Publish or don’t publish, but perish

TimeAug15BTime‘s cover package on evolution and intelligent design is a mostly even-handed summary, but it contains an easily preventable error: The claim that theorists of intelligent design have not published in peer-reviewed journals.

That would be news to Stephen Meyer, who published “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories” in Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington about a year ago. The journal ranks low in its “impact factor,” says a news report by The Scientist:

The Biological Society of Washington has about 250 members. The journal has an impact factor of 0.284, according to Thomson Scientific, giving it a rank of 2678 out of 3110 scored journals in all science disciplines. Scott described the journal as a “tiny fairly descriptive journal read by people in museums and systematics.”

Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information who was an editor of the Proceedings at the time, told The Scientist via E-mail that the three peer reviewers of the paper “all hold faculty positions in biological disciplines at prominent universities and research institutions, one at an Ivy League university, one at a major US public university, and another at a major overseas research institute.”

“The reviewers did not necessarily agree with Dr. Meyer’s arguments but all found the paper meritorious, warranting publication,” Sternberg said.

There is a circular logic in the Internet debate about Myer’s paper, which says I.D. theorists cannot be taken seriously, because they never publish in peer-reviewed journals, but also condemns any efforts to be so published as deceptive or dishonest.

The Panda’s Thumb provides a lengthy and detailed critique of Meyer’s paper, but be warned: the hundreds of comments take many minutes to load, even on broadband.

The Discovery Institute lists these other peer-reviewed publications, none of which has attracted the same attention as Myer’s has:

• “Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues,” by Michael J. Behe and David W. Snoke, in Protein Science, The Protein Society [October] 2004

• “Homology in Biology: Problem for Naturalistic Science and Prospect for Intelligent Design,” by Paul A. Nelson & Jonathan Wells, in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education (Michigan State University Press, 2003)

• “Self-Organization and Irreducibly Complex Systems,” by Michael J. Behe in Philosophy of Science 67 (March 2000), University of Chicago Press

• “Reinstating Design within Science,” by William A. Dembski, in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education (Michigan State University Press, 2003)

In the same issue of Time, David Van Biema has compiled four brief and excellent summaries of what thinkers on both sides of the evolution-design debate believe.

Stephen Pinker of Harvard University does an exquisite job of reinforcing the stereotype of an academic who can’t help sneering at stupid believers:

Many people who accept evolution still feel that a belief in God is necessary to give life meaning and to justify morality. But that is exactly backward. In practice, religion has given us stonings, inquisitions and 9/11. Morality comes from a commitment to treat others as we wish to be treated, which follows from the realization that none of us is the sole occupant of the universe. Like physical evolution, it does not require a white-coated technician in the sky.

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  • Molly

    Interesting picture on the cover. Seems to me to inflame a false dichotomy; evolution and creation are not polar opposites, imo. There is room for each theory; in fact, I think they compliment each other and plan to someday get a fish and a Darwin critter and put them nose to nose on my bumper. Shucks, folks, only God knows how everything started and precisely how we came to be. Anything we come up with is just monkeying around.

  • Molly
  • Jaume

    If it really was only what it seems to be, the solution for Americans is easy: teach evolution and let students decide if it happens by chance or by intelligent design. I’m afraid that there are other things at stake and this debate is more like an iceberg, small on the surface but much bigger and deeper below. Fortunately in Europe we don’t have this debate and there is a wide consensus, believers included.

  • Stephen A.

    Like Molly said, both evolution and belief in God are compatable.

    But I guess playing up the controversy is good for selling mags to Time’s legion of uptight secularist readers.

    Pinker’s snarky “white-coated technician in the sky” comments are sadly prevalent among that crowd.

  • eapoet

    Evolution is compatible with which creation myth? The one in Genesis, where Adam and Eve have a pet dinosaur?

  • webwalker

    Abother interesting note: In the article they quote from author M. Behe, who is an ID proponent. They then follow it up with “Nonsense, say biologists.”

    Ahem. Behe *is* a biochemist.

    By leaving this fact out, they leave the impression that he is a crackpot without any scientific credibility.

    Color me not surprised.

  • Scott Roche

    Biochemist he may be but a good writer he is not.

  • tmatt


    You have read his book?

    Folks, the problem for Rome is not with evolution, in the sense of common descent. The issue is materialism and randomness. In other words, it is parts of Darwinian dogma that cannot be proven IN A LAB. It is impossible to prove randomness. Televangelist Carl Sagan could not prove that the Cosmos (large C) is all there is or was or ever will me. That is a statement of religious faith that cannot be proven by science. What we need are open debates over where the evidence seems to point. More debates, please. And accurate, balanced coverage of them. And can we please shelve the word “creationist”? It does not apply to someone to accepts gradual change over time and common descent…..

  • Avram

    Tmatt, I agree that the issue is materialism. Phillip Johnson founded the intelligent design movement specifically because he considers philosophical materialism to be harmful, and wants it done away with. Johnson and his comrades aren’t opposed to science (and yes, it’s all of science they’re after, and the rest of secular culture after that; evolution is just their starting point) because they’ve made observations that lead them to question the dominant paradigm; they oppose science because of their religious beliefs, and they’re molding their arguments in the pursuit of their political objectives.

    My primary source for this is the “Wedge document”, a fundraising document authored by members of the Discovery Institute that discusses the institute’s motives and long-term strategies, that got posted to the net in 1999, and various other statments made by Discovery Institute members that can be found on that Wikipedia page. And don’t be so certain that Johnson accepts gradual change over time, either.

    Anyway, materialism is one of the foundational assumptions of science. Even if a scientist believes in God, he’s got to assume that God isn’t fiddling around with the particular thing he’s studying at the moment, because otherwise he couldn’t draw reliable conclusions. (“Well, I only got a result that supports my hypothesis in half the trials, so I’ll assume that God was mucking about with me the other half.”)

  • fra

    your observations about Philipp Johnson’s motivation might or might not be true. However, that’s no serious argument to be used.

    Is Darwinian evolution rejected because, according to Dawkins it makes it possible to be an “intellectually fulfilled atheist”?


    “materialism is one of the foundational assumptions of science”

    No, actually the foundational assumption of natural science is that things do work according to some laws/rules and not just like that. Scientists than try to find out these rules. Hence Cardinal Schönborn’s opposition to “chance”. Chance cannot be a finding of science – the scientist can only say: we don’t see how this is determined by that. Whether this “hole” is yet to be filled by science or is chance (as philosophical materialists like Dawkins do) or is influenced by God (as believers would say) is another question, in the case of answers 2 or 3 a philosophical question. Scientists have no more authority than we do.

    “he’s got to assume that God isn’t fiddling around with the particular thing he’s studying at the moment, because otherwise he couldn’t draw reliable conclusions.”

    That’s why natural science calls for repeatable experiments. To put it really simply, from this repition you get a law of nature.

    That doesn’t mean that God cannot interfere – wether through or against these laws: if through these laws, you couldn’t tell it, if against these laws, it’d be outside the scope of science.
    Some claim that laws of nature cannot be “broken”, but again this is an unproven philosophical (and not natural-scientific) opinion and nothing more.

  • Avram

    No, Fra, that does not make Darwinian evolution invalid. Likewise, making it possible to believe in God would not make creationism invalid. The thing I’m complaining about is that Phillip Johnson and his friends decided in advance of any experimental results the outcome that they desire, and all of their arguments are dishonestly bent towards bringing about that outcome. That’s not science, it’s politics masquerading as science.

  • Avram

    And another thing: Why do people opposed to evolution keep going on about “chance” and “randomness”? Is everything in the universe either random or the product of intelligent directing?

    If I trip and fall while walking on a steep hill, will the place I land be random? In other words, is there a 50% chance I’ll roll up the hill and a 50% chance I’ll roll down it? If not — if I’m more likely to roll down — is that because an intelligent invisible spirit is making me roll downhill instead of uphill?

  • francis

    I’m sure Dawkins was an atheist first and then a Darwinist.
    I’m sure the forgers of the Piltdown man …

    Many researcher desire a certain result before their experiments (what expirement are there in regard to evolution?) – the question is whether they are open to a contrary result.

    What I’m saying is: you may not like their motivation but the “intellectually honest” approach is to deal with their research anyway.

    As long as they don’t cook the books.

    Note, that I’m no adherent to ID or creationism (I’m tending more to “theistic evolution”).