Friday, November 11, 2005

Evolution, academic freedom, etc.

As most of you have probably heard, Dover, PA (site of the latter-day Scopes Monkey Trial) sent its pro-Intelligent Design school board packing in one fell swoop, replacing them with pro-evolution candidates. Meanwhile, the Kansas Board of Education has ruled in favor of teaching ID and has actually decided to rewrite the definition of science so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena. There are times when Middle America strives mightily to live down to the worst stereotypes bandied about by the liberal elites.

My column on the subject runs in The Boston Globe on Monday, but in the meantime, some of my earlier blogposts on the subject can be found here, here, and here.

In other news, Pat Robertson makes a monkey out of himself.

Meanwhile, Glenn Reynolds comments on an NPR story about the travails of Richard Sternberg, a staff scientist at the National Institutes of Health and editor of a small scientific journal loosely affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, who has found himself under fire for publishing a pro-ID article by Discovery Institute fellow Stephen C. Meyer (who has a Ph. D. in the history and philosophy of science). Sternberg, who has all the bona fides of a biologist, has repeatedly denied being an ID supporter. He also claims that he was subjected to all manner of persecution for publishing the piece, including false allegations of misconduct, denial of office space and access to specimens, and pressure on the NIH to fire him. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel apparently found these claims to be substaniated, though the Smithsonian's Jonathan Coddington has denied them.

Glenn Reynolds says he is "deeply unimpressed" by ID, but appalled by the "scientific McCarthyism" deployed against Sternberg. Richard Bennett takes Glenn to task for giving credence to a phony claim of persecution:

I don’t know what motivates Reynolds to make martyrs out of the enemies of science, but it’s a completely unsavory enterprise, and the NPR story is silly.

I have read Richard's earlier posts on the story and some of the linked materials, and so far, I'm not sure what to make of it. I agree that promoting pseudoscience is not the same as intellectual dissent. However, it seems to me that Richard's acceptance of the Smithsonian's denials is a bit too uncritical. Richard also claims that the Meyer article was not "properly peer-reviewed" (the office of Special Counsel has apparently found otherwise) and that Sternberg is associated with Young-Earth Creationism. This last bit, which certainly raised my eyebrows, is interesting. It seems that Sternberg is indeed an editorial board member of the Baraminology Study Group, a "Young-Earth creationist" organization. The BSG says that while Sternberg spoke at its 2001 conference and agreed to serve on its board, he has made it clear to the group that he is not a Young Earth creationist or any kind of creationist at all, and that Sternberg's role is to provide a skeptical vetting of BSG materials.

As far as I can tell, Sternberg is a scientist who does not share creationist or pro-"Intelligent Design" views but believes in a dialogue with the "other side." Personally, I think such a position is ill-judged; it promotes the appearance of a serious scientific debate or disagreement where there is none. I think it was rather infelicitous that Sternberg gave the ID'ers the gift of a peer-reviewed article in a "real" (if obscure) scientific journal as a notch in their belt. But still, is Sternberg's unwise decision appropriate grounds for professional persecution? It should be noted that Wesley Ellsbery, of the pro-evolution website The Panda's Thumb, has written that if Sternberg's claims of retaliation (as recounted by David Klinghoffer in a Wall Street Journal op-ed) are correct, "it would be a large breach of ethics and a justified complaint." So I think Glenn has a good point here. Let's get all the facts on the table.

Update: Richard Bennett replies, conceding that he may have been too tough on Sternberg, but also notes that by his own admission Sternberg appointed himself to be the editor of the Meyer paper:

The fact that Sternberg appointed himself to edit Meyer’s paper raised some eyebrows and suggested an absence of impartiality. The peer-review process has been reviewed, and apparently wasn’t obviously flawed, but it would be interesting to know who the reviewers were even if it’s unconventional. If Judy Miller can testify about Libby with his consent, the peer-reviewers can go public on their own.

It’s possible that the reaction to Sternberg’s publication of Meyer’s paper was out of proportion, just as it’s possible that Sternberg’s description of the reaction is extreme, but the paper itself is so thin that its very publication in the Proceedings calls the editorial process into question.

Agreed. It would be helpful to hear from the peer-reviewers in this case.

Update: Richard Bennett links to a statement by the Biological Society of Washington, the publisher of the journal in which the Meyer paper appeared. The statement says that "contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor," solely at Sternberg's discretion. Richard believes this proves "Sternberg's abuse of the review process." Actually, this is more an issue of the editorial process at the journal; we still don't know the story behind the peer review. Did Sternberg stack the deck by cherry-picking pro-ID reviewers who'd be likely to green-light the paper? I, for one, certainly want to know more.


Anonymous said...

Aside from anecdotes about what you think you know, have you read any of the pro-ID arguments?

As a Catholic, the only part of the science of evolution I have to reject is their understanding (and hence, the conclusions they come to) regarding the nature of 'randomness'. We believe, and there is nothing to refute, that there is an inherent order, and claims made from evolution to the contrary are, in fact, tail-biting.

However, all that aside, the ID argument is _not_ in itself uncompelling - the information theory argument is valid on a gloss, and the statistical model that they use to gauge irreductible complexity is really not outlandish. A fairly tolerable explaination exists here: The Little Engine That Could...Undo Darwinism

Now - one is curious as to what the Kansas BoE is _really_ doing, as opposed to what people think they are doing. If they are asserting that the end goal of the study of the laws of nature is not an end to itself, then I would have to agree. We study nature so as to know God better. Anything else probably makes you a marxist.

Revenant said...

have you read any of the pro-ID arguments?

I have yet to read one that did not boil down to the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantum -- "we can't figure out how it could NOT have been designed, so it was designed". If you know of one, I would be interested in hearing it.

However, all that aside, the ID argument is _not_ in itself uncompelling

When 90% of the population believes in gods, obviously "God did it" is going to be a not-uncompelling argument to a lot of people.

Anonymous said...

Dembski plays fast and loose with information theory, and it's clear that he actually understands it. For example, in info theory "information" in a function of the non-uniformity of a system, but in Dembski's world it's the opposite.

The idea behind his filters - that "design" is a property of a system, and not of the process that produces the system - is also quite peculiar, so I'd have to say that the tail-chasing is mainly on his side.

Evolution isn't strictly speaking driven by "randomness", but by reproductive success. Mutations may be random in the first instance, but the successful combination of genes is driven by selection pressure.

I've yet to hear a pro-ID argument that doesn't distort the science of biology, math, info theory, etc.

Revenant said...

I recommend that anyone with an interest in seeing how seemingly-designed systems can arise out of randomness check out some of the net resources about evolutionary software systems. Tierra (more here) is a fun one to play around with.

The belief that a highly complicated system must be the product of an intelligent designer is entirely human. But it simply isn't true, and we know that for a fact.

beAzl said...

Interesting post, as always. I am pleased with the outcome in Dover, and Pat Roberts should be ashamed.

It is important that ID scientists, if they want to call themselves scientists, subject their ideas to scientific journals, journals that are integral with the rest of the scientific community, and not create an isolated echo chamber of journals and publishers sympathetic to ID.

Likewise, it is incumbent on the rest of the scientific community not to give the ID scientists a legitimate excuse for declaring independence from peer review. That means evaluating submissions by ID scientists just like any other submission, and not concerning themselves with whether accepting the submission would give the ID scientists a “notch in their belt,” or whether it would further politicize the issue. Dismissing ideas simply because the person proposing them belongs to this or that group will backfire. I have no reason to think (based on my limited knowledge) that such a bias exists, but if it does (and the Sternberg case may or may not be evidence of it), it should be stamped out immediately. Refutations of the ideas should be made based on the ideas, point by point, rather than on sweeping generalizations. The “Statement from the Council of the Biological Society of Washington” that the article should not have been published simply because a resolution passed in 2002 states that “there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity” doesn’t seem sufficient to me. How can there be credible scientific evidence, if this is the only reason given for why any new submission that differs must not be accepted into scientific journals? That looks like tail biting to me. They (or other scientists) need to explain why this article is not credible. Which references have been shown to be wrong or not credible? Which line of reasoning is faulty?

And as I’ve argued before, dismissing ID because it lacks a testable hypothesis needs to be clarified, at least in my mind. There are two kinds of tests: Falsifying tests and experiments that provide evidence for a hypothesis. You could say that every lab experiment that fails to produce complex life from base amino acids, combined with random physical stimulation, provides (limited) support for the ID hypothesis (although I am trying to “read their mind” a little bit in figuring what their hypothesis is), or at least puts in question whether evolutionary theory is complete. Producing life via random simulation in a lab would, if the ID scientists are really scientists, falsify their hypothesis (realistically, though, I’m sure some of them would try to find “design” in the random simulation). Still extremely flimsy compared to the evidence for evolution being the complete explanation for complex life, but not flimsy enough that I think it should be verboten to submit ideas following this line of thought. Remember, few, if any, major scientific breakthroughs began as the most plausible theory from the get-go. But I hasten to add, of course, that the vast, vast, majority of implausible theories have turned out to be dead wrong, and I have no reason for thinking this isn’t one of them.

Revenant, thanks for the interesting links. I’ll try playing around with it when I have some spare time.

Revenant said...

You could say that every lab experiment that fails to produce complex life from base amino acids, combined with random physical stimulation, provides (limited) support for the ID hypothesis

Um, no.

First of all, evidence that theory "A" is false is only evidence that theory "B" is true if theory "B" is the one and only alternative to "A". Intelligent Design is not the only alternative to chemical theories of abiogenesis. Simply put, even if we knew for a fact that the theory of evolution was entirely wrong, there would still be no reason at all to believe in Intelligent Design. We're just be back at square one, with no rational idea of what's going on.

Secondly, how can the failure of intelligent beings to produce life in a lab *support* the idea of intelligent design? If Intelligent Design is ever going to make any kind of headway as a scientific theory, it will need to demonstrate that life CAN be created in a lab.

beAzl said...


You are correct that neither through random stimuli nor through "design" have we yet (to my knowledge) created what we would consider life from base materials, so if there have been attempts to do both, this fact slightly (but very slightly) weakens both theories.

But, as you know, they have not used "life" in their kind of mysterious hypothesis (as I sloppily did) but tried to lower the bar by using less nebulous concepts, perhaps, like "specified complexity" or "irreducible complexity", under which things like eyes (or cameras) or mouse traps might qualify, including some life forms (like bacteria flagellum, I think). And yes, it seems that irreducible complexity has not yet been defined in such a way that these things truly qualify, not sure about whether specified complexity has fared better. But if it is possible to come up with a definition under which eyes or cameras qualify, then obviously, we can design such things, and to my knowledge have not yet created them through random stimuli on physical materials. Does the software link you provide generate things that might qualify? That's good evidence against ID (but aren't you acknowledging in providing this link that it is possible to provide evidence against their theory?) Maybe a software program could be written similar to the link you provided, that models physical materials, and, subjecting the model to random stresses, objects with one of these complex behaviors arises? It seems to me that would seal the fate of design intelligence, because I think they are saying there has to be design intelligence (or at least something other than random stimuli) involved for these things to arise.

Honestly, do you not see a potential, testable hypothesis here? Put aside whether it seems plausible or interesting to you. Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

It turns out that the NPR reporter who filed this story, Barbara Hagerty, has connections with organizations pushing the Christian agenda in journalism and elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

Try this link:

Revenant said...

Does the software link you provide generate things that might qualify?

There's a pretty good summary at those links. The short answer is "yes" -- the "life" evolved under Tierra is certainly as "irreducibly complex" as an eye or a flagellum.

Cathy Young said...

Here's the correct link:

Ballad of Barbara Bradley-Hagerty