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ID paper continues to attract scrutiny

Three recent news articles describe the ongoing controversy about the publication of "intelligent design" advocate Stephen C. Meyer's article "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories" in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. And Chris Mooney provides a pertinent comparison.

In "Peer-reviewed paper defends theory of intelligent design", which appeared in Nature [Broken Link], Jim Giles reports a number of now-familiar facts: that PBSW is a low-impact journal, that scientists fear that the article's publication will be cited in attempts to introduce "intelligent design" into public school science curricula, that Richard Sternberg, the editor of PBSW at the time the article was accepted, is associated with Bryan College's Baraminology Study Group, and that the failings of the paper were extensively described at the Panda's Thumb weblog. Giles also interviewed Brown University biologist Kenneth R. Miller, who noted, "Peer review isn't a guarantee of accuracy ... That is especially true of review articles" (such as Meyer's). Evidently the story was written before the BSW's repudiation of Meyer's article.

Richard Monastersky's "Biology journal says it mistakenly published paper that attacks Darwinian evolution," which appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), began with the BSW's repudiation of Meyer's article: "A small scientific society has publicly distanced itself from a paper, published last month by its journal, that challenges Darwinian evolution." The president of the BSW, Roy McDiarmid, explained that the topic of Meyer's article was inappropriate for the society's journal, which specializes in descriptions of newly discovered species of animals and plants. "My conclusion on this," he said, "was that it was a really bad judgment call on the editor's part." Monastersky reports, "opponents of intelligent design and creationism say that Mr. Meyer should have submitted his paper to one of the several journals that normally deal with the origin of animal forms" and quotes NCSE executive director Eugenie C. Scott as saying, "People who would be appropriate to review the paper would be evolutionary biologists, and I doubt that any evolutionary biologists reviewed the paper."

Monastersky notes that Meyer is affiliated with Palm Beach Atlantic University, "which describes itself as a Christian institution"; more to the point, however, is PBAU's requirement that its faculty and staff "must believe that man was directly created by God." Sternberg's association with the Baraminology Study Group is not mentioned, but his status as a Fellow of the International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design (motto: "Retraining the scientific imagination to see design in nature") is. According to the article, Meyer "said he had chosen the journal because Mr. Sternberg attended a conference where Mr. Meyer gave an oral presentation advancing the same arguments. The two discussed the possibility of publishing the work." Although the conference is not named in the article, it is likely that it was the Research and Progress in Intelligent Design Conference, held at Biola University in October 2002, at which Meyer spoke on "The Cambrian information explosion: Evidence of intelligent design" and Sternberg spoke on "Causal entailments in convergently developed, irreducibly complex organ systems." Only advocates of "intelligent design" spoke at the RAPID conference, and at least one critic of "intelligent design" was expressly forbidden to attend.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education's story, Meyer is also reported as claiming that the publication of his article is "the first time that proponents of intelligent design have published an argument for the theory in a peer-reviewed scientific publication." This raises the question of why the Discovery Institute and its Fellows have labored so strenuously in the past to suggest otherwise. (For example, William A. Dembski claimed in 2003 that "intelligent design research is in fact now part of the mainstream peer-reviewed scientific literature," and the web site of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture poses the question "Is research about intelligent design published in peer-reviewed journals and monographs?" and answers "Yes.") Here is what might be aptly called a flip-flop. In any case, peer review -- as scientists know -- is necessary but not sufficient for scientific respectability. Devoid of original scientific research and laden with errors, omissions, and misrepresentations, Meyer's paper is unlikely ever to be of scientific value. But as grist for the "intelligent design" propaganda mill, it promises to be endlessly fruitful.

The controversy over Meyer's paper was briefly described in the "Random Samples" column of the September 17, 2004, issue of Science (subscription required), under the heading "Defying Darwin." The story begins, "Promoters of intelligent design, the 'scientific' wing of creationism, are gloating over a tactical victory this summer: the appearance of a critique of Darwinian evolution in a peer-reviewed biology journal. But the current editors say the journal shouldn't have published it." The current editor of PBSW, Richard Banks, is reported as saying that the editor by whom Meyer's article was published, Richard Sternberg, "deviated from the journal's practice of assigning every submission to an associate editor." Sternberg himself was quoted as describing the article as "not outside the journal's scope," contradicting the BSW's statement of September 7 in which it was described as "inappropriate" and "a significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history."

Finally, Meyer's article was also the subject of Chris Mooney's latest "Doubt and About" column for the web site of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Mooney compares the controversy of Meyer's article to a similar high-profile case in climate change research, drawing three conclusions: "we shouldn't exaggerate the benefits of peer review or pretend it's an absolute guarantor of scientific truth ... [o]bscure journals working in controversial areas should therefore enforce rigorous quality standards, while remaining careful not to censor new ideas or limit legitimate scientific debate ... [and] [i]nstead of contested studies hot off the presses, politicians should generally restrict themselves to relying upon the conclusions of major scientific consensus documents."

For NCSE's previous coverage of the story, see:
ID in the spotlight?
More on Meyer
BSW repudiates Meyer

For a newly assembled collection of commentaries on Meyer's article on the Panda's Thumb weblog, see:
The "Meyer 2004" medley