (metaphorically). In Scotland, unlike the USA, creationists are invisible - Intelligent Design isn't even on the radar, so to find out my colleague is one - well I'm gobsmacked.
To be fair she doesn't prosyletise, so to prevent friction on the ward, we'll have to agree to differ, and hope it doesn't come up in conversation. How do you folks handle the situation?

By Deacon Barry (not verified) on 07 May 2006 #permalink

"How do you folks handle the situation?" --Deacon Barry

Considering that polls indicate 45% of Americans apparently believe that humans, along with everything else on earth, were created roughly 10,000 years ago exactly as described in Genesis, I find that the topic of creation/evolution comes up in conversation relatively rarely. It's right up there with a lively discussion on abortion for candidate after-dinner topics among friends and colleagues. I suspect many of that 45% creation contingent have received almost all of their information on the subject from their religious leaders. And since it's basically a matter of faith on their part, they (thankfully) don't anticipate debates with colleagues will profit anyone. They are, as a result, not likely to initiate conversation unless you say something blatantly offensive to them. So don't do that. We--here in America, at least--need to drastically improve scientific literacy in general so that, eventually, the conflict between the empirical evidence (i.e. truth) and certain aspects of prevelant belief systems will cause people to reconsider their positions. (Hopefully before we're plunged back into the dark ages via the exertion of the political will of our under-educated public.)

The handful of folks that fancy themselves as scientifically literate evolution opponents are few and far between (but growing along with the relevant literature). They will generally leap at the opportunity to educate you on the pseudoscience of evolution. Concerning the first group, in my opinion, just be considerate. No one is likely to change anyone's hearts or minds through casual conversation; it's best to let it alone. I had several friends in university who were avowed creationists, not for want of education or intelligence but for deeply held religious convictions; we got along just fine otherwise. As for the small but eager second group, *sigh*, you'll need to identify which set of talking points they've ingested as part of their scholarly endeavors, then set about correcting errors in fact and/or logic. (Do not be surprised that they will, on occasion, have legitimate points, but these are never as damning as they've been led to believe.) Of course, their initial errors in fact and/or logic are highly predictive of still further such errors on their part, possibly rendering any effort on your part futile. In which case ignoring them also works. In any case, I find it bittersweet to hear that you folks on the other side of the pond are starting to experience some of this too. I don't know how many times I've been told by scientists at international meetings that this was a uniquely American problem...

By great_ape (not verified) on 07 May 2006 #permalink

Ah, the Creationists were out at my local farmer's market - which, Deacon, is in Inverness. They're getting bolder. And can say it all, while standing next to produce that has been selectively bred. Oh, and they sometimes put pamphlets into the science books of the local library.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

we therefore dissent from Darwinian macroevolution as a viable theory

But that Darwinian microevolution, we couldn't deny that because it's too obvious.

One wonders how seriously the cardiologists on that list (if there are any) would take a statement signed by 34 dermatologists expressing skepticism about Harvey's theory of the circulation of the blood (micro-circulation, yes! macro-circulation, no!).

I'm a physicist, and a firm believer in evolution. I'm glad the website has the list of names in pdf format. I'm happy to report that none of the physicians listed are practicing medicine (unscientifically?) in my home town. I agree with great_ape - PSSI are doing us a public service.

The thought that comes to my mind, as I read the news and reflect on what is happening in America now, is that we were onboard the Enlightenment (the founding fathers were children of the Enlightenment; Jefferson and Franklin were scientists), but now we seem to be disembarking. PSSI is just more evidence of this. OTOH, twenty some physicians in the whole US is not much, is it? If any profession should be true to scientific principles and the Enlightenment, it is medicine. William Harvey is turning over in his grave.

Amazing, the number of dentists on the list, simply due to the fact that the evolution of teeth are one of the most obvious and well characterized lines of evidence supporting macroevolution. Then again, teaching undergrads and seeing the relative academic prowess of those accepted to dental school relative to allopathic med school or PhD programs, maybe I shouldn't be so surprised.

agnostics or members of any religious faith are welcome.

Atheists dissed again! But this has nothing to do with religion, of course.

You write: (ID) "... is not yet science and almost certainly never will be..."

"Almost?" Is there even a shred of science behind ID? Nope.

Or are you suggesting that it's possible that idiocy will in fact overcome rationality and ID will become acceptable (shivver) 'science?'

God forbid!

Hi, Orac and commenters.

If it's any consolation, my wife (a paediatric intensivist) is as firmly convinced of the robustness of evolutionary theory as myself (a molecular biologist). The humorous bit is that whenever she uses the Mac after me and finds a creationist webpage open, she asks in a worried tone whether I'm starting to believe in all their crap! (The answer is generally: no, I just can't seem to tear my eyes away from that stuff; it's like watching a car crash in slo-mo.)

My name's not Steve, but I'd sign up for a counter-list supporting contemporary theory. Recognizing the irrelevance of democratic principles in science, I think as a PR exercise it'd be useful to have a list of hundreds to offset these 20 or so.

By Dr. DeFACCto (not verified) on 08 May 2006 #permalink

Amen PharmaBoy - you hit the nail on the head. I studied Chemistry as an undergrad in the 80s, and it was accepted wisdom that one made it through courses, Organic Chemistry in particular, strictly with rote memorization. Derivation from first principles was scorned. Of course, the fact that the memorizers were rewarded with higher marks didn't help the trend any. I know a physician (plastic surgeon, interestingly) who is a die-hard IDer - the wife of a long term friend. I couldn't for the life of me make heads or tails of it, until I made this connection to the pre-meds I'd been in classes with.

tracked you back. I commented at length about what a doctor actually is and what about medical education actually makes them so prone to believe in ID considering their strong bio background.

I brought it down to two major factors:
1. they've never been taught to do science, only to understand. It's like the difference between reading joyce and writing like joyce.

2. they're actually taught that the body is Paley's Watch. When you learn phys or path or anatomy each system is taught like it's almost a machine. Extended examples abound, but I'm lazy

But what really pissed me off was that these (&$(#*^#&$ are using their whitecoats in an overt abuse of authority. They're pretending they have a professional/expert opinion where they really have none. I'm just stupid and idealistic enough to think that medicine should be as much a calling as a profession, and that we should be held to a higher ethical standard.

I thought it was sweet - and very informative - that they are offering a free copy of "Unlocking the Mysteries of Life" to signatories.

Sad that some physicians and surgeons apparently believe that you can get good information about a subject by viewing a sleazy advocacy video.