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Creationism's Holy Grail: The Intelligent Design of a Peer-Reviewed Paper

(Skeptic Magazine
Vol. 11, Number 4, pp. 66-69)

By Robert Weitzel

Posted August 28, 2005

Like the medieval prince who forfeited his kingdom in a quest for the Holy Grail, intelligent design creationists have embarked on the equally quixotic quest to place a peer-reviewed article in a bona fide scientific journal. This 21st -century grail is a linchpin in the intelligent design movement's strategy for winning their case in both the court of law and the court of public opinion.

Intelligent design creationists maintain that life is too complex to have developed solely by evolutionary mechanisms. They believe this complexity could only have been "engineered" by an intelligent designer. Strategically, they refrain from identifying the nature of the designer. This tactic is designed to give their notion of creation a patina of scientific credibility and protection from First Amendment challenges.

The quest for peer review began in a calculated way shortly after a 1992 Southern Methodist University conference on intelligent design. Phillip Johnson, then a University of California, Berkley law professor, allied himself with Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, William Dembski, Jonathan Well and John West Jr., a group that would, in 1996, become the founding Fellows of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture (CSC).

The CSC's guiding principle is to "replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and humans are created by God." They will accept nothing less than the "complete overthrow of materialism and its damning cultural legacies." To achieve this end, Johnson, with help from the Fellows at the CSC, developed the Wedge Strategy, a 20-year plan with the ultimate goal "to see design theory permeate our religion, cultural, moral and political life." However, it is the first strategic objective of the Wedge, "to see intelligent design theory as an accepted alternative in the sciences," that set the knights of the CSC to searching for creationism's holy grail, a peer-reviewed scientific article.

Imagine the sense of vindication felt by intelligent design's rank-and-file when, after waiting nearly 15 years, a review article written by Stephen Meyer, Director and Senior Fellow of the CSC and professor at the theologically conservative Christian Palm Beach Atlantic University, appeared in a bona fide scientific journal. Predictably though, their long awaited golden chalice turned out to be little more than a Tupperware cup.

Meyer's article, "The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories" was published in the June 2004 Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. The Biological Society was founded in 1880 and has approximately 250 members. According to Thompson Scientific, the Proceedings has an impact factor of 0.284, ranking it 2678 out of 3110 scored scientific journals. Although an obscure journal, it does have all the scientific legitimacy the CSC's spin department requires.

As soon as members of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) received their June copy of the Proceedings, indignant subscribers began to protest the publication of Meyer's article. A statement released by the Society's governing council maintained that the article "represents a significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history. It was published without the prior knowledge of the Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, or the associate editors. We have met and determined that all of us would have deemed this paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings." The BSW Council also endorsed the American Association for the Advancement of Science's resolution on intelligent design, which maintains that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting it as a testable hypothesis to explain the development of life.

Considering the odds against Meyer's article appearing in the BSW journal, one can only infer that its publication was engineered by an "intelligent designer." The intelligent designer in this case is the Proceedings then editor, Dr. Richard Sternberg. In defending his decision to publish Meyer's article, Dr. Sternberg claims to have followed the Society's editorial policy for peer-review. On his homepage Dr. Sternberg writes, "As managing editor it was my prerogative to choose the editor who would work directly on the paper, and as I was best qualified among the editors I chose myself." What he does not emphasize on his site are his affiliations that qualified him to favorably review an article on intelligent design.

In addition to his work as a taxonomist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Dr Sternberg is on the editorial board of the Occasional Papers of the Baraminology Study Group, a creation journal committed to the literal interpretation of Genesis. He is a Fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design, which promotes intelligent design creationism. He is also a signatory of the Discovery Institute's "100 Scientists who Doubt Darwinism" statement.

Dr. Sternberg further asserts that the "Meyer's paper underwent a standard peer review process by three qualified scientists, all of whom are evolutionary and molecular biologist teaching at well-known institutions." Since it is not unusual for reviewers to remain anonymous, it is entirely possible that Sternberg sent the article to the qualified scientists of his Baraminology Study Group at Bob Jones University, The Master's College, and Bryan College, all of which are well-known Christian Institutions that require their faculty to sign a statement of belief in the inerrancy of Holy Scripture.

A 6000 word preliminary scientific critique of Meyer's article entitled "Meyer's Hopeless Monster" was written by Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke, and Wesley R. Elsberry and was published in August 2004 on the Panda's Thumb. The Panda's Thumb is a collaborative web log whose writers "discuss evolutionary theory, critique the claims of the antievolution movement, [and] defend the integrity of science and science education."

According to Gishlick et al., Meyer's article is little more than a review essay that rehashes creationist anti-evolution arguments that have appeared in books and periodicals written for the popular press. These are the same arguments that have been refuted ad nauseam by qualified evolutionary scientists working in the relevant disciplines. Meyer relies almost entirely on negative argument and offers nothing in the way of positive research into the nature - either supernatural or extraterrestrial - of the intelligent designer. Neither does he propose any novel mechanisms by which an intelligent designer might have "engineered" such a diversity of life forms.

Meyer's failure to take advantage of this first peer-review opportunity to present to the scientific community the findings of the intelligent design movement's research program is understandable in light of a comment made by William Dembski, author of the "Design Inference" and arguably the CSC's leading intellectual. At an intelligent design conference held in 2002 entitled, "Research and Progress in Intelligent Design," Dembski told attendees, "Because of ID's outstanding success at gaining a cultural hearing, the scientific research part of ID is now lagging behind." The truth that Meyer avoids throughout the entire 26 pages of his review is that he has no positive research program to offer, no "explanatory hypothesis that could be empirically tested."

Given the length of Meyer's article and the nature of a preliminary critique, Gishlick et al. chose to focus on several of Meyer's major claims regarding the Cambrian Explosion, information theory, and the evolution of novel genes to assess the scientific merit of his article. Specific arguments notwithstanding, the overarching weakness in Meyer's review is his use, or abuse, of citation. Meyer cherry-picks his way through the scientific literature to support his negative argument. Much of the literature he includes is either severely biased (The author most cited in his bibliography is himself.) or irrelevant to his argument. The scientific literature he chooses to ignore would pull the stuffing out of his strawmen.

The opening salvo in Meyer's review is aimed at the Cambrian, a geologic period starting around 540 million years ago when many taxa first appear in the fossil record. Attacking the Cambrian Explosion is a standard tactic in the anti-evolution stratagem. In true creationist fashion, Meyer portrays the "explosion" as a single "instantaneous" creative event instead of one that occurred over a 15 to 20 million-year period. (Paleontologists usually modify their description of the Cambrian "explosion" by noting that this is a "geological" moment which, by comparison to biological or human time, is glacially slow.) Meyer claims that "gaps" in the fossil record indicate an actual lack of ancestors for Cambrian phyla. To support his claim he cites two papers by University of Chicago researcher Mike Foote, ignoring the fact that Foote's papers do not address the Precambrian or Cambrian fossil record. Gishlick et al., maintain that, "Neither of Foote's papers support Meyer's contention that the lack of transitional fossils prior to the Cambrian indicates a lack of ancestors."

In an e-mail correspondence in preparation for this article, "Hopeless Monster" collaborating author, Nick Matzke, writes,"[Meyer] also ignores the fossils of Precambrian metazoans and the fact that the diversity of worm tracks gradually increases over 50 million years" prior to the Cambrian explosion, which "essentially represents the worms getting big enough and armored enough to be commonly fossilized."

To support his assault on the Cambrian explosion, Meyer enlists William Dembski's concepts of "specified complexity" and "complex specified information." Meyer writes, "The Cambrian explosion represents a remarkable jump in the specified complexity or complex specified information' (CSI) of the biological world." However, Meyer fails to substantiate his claim with the necessary details from Dembski's CSI work. The authors of the "Hopeless Monster" assert that Meyer's use of the term CSI is "useless for his argument, and an incorrect use of Dembski." They add that even if "he used [CSI] correctly (by rigorously applying Dembski's filter, criteria, and probability calculations), Dembski's filter has never been demonstrated to be able to distinguish anything in the biological realm it has never been successfully applied by anyone to any biological phenomena."

Meyer further argues that "many scientists and mathematicians have questioned the ability of mutation and selection to generate information in the form of novel genes and proteins." True to form, he neither identifies the scientists nor considers the corpus of scientific literature documenting the evolution of new genes. Gishlick et el. include seven citations in the text of their critique that document the origin of new genes. According to Matzke, one of the seven papers cited ("The origin of new genes: glimpses from the young and the old.") provides "21 examples where the evolution of new genes has been traced in detail." However, the nadir of Meyer's refusal to cite relevant literature is his failure to cite Michael Behe, a colleague at the CSC and the author of "Darwin's Black Box," who admits that novel genes can evolve: "Antibiotics and pesticide resistance, antifreeze proteins in fish and plants, and more may indeed be explained by a Darwinian mechanism."

In a summary, the authors of "Meyer's Hopeless Monster" conclude that Meyer has merely constructed "a rhetorical edifice out of omissions of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, knocking down strawmen, and tendentious interpretations." But the documentation of massive errors and omissions by members of the scientific community is of little consequence to Meyer and the CSC. Despite their rhetoric about the censorship of an entrenched scientific brotherhood, recognition by that "brotherhood" is far less important to the achievement of the CSC's ultimate goal than is recognition by an uninformed, voting public. Their grail, however plastic, was secured the moment the ink dried on the Proceedings' pages. Thereafter they can claim that intelligent design has passed the litmus test of a peer-reviewed journal. They will just leave out a few details, such as the particular circumstances of the article's publication or its official denunciation by the BSW.

Even though the proponents of intelligent design have so far failed to place an article in a journal with an impact factor similar to that of Nature, Science, or Cell, they have been remarkably successful in the Op-Ed pages of leading U.S. newspapers where opinion trumps the scientific method. As Michael Behe, a CSC founding Fellow, pointed out in a February 7, 2005 New York Times opinion piece, "Whatever special restrictions scientists adopt for themselves don't bind the public, which polls show, overwhelmingly, and sensibly, thinks that life was designed" Sadly, according to a 2002 TIMES/CNN poll, 59 percent of that same public also expects the prophecies found in the Book of Revelation to come true.

It is this 59 percent of the American public that "intelligent designers" at the CSC had in mind when they engineered the Wedge Strategy. They are counting on this majority, who has never cracked the spine of a scientific journal in search of a peer-reviewed article, to carry the banner of their Kulturkampf from the local school board, through the court, and onto the public square.


Robert Weitzel lives in Middleton, WI. His essays regularly appear in The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He has also been published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Skeptic Magazine and Freethought Today. He can be contacted at debraw@chorus.net.


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Location of this article: http://www.talkreason.org/articles/holy.cfm