"They" go again!
By Russell Durbin
Posted August 10, 2005
Veteran politician turned science expert Bruce
Chapman, founder and president of the Discovery Institute (strategic command
center of the "intelligent design" creationism movement), has written an essay that showcases the propaganda techniques of the IDC
movement. Herewith a line by line analysis.
First they said that only ignorant rubes doubted Darwin. One was meant to
recall the mob scene in the film of "Inherit the Wind." The image is trite,
but it works. However, when Phillip Johnson, a distinguished professor of
legal evidence at Berkeley, came along with Darwin on Trial, they changed
their line and said that, while he is an intellectual, he is not qualified to
speak because he is not a scientist.
You know you're in for a strawman argument when it starts out with "they said". Who are
"they"? Why not let "them" speak for "them"selves? There is a larger issue here,
though, in which DI propaganda is creepily reminiscent of the Soviet style:
Chapman tells you what "they" say, and why "they" say it, even what "they" are
going to say next. But, as in so many DI disinformation dumps, no links or
references are provided to let readers judge for themselves. Only links and
references to other DI propaganda pieces are supplied, thus making for a
hermetically sealed world of misinformation, unconstrained by any need to
compare notes with the reality-based community.
The image Chapman seems to be conjuring here is that "they" continuously
change "their" line because the creationists -- excuse me, Darwin
skeptics -- keep proving "them" wrong. (It's not hard to imagine that the
original draft of this piece included moustachio-twirling and "Curses! Foiled
again!" quotes.) It may be a great tool for arming the troops with a Kevlar
shield of smugness, but it lacks any connection to the real world. The tactic is
trite, but it works - if the goal is cheerleading rather than edification.
In fact, there is no shortage of evidence to support the notion that
"doubting Darwin" does correlate inversely with education. There is also abundant
evidence that Phillip Johnson, just as his lack of any scientific training and
credentials suggest, is eminently unqualified
to speak on subjects scientific.
Then came Behe and Dembski and other scientists with stellar academic
credentials, so then the rebuke became: They are only a handful. "Almost every
reputable scientist in the world" accepts Darwin's theory.
First of all, in what sense is Dembski a scientist at all? And who are all
these "other scientists? And in what sense are their credentials "stellar"? More
stellar, say, than Duane Gish, John Baumgardner, or Russell Humphreys, who have been peddling young earth
creationism for decades? Leaving all that aside, though, Chapman merely mentions
the names and (allegedly stellar) credentials. Nothing about the substance of
their work. Certainly nothing about the numerous resounding refutations of their
ideas, or the lack of any positive reviews by competent scientists in the fields
being (mis)represented. Dembski's treatises purport to prove evolution
mathematically impossible. Are there any reviews by reputable biologists or
mathematicians? What do they say? Behe's bestseller "Darwin's Black Box"
purports to demonstrate that biological structures are "irreducibly complex",
and therefore could not have evolved. This argument has been so thoroughly debunked that Behe has now retreated to the position that if there is any biological structure for which a
mutation-by-mutation account of its history, back to the origin of life, is not
proved, miraculous intervention remains the preferred explanation. In reality,
it is not "they" who are on the defensive. Again, we see Chapman's rhetorical
style, perhaps cribbed from George Lucas: No need to refer to the actual
substance of the dispute, just broad strokes indicating the brave and virtuous
nature of the Rebels, and the cowardly and dishonest nature of the entrenched
minions of the Imperial Order.
When, in reply, Discovery Institute produced, first 100, and now over 400
scientists brave enough to confront their colleagues with a "Dissent from
Darwin" statement, the Darwinist judges said, Well, we still have far more
scientists who support evolution (as if that had been the
Whoa! There "they" go again! Who
are these Darwinist judges? Where did they say or
imply that "the issue" was the magnitude of the supporters/dissenters ratio?
Perhaps Chapman is referring here to Project Steve. Beyond its primary goal of parodizing these
ridiculous lists, the point of Project Steve was two-fold:
- that science is not done by vote or petition; whether the DI recruits 100,
1000, or 100,000 supporters, that doesn't make their "theory" a theory. And
- more to the point, unlike the "Dissent from Darwin" statement, the
"Project Steve" statement actually states something of substance.
With what bold statement do the DI's supporters confront their
We are 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.
(A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism)
Hey, I'm skeptical of such claims, too. (It's hard to deny, for instance,
that the epochal endosymbiotic event in which the ancestral mitochondrion threw
in its lot with the ancestral nuclear genome had a pretty big role in the
complexity of life. And I'm by no means certain of the relative contributions of
natural selection, sexual selection and neutral drift.) Would the DI welcome
my signature, even if I expressly forbid its use to
imply support for "intelligent design"? Perhaps the people that are
not skeptical of such claims are the "Darwinian
fundamentalists" we're always being warned about. (Hard to know, since the term
is rarely, if ever, defined.) If so, I've never met one. In fact, I suspect
signing the DI's statement has nothing to do with science, and everything to do
with supporting its political agenda.
By contrast, the Project Steve statement reads:
Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological
sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea
that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate
debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious
scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major
mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and
pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not
limited to "intelligent design," to be introduced into the science curricula
of our nation's public schools.
(NCSE Project Steve)
Notice the difference? The Steve statement actually has some substance to it.
Where any scientist could, in good conscience, sign the "Dissent from Darwin"
statement (that is, if they didn't suspect the DI would be misrepresenting them
as supporters of IDC), would the DI supporters be comfortable signing the Steve
statement? Coincidentally (?) the contrast between the two statements is very
much analogous to the difference between a theory that makes testable
predictions and one that equally accommodates, ex post facto, all
Then they added: If the Darwin-doubters and design advocates want to be
taken seriously they must publish in peer-reviewed science
"Then"? Sounds like a chronology; sounds like "they" are, yet again, moving
the goalposts, no? Is there any evidence to support this timeline? I submit that
the criteria for the credibility of a challenge to a widely accepted theory have
remained pretty much the same for several decades. A
minimum requirement would be a
substantial presence in reputable, peer reviewed,
professional science journals. To be teaching high school kids anything else as
science is the educational equivalent of peddling untested drugs.
Never mind that the Darwinists work hard to blackball on principle any
heretics whose work is submitted at such journals.
"The Darwinists"? That must be "they" again. Who are these shadowy figures?
Let's examine the DI's facile use of this convenient handle. In this context, of
course, "Darwinist" denotes critics of ID in general (i.e. virtually all
scientists) and in particular those "entrenched dogmatists" who supposedly
maintain a stranglehold on every major scientific journal and academic
institution in the world. But when trying to create the impression that "the
controversy" they want to teach is a scientific one, rather than a
political/religious one, the IDists take advantage of several narrower and more
technical uses of the term, sometimes found in the scientific literature:
- It was used by Stephen Jay Gould, for example, to distinguish Darwin's
original conception of continuous gradual genetic change from (the probably
more realistic) view of jerky transition between more or less steady states of
- It is used by Lynn Margulis, for example, to distinguish the classic view
of exclusively vertical transmission of genetic information (i.e. from parent
to offspring), from one that recognizes the signal importance of endosymbiosis
(i.e. physical and genetic fusion of organisms of distinct ancestry). It is
also used more generally to distinguish the classical view from one that
recognizes important role of lateral gene transfer (of which endosymbiosis would be just
the most dramatic example). It is important to bear in mind that none of the
mechanisms of lateral gene transfer could have been anticipated in Darwin's
- It is used to stress the difference between a view that ascribes genetic
modification exclusively to natural selection and one that envisions a
significant role for neutral
Call me cynical, but I suspect the DI knows that when they use words like
"Darwinism" or "Darwinian" in, say, a school board setting or a public opinion poll,
these are not the senses in which the word is perceived. The word "duplicitous"
comes to mind.
In any case, what evidence is there that "they" are any harder on evolution
skeptics than, say, on astrologers or UFO theorists?
Yet, even in the face of such tactics, more and more Darwin critics and
design proponents began to break through in peer-reviewed
Let's list those breakthroughs. Let's see... there was the Meyer article. And Behe & Snoke, and... um... gosh, what
are the others? Leaving aside the
suspicious circumstances surrounding the editorial acceptance of the Meyer
article, the presence in one obscure journal of one contribution from a
philosopher (who has signed a creationist loyalty oath) hardly qualifies as the substantial
presence in the scientific literature needed to seriously challenge a well
The mathematical exercise published by Behe and Snoke is fun to play with,
and might serve as the basis for a graduate level discussion, but with its many
questionable assumptions and its lack of impact in the world of biology, it
hardly can be said to present a significant challenge to current theory.
Certainly it is not the stuff of high school curricula. Moreover, the fact that
it was published should raise doubts about the "blackballing" charge Chapman
So the Darwinists (as in the Sternberg case at the Smithsonian) attacked
the journal editors who allowed such outrages to occur. In the case of the
Smithsonian, critics with relatively unimpressive scientific credentials
besmirched an editor who has two doctorates in evolutionary
"Attacked"? I guess it would be asking too much to supply a link or a
reference, so readers might judge the merits of the case for themselves.
"Relatively unimpressive"? Wait a minute. Is this not the very same essay that
implied that "they" (those dastardly Darwinists) unfairly dismissed Phillip
Johnson's criticisms because he's not a scientist? And now Sternberg's critics
(scientists all, I believe) are "relatively unimpressive" ...because they hold
fewer doctorates? How about Bruce Chapman, the author
of this diatribe? How many science degrees does he boast? How about addressing
some of the substance of the charges, rather than
number of degrees of the principals involved?
Meanwhile, the Darwinists decided to try to dispatch the challenge to
Darwin by defining it out of existence, especially at state school boards.
They just pronounced it "unscientific". That required, however, a change in
the definition of science.
"The Darwinists"? "decided"? "the challenge to Darwin"? If we can manage not
to be distracted by three (3!) weasel words in one sentence -- "Darwinists (defined
as ....?) decided (in a secret strategy meeting, perhaps?) to dispatch the
challenge to Darwin (that "challenge" being...?)" -- we might wonder:
who is redefining science? Perhaps the most venerable
and prestigious general scientific journal in the world is
Nature. How do you suppose they arrived at that title?
Was it, perhaps, because Natural and Supernatural
Phenomena was considered just too cumbersome?
At this point Chapman devotes a long paragraph to the tussle over definitions
of science "traditionally" held by school boards. Frankly, who cares? As long as
the point is not to leave a door ajar for sneaking in supernatural
explanations for natural phenomena. Because that would
be a radical revision of the scientific enterprise, at least relative to the
last two centuries or so.
So then the Darwinists
retreated to the latest
line of defense: If the Darwin dissenters and intelligent design
advocates are to be taken seriously they should be doing lab science; a.k.a.,
Again, notice the imaginative timeline. When was having actual data and doing
actual research not considered essential in science? Is there any evidence to
support the notion that this is some kind of "retreat"?
As usual, this standard does not apply to work by Darwinists, only to their
As evidenced by...? Note, again, another important weapon in the IDC
armamentarium: the the PowerWhine: equal parts "poor me" and unsubstantiated
Also, as with the peer reviewed science journals, the Darwinists are
prepared to do all they can to prevent dissenters from getting lab space and
to keep those who do lab experiments from publishing their
As evidenced by...?
In other words, the Darwinists' supposed standards once again are
Supposed standards? Chapman tells us (with the usual lack of any references
to the real world) that "the Darwinists are prepared
to do all they can" (nothing specific, just "all they can"), and -- even though we
don't know what nefarious schemes "they" have up "their" sleeves -- we can state
without fear of contradiction that they are applied selectively to "Darwin
skeptics". (Parapsychology and crystal power advocates can expect an indulgent
wink and a nod.)
All that notwithstanding, it will shortly be known that Darwin doubters and
design advocates are indeed doing lab science.
That's great. We're all waiting with bated breath. Now, just as soon as that
lab science is actually done, and the results of it actually have any bearing on
biology, and the resulting theory has any significant presence in the actual
literature of biology, by all means, present your case to the textbook writers
and school boards. You will have earned their attention.
So, to prevent exposure of the incapacity of their theory,
Incapacity? To do what? Offer explanations, mechanisms, for how things came
to be? Make predictions about as yet unmade observations? As opposed to capacity
of IDC to do those things?
...what is the next test the Darwinists are going to come up with? Will it
not be a religious test that explicitly examines supposed motives rather than
evidence or logic; that says that any scientist who is both religious in his
personal views and a critic of Darwin in science is, by that combination,
banished from debate on the topic of evolution? How far against the tradition
of scientific freedom will the defenders go to defend their
Hard to say. Lord knows "they" have no scruples. But is it really intolerant
to question whether, say, a Young Earth Creationist is as qualified to teach
biology or geology as the next person? Should Jonathan Wells's well publicized statement that he undertook graduate studies
after prayerful consultation with Rev. Sun Myung Moon with the express purpose
of "destroying Darwinism", be considered irrelevant to the credibility of his
"challenges" to evolution? I don't know. Would it be deplorable (anti)religious
bigotry to be influenced, in the choice of a physician, by whether he is a
disciple of Mary Baker Eddy?
The Emperor who had no clothes made a terrible mistake in allowing just
anyone who looked at him to form an opinion on his nudity. He should have
required any oral comments on his new suit to be conducted solely by people
holding Certificates of Official Observation -- and made sure that none of those
was issued. He also should have had his minions investigate and publicize any
unorthodox personal views or associations that the little boy in the story
had, and any skeletons in the closet of the boy's family. One can't be too
thorough about such things if one wants to avoid embarrassment.
See, the "Emperor" is "the Darwinian establishment". "Certificates of
Official Observation" are advanced degrees and academic credentials. The "little
boy" is Jonathan Wells, Stephen Meyers, and company. The "unorthodox personal
views and associations" would be, for instance, being an ordained minister in
Rev. Moon's Unification Church, say, or having signed a fundamentalist Christian
college's loyalty oath promising to hew to to the divine special creation of
Well, let's turn this analogy around. What "clothes" do the DI fellows use to
disguise their predisposition to reject evolution? Why should we not examine the
scientific objectivity and bona fides of a group:
- Founded by, and composed primarily of, lawyers and other
- whose members share an antipathy to a cornerstone of modern biology, but offer no coherent
alternative to it,
- whose major patron is a prominent player in the religious right
- that sees nothing wrong with making compatibility with (their version of) religion a criterion
of acceptable science,
- that publishes tripe like this diatribe?
Russell Durbin is a virologist and molecular biologist in
Originally posted at The Panda's Thumb.