The Case for a Creator: Steve Statistics

The Case for a Creator: Steve Statistics May 23, 2009

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 3

Chapter 3 of Case, which interviews the creationist Jonathan Wells, haphazardly mixes together claims from many different scientific disciplines and will probably take the most installments of any chapter to fully refute. But we’ll begin with a simpler claim. As I mentioned previously, Strobel seeks to create the appearance of a scientific controversy raging over evolution. His primary piece of evidence is the Discovery Institute’s infamous petition, “A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism“:

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.

The DI has found several hundred scientists and other professionals to sign this statement. But although Strobel highly touts the few luminaries on the list – and I’m not denying their existence – what he doesn’t mention is that a significant number of signatories have no relevant scientific credentials at all. Many of them have degrees only in mathematics, engineering, physics or computer science, and while they may be expert in their own fields, those qualifications have little or nothing to do with evolutionary theory. Would we credit the opinions of biologists who signed a statement proclaiming themselves skeptical of the inflationary theory of cosmology, or chemists who doubted the Turing-completeness models of computer science?

But rather than leave it at that, let’s crunch some numbers. I downloaded the DI’s petition in PDF form, converted it to text, and then wrote a Perl script which scans the list and counts the signatories by affiliation. The categories I used were as follows: biology (a large category including everything from genetics to paleontology to embryology), chemistry, geology (including hydrology), medicine (all forms of medical specialties, including veterinary medicine), health and nutrition, agronomy/agriculture (including crop and soil science, forestry, and degrees related to farming and fisheries), physics and astronomy, mathematics, and engineering. These categories sufficed to classify the vast majority of signatories to the DI’s list. Since the biology-related degrees are most directly relevant to evaluating the truth of evolution, my script was written to give that match top priority, and to choose a less directly related field only if necessary.

This work produced the following summary (you can also download the raw text of the petition and my Perl script):

Biology 146
Chemistry 151
Geology 37
Medicine 114
Health/Nutrition 10
Agronomy/Agriculture 12
Physics 103
Mathematics 45
Engineering 113
Other 23
Total 754

Although there are some biologists on the DI’s list, they’re not a majority or even a plurality. In fact, the largest single category is chemists – a field whose bearing on evolution is tangential at best. Medical doctors, physicists, mathematicians and engineers make up much of the rest of the list.

Still, the DI petition does have some real biologists. The question is, what percentage of the world’s scientists does this group represent? After all, if there were only a thousand biologists worldwide, 146 dissenters would be a sizable faction. If there were a million, 146 dissenters would be an insignificantly tiny minority.

To gauge the answer to this question, we can turn to a very useful data source. In order to demonstrate the true depth of scientific support for evolution, the National Center for Science Education put together an amusing counterpetition, dubbed Project Steve. They wrote up a strong, unequivocal statement supporting evolution and expressing opposition to intelligent design. Then they circulated it in the scientific community, with one catch: they would only accept signatures from scientists named Steve (or Stephen, or Stephanie, or some other variant of that name). How many Steves did the NCSE find?

The answer, as of this writing, is over one thousand. Using the same script as I used on the DI petition, here’s the raw text and the breakdown of the Steves by specialty:

Biology 523
Chemistry 101
Geology 72
Medicine 127
Health/Nutrition 8
Agronomy/Agriculture 2
Physics 141
Mathematics 27
Engineering 49
Other 33
Total 1083

You can see for yourself that, unlike the DI’s list, practicing scientists with degrees in biology make up nearly half of Project Steve. They form by far the largest single bloc and vastly outnumber the signatories from other fields.

To meaningfully compare the two lists and the sizes of the communities they represent, one final question presents itself: How many Steves are on the DI’s list? To answer that, I wrote another script to scan for DI Steves, and here are the results:

Stephen J. Cheesman, Ph.D. Geophysics, University of Toronto
Stephen Crouse, Professor of Kinesiology, Texas A&M University
Stephen C. Knowles, Ph.D. Marine Science, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Steven Gollmer, Ph.D. Atmospheric Science, Purdue University
Stephan J. G. Gift, Professor of Electrical Engineering, The University of the West Indies
Stephen Meyer, Ph.D. Philosophy of Science, Cambridge University
Steve Maxwell, Associate Professor of Molecular and Cellular Medicine, Texas A&M University, H.S.C.
Stephen Sewell, Assistant Professor of Family Medicine, Texas A&M University
Stephen Lloyd, Ph.D. Materials Science, University of Cambridge (UK)
C. Steven Murphree, Professor of Biology, Belmont University

The numbers speak for themselves: the DI has only ten total Steves, as compared to 1083 for the NCSE, and only one in biology, as compared to the 523 NCSE Steves. From this evidence, one can easily extrapolate to the total number of scientists who stand squarely behind evolution as the best and the only scientific explanation for the diversity of life. The ratio of evolutionary scientists to creationists appears to be in the neighborhood of 500 to 1.

Are there some scientists who deny evolution? I don’t doubt it. In a field as large and diverse as evolutionary biology, you’ll always find a few naysayers willing to challenge the consensus view. And you’ll always find scientists, even renowned ones, who are known for their quirks, eccentricities, and fringe views. (The late John Mack, a Harvard psychiatrist who believed in alien abduction, is a case in point.) Having a Ph.D is no guarantee of always being rational. But the lesson of Project Steve is that a tiny, carefully cultivated minority of dissenters in no way matches the overwhelming tide of real, practicing scientists who use evolution in their lab and field work every day. This conclusion holds all the more when those dissenters openly admit they were motivated by their religious beliefs to attack evolution before they ever learned about the evidence. Such is Wells’ first interviewee, whom we’ll meet next.

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