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Project Steve and the Appeal to Authority
By Matt Inlay
Posted May 8, 2004
Before I go to a new movie, I usually check out its rating on Rotten
Tomatoes. This is a wonderful website which compiles nearly every major
movie critic's review of a given movie and spits out a verdict of either "rotten"
or "fresh". If you need a little more detail than this binary output, they also
give the percentage of positive reviews (60% is the minimum for a "fresh" rating).
In addition, they include links to most of the reviews so you can read them
yourself. I have yet to find a single movie critic whose taste in movies is
similar enough to mine to base my movie-watching choices on alone, especially
with the not-so-subtle rise in ticket prices as of late. Roger Ebert comes pretty
close, but 4 stars (out of a max of 4) for "Titanic"? C'mon, Rog. Nevertheless,
I do find that if you combine all the movie critics' opinions, as Rotten Tomatoes
does, you can get a pretty good sense of how good a movie will be.
When asked why they "believe" in evolution, most non-scientists would say because
the overwhelming majority of the world's scientists do. This may sound like
an appeal to authority, but is it really such a bad thing? If 9 out of 10 mechanics
think something is wrong with your car, shouldn't you get it fixed? Unlike a
movie, a concept like evolution doesn't take $9 and 2 hours of your time to
evaluate. Truly understanding the evidence takes years of study. Reading popular
books on the topic might save some time, but really, a popular book is just
one person's opinion. The information you receive from a book is still filtered
through that person's bias. If that person happens to be a crackpot with excellent
writing skills, they might influence you more than a brilliant scientist that
can't write. The point is, at some level we all have to rely on the opinions
of others. You might as well be on the same side that 99% of the people who
have dedicated their lives to the study of evolution are on.
The DI 100
Lately, the creationists have been trying to utilize the appeal to authority.
You might wonder why, since this tactic would clearly not be in their favor.
This would be like if Yao Ming said that China was a better basketball nation
than the United States. It doesn't matter if Yao is the real deal (which he
is), there's a substantial majority of non-chinese NBA players that would disagree
with him. Come to think of it, this probably isn't a good analogy. Yao is a
pretty decent basketball player. It would be more like Wang
Zhizhi saying that China is the better basketball nation, or even better,
William Hung. And yet the creationists
plug away, creating lists of "scientists" who question the validity of evolution,
and printing them as advertisements in newspapers. The most famous example,
of recent date, is the Discovery Institute's (DI) 100
"scientific dissenters from Darwinism", generated in response to a claim
on the PBS series evolution that evolution is supported by "virtually
every reputable scientist in the world." This petition, signed by about 100
"I am 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."
Wow, what a declaration. "I am skeptical of claims...." "Careful examination of
the evidence....should be encouraged." Hey, thanks for taking a stand. Let me tweak
this statement slightly:
I am skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural
selection to fully account for the complexity of life. Careful examination
of the scientific evidence for evolutionary theory should be encouraged.
Would you say the changes I made (in boldface) significantly alter the meaning
of this statement? I don't think so. And yet, with those changes I think almost
every scientist would agree to it. So is this list, with such a weak statement,
signed by mostly non-biologists, really supposed to impress anybody? 100 signatures?
There are probably about 150 graduate students currently in UCSD's Biology department.
I'm sure I could get two-thirds of them to sign a counterstatement. Of course,
if I stopped at 100 that would make each list equal, suggesting that the numbers
of "scientists" for and against evolution were also equal. But let me ask you
this, how many Universities in the United States are there with Biology Departments?
So you see, 100 is a pretty pathetic number to be bragging about. And yet there
they go, plugging away their precious list as though it meant something. What's
amusing is how they spin it. Since they obviously can't claim that 100 scientists
is a significant number (actually some do), they use the phrases like, "a growing
number of scientists question evolution" or something like that. Don't believe
me? Try googling the term "evolution" with the phrase "growing number of scientists",
and you'll see what I mean. Here are a few (and this is just from the first
"Even though the large majority of modern scientists still embrace
an evolutionary view of origins, there is a significant and growing
number of scientists who have abandoned evolution altogether and have accepted
"Are students learning the whole truth about Darwin's theory of evolution?
According to a growing
number of scientists, the surprising answer is no."
"There are a growing
number of scientists who are skeptical about Darwinism."
number of scientists are forsaking evolutionary theory for creation science"
number of scientists around the world no longer believe that natural selection
or chemistry, alone, can explain the origins of life, and while they are still
a minority, they are a growing minority,"
number of scientists now question that ... transitional fossils really
are transitional forms"
"But a growing number of
serious scientists touting Ivy League credentials, multiple Ph.D.'s,
and tenured professorships are challenging Darwin's previously incontrovertible
(What's interesting is that it's not very obvious which of these quotes are
from self-described creationists and which are from Intelligent Design advocates,
who object to being called creationists.)
The sad thing about this tactic is, it's working. One of the above quotes is
not from a Discovery Institute propagandist, it's from a parent. So apparently
the message, though meaningless, is getting out there. And the fact that it's
working once again proves my theory that a creationist will listen the most
qualified person who's saying exactly what they want to hear.
Countering the Appeal to Authority
So how does one counter such a tactic? One way is to disregard the appeal to
authority altogether and argue based entirely on the scientific evidence. For
the most part, this is what evolution supporters do, and would like to continue
doing. The reason why evolution is considered the current best explanation for
our origins is not because it got the most votes at the last origins theory
caucus. The reason is because the theory of evolution can explain almost everything
we've observed about our origins. It generates testable predictions which are
continually being confirmed, and it can be falsified but hasn't. Scientists
can and do use the theory of evolution to better understand nature. There's
a reason why the phrase, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light
of evolution" is so widely quoted. However, it doesn't matter how convincing
the arguments for evolution are if Joe Public can't understand them. If there
are two scientists, both with Ph.D.s, arguing opposite viewpoints using technospeak
that no non-scientist could easily understand, who is going to be believed?
The side that keeps touting their credentials or the side that doesn't?
The second option is to adopt the appeal to authority. I think certainly those
scientists who actually study evolutionary biology, and should therefore know
the most about it, are entitled to do so. They should be able to say, "Look,
I've spent the last 20 years studying this stuff. I've published over 50 articles
in the peer-reviewed literature. I'm sorry, let me rephrase, the real
peer-reviewed literature. I barely know my kids because I spend all my time
in lab generating and analyzing data, and going to conferences presenting it.
And you're telling me this guy, who is not a professor, doesn't have a single
first author paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, whose non-peer-reviewed
book has been ripped apart by every evolutionary biologist that's read it, and
has openly said his primary goal of getting a Ph.D. in biology was so that he
could say he has a Ph.D. in biology, should be given equal weight to
me?" Of course, this should come after they first try to explain,
in detail, the mountains of evidence in favor of evolution, and second, after
they hand the audience some tissue so they can wipe off their drool and deglaze
Another way to combat their list is to generate a counterlist. If the IDists
have a list of 100 scientists, and we want to demonstrate that only about one
percent of scientists support ID, then one way to do this is to produce a list
of 10,000 scientists that support evolution. I think if a lay person, who didn't
understand the evidence for or against evolution, were to hold up the DI list
of 100 and the pro-evolution list of 10,000, the point would get across. Simple
enough, right? There are, however, a few problems with this idea. On a practical
level, this would mean that we would have to get 100 scientists to be on our
list for every 1 of theirs. If the DI knew that a counter list was being generated,
they would scurry to find anyone they could with any type of credential in science,
just to make it more arduous for us. We could complain that their list has people
with only a bachelors degree, but what difference would it make, their list
already is chock full of people with irrelevant degrees (e.g. dentistry),
and yet they proudly display their list whenever the opportunity arises.
The main problem, though, is that scientists in general are not fond of advancing
theories through popular vote. Sure, most theories gain acceptance by gathering
support from an increasing number of scientists, but I can't think of a single
instance where a bunch of scientists gathered together and voted for
a theory. And why should they even have to vote? Evolution is so fundamental
to biology that most scientists would find it insulting to even have their support
of it questioned. Would it be appropriate to ask Iraqi-Americans to sign a statement
pledging their allegiance to the United States? To create a counter list would
send a message to the public that it's okay to argue by petition, and end up
validating the DI's list.
There is a third option, mockery. And thus began Project Steve.
Enter the Steves
So how do you convey to the public that the vast, vast, vast majority of scientists
support evolution, and only an insignificant minority oppose it? How do you
demonstrate that anyone who claims that a "growing number of scientists" question
evolution is trying to mislead the public? How do you satisfy the urge of every
mainstream biologist who wants to say, "Shut up and get a Ph.D. in biology and
do 20 years of research before you tell me that the uniting principle of our
field is a fairy tale!" How do you create a list that will end, once and for
all, the use of lists? And finally, how do you do all this without giving the
creationists any grounds to claim we're taking them seriously?
The answer? Project Steve.
And thus, our good friends at the NCSE, Glenn Branch and Skip Evans, with a
little help from the TalkDesign team, drafted a statement, a strong statement,
in support of evolution and in clear opposition to Intelligent Design. The statement
was then circulated and signed by a select group of scientists, ones whose research
drew from or utilized evolutionary theory. But there was a catch. Only scientists
named Steve (or Stephanie, or any other derivation of Steve) were asked to sign.
In that way, the counterlist changed from a tone of serious opposition to playful
mockery. After all, how can you possibly take seriously a list composed entirely
of people named Steve? It's just so silly!
We the Steves, hereby declare, with the force and authority afforded
to our namesake, our undying support for the theory of evolution. From this
day forward, we solemnly swear to uphold the doctrines of Darwinism, battle
the evils of ignorance, and fear the power of natural selection. May the foes
of Darwin, and the supporters of pseudoscience everywhere, beware the wrath
of the 100 Steves!
All kidding aside, the name Steve was chosen as a tribute to the late Stephen
Jay Gould, who passed away shortly before this project began. Personally, I
find it touching for so many of his fellow scientists to stand behind him and
attest to the veracity of evolution as a theory. For a great story on the background
of Project Steve, check out Glenn and Skip's article, All
About Steve (and Darwin), published in the May 2003 issue of Geotimes.
According to recent census information, about 1% of the population has the
name Steve, Stephanie, Stephen, etc. Therefore, a list of Steves represents
only about 1% of eligible scientists. So by limiting ourselves to only Steves,
we found a way compete with the DI's list without have to put out 100 times
their effort. If we found 100 Steves, it would be representative of 10,000 scientists
total. So as long as the two lists had an equal number of signatures, we could
still make the point that only about 1% of scientists question evolution. The
statement began circulation around the end of 2002. As of today (4/5/04), there
are 431 Steves on the list,
representing about 43,000 scientists. Of course, the DI might think it unfair
of us to just multiply our number by 100, which is fine. I don't like dealing
with big numbers anyway. Let's just compare Steves on both lists. The Discovery
Institute's list of 100 scientists originally had 0 Steves, but Stephen Meyer,
who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy, is now on the list. So basically it's 431 predominantly
biologist Steves to 1 Philosopher Steve. Michael Hopkins of the Talk.Origins
archive surveyed all the
lists put forth by creationist groups, and found a whopping total of 16 Steves.
The DI also added 52 scientists in Ohio
and 40 more in
Texas to their list, adding 1 Steve apiece. So all together, there are
18 Steves on these lists. However, I looked through each list and found several
duplicates (one was duplicated 4 times, twice in one list due to a spelling
error). So eliminating the duplicates, here is the list of Steves opposed to
evolution, in its entirety:
1. Stephen Meyer, Ph.D. Philosophy of Science (Cambridge) Professor
of Philosophy at Whitworth College
2. Steven Austin, Ph.D. Geology (Penn State University)
3. Stephen Taylor, Ph.D. Electrical Engineering (University of Liverpool)
4. Stephen Grocott, Ph.D. Organometallic Chemistry (University of Western Austrailia)
5. Stephen Deckard Ed.D. (University of Sarasota), Assistant Professor of Education
6. Stephen Fawl, Ph.D. Chemistry (UC Davis) Professor of Chemistry, Napa Valley
7. Steven Gollmer, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Physics, Cedarville College
8. Stephen Huxley, Ph.D. Professor of Information and Decision Modelling, University
of San Francisco
9. Stephen Crouse, Ph.D. Exercise Physiology (University of New Mexico, Albuquerque)
Professor of Kinesiology, Texas A&M
The type of degree, the field it is in, and from what university are listed
respectively. If available, their current occupations are also noted. So there
are 9 Steves opposed to evolution, and 431 supporting it. Wouldn't you love
to see the DI try to circulate a petition to "teach the controversy" with 9
signatures on it? How impressive would that be? Also, I should mention the criteria
for their lists are not the same as the Project Steve list. The NCSE statement
was initially sent to biology professors at research institutions. However,
after that it began circulating through word of mouth, and because there wasn't
a rigorous screening process to get on the list, not every Steve is a biology
professor. For example, Steve #400, Stephen Hawking, is not a biologist. But
most are. At last count, about two-thirds of the Steves are biologists. This
is in stark contrast to the DI 100, as exemplified by the 9 Steves. None of
those 9 are biologists. So in reality, counting only biology professors, it's
more like 300 to 0. Is it unfair to only count biologists? Maybe, but it's very
revealing that the closer the subject of the degree is to evolutionary biology,
the fewer proportion of dissenters are.
How have the creationists responded to Project Steve? Here are a few quotes:
Jody Sjogren, with the pro-intelligent design group Science Excellence
for All Ohioans, says it is clear evolutionists are taking desperate measures
to justify their theory.
"They've run out of ammunition," she says. "If this is all they can
come up with, it doesn't say anything more for their theory --
and it shows a certain amount of fear that students, teachers, parents, and
citizens alike are expressing curiosity and interest in intelligent design."
Desperate measures? Who called in the lawyers first, huh? I find it strange
that a theory that has a marketing strategy but not a research program would
call another theory desperate. I also like how they pretend that no evolution
supporter has ever put forth any scientific arguments to "justify" evolution.
They have about as much a grasp of the meaning of the word justify as the latest
Forrest Turpen, executive director of Christian Educators Association
International, says it is obvious the evolution-only advocates feel their ideology
and livelihood are being threatened.
Okay. Right. I think they have a word for that. It's called projection.
According to Stephen Lawler on the Focus
on the Family website, the "Steves" on this list are bowing to peer pressure.
However, the Steves were all contacted by email. Is it really so difficult to
escape from this type of peer pressure? All they had to do was not reply.
UCSD's IDEA club published their own response
to Project Steve. In it, they said:
For ID-proponents, the most effective way to rebut the argument to
authority and try to shift the discussion back to the particulars of the evidence,
is to temporarily fall into the trap and to become distracted from the evidence,
and compile a list showing that a lot of intelligent people question Darwinism
This makes it sound like the evolution supporters started the appeal to authority.
Perhaps I missed the last full-page ad that evolution supporters bought to list
themselves and their degrees. The whole purpose of Project Steve was to mock
these kinds of lists. It's ironic that the IDEA club would condemn the use of
lists while simultaneously publishing their own.
However, of all the responses I read, I liked this one the best. They try to
argue that the evolution/creation debate should focus entirely on the evidence.
I fundamentally agree with this, but the problem I have is that the creationists,
by and large, distort the evidence as they see fit. It's much harder to distort
a statistic like 99%.
But enough of the little fish. Here's William Dembski's response
to Project Steve, quoted in its entirety:
If Project Steve was meant to show that a considerable majority of
the scientific community accepts a naturalistic conception of evolution, then
the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) could have saved its energies
-- that fact was never in question. The more interesting question was whether
any serious scientists reject a naturalistic conception of evolution -- that
fact has been in question, especially by the NCSE. That it is now a known fact
can be credited to Seattle's Discovery Institute, whose list of scientists questioning
Darwinian evolution was the impetus for Project Steve. Interestingly, the NCSE
has on numerous occasions stressed that science is not decided at the ballot
box. If the NCSE still holds that position, then Project Steve is not only a
proof of the obvious but also an exercise in irrelevance.
This response is similar to the IDEA club's. Namely, he thinks that Project
Steve is meant to demonstrate that a "considerable majority" of scientists support
evolution. No, that's not exactly correct. With the publication of the DI 100,
the question became, "Do a significant number of scientists question
evolution?" The purpose of Project Steve was to show, that if the scientific
community thought that lists like these were important (which we don't), and
if we wanted to generate our own list of scientists that support evolution
(which we don't), then we could easily show that the DI 100 represents
only an insignificant minority. Remember, the DI originally objected to the
phrase "virtually every reputable scientist in the world." So does 99% count
as "virtually every"? I'll leave that for the readers to decide (don't get me
started on the "reputable" word either). It's so ironic that Dembski condemns
the use of lists while still trying to justify his own. Look, it's simple. Either
have a list or don't, but don't say yours is somehow okay while ours isn't.
That's just hypocrisy. I also like how Dembski accuses NCSE of arguing from
authority with Project Steve. The whole point of Project Steve was to mock arguments
from authority. I guess IDists don't do irony.
So how has Project Steve affected the evolution/creation debate? Well, first
of all, it's really hard to take seriously those lists of "scientific dissenters
from Darwinism" anymore (not as though we did beforehand). On internet chatrooms,
it's become real easy to rebut anyone who pulls out one of those lists.
My preferred rejoinder is, "Yeah, but how many are named Steve?" It also provides
more tangible evidence that the number of scientists that support evolution
vastly exceeds the number that question it. I for one am getting pretty tired
of the "well, a growing number of scientists,..." line.
When the list of Steves was finally announced, a little over a year ago, I
honestly thought we'd see the end of lists. Unfortunately, a year later, with
the exception of Dembski's little blurb, the DI has basically ignored Project
Steve, and continues to tout the DI 100 and new lists in Ohio, Texas, and Georgia.
I'm not sure how feasible it would be to present the Steves to one of those
states' Boards of Education. Somehow I don't think mockery would go over too
well in that setting. So in one sense, Project Steve was a failure.
As much as the NCSE and the scientific community would like to stay on the
high road and avoid the appeal to authority, they may no longer have a choice.
The truth is, in this day and age, I don't think people can avoid relying on
the opinions of experts. Personally, I think the public deserves to know what
the scientific community's position is on important issues in science before
they develop their own opinions. I want to know that the scientific community
views global warming as a major environmental threat, and not an overreaction
by environmentalists. I want to know that they think cloning technology
will lead to great breakthroughs in medicine, but not the successful cloning
of human beings. If I was a parent whose children were entering high school,
and I kept reading in the news that many scientists thought evolution was a
theory in crisis, and that students were being prevented from hearing about
this controversy by dogmatic Darwinists, I would want to know that in reality,
99% of scientists support evolution, and only an insignificant minority question