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Bottaro's Letter to WNYE

by Andrea Bottaro

Mr. Laing Kandel
General Manager
WNYE
New York

Dr. Joe Klein
Chancellor
Dept. of Education
New York

Dear Mr. Kandel and Dr. Klein:

It was recently announced by the Discovery Institute in Seattle, WA, that the New York Department of Education's WNYE television station is planning to broadcast the documentary video "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" (hereafter, UML) on July 6, 2003. While I realize that the purpose of WNYE is to provide its viewers with the broadest and most diverse information from different sources and points of view, there are a few background issues about this video that I believe you and WNYE viewers should be made aware of.

UML presents itself as a well-crafted, purely scientific documentary, while it is factually misleading in many respects, and its main purpose is propaganda for a pseudo-scientific movement known as Intelligent Design Creationism. UML has its (strategically concealed) origins close to religious fundamentalist and Creationist circles, and displays a pattern of poor scholarship, including misrepresentation/omission of key scientific evidence. Ultimately, these result in a misleading picture of the facts and of current scientific knowledge, as well as of the ultimate goals of the documentary itself. (More details about these problems are found in the attachment to this letter.)

While as a scientist I fully subscribe to the free dissemination of opinions from any source, I think you owe WNYE viewers that such background information is made available to them, so that they may properly judge the documentary's message. Addition of a disclaimer to the broadcast, explaining that the documentary presents a one-sided view of a fringe, pseudo-scientific idea rejected by the overwhelming majority of scientists, and that its main purpose is religious/philosophical in nature, would probably be sufficient to alert your viewers of the true significance of "Unlocking the Mystery of Life".

Thank you very much for your consideration. Please feel free to contact me if you have further questions or require additional information.

Sincerely

Andrea Bottaro, PhD
Assistant Professor
Medicine, Microbiology and Imunology, Oncology
University of Rochester Medical Center

Rochester, NY, 6/30/03


Unlocking the Mystery of Life -- More omissions than facts

The source:

"Unlocking the Mystery of Life" is the first and only production of an entity called "IllustraMedia". In fact, "IllustraMedia" is one and the same with "Discovery Media Productions"1. Discovery Media is a production company whose previous videos are devoted to evangelical topics, such as "Heaven and Hell" and "The End Times"2. While there is nothing wrong with an evangelical video company producing a science documentary, the fact that to do so it was felt necessary to create a "shell" production outfit highlights the aura of ambiguity that pervades the entire enterprise (more examples to follow). Furthermore, the purpose of the video as a propagandistic and religious, rather than scientific/educational tool is underscored by how UML is being publicized within fundamentalist circles. For instance, Mission Frontiers, the Bulletin of the evangelical U.S. Center for World Missions, hails it as "the most impressive evangelistic tool ever made"3.

The contents:

As a documentary, UML is a skillful and sophisticated production, showing some well-made computer animations of cellular processes at the molecular level. In discussing such mechanisms, the video claims that the scientific evidence points to insurmountable difficulties for standard evolutionary theory, and supports instead the hypothesis that a superior intelligence directly intervened to create and/or diversify life (hence the name "Intelligent Design", or ID, Creationism4). The video discusses such purported evidence and devotes much of its time to the historical origins and philosophical underpinnings of the ID movement.

The fundamental question is whether ULM conforms to basic scientific standards of adherence to evidence and facts. In this, it fails at several levels. First of all, throughout the documentary mainstream scientific views, supported by the overwhelming majority of scientists, are not even independently presented. Instead, oversimplified, sometime downright scornful presentations of mainstream scientific theories and hypotheses are provided by supporters of ID (as a counterexample, the recent PBS "Evolution" series, though clearly favoring a scientific view, featured the opinions of several prominent representatives of Creationism). In UML, therefore, the viewers are treated to descriptions of scientific evidence and theories that have little connection with what is in fact going on in the science world. For reasons of space, I'll just mention a few examples.

The most glaring omission deals with UML's discussion of Origins of Life (OoL) science. The only non ID-based views on OoL discussed in the video are those proposed, in the late '60s, by one of the current ID proponents, Dr. Dean Kenyon. According to UML, those models have been later shown by Kenyon and colleagues to be insufficient to explain key aspects of early molecular and cellular evolution. In fact, most of Kenyon's original views have long been superseded by more thorough, and better empirically supported, scientific hypotheses -- indeed, it was those hypotheses and evidence that led to the demise of Kenyon's ideas in scientific circles long before ID Creationism appeared on the scene. Alas, what is arguably the current (and has been for more than a decade now) favored hypothesis about OoL, the so-called "RNA World" model5, finds no mention whatsoever in UML. This is not surprising, perhaps, since the objections raised in UML by ID proponents to Kenyon's original theory would not stand against this new model. Thus, the viewer is given the false impression that the current scientific choice is between ID Creationism and its outright miraculous Origin of Life, or Dr. Kenyon's outdated 1960's theory. Of course, our understanding of OoL is still very limited, and highly speculative. Nevertheless, it is far more advanced and scientifically solid than the UML parody would want its audience to believe.

Other mistakes in UML include an equally superficial, almost mockingly simplified discussion of cooption, a crucial evolutionary mechanism for which in fact significance evidence exists in the biological world. UML's "experts" even commit a basic error regarding the role of nucleic acids in the cell, which are presented as uniquely involved in genetic information storage and transfer, while it is now well known that they are directly active in crucial molecular processes functionally comparable to those carried out by protein enzymes -- a key piece of evidence in favor of the "RNA World" hypothesis mentioned above (and the possible reason why it also went unmentioned).

The crucial argument underlying the whole ID philosophy, widely discussed in the video, is the concept of "irreducibly complex" systems, and the purported impossibility of conventional evolutionary mechanisms to generate them. Although it was quickly rejected by biologists on theoretical and empirical grounds6, "irreducible complexity" has remained the main staple of ID Creationism. Ironically, this argument was just recently delivered a fatal blow in the prestigious science journal Nature, where a computer simulation based entirely on evolutionary principles (undirected random mutation and selection) was shown to be able to generate "irreducibly complex" outputs7. While of course the video cannot be faulted for not predicting the results of future scientific research, this episode serves as a good example of the shaky grounds on which ID reasoning is built. Indeed, not only does scientific evidence continue to accumulate contradicting the ID arguments, but even more damningly, in over 10 years from the onset of the "movement", no single scientific result supporting ID has been published in the scientific literature, despite its supporters continuing claims of the existence of such results. Indeed, even the ID advocates' own journal, the electronically published Progress in Complexity, Information and Design, has failed to publish any experimental result supporting ID8.

In short, despite the appeals by ID advocates to "let the evidence speak for itself", there is in fact no positive scientific evidence in support of ID, and on the contrary the theoretical arguments of its advocates are constantly being proven erroneous in the professional literature. To avoid facing this lack of evidence, UML resorts instead to systematic distortions of mainstream science theories and omissions of key ideas and pieces of evidence.

The people:

The experts interviewed for UML, and ID advocates in general, are fond to present themselves as "scientists", often accompanied by the qualifier "a small but growing number of". In fact, most ID advocates are not scientists by any meaningful definition of the term, and their numbers (for which "small" is an overstatement) are anything but growing.

Of the experts who appear in UML, 4 can in fact qualify as bona fide scientists: Michael Behe, Scott Minnich, Dean Kenyon, and Jed Macosko. The first two hold tenured positions in Biochemistry and Microbiology, respectively, at mainstream universities, but despite their own research experience and active labs, as discussed above they have failed to produce any evidence in support of the ideas they so eloquently argue for. Dean Kenyon was scientifically active until the mid-'70s, after which he has not published further in the scientific literature (however, he has since co-authored the notorious Creationist school textbook "Of Pandas and People"9). (Note added July 8, 2003: Since this letter appeared on the web, Dr. Kenyon kindly and quickly informed me that he has in fact one scientific publication later than the mid-'70s: "A Comparison of Proteinoid and Aldocyanoin Microsystems as Models of the Primordial Protocell", in Molecular Evolution and Protobiology [K. Matsuno, K. Dose, K. Harada, and D. L. Rohlfing, eds.], pp. 163-188, Plenum Press, 1984. My original statement was based on a search of the main scientific literature databases available: Pubmed, BasicBIOSIS, CSA Biological Sciences, and the Institute for Scientific Information's "Web of Science" Science Citation Index. The book article in question does not seem to appear in any of these databases, nor has it apparently ever been referenced by any other later publication also in the database. Nevertheless, for the record, the existence of Dr. Kenyon's 1984 paper should be noted.)

Jed Macosko, whose image is accompanied in UML by the qualifier "Molecular Biologist, UC Berkeley", although a Berkeley graduate and former postdoctoral trainee, in fact is not, or has ever been, on the Berkeley faculty, as that title could suggest. Indeed, Dr. Macosko is apparently not even affiliated with UC Berkeley anymore; if he was at the time of interview, he certainly was there as a junior postdoc trainee, hardly an "expert" in the field by any standards. Currently, Dr. Macosko is listed on some ID web sites as teaching chemistry at the religious La Sierra University in Riverside, CA10, although he does not appear on the faculty list there either11. Such "generous" use of credentials is not unique in the documentary. One of the leading proponents of ID, William Dembski, is labeled as a "mathematician -- Baylor University" in UML, although he is affiliated with Baylor's Institute for Faith and Learning, which focuses on theology and philosophy12. Indeed, almost the entirety of Dr. Dembski's vast published opus, with the exception of a mathematics paper in 1990, is about various aspects of theology, apologetics and philosophy13 (Dr. Dembski holds PhDs in Mathematics and Philosophy, and a M.Div. in Theology). Finally, Jonathan Wells, presented as "biologist" in UML, does hold a PhD in Developmental Biology from UC Berkeley. By his own words, however, he entered the program not based on any genuine interest in science and biology, but following the direction of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, with the expressed goal to "devote his life to destroying Darwinism"14. Not surprisingly, there is no record of Dr. Wells performing any meaningful research work after his training at Berkeley, and he has since entirely dedicated himself to anti-evolutionist propaganda (including the book "Icons of Evolution", some editions of which even contained stickers for students to deface biology textbooks15).

Thus, the definitions of professional background and academic affiliation used throughout UML are at the very least ambiguous, and clearly result in an inflation of the apparent academic clout and relevant expertise of the participants.

In summary, "Unlocking the Mystery of Life" is a depiction of a fringe, at best semi-scientific philosophical movement very close, ideologically and organizationally, to religious Creationism. The documentary misrepresents itself, its goals, the existing scientific evidence and its own experts in several significant ways. While it is your prerogative to air the programs that you believe best suit your audience's needs and interests, it is equally important that your viewers be provided with information that may help them put this product's contents and purpose in the appropriate context. This is necessary not only in the spirit of openness and full disclosure, but also to avoid that your broadcast of the documentary appear as an implicit endorsement of this new form of "stealth" Creationism by one of the largest Departments of Education in the country.

Added 08/13/03: William Dembski has argued that my critique above makes a misleading use of references. He is wrong: see my response posted at talkdesign.org and talkreason.org.

Notes
1 Verifiable by a "WHOIS" search for the domain name "illustramedia.com": http://www.networksolutions.com/cgi-bin/whois/whois?STRING=illustramedia.com&SearchType=do Accessed 6/30/03
2http://www.discoverymedia.org/dm_products_page.htm Accessed 6/29/03
3http://www.missionfrontiers.org/2002/06/PDFs/Unlocking_Mystery.pdf Accessed 6/28/03
4 For an in-depth discussion of ID Creationism, see "Intelligent Design Creationism and its Critics", Robert T. Pennock, ed, MIT Press, 2001, ISBN 0-262-16204-0; review in http://www-unix.oit.umass.edu/~cheathwo/Phil100/nytimes.html Accessed 6/30/03
5http://www.lawrenceroberge.com/RNAWORLD.htm Accessed 6/30/03
http://www.americanscientist.org/template/AssetDetail/assetid/21438?fulltext=true Accessed 6/30/03
6 see for instance several articles by Dr. Ken Miller, Brown University: http://www.millerandlevine.com/km/evol/ Accessed 6/30/03
7 Lenski RE, Ofria C, Pennock RT, Adami C. "The evolutionary origin of complex features." Nature. May 8 2003; 423 (6936):139-44
8http://www.iscid.org/pcid.php Accessed 6/29/03
9http://63.74.14.138/page/001/PROD/BOFPA1, reviewed at the National Association of Biology Teachers web site
http://www.nabt.org/sub/evolution/panda1.asp Both accessed 6/30/03.
10http://www.iscid.org/jed-macosko.php; http://www.lasierra.edu/ Both accessed 6/30/03
11http://www.lasierra.edu/resources/phonelists/phonename_m-s.html Accessed 6/30/03
12http://www3.baylor.edu/IFL/ Accessed 6/28/03
13http://www.designinference.com/documents/05.02.CV.htm Accessed 6/30/03
14http://www.tparents.org/library/unification/talks/wells/DARWIN.htm Accessed 6/30/03
15 Links to reviews of Icons of Evolution can be found at the National Center of Science Education's web site http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/articles/9855_reviews_of_icons_of_evolution_10_31_2002.asp Accessed 6/30/03