Friday, October 27, 2006


Evolution, Intelligent Design, and peer reviews

The New York Times tells us about a group of 75 science professors at Case Western Reserve University, who have signed a letter endorsing Tom Sawyer for the Ohio state Board of Education, over incumbent Deborah Owens Fink. Dr Owens Fink is "a leading advocate of curriculum standards that encourage students to challenge the theory of evolution."

Now, I've generally stayed out of the "evolution vs ID" arguments, mostly because so many others are arguing it more effectively than I would, and partly because I find the discussion repetitious and tedious. I'm not really going to get into it now, either, but I do want to address one aspect of a common argument that's used by the Intelligent Design (a.k.a "Creationism" with a bow-tie) proponents.

But Dr. Owens Fink, a professor of marketing at the University of Akron, said the curriculum standards she supported did not advocate teaching intelligent design, an ideological cousin of creationism. Rather, she said, they urge students to subject evolution to critical analysis, something she said scientists should endorse. She said the idea that there was a scientific consensus on evolution was "laughable."
It's that last sentence I want to look at, because we see it, or some variation — claim or implication that there's significant doubt about evolution within the legitimate scientific community — frequently, and I think many who don't know how that scientific community works are sucked in by it.

The major indication that an idea has scientific credibility is whether the idea has serious discussion in peer-reviewed journals and conferences. It's not sufficient to find some "legitimate scientists" who support it; one can, I'm sure, find a scientist or two who'll say that the sun will rise tomorrow in the west, if one looks in the right watering holes. But it's the peer-review process that separates serious debate from fringe nuttery.

The obvious criticism that comes, then, is that, well, reviewers simply won't accept for publication things with which they don't agree, so it's an "old boy network" that blocks serious, legitimate dissenting views.

That's just not true.

I say that as a frequent peer-reviewer, and one who has more than a few times recommended acceptance of a paper with which I disagreed, when I thought the ideas should be published and discussed. What we're looking for when we review a paper isn't that the paper says what we'd like to see, but, rather, that the paper represents serious work properly executed. That the work is scientifically sound, that the results reported were arrived at through valid methods, that the concepts are therefore worthy of serious discussion. What fails those tests wastes the time of anyone trying to do science.

On the other hand, discussing ideas with which we disagree but that were arrived at through sound science does not waste our time, but opens the door to progress and discovery by making us question what we think we know, in the face of new information. We might, in the end, decide that the new information is faulty, and hold with our old theories, still supported by the best science we have. Or we might adjust our theories, now having better science than before. All this is good.

What is not good is to see fringe claims, unsound and unable to pass peer review, used to support the canard that there is significant disagreement within the scientific community about something for which there is no such disagreement.

Evolution is one of those somethings. There is, indeed, disagreement about particular aspects of evolution, about some mechanisms involved, and so on, and you will see those discussed in peer-reviewed publications. There is no serious disagreement on evolution as a basic process, and such discussion is absent from legitimate scientific literature — not because it's unpopular, but because it's unsound. The scientific consensus on evolution is quite the opposite of "laughable": it's overwhelming.

We're not going to get ID/Creation proponents to stop claiming that serious disagreement exists. But we can educate the non-science public to ask to see the peer-reviewed papers that support their claims.


scouter573 said...

Sadly, the press plays into supporting this perception of uncertainty and debate. The TV interviewer alternates talking heads, one evolution scientist and one creationist/IDer, and leaves the perception that there is an even split. The press does this out of some sense of "fairness".

Barry Leiba said...

Yes, it keeps getting back to the press as an enabler. There was a time when they didn't do that, when "truth" was a better slogan than "fair and balanced".

Anonymous said...

Your article about Evoluton/Intelligent design reveals you own very strong bias against anyone who questions Darwinian evolution. It proves to me that without a doubt you would refuse ANY submission for pier review that challanged evolution in any way. You stretched the truth about this fact.


Barry Leiba said...

Jim, you're right that I'm skeptical about denial of evolution. That's because I've seen plenty of evidence for it, and none against it (see below for explanation). So if someone sent me a paper for peer-review, and the paper "challenged evolution in any way", I would review it with skepticism. Yes.

But I would not reject it out of hand. You probably won't believe that, and I won't argue it with you further (there's no value in a "would not / would too" argument).

For me to recommend acceptance of the paper, it would have to convince me that it added value to the discussion. Mostly, that would mean that it'd have to present evidence that was measurable and reproducible — and not based in what was written in a book thousands of years ago.

Now, I think you'll say that, well, if I rule out The Book, I'm hardly being fair, and that's exactly your point: that I'll dismiss it out of hand. But I see it differently: what I'll dismiss out of hand is circular reasoning. Saying that the evidence is in the Bible, and the Bible is true because it's the Bible (written by God, inspired by God, whatever) is circular.

That might not agree with what you believe, but it's how science is done — even by scientists who, as you, believe in the Bible.