Friday, 27 March 2015

There is no atheist conspiracy stopping creationists publishing in the literature. They do, and their papers are hopeless

Poke around the extremes of the evolution denialists in our community, and you'll find fully-fledged conspiracy theorists who seriously believe that there is an evil atheist conspiracy preventing the publication of the scientific papers that they claim will overturn evolutionary biology and restore special creation to the heart of modern science. As with all conspiracy theories, it suffers from one fatal flaw. It's wrong. If you followed the link, you'd find yourself at a page maintained by the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design organisation [1] which maintains a list of "Peer-Reviewed Publications Supporting Intelligent Design". [2] So there you have it. Special creationists it seems are able to publish in the scientific literature, a fact which pretty well destroys the credibility of the conspiracy theorists in our community who believe in a Big Bad Darwinist Conspiracy.

That of course leads on to the question of whether these "Peer-Reviewed Publications Supporting Intelligent Design" have slain the dreaded Darwinist beast. The first step of course is to see what this stupendous corpus of scientific evidence is. The Discovery Institute asserts that:
While intelligent design (ID) research is a new scientific field, recent years have been a period of encouraging growth, producing a strong record of peer-reviewed scientific publications. 
A strong record of peer-reviewed publications? That sounds promising. So what is a strong record?
In 2011, the ID movement counted its 50th peer-reviewed scientific paper and new publications continue to appear. As of 2013, the peer-reviewed scientific publication count topped 75. Many of these papers are recent, published since 2004, when Discovery Institute senior fellow Stephen Meyer published a groundbreaking paper advocating ID in the journal Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. 
Seventy-five papers. In nine years. That's a little over eight papers per year. By any stretch of the term that's pathetic. My personal library of scientific papers on subjects directly related to evolutionary biology exceeds one thousand, and that's a fraction of a percent of the total peer-reviewed literature providing evidence supporting the reality of evolution. To put the number of 75 papers into perspective, the March 2015 edition of the journal Evolution has nineteen original articles, which means that on average in a single year, just this single journal produces more peer-reviewed articles in four months than the ID community has managed in nearly ten years.

Of course, peer review is only the beginning. Many papers are published, cited once or twice, and sink into obscurity. One seminal paper such as Watson and Crick's 1953 Nature paper A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid can have far more impact than scores of lesser papers, so if those 75 papers are revolutionary, ground-breaking, paradigm-shattering articles, the Discovery Institute may have something about which to brag.

Alas for the Discovery Institute, the papers are a collection of marginal articles which have absolutely failed to set the scientific world on fire. Take the "groundbreaking paper" by philosopher (not scientist) Stephen Meyer published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. It turns out that this paper, which fell outside of the scope of the journal and was savagely criticised for its many scientific failings was smuggled into the journal without following the proper peer review method. The Biological Society of Washington went as far as to publicly repudiate the paper:
The paper by Stephen C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," in vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 213-239 of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, was published at the discretion of the former editor, Richard v. Sternberg. Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and 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. For the same reason, the journal will not publish a rebuttal to the thesis of the paper, the superiority of intelligent design (ID) over evolution as an explanation of the emergence of Cambrian body-plan diversity. The Council endorses a resolution on ID published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science which observes that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity. Accordingly, the Meyer paper does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings. (Emphasis mine) [3]
When the journal in which this 'groundbreaking' paper bluntly states that the paper does not meet its required scientific standards, it is not unreasonable to say that this paper is less than impressive. This can be seen by its scientific impact, which as computer scientist Jeffrey Shallit, who maintains a strong professional interest in evolutionary biology points out, is minimal at best:
Now let's look at all 9 papers that have cited Meyer's work, as reported by ISI Web of Science. I have read every paper, except paper 4 (Luskin); for that paper I had to be content with an abstract. 
1. J. Giles, "Peer-reviewed paper defends theory of intelligent design", Nature 431 (7005) (Sept 9 2004), 114. A one-column news article in the news section of Nature about the publication of Meyer's paper. Not a scientific research paper. 
2. K. M. Helgen, "Meyer paper: don't hang the Soc. Wash. out to dry", Nature 432 (7020) (Dec 23 2004), 949. A letter to the editor defending the reputation of the journal that published Meyer's article. Money quote: "Given the Proceedings’ taxonomic focus, Meyer’s ID paper is clearly out of place. Its publication represents a lapse of the journal’s usual editorial policies, and has been swiftly repudiated ( However, although the publication of Meyer’s paper is lamentable, it need not be used to trivialize the Proceedings’ long, respectable and ongoing tradition of cataloguing global biodiversity." Not a scientific research paper. 
3. Mark Terry, "One nation, under the designer", Phi Delta Kappan 86 (4) (Dec 2004), 264. Abstract. Full paper (subscription required). This journal is a professional journal for educators. The paper's subtitle reads, "Mr. Terry alerts readers to a new, more insidious anti-evolutionist strategy. And the redefinition of science is only the first step." Meyer's paper is discussed, as follows: "The supposed "scientific revolution" is a creation of public relations. A science teacher cannot go to any major science journal or scientific organization and find out about all this new research - because there is none. In the fall of 2004 an ID article by a Discovery Institute Fellow appeared in the Proceedings of the Biological Association of Washington, a venerable but formerly obscure journal dealing with subtle taxonomic issues. The flurry of responses to the article gives a good picture of the current state of ID as science: the governing council of the journal almost immediately disavowed the article's publication." Not a scientific research paper. 
4. C. Luskin, "Alternative viewpoints about biological origins as taught in public schools, Journal of Church and State 47 (3) (Summer 2005), 583-617. First page. A journal of law and social science. Luskin is "Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs" at the Discovery Institute. Not a scientific research paper. 
5. B. H. Weber, "Emergence of life", Zygon 42 (4) (Dec 2007), 837-856. Zygon is self-described as a journal of "religion and science", but I would consider it a philosophy journal. A review article. Of the nine papers, this is the one that is the closest to a scientific research article that cites Meyer approvingly: "The emergence and increase of novel, specified, functional information remains the crucial issue." He thinks that Meyer's questions have been answered by "the new science of emergent complexity". 
6. J. Koperski, "Two bad ways to attack intelligent design and two good ones", Zygon 43 (2) (June 2008), 433-449. Again, Zygon is self-described as a journal of "religion and science", but I would consider it a philosophy journal. This article focuses on the rhetoric of intelligent design and its opponents. Not a scientific research paper. 
7. Emilia Currás and Enrique Wulff Barreiro, "Integration in Europe of human genetics results obtained by Spaniards in the USA: A historical perspective", Scientometrics 75 (3) (2008), 473-493. This is the strangest paper of the nine. It purports to be about "the mobility of Spanish biochemists from Europe to the United States over the past 80 years". It cites Meyer as follows: "In the context of cancer research, the (chemical and reductionist) search for the molecular basis of cancer induction is combined with the holistic vision of the close relationship between form and function in physiology [Shimkin, 1974; Meyer, 2004; Marra & Boland, 1995]". Although it is about "form", Meyer's paper doesn't mention "cancer" or "physiology" at all. Perhaps the citation was really meant to refer to something completely different? In any event, this paper is more a historical discussion, not a scientific research paper. 
8. S. L. Shafer, "Critical thinking in anesthesia: Eighth honorary FAER research lecture", Anesthesiology 110 (4) (2009), 729-737. Full paper here. An article criticizing various anti-scientific trends. Here is how he cites Meyer: "One can find many Web sites devoted to intelligent design. However, the story in the peer-reviewed literature is quite different. Of 99 articles identified by a PubMed search of intelligent design (on November 14, 2008), the majority are defenses of evolution against claims of intelligent design. Not appearing in the search is the single scientific article supporting the claims of intelligent design written by Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute. This article was published without peer review in a nonindexed journal and was subsequently retracted by the journal for insufficient scientific merit." Not a scientific research paper. [Update: Shafer's claim about "published without peer review" is not correct, and the paper was not actually formally "retracted". "Disavowed" is more like it.] 
9. Juan E. Carreño, Fernando Hansen, et al., Some considerations about the theory of intelligent design, Biological Research 42 (2) (2009), 223-232. Full paper here. An article, critical of intelligent design, in an obscure Chilean biology journal. However, the topic is more about philosophy than science. Money quote: "We also reject the claim that ID is a legitimate scientific theory, because it does not exhibit the classical characteristics that a scientific kind of knowledge must have." Not a scientific research paper that cites Meyer approvingly.

The grand total: exactly 1 paper (Weber's) can be said to be a scientific paper that cites Meyer approvingly, and even that is subject to debate. This meager record does not support the claim that ID is a scientific revolution with far-reaching consequences. [4]
Evidently, the Discovery Institute seems somewhat confused about the definition of "groundbreaking", unless we're referring to groundbreaking levels of inanity and mendacity.

Claims by the conspiracy theory fringe of special creation that they are 'blocked' from publishing in the scientific literature are as I've shown nonsensical. The truth however is that the papers they publish either are peripherally related to the claims made for them, or are risible nonsense. Far from being groundbreaking and revolutionary, they are intellectually stillborn nonsense that sink without trace and unlike real science, do not spark new, fruitful ideas. Shallit is dead on the money when he points out that:
By contrast, pseudoscience is sterile: the ideas, such as they are, lead to no new insights, suggest no experiments, and are espoused by single crackpots or a small community of like-minded ideologues. The work gets few or no citations in the scientific literature, and the citations they do get are predominantly self-citations. 
Here is a perfect example of this sterility: Bio-Complexity, the flagship journal of the intelligent design movement. As 2012 draws to a close, the 2012 volume contains exactly two research articles, one “critical review” and one “critical focus”, for a grand total of four items. The editorial board has 30 members; they must be kept very busy handling all those papers. 
(Another intelligent design journal, Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, hasn’t had a new issue since 2005.)

By contrast, the journal Evolution has ten times more research articles in a single issue (one of 12 so far in 2012). And this is just a single journal where evolutionary biology research is published; there are many others. 
But that’s not the most hopeless part. Of the four contributions to Bio-Complexity in 2012, three have authors that are either the Editor in Chief (sic), the Managing Editor, or members of the editorial board of the journal. Only one article, the one by Fernando Castro-Chavez, has no author in the subset of people running the journal. And that one is utter bilge, written by someone who believes that “the 64 codons [of DNA are] represented since at least 4,000 years ago and preserved by China in the I Ching or Book of Changes or Mutations”. [5]
The criticisms made of the "groundbreaking" article also apply to many others. For example, the paper "Dissecting Darwinism" by surgeon (not scientist) Joseph Kuhn [6] appears not in a high impact journal but a relatively low ranking journal. Furthermore, as the respected evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne notes, it is "merely a cobbled-together list of canards from the Discovery Institute (DI). It’s poorly written, dreadful, full of scientific errors, and the journal should not only be ashamed of it, but retract it." [7] Hardly a ringing endorsement. An example of his "scientific errors" can be seen in this paragraph:
"The 2004 transitional species between water- and land-based creatures (Tiktaalik roseae) was based on a recovered bone fragment representing the wrist structure that would be necessary for moving on land (36) (Figure 2). Even though this species has been disparaged by scientific circles, it is important to realize that any transition from a water-based organism to an air-breathing land-based organism would also require thousands of simultaneous mutations in the basic physiology of the eyes, nose, alimentary system, lungs, muscles, and bones. This would entail thousands of discrete mutations in the DNA, which would code for the underlying changes in the individual cellular systems and enzymes responsible for the changes. A transitional species change would also require a simultaneous change in another organism, allowing for reproduction and duplication of the markedly mutated DNA."
The claim that Tiktaalik has been "disparaged by scientific circles" is made without any supporting evidence and reflects gross ignorance of tetrapod palaeontology [8], while damningly, his reference 36 is not to a credible source, but the notorious ID lawyer (not palaeontologist) Casey Luskin. Coyne frankly was too kind in his denunciation.

The simple truth is that there is no conspiracy to stop special creationists publishing. Rather, they've put their best arguments forward, and have seen them sink without a trace for the simple reason that the argument for special creation are vacuous nonsense.


1. Actually, they're just "special creationism in a cheap tuxedo" as anyone aware of the history behind the term cdesign proponentsists would be aware.

2. Bibliographic and Annotated List of Peer-Reviewed Publications Supporting Intelligent Design

3. BSW Strengthens Statement Repudiating Meyer Paper National Center for Science Education. October 24th 2004

4. Shallit J "The Fruitlessness of ID 'Research'" Recursivity Nov 30 2009

5. Shallit J "The Sterility of Intelligent Design" Panda's Thumb Dec 11 2012

6. Joseph A. Kuhn, “Dissecting Darwinism,” Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, (2012) 25(1): 41-47

7. Coyne J "Creationist Paper in a Medical Journal" Why Evolution is True 19th Jan 2012

8. Clack J.A. "The Fish–Tetrapod Transition: New Fossils and Interpretations" Evo Edu Outreach (2009) 2:213-223