Dissent in Science

This final chapter of Explore Evolution makes grandiose, and ultimately untrue, claims about how the process of science works and how the scientific community deals with dissenting views. The errors in this chapter begin with the title. While claiming to discuss dissent within science, it actually centers on a debate between science and nonscience. In muddying the straightforward distinction between the science of evolution and the pseudoscience of creationism, Explore Evolution misleads students not only about evolution, but about how scientific inquiry proceeds. In service of this last effort to confuse students, the authors repeat their misrepresentations of Malcolm Gordon's views, and obfuscate the true nature of an ongoing discussion about the shape of the universal tree of life. In attempting to defend themselves against charges of misrepresenting and misquoting scientists (a section not necessary in most science textbooks), the authors draw an inaccurate analogy between science and courtroom testimony, and them misstate how courtrooms actually work, not to mention accepted standards of scientific discourse.

p. 142: "an evolutionary biologist … disagree[s] with Universal Common Descent."

The example offered in fact argues that there is a single tree of life, which may have multiple roots. As discussed in other chapter critiques, Explore Evolution misrepresents ongoing research into the shape of the early tree of life in order to advance a scientifically baseless creationist claim.

p. 142: "Michael Behe, a … biochemist who is a … critic of the power of the mutation/selection argument"

Behe has resurrected long-discredited creationist arguments and uses his academic credentials to give them a gloss of scientific respectability. Behe is one of the few anti-evolution activists to accept common descent of all life, including humans, but states that a definition of science which would admit his anti-evolution views would also treat astrology as science.

p. 142: "'the creationists' vs. 'the evolutionists,' a familiar and predictable storyline"

Treating creationism as a form of "dissent in science" is inaccurate. Creationism rejects basic scientific principles in pursuit of a religious agenda. Since it is not a scientific enterprise, it does not belong in science class. Just because something is "familiar and predictable" doesn't mean it is wrong, and trivializing this important distinction misinforms students on a basic level.

p. 143: "dissenters are accused of 'misquotation' or 'misrepresentation.' But is this really true?"

Even within this chapter, scientist Malcolm Gordon's words are taken out of context and twisted to misrepresent his views on evolution. This book is filled with such errors, and the defense offered is scant and irrelevant to the charges. Even in court, a witnesses words may not be used without an opportunity for cross-examination and clarification, precisely because the context of a statement does indeed matter.

p. 143: "Practicing science should be about … using all the evidence … whatever its source"

Scientific evidence must possess certain qualities. Other scientists must be able to make the same measurements, and compare their own experiences of the data with other authors. Some valid forms of knowledge do not fit these criteria, including religious beliefs, hunches, intuition, and aesthetic feelings.

p. 143: "By now, we hope you can see that real science as it's actually practiced can be a very lively subject."

Science as it is practiced is indeed a very lively subject, filled with active debates. Explore Evolution manages to avoid or misrepresent the debates actually going on within evolutionary biology while dredging up long-discredited pseudo-scientific attacks.

Major Flaws:

Nature of Science: Dismissing the distinction between scientific understanding of evolution and the religious commitment to creationism as "a familiar and predictable storyline" ignores the important scientific and practical reasons why that distinction matters. Students deserve better than to have the basic definition of science muddled in order to advance the religious agenda of the authors of Explore Evolution. Just because the distinction is familiar and predictable doesn't make it wrong. It does not serve students to muddy the waters regarding how scientists evaluate evidence. Explore Evolution cracks the door to unscientific evidence being raised in science class, misleading students and harming their broader science education as well as their understanding of evolution.

Standards of scientific discourse: Explore Evolution attempts to create an analogy between scientific debate and a courtroom cross-examination. This misrepresents the way scientific debates are settled, as well as misstating the way courtrooms operate. For instance, courts limit the sorts of evidence a jury considers, and requires that witnesses be cross-examined so that biases and misinterpretations can be resolved. Hearsay is inadmissible, but Explore Evolution relies more on quotations from scientists than on the actual data they've obtained. That those quotations are often stripped of important context and misquoted or misrepresented is only one of many errors in the treatment of scientific discourse. In dismissing these accusations, the book again does students a disservice.

Polyphyly and Malcolm Gordon: Explore Evolution claims the scientific community has two fundamentally different views of common descent, the single tree of life (monophyletic) and the orchard of life (polyphyletic). This claim distorts the meaning of a polyphyletic group. Explore Evolution then implies that because there are evolutionists, such as Malcolm Gordon, who question the monophyletic origins of life and of tetrapods, they must also "disagree with universal common descent," and must therefore support the creationist orchard view of life. This is false.

Malcolm Gordon

Malcolm Gordon disbelieves universal common ancestry, and another scientist, Michael Behe, accepts it

Summary of problems:

The claim is being presented as if it indicates the presence of some deep problem within standard evolutionary theory. There is no such problem. The extent of monophyly is a technical issue within evolutionary theory on which there is continuing work and debate. That an intelligent design proponent may accept complete monophyly (although Behe's field of expertise lies elsewhere) while an evolutionary biologist may question it for the very early stages of life (in what he explicitly calls "A Speculative Essay" — see Gordon [1999]) is irrelevant to the question whether descent with modification through natural mechanisms produced the organisms we see on Earth.

Full discussion:

Explore Evolution claims the scientific community has two fundamentally different views of common descent, the single tree of life (monophyletic) and the orchard of life (polyphyletic). This claim distorts the meaning of a polyphyletic group. Explore Evolution then implies that because there are evolutionists, such as Malcolm Gordon, who question the monophyletic origins of life and of tetrapods, they must also "disagree with universal common descent" and therefore support the orchard view of life.

From Explore Evolution:

Scientists who think that history of life is best represented by a single branching tree have what is called a monophyletic view ("mono" means one or single). Scientists who have a polyphyletic view ("poly" means many) think the history of life looks more like an orchard of separate trees.

As part of this tree discussion, we have to make an important distinction between the terms common descent and Universal Common Descent. You may think that these terms mean the same thing. They don’t. As we've just seen, it's possible to think that some organisms share a common ancestor without thinking that all organisms are descended from a single common ancestor.
EE, p10
The Neocreationist orchard: "Figure:4 A polyphyletic (orchard) view: branching within major groups, but no connections between them." EE, p. 10.The Neocreationist orchard: "Figure:4 A polyphyletic (orchard) view: branching within major groups, but no connections between them." EE, p. 10.

Explore Evolution is silent upon whether this orchard of life is composed of 3 trees or a 3 million trees, nor does Explore Evolution offer students any means by which they could make that distinction.

As discussed earlier in the critique of the Explore Evolution's Introduction, this view of polyphyletic trees is fully embraced by creationists. Indeed, there is a small group of Creation-scientists, baraminologists, who hope to find out how many trees, "created kinds" are in their orchard of life.

Taxonomy for baraminologists (biologists/paleontologists/zoologists who study the original created kinds) is one of detecting continuity and discontinuity. While the secular tree of life is essentially monophyletic (having one root), creationists view the tree of life as being polyphyletic (having multiple roots — each root being a created kind, or "baramin"). Thus, we have continuity between created kinds and offspring, and discontinuity between separate created kinds.

This creationist view of polyphyletic group contrasts with its usage in evolutionary biology. According the textbook Evolution (2007) by Barton and colleagues.

It is frequently useful to refer to groups by how they relate to each other on a phylogenetic tree (Figs. 5.3 and 5.4). The simplest grouping is that of a monophyletic group, or clade, which consists of an ancestor and all of its descendants…. In other situations, species are treated as a group because of some shared biological features, even though they do not share a common ancestor to the exclusion of other species. Such a collection of species is a polyphyletic group (derived from many (poly) ancestors; Fig. 5.3) Examples include gliding mammals (made up of species related to both fox and squirrels), gram-negative bacteria (see Fig. 6.2) and algae (see p. 198).
Barton et al., (2007) Evolution, p. 111

Phylogenetic Trees: In each panel, the phylogenetic group is depicted by a green shaded circle.  A) Monophyletic group.  A species (C and D) share a common ancestor (E) not shared by any other  species.  (B) Paraphyletic group.  All species in the group share a common ancestor (F), but some species (D) have been excluded from the group.  (C) Polyphyletic group.  A grouping of lineages each more closely related to other species not in the group than they are two each other. From Barton et al., (2007) <cite>Evolution</cite>, p. 111.Phylogenetic Trees: In each panel, the phylogenetic group is depicted by a green shaded circle. A) Monophyletic group. A species (C and D) share a common ancestor (E) not shared by any other species. (B) Paraphyletic group. All species in the group share a common ancestor (F), but some species (D) have been excluded from the group. (C) Polyphyletic group. A grouping of lineages each more closely related to other species not in the group than they are two each other.

From Barton et al., (2007) Evolution, p. 111.

















To suggest that at least some mainstream evolutionary biologists accept the orchard view, Explore Evolution "quotes" Malcom Gordon, a paleontologist at UCLA who studies fish evolution.

Statement A

"The phenomenom of a monophyletic [single] origin of the universal tree of life probably did not occur. … At the macro-scale life appears to have had many origins."… Statement A was made by Malcolm Gordon, an evolutionary biologist at UCLA … Would you have guessed that an evolutionary biologist would disagree with Universal Common Descent?
EE, p. 142

Would you have guessed that Malcolm Gordon is being misrepresented by Explore Evolution?

The universal tree of life probably had many roots.
M. Gordon et al., (1999) "The Concept of Monophyly: A Speculative Essay," Biology and Philosophy, p. 331

An example of such a tree is shown below.

Modern tree of life: From W. Ford Doolittle (2000) "Uprooting the tree of life." Scientific American, 282(2):90-5.  Note that distances are not necessarily to scale in this image.  This image reflects a view held by some practicing scientists (including Dr. Doolittle, the author of the original article) that there was a period in life's early history when genes swapped so frequently that it is impossible to treat those earlier lineages as truly distinct, nor to trace those lineages back cleanly to a single ancestor.  They do not dispute that life has some common ancestor, but they do seek to clarify how we talk about that ancestor.Modern tree of life: From W. Ford Doolittle (2000) "Uprooting the tree of life." Scientific American, 282(2):90-5. Note that distances are not necessarily to scale in this image. This image reflects a view held by some practicing scientists (including Dr. Doolittle, the author of the original article) that there was a period in life's early history when genes swapped so frequently that it is impossible to treat those earlier lineages as truly distinct, nor to trace those lineages back cleanly to a single ancestor. They do not dispute that life has some common ancestor, but they do seek to clarify how we talk about that ancestor.

This view of the tree of life with a reticulated network of roots replaces the concept of the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) with the concept of a community of common ancestors who are related to one another via genetic exchanges. Although the reticulated tree of life began as a controversial idea, it is now fully embraced as a plausible evolutionary scenario.

As Barton and colleagues explain in their textbook Evolution (2007):

DNA can be passed from one evolutionary lineage to another, by a process known as lateral gene transfer. … For our purposes, what is important is that lateral gene transfer creates chimeric organisms- organisms in which different parts of the genomes have different histories. … It therefore follows that there cannot be single "Tree of Life". That is, a single tree cannot accurately represent the evolution of life. It may be better to represent species evolution as a reticulated network (eg. Fig 5.23B) with interconnecting branches.
Barton et al., (2007) Evolution, p. 131-132

Scientists can be skeptical about a single universal common ancestor and accept universal common ancestry.

Creationism Versus Science

"'[C]reationists versus evolutionists' [is] a familiar and predictable storyline" that ignores the fascinating details of this scientific debate

Summary of problems with claim:

The proper description would be "creationism versus science" because creationism--whether it be old-fashioned Young Earth creationism or its Intelligent Design descendant--is simply not science. There is no scientific debate about the correctness of evolution, and there can be no scientific debate about ID until the ID creationists produce some science.

Full discussion:

So we end up with the "the creationists" versus the "evolutionists," a familiar and predictable storyline that, sadly, rolls over most of the fascinating (and relevant!) details about what individual scientists may actually think. Would you have guessed that an evolutionary biologist would disagree with Universal Common Descent?
Explore Evolution, p. 142

It is not simply creationists versus evolutionists that is at issue. More accurately, it is creationists, including young earth-creationists, old earth creationists and intelligent design creationists versus modern science. All of these forms of creationism deny a fundamental ground rule of modern science – that science searches for natural explanations for natural phenomena.

The blatant mischaracterization of Malcolm Gordon's views on common ancestry neatly highlights an often used strategy of creationists: In the absence of scientific support, argue by misrepresenting fragments of text.

Misquoting

Are critics of evolution misquoting or quoting out-of-context

Summary of problems:

Scores of scientists have publicly denounced the Discovery Institute for misrepresenting their views by selectively quoting snippets out of context. The Discovery Institute goes farther than quoting scientists out of context; they manipulate quotes in such a way to make the words of these scientists seem to support creationism, much to the chagrin of the cited scientists.

Full discussion:

Another problem arises, when dissenting scientists quote the work of their colleagues, many of whom question certain aspects of neo-Darwinism, or parts of the case for it, while still happily calling themselves "evolutionary biologists" or :neo-Darwinists" … Often, in such cases, dissenters are accused of "misquotation" or "misrepresentation." But is this really true?
Explore Evolution, p. 142-143

Apparently so. Explore Evolution misrepresents Malcolm Gordon's view of the tree of life by claiming that he "would disagree with Universal Common Descent." As discussed earlier, Malcolm Gordon's argument is not with universal common descent, but whether all life descended from a single common ancestor. Explore Evolution achieved the misrepresentation by misquotation, omitting a key sentence, shown in bold below, that explained Gordon’s view.

At the macro-scale life appears to have had many origins. The base of the universal tree of life appears not to have been a single root, but was instead a network of inextricably intertwined multiple branches deriving from many, perhaps 100 or more, genetic sources (Pennisi 1998b).
M. Gordon et al., (1999) "The Concept of Monophyly: A Speculative Essay," Biology and Philosophy, p. 335

Expert Witnesses

Think of them like witnesses at a trial who have to tell the truth on specifics even if this disagrees with their overall view

Summary of problems:

This is exactly what biologists have always been doing. Moreover, witnesses at a trial get to respond to how their words are being (mis)interpreted by a lawyer. Lawyers can object if one tries to put words into witnesses' mouths. The judge and jury get to hear both sides. What follows is that no claim from the Discovery Institute should ever be trusted without an explicit response from any scientist that they (mis)quote or (mis)interpret.

Full discussion:

Any claim that scientists have not been presenting the full empirical evidence about evolution is blatantly false. Whenever there has been any plausible evidence that suggests problems with the received view of evolution, scientists have been excited to investigate them (Sarkar 2007, Chapter 10). In the 1960s scientists were excited about the proposal that most evolutionary changes at the molecular level were "neutral" and not selected for. In the 1980s scientists debated the possibility that evolution consists of small bursts of change followed by long periods of stasis (what Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge called "punctuated equilibrium"). In the 1990s biologists debated whether bacterial mutations were "directional," that is, more likely to occur in conditions favorable to them than in those that were not.

The overall view of evolution has so far barely been modified to respond to all these challenges and eighty years of new data. Our confidence in the correctness of the models that comprise the theory of evolution is exactly because of the "specifics" of the evidence.

Additionally, there is a strong disanalogy between scientific reasoning and legal reasoning in the Anglo-American context. Though there are plenty of scientific disputes, the scientific method is not in principle adversarial with each side arguing its case to the detriment of the other. Rather, scientific research is investigative and all honest workers have to consider all the evidence. This is exactly what creationists do not practice even when they claim to be concerned with the "specifics."

Debates

Science is about debate

Summary of problems:

Scientists sometimes debate issues. However, no scientists with educational backgrounds in evolution debate the tenets of standard evolutionary biology. No geographers debate whether the world is flat or spherical; no astronomers debate whether or not the Apollo missions went to the moon. Cranks will always be among us; some people even question plate tectonics or Einstein's theory of general relativity (McCausland 1999). However, the presence of a few cranks arguing does not mean there exists a genuine debate among real scientists.

Full discussion:

The authors of Explore Evolution present their anti-evolutionary arguments to students as if they were part of vigorous, ongoing scientific debate about evolution. This debate does not exist in the peer-reviewed scientific literature or at scientific conferences. Even Paul Nelson, an author of Explore Evolution, acknowledges that their anti-evolutionary arguments have failed to persuade the scientific community. During a conference in 2004, titled Intelligent Design and the Future of Science, and hosted at Biola University (formerly the Bible Institute of Los Angeles), Nelson warned:
The current intelligent design debate has been going on for well over a decade, and I think the panelists and probably many of you will agree, it’s locked in a kind of holding pattern. This is not the first time tonight that you heard about molecular machines. Most of you, I think, a healthy percentage of this audience finds that evidence compelling … Yet the scientific community itself is unpersuaded. They’re unpersuaded. And they have two major criticisms of intelligent design and these are intimately related to one another. The first one is that there is no independent evidence for the cause, namely the designer. We don’t have any direct observational access to whatever being built that bacterial motor, if that bacterial motor was in fact designed and built by an intelligence. So, that’s the first one, there’s no independent evidence of the designer and there are no novel results and findings stemming from intelligent design independent of its criticisms of evolution.

Disagreement

Scientists often disagree about how to interpret evidence

Summary of problems with claim:

This claim is true, and this is exactly why the status of standard evolutionary theory is so secure. Scientist are inherently skeptical and actively challenge both new and old ideas. Evolution is a strong theory because it has withstood these challenges.

Full discussion:

Scientists disagree about the extent to which molecular evidence shows that natural selection has been the most important factor in evolutionary history. They disagree about the degree and importance of deviations from monophyly in early evolution. But they agree that descent with modification through natural mechanism is the only explanation of the unity and diversity of life on Earth.

Given, as the authors of Explore Evolution say, that scientists often disagree about how to interpret evidence, the absence of any credible scientific disagreement on the evidence for evolution shows how well-confirmed that theory is. Scientists do disagree about how to interpret evidence--and evolutionary theory has withstood this scrutiny.

References

References

McCausland, I. 1999. “Anomalies in the History of Relativity.” Journal of Scientific Exploration 13: 271 -290.

Sarkar, S. 2007. Doubting Darwin? Creationist Designs on Evolution . Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Nature of Science

In discussing dissent in science, Explore Evolution continues to misrepresent the nature of science itself. Science is treated as a courtroom trial with scientists serving as "expert witnesses" and students acting as juries, selecting their preferred outcome from several debating advocates. The "Case for"/"Case against" structure of the book is held out as an example of how science works and should work, with disagreeing voices presented without a context of experimentation and hypothesis testing.

Science certainly can be adversarial, but there are rarely only two sides to scientitific disagreements, and no participant in the scientific process should act like a jury – silent and disconnected. Scientific inquiry requires active participation: forming hypotheses, gathering data to test those hypotheses, modifying the hypothesis to reflect new evidence, and discussing (not debating) the meaning of results. Debate implies two fixed sides, with one absolutely right and the other absolutely wrong. Scientific discourse relies on the willingness of all involved to adjust their views as new evidence becomes available. Explore Evolution, by misrepresenting the scientific process, the views of practicing scientists, and the knowledge gained by scientific practice, shows no such willingness.

Is this how science works?

Summary of problems:

Science is about the pursuit of reliable knowledge that offers cogent explanations and testable predictions. Explore Evolution cannot show how real science works, because to do so would expose itself as a slick exercise in manufactured controversy.

Full discussion:

From Explore Evolution:

Practicing science should be about making a vigorous effort to make true statements about the natural world, using all the evidence we have gathered, whatever its source, wherever it leads.
Explore Evolution, p. 143

Scientists rely on evidence which is disprovable and testable. Sometimes that requires setting aside evidence like intuitions, gut feelings, or religious texts.

How does Paul Nelson, an author of Explore Evolution, foresee "using all the evidence" to make "true statements about the natural world"? Through the inclusion of religious scripture, and through intuition and gut feelings:

Within the past decade, the ID community has matured around the insights of UC Berkeley professor Phillip Johnson, whose central insight is that science must be free to seek the truth, wherever it lies. … The possibility of design, therefore, cannot be excluded from science. Under the canopy of design as an empirical possibility, however, any number of particular theories may also be possible, including traditional creationism. Both scientific and scriptural evidence will have to decide the competition between these theories.
P. Nelson (2002) "Life in the Big Tent: Traditional Creationism and the Intelligent Design Community," Christian Research Journal 24,4

Elsewhere, he acknowledged that intelligent design creationism relies on non-scientific standards of evidence:

We don't have … a theory right now, and that's a problem. Without a theory, it's very hard to know where to direct your research focus. Right now, we've got a bag of powerful intuitions, and a handful of notions … but, as yet, no general theory of biological design.
Paul Nelson, quoted in "The Measure of Design," interview with Jed Macosko, Phillip Johnson, William Dembski, Paul A. Nelson, et al., Touchstone July/August, 2004, p. 64-65

This is the spirit animating Explore Evolution, a desire to elevate intuition and faith above science within the science classroom.