Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Dizzy from the Spin

The Discovery Institute is attempting to counter the recent articles about the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science with the news that, after five long years, its list of "scientists" who express "Scientific Dissent From Darwinism" has finally eked its way over 500 signatures.

The New York Times (may need free registration) has done some investigation of the list. It did "random interviews with 20 people who signed the petition and a review of the public statements of more than a dozen others" and found that many were "evangelical Christians." But first, some additional background:

The National Center for Science Education initiated "Project Steve" as a tongue-in-cheek parody of such lists, which are not limited to the Discovery Institute but have a long history among creationists. In much less time the NCSE was able to get over 700 signature of scientists limited to those with the name "Steve" (or some variation thereof, such as Stephen, Steven, Stephanie, Stefan, and so forth), a name chosen to honor the late Stephen Jay Gould. The Project Steve statement reads:

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.
By the Discovery Institute’s own figures only about 30% of the signatories of its list are biologists (there is a discrepancy between the DI’s figure of 154 biologists and the Times’ article’s 128, so I’m crediting the larger figure), while about two-thirds of the signers of Project Steve are biologists, the people with the most knowledge about evolution. According to census figures, the name "Steve" or its variants occurs in roughly 1% of the American population, a figure that should hold for scientists (and biologists) as well. [February 26, 2006 update: Glenn Branch of the NCSE brought to my attention some further information from Kenneth Chang, the Times reporter who wrote the original article, concerning the numbers. He states that the NCSE reported that 54 percent (381) of the Steves work in biology, including anatomy, anthropology, biochemistry, biophysics, botany and cell biology. If related life sciences fields like medicine, forestry and agriculture are included, the percentage rises to 61 percent. With the Discovery Instititute petition, including all of the life sciences (biology, biochemistry, medicine) raises the number to 178, or 34 percent, even higher than the DI's claim of 154 biologists. My use of "about two-thirds" was based on a NCSE FAQ that clearly stated it was only an approximation of the figures for the original 220 signers and my laziness in not getting a better figure.]

Furthermore, a number of people have pointed out that the statement that the Discovery Institute has circulated is not really "dissent" from evolutionary theory. It reads:

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.
As "Steven J.," a regular poster at the usenet site, talk.origins, put it:

Strictly speaking, there is nothing in [the DI’s] statement that contradicts the statement signed by 700+ participants in "Project Steve" . . .

Mainstream "Darwinists" routinely grant that some portion of evolution results not from natural selection, but genetic drift (the question being just how much). "Darwinists" who are developmental biologists commonly consider that physical constraints on developmental processes play as large a role as mutation and selection. Nor, of course, is any evolutionary biologist going to discourage "careful consideration of the evidence for Darwinian theory." The problems arise only when "careful consideration of the evidence" means presenting incorrect or misleading information in biology classes.
In other words, the Discovery Institute is dishonestly equivocating between "Darwinism" (itself not fairly represented) and "evolutionary theory" and trying to confuse the two to serve a public relations purpose unrelated to the actual science of evolution.

In response to the Times’ investigation, "John G. West, a senior fellow at Discovery, said it was ‘stunning hypocrisy’ to ask signers about their religion ‘while treating the religious beliefs of the proponents of Darwin as irrelevant.’" Of course, the difference is that the Discovery Institute is humping this list as evidence for scientific dissent from evolutionary theory. Clearly, if the people who sign the list are disproportionately from one particular religious view, that calls into question whether it is science or religion that is fueling their dissent.

Perhaps the most telling part of the article on that point is:

Discovery officials did point to two scientists, David Berlinski, a philosopher and mathematician and a senior fellow at the institute, and Stanley N. Salthe, a visiting scientist at Binghamton University, State University of New York, who signed but do not hold conservative religious beliefs.

Dr. Salthe, who describes himself as an atheist, said that when he signed the petition he had no idea what the Discovery Institute was. Rather, he said, "I signed it in irritation."

He said evolutionary biologists were unfairly suppressing any competing ideas. "They deserve to be prodded, as it were," Dr. Salthe said. "It was my way of thumbing my nose at them."

Dr. Salthe said he did not find intelligent design to be a compelling theory, either. "From my point of view," he said, "it's a plague on both your houses."
Not only does this point out the equivocation as to "Darwinism" noted above but it demonstrates that the Discovery Institute, contrary to its claims, is quite aware of the religious beliefs of the signers and the proportion that come from evangelical Christianity.

Furthermore, when faced with the disproportionate numbers of scientists supporting evolutionary theory demonstrated by Project Steve, Bruce Chapman, president of the Discovery Institute, said "We never claimed we're in a fight for numbers." But how is that reconciled with what he said elsewhere in the article: "How many does it take to be a noticeable minority -- 10, 50, 100, 500?" The numbers, as an indicator of the consensus of the scientific community, do count as to whether it is a "noticeable" scientific minority. When it is well less than a fraction of 1% of people knowledgeable in the field and the evidence strongly suggests that the "dissent" is religious and not scientific, that is not "noticeable" scientific dissent. This is even more the case when they cannot muster enough science to convince even a conservative Republican judge that science is what they are doing.
It certainly shows that the DI’s claim that the list represents a "fast growing number of scientific dissenters," is, to put it charitably, laughable.
P.S. For some further information on Stanley N. Salthe, mentioned above as a signer of the Discovery Institute's "dissenters" list, see his homepage. Note that his objection to "Darwinian evolutionary theory" (which he appears to equate with natural selection) is primarily that he sees it as "morally vicious" in its role "as a myth congenial to capitalism." While he raises some scientific objections to natural selection as the prime engine of evolution, it is clear that his main problem with "Darwinism" is philosophical and he seems to have no difficulty in accepting that evolution has occured.
Of course, many of the same people who support ID might find the notion that capitalism is morally vicious somewhat distressing.
Strange bedfellows and all that . . .

In responding to comments on his article (here), Kenneth Chang provided two relevant updates. First, you quote the Discovery Institute's John G. West as protesting to the Times that "it was 'stunning hypocrisy' to ask signers about their religion." Chang explains, "the first question I always asked was not, 'Are you an evangelical Christian?' but 'Why did you sign the petition?'"; it was the signatories -- or "several" of them -- who apparently broached the topic of their religion. Second, where you wrote, "while about two-thirds of the signers of Project Steve are biologists," Chang reports, "the National Center for Science Education says 54 percent (381) of the Steves on the Project Steve petition work in biology, which includes anatomy, anthropology, biochemistry, biophysics, botany, cell biology. Including related life sciences fields like medicine, forestry and agriculture, the percentage rises to 61 percent." The discrepancy is due to the fact that the two-thirds figure reflects the original, approximately 220, signatories, while the 54% figure was assessed on the basis of 703 signatories. (Now, as of February 25, 2006, there are 720.)
Thanks for the heads-up concerning the further information about Mr. Chang's article and the correct numbers concerning the Project Steve list. I was going by the NCSE FAQ that clearly stated the 2/3 figure was approximate and referring to the original 220 signatures. I was being just a little lazy in not looking into it further. I will make a note of the correct figures in the post.

P.S. Congratulations and many thanks to the NCSE for the work you all did on Kitzmiller.
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