Second thoughts from Springer


A scientific publisher is having second thoughts about a forthcoming cryptocreationist volume, Inside Higher Ed reports (March 1, 2012). The volume in question, entitled Biological Information: New Perspectives, edited by R. J. Marks II, M. J. Behe, W. A. Dembski, B. L. Gordon, and J. C. Sanford, and slated to appear in a series of engineering books dubbed the Intelligent Systems Reference Library, was advertised by Springer as presenting "new perspectives regarding the nature and origin of biological information," demonstrating "how our traditional ideas about biological information are collapsing under the weight of new evidence," and written "by leading experts in the field" who had "gathered at Cornell University to discuss their research into the nature and origin of biological information."

In a February 27, 2012, post at The Panda's Thumb blog, however, Nick Matzke charged, "It looks like some creationist engineers found a way to slither some ID/creationism into a major academic publisher." He asked, "Do you think Springer commissioned any actual population geneticists to peer-review his work and his editing? Any actual biologists at mainstream institutions anywhere? Or was it creationist engineers peer-reviewing theologians masquerading as information theoreticians? Does the volume actually address any of the detailed and technical rebuttals of the favorite ID arguments? ... Wouldn't this be a minimal requirement, even if a publisher like Springer decided to publish pseudoscientists on the everyone-deserves-to-be-heard-even-cranks theory, or whatever?"

Addressing the advertisement's claim that the papers derived from a conference at Cornell University, Matzke observed, "a few posts from attendees tell us what actually happened — the conference wasn’t advertised, mainstream scientists with relevant expertise were not invited to attend, and participants were told several times to suppress their apparently otherwise overwhelming tendency to bring in their religion and do fundamentalist apologetics like they do in most other venues. It was basically just another fake ID 'conference' where the ID fans get together and convince each other that they are staging a scientific revolution, all the while ignoring the actual science on how new genetic 'information' originates."

Subsequently, information about the book disappeared from Springer's website. A spokesperson for Springer told Inside Higher Ed that although the initial proposal for the book was peer-reviewed, "once the complete manuscript had been submitted, the series editors became aware that additional peer review would be necessary ... This is currently underway, and the automatically generated pre-announcement for the book on Springer has been removed until the peer-reviewers have made their final decision." He added that the publisher does not "endorse intelligent design as a legitimate area of scientific research. Springer stands behind evolutionary theory as a fundamental component of modern science."

Matzke told Inside Higher Ed that he suspected that the editorial staff at Springer was caught unaware: "This falls into a trend that has been going on for the past few years, where creationists/IDists have been exploiting engineering venues to get carefully-phrased versions of their stuff published," Matzke said. "But as is often said, publication isn't the end of peer review, it's the beginning of it. And if a scientific publisher seems to be dropping the ball, it’s the responsibility of the rest of us to say so." Douglas Theobald, a professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University, agreed, saying, "Our default take on this is that Springer has been duped and that the senior editors are unaware that this is a quack group of anti-evolution creationists."

Theobald, who with a number of fellow Springer authors is drafting a letter of protest to the publisher, expressed concern that the book would compromise the credibility of Springer as a scholarly publisher and deter prospective authors. He called the book the latest effort "in a long sordid history here of trying to get pseudoscientific, anti-evolution papers published in journals to raise the respectability of ID with non-scientists." NCSE's Glenn Branch observed that such efforts pose a threat to scientific literacy in the United States, commenting, "Once published, they can claim that scientific authority is behind them" — particularly, of course, in their attempts to undermine the proper teaching of evolution in the public school science classroom.

John Sanford, one of the editors of the book and a courtesy associate professor at Cornell's Department of Horticulture, told Inside Higher Ed, "Obviously we are only trying to exercise academic freedom and freedom of speech, and are challenging a sacred cow." In May 2005, before the "kangaroo court" on evolution orchestrated by three antievolutionist members of the state board of education in Kansas, Sanford testified that he believes the earth is between 5000 and 100,000 years old, that he rejects the general principle of common descent and the idea that humans are descended from prehominid ancestors, and that he agrees that "the teaching of science as is currently practiced is an indoctrination in naturalism."