Talk Reason PRINT

More on Signature in the Cell

By Jeffrey Shallit

Posted on January 20, 2010

Yesterday, I showed how the treatment of information in Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell, contains many misunderstandings and unjustified claims.

Today, I want to focus on what I call the "dishonesty factor" of the book: claims that are misleading or just plain false. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has stated that "Meyer’s book seems to me to be written in good faith." Perhaps, after reading these examples, he might reconsider his assessment.

pp. 1-2: Meyer gives a very misleading account of the events surrounding the dubious publication of his shoddy article in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (footnotes omitted):

First, in August 2004, a technical journal housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., called the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington published the first peer-reviewed article explicitly advancing the theory of intelligent design in a mainstream scientific periodical. After the publication of the article, the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History erupted in internal controversy, as scientists angry with the editor -- an evolutionary biologist with two earned Ph.D.'s -- questioned his editorial judgment and demanded his censure. Soon the controversy spilled over into the scientific press as news stories about the article and editor's decision appeared in Science, Nature, The Scientist, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The media exposure fueled further embarrassment at the Smithsonian, resulting in a second wave of recriminations. The editor, Richard Sternberg, lost his office and his access to scientific samples and was later transferred to a hostile supervisor. After Sternberg's case was investigated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a government watchdog organization, and by the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform, a congressional committee, other questionable actions came to light. Both investigations bound that senior administrators at the museum had interrogated Sternberg's colleagues about Sternberg's religious and political beliefs and fomented a misinformation campaign designed to damage his scientific reputation and encourage his resignation. Sternberg did not resign his research appointment, but he was eventually demoted.

This account is misleading in almost every respect. For the true story, you can consult Ed Brayton's fine article in The Skeptic. Here are some facts that Meyer saw fit to omit:

1. Sternberg arguably engaged in misconduct in publishing the article. The council of the Biological Society of Washington, publishers of the journal, issued a statement saying that "the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history" and "Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process." As Brayton argues, "Sternberg’s decision to publish the paper without the normal peer-review process is a flagrant breach of professional ethics that brought disrepute to the Smithsonian."

2. Meyer's claims about retaliation against Sternberg are bogus. Before the controversy and before the article was published, Sternberg (who only held a courtesy appointment at the Smithsonian and was not employed by them) and others were informed about a reorganization of the department that would require a change of offices. Sternberg later was moved again because he requested the move. It is a falsehood to claim he lost his office as a result of retaliation.

3. There was no campaign against Sternberg. His misconduct in publishing the article was discussed - as it should have been - but ultimately no action was taken. No one was "interrogated".

Let's go on to see other misrepresentations in Signature in the Cell:

p. 5: Meyer overstates the impact of Dembski's work by calling it "groundbreaking". Falsely claims Dembski "established a scientific method for distinguishing the effects of intelligence from the effects of undirected natural processes. His work established rigorous indicators of intelligent design..."

This is in line with the usual tactic of creationists: credential inflation. Dembski's work has received a minuscule number of citations in the scientific literature, while truly important work typically receives hundreds or thousands of citations. So in what sense can Dembski's work fairly be considered "groundbreaking"?

Similar credential inflation can be found on pages 178-9, where Meyer says of one of Dembski's articles that it "broke important new ground in understanding pattern recognition." Yet the pattern recognition literature has somehow ignored this "important new ground".

p. 36: Victorian scientists viewed cells as " "homogeneous and structureless globules of protoplasm," amorphous sacs of chemical jelly, not intricate structures of manifesting the appearance of design."

This claim has been repeated again and again by creationists, but it is not true. Fergodsake, the nucleus was discovered in 1833. Here are more detailed rebuttals by Afarensis and Wesley Elsberry.

p. 120: [About the movie Expelled] "When the producers came to our offices to plan interviews, the told us they wanted to find a way to represent what DNA does visually, so that a genera audience could follow the scientific discussion they planned to incorporate into the film. They commissioned a visually stunning three-dimensional animation of DNA and the inner workings of the cell and retained a team of molecular biologists to work closely with the animators."

Somehow Meyer manages to leave out the inconvenient fact that their "visually stunning" animation of the "inner workings of the cell" was ripped off from XVIVO's Inner Life of the Cell.

I could cite even more examples, but this is enough to give the general idea. Whether it's about the technical details of information theory, or the more prosaic details of controversies, Meyer's accounts simply cannot be relied upon.

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