Thursday, July 26, 2007

How Widespread is the Scientific Support for Intelligent Design?

Someone I'm close to (SCT) recently forwarded me a letter from a friend of his (FH) whom I've never met. SCT and FH were having an email dialogue about their respective worldviews, and FH brought up the issue of intelligent design. Now, intelligent design/evolution isn't something that SCT spends much time thinking about; he accepts without much thought the scientific consensus, for the same reason that most of us accept without too much thought most scientific consensuses: if you don't care much about (say) other galaxies, and people who study the matter tell you that there are approximately 100,000,000,000 of them, you'll probably just believe them. But since FH brought it up, SCT sent me his letter and asked for comments. Having devoted some thought to a reply, and gathered a bunch of links, I thought I'd post them here rather than keep them private. (I am not going to name SCT or FH, though, nor quote FH directly, since FH wasn't writing for publication and it doesn't seem fair to make his words public without permission.)

I'm writing this up myself, rather than simply forwarding a link or two, because no one site said quite what I wanted to say in response. In particular, most of the links I found were either overly snarky for my purposes, or even openly contemptuous of people who hold the ID view. Of course there's nothing wrong with expressing one's opinion through humor, nor with expressing them strongly; but these seemed to me to be poor ways to convince a (presumptively) honest holder of the other view. Further, a lot of links were focused on the issue of whether or not to teach ID in schools (the political context in which it usually comes up), rather than on the issue of whether or not it's true. So I decided to gather what I'd found and put it forward. I strongly encourage additional links -- particularly to short articles accessible to non-scientists -- if anyone has 'em. And I also welcome correction on any factual errors I may have made (since I'm not a biologist there are bound to be some).

The centerpiece of FH's claim was the notion that an increasing number of scientists (and he implied, although he didn't say outright, that it was a large number of scientists) were retreating from the theory of evolution and increasingly open to the theory of intelligent design. This was the basis of his claim that this issue was an easy win for conservatives (by which he meant ID supporters), since the facts went his way. He added some further specifics, dropping the names Michael Behe and Philip Johnson, and talking a bit about gradualism versus punctuated equilibrium (although he didn't use the latter term), but the basic, central point was that more and more scientists were accepting ID.

I'm afraid that this simply isn't true. Think what you like about the issue, the fact of the matter is that ID is not gaining much ground at all; that the overwhelming -- overwhelming -- majority of all scientists, particularly biologists -- accept the theory of evolution. I would also claim that they do so on good grounds, but set that aside for now; first I simply want to focus on the claim that the scientific community, or any subset of it (e.g. microbiologists, who FH mentioned in his letter), is trending against evolution. Because the claim is false.

Here's some evidence.

Dozens of scientific and scholarly organizations have released statements emphasizing the centrality of evolution to contemporary science (usually in explicit reaction to ID claims). Many individual biology departments in states in which ID has become politically controversial have done the same. Of particular note in the previous link is the first item, that the biology department of Baylor University -- described by Wikipedia as "the largest Baptist university in the world by enrollment" -- has unanimously disavowed ID.

Another piece of evidence comes from the recent Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in Pennsylvania, which tested the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design in a public school. (The pro-ID side called as one of its witnesses Michael Behe.) The judge in the case was neither a liberal nor an atheist; he was appointed by the current President Bush, and is an avowed Lutheran. But he ruled against ID's constitutionality, on the grounds that it was religion, not science. In the course of his ruling, he had this to say about how widespread the support for ID is:
Before discussing Defendants' claims about evolution, we initially note that an overwhelming number of scientists, as reflected by every scientific association that has spoken on the matter, have rejected the ID proponents' challenge to evolution. Moreover, Plaintiffs' expert in biology, Dr. Miller, a widely-recognized biology professor at Brown University who has written university-level and high- school biology textbooks used prominently throughout the nation, provided unrebutted testimony that evolution, including common descent and natural selection, is "overwhelmingly accepted" by the scientific community and that every major scientific association agrees. (1:94-100 (Miller)). As the court in Selman explained, "evolution is more than a theory of origin in the context of science. To the contrary, evolution is the dominant scientific theory of origin accepted by the majority of scientists."

Project Steve is too snarky to really count here, but since it's so often mentioned in this context I'll say briefly what it is: in response to the Discovery Institute's lists of scientists (most of whom are not biologists -- indeed, many are only loosely describable as being scientists at all), a list of people affirming the truth of evolution as the foundation of modern biology, and disavowing ID (or other forms of creationism), has been drawn up, limiting itself to people named Steve (or Stephen, or Stephanie, etc.). The point -- again, snarkily made, but no less valid for that -- is that it's easy to get a far larger group of scientists who recognize evolution's truth than a parallel group of those who doubt it, even arbitrarily limiting the scientists to (they estimate) 1% of the whole.

But all of this really radically understates the case. Because it's not statements that are genuinely at issue; it's the ongoing, daily work of scientists. This Scientific American essay has a title that FH might find off-putting, but what they write on this topic is precisely on point:

No evidence suggests that evolution is losing adherents. Pick up any issue of a peer-reviewed biological journal, and you will find articles that support and extend evolutionary studies or that embrace evolution as a fundamental concept.

Conversely, serious scientific publications disputing evolution are all but nonexistent. In the mid-1990s George W. Gilchrist of the University of Washington surveyed thousands of journals in the primary literature, seeking articles on intelligent design or creation science. Among those hundreds of thousands of scientific reports, he found none. In the past two years, surveys done independently by Barbara Forrest of Southeastern Louisiana University and Lawrence M. Krauss of Case Western Reserve University have been similarly fruitless.

Creationists retort that a closed-minded scientific community rejects their evidence. Yet according to the editors of Nature, Science and other leading journals, few antievolution manuscripts are even submitted. Some antievolution authors have published papers in serious journals. Those papers, however, rarely attack evolution directly or advance creationist arguments; at best, they identify certain evolutionary problems as unsolved and difficult (which no one disputes). In short, creationists are not giving the scientific world good reason to take them seriously.
I just want to re-emphasize the key point here, which is in the first paragraph: actual science as it's actually done is exploring the world using an evolutionary framework on a daily basis; that science is achieving remarkable results; one by-product of those results is the ever-increasing
evidence for, and understanding of, evolution.

The argument I'm making is not new; in fact, you can find it all over the place. For all that I felt like, in response to the specific nature of a specific set of claims (that I can't share with you for reasons already given), I wanted to sketch out my own reply, the underlying claim here has been answered many times before. Here are some of other people's refutations of the idea that scientists are increasingly doubting evolution: a brief version at the talk-origins archive; a version from the National Center for Science education; and a longer (and excellent) version by Marc Vuletic.

Actually, the claim that science is just on the cusp of abandoning evolution is not new either. As this survey shows, creationists have been making this claim for centuries (since before Darwin's theory, including arguments about the age of the earth and common descent). It's always been wrong before; it's wrong now -- the product of wishful thinking and not the facts. If someone says the contrary, they're misleading themselves, or you, or both.

If you want to disbelieve evolution, do so fully cognizant of the fact that the scientific community does not agree with you and is not coming to agree with you; and that it's findings all point the other way.

FH, as I said, went on to make some specific points in his letter; but those were basically framed as his explanation as to why science was moving away from evolution. As I have tried to show, the premise is incorrect. But I will also try to provide some links to deal with the specific claims (e.g. the work of Michael Behe) in a forthcoming post.

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