Let down

By Sean Carroll | August 22, 2005 11:11 pm

I tried to give the New York Times series on intelligent design the benefit of the doubt, I really did. While the first installment received a lot of heated criticism around the science blogs, I was cautiously optimistic. It did, after all, expose the Discovery Institute as a public-relations machine rather than a scientific institution. True, it didn’t emphasize the obvious shortcomings of ID, but I agreed with PZ that we should wait for the next installment — hopefully the science would be front and center there.

What a disappointment. Today’s article (by Kenneth Chang) is a disaster — the usual credulous rehearsal of “balanced” arguments on each side, leading the non-expert reader to imagine that there is some sort of real “controversy.” You wouldn’t know from the article that ID enjoys the same level of support among biologists as the flat-Earth theory does among astronomers. Pharyngula, Chris Mooney, Brad DeLong, Arthur Silber, Abnormal Interests, and Brian Leiter administer the requisite flogging. My heart’s not in it.

It’s sad to see the basic workings of science undermined by buzzwords and fast talk and misrepresentations and fallacious arguments in the name of a politico-religious agenda, and to see the media go along for the ride. If newspapers wanted to write straightforward stories about natural theology as a religious question, I wouldn’t care at all. But everybody knows it’s not science, and it’s depressing to see the charade treated with such seriousness.

Update: Tuesday’s article is about scientists’ attitudes toward God, by Cornelia Dean. Not especially good or bad; PZ is not very happy. But as Jay mentions in comments (and Thoughts from Kansas blogs about), there is a nice opinion piece by Verlyn Klinkenborg that muses on the mind-boggling timescales invoked by evolutionary biology, not to mention cosmology. It’s a nice reflection on real science and the awe it engenders; opening yourself up to the way the universe really works is infinitely more rewarding than making up your mind ahead of time and insisting that the world work that way.

Another update: Kenneth Chang, author of the second NYT piece, has left a comment on Pharyngula (and now here). He points out, correctly, that the article was not for us (scientifically literate blog readers). But I think he dramatically underestimates the extent to which he gives the wrong impression of the science — there is no scientific “controversy” whatsoever, and that message did not come through with nearly the clarity that it should have. It’s not a matter of factual errors, it’s about an accurate portrayal of the status of this conflict.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and the Media
  • the one Intelligently designed

    If all what Bush is saying is , that the students should be told what is the debate about, then may be its not that bad. Seriously, its a chance that science teachers teach their students how the scientific theories are so fundamentally different from “beleives” like inteligent design. Hopefuly in this way , our future generation wont buy any nonscience (or non sense) in the name of science.
    And I am afraid its religion , which is gonna be hurt by this kind of debate. These conservatives aint doing any service to the religion.

  • the one Intelligently designed

    Well, now if someone wants to write about ID as a scientific theory, what can be done? Except that the scientists should expose them.

  • Aaron

    Actually, I think this one was much stronger than the first. It clearly implies that the IDers are full of it. The end, in particular, was a pretty good shot at Behe.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/risa/ Risa

    I think the clearest sign that this article is a real dissapointment is in this article from the Discovery Institute webpage:

    The New York Times Makes Progress on the Controversy
    , which begins

    The New York Times’ successive two front page (Sunday and Monday), above the fold articles on Discovery Institute and intelligent design (ID) were better than we feared, which means we moved from the 90 % negative view long evident on the Times’ editorial page and the comments of executive editor Bill Keller to, oh, about 60 % negative, 40 % positive in these two unprecedented analytical news articles. This is progress.

    Ah, progress.

  • Ryan Scranton

    But Aaron, this is journalism, not a science paper (or even a novel). Sure, by the end it’s clear-ish that Behe’s ideas are dead wrong, but who’s reading that far? The whole point of newspaper writing is supposed to be getting the main focus of the story out there in the first paragraph. Once that’s done, then you spend the rest of the article filling in the gaps. Burying the lede on something like this (and then filling the rest of the article with he-said-she-said nonsense) smacks of either incompetence or just outright ignorance.

    I know from personal experience that the Times has good astronomy science writers, but so far their choice of writers for this series has been pretty wretched.

  • jay

    Sean, draw some solace reading Verlyn Klinkenborg’s well-written article appeared today in New York Times “Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution.”

  • jay
  • http://yolanda3.dynalias.org/wbpage/MH/mh.html Wolfgang


    I just think you overestimate the interest of the general public and the media in real science.
    Polls show that a clear majority of US citizens do NOT accept evolution.
    The job decription of the media is to entertain those people and at least not offend a majority of their readers.
    Just go to an average book store and compare the number of books on Astrology with the number of Astronomy books or the number of books in the “Science” section with the number of books in the “Religion” section.

  • Anonymous

    Are scientists approaching the media directly and trying to fix things like this?

  • http://jgrr.blogspot.com Josh

    Don’t forget Thoughts from Kansas. I agree that Chang’s piece was awful. “He said/she said” journalism at its worse, and it basically reiterates Behe’s horrific Op-Ed, giving the same crappy logic extra viewings by the Times’s readership.


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Anonymous– the media hang on this blog’s every word. You can rest assured that henceforth they will try harder.

  • Kenneth Chang

    I can understand that you don’t like the article, and I won’t suggest that you’re a horrible reader for not liking it. If I left you the impression of a raging scientific controversey, then the article failed at some level. But, also, here are 1,400 words that were in the story.

    But mainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

    “One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

    That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live.

    And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations. So much evidence has been provided by evolutionary studies that biologists are able to explain even the most complex natural phenomena and to fill in whatever blanks remain with solid theories.

    This is possible, in large part, because evolution leaves tracks like the fossil remains of early animals or the chemical footprints in DNA that have been revealed by genetic research.

    For example, while Dr. Behe and other leading design proponents see the blood clotting system as a product of design, mainstream scientists see it as a result of a coherent sequence of evolutionary events.

    Early vertebrates like jawless fish had a simple clotting system, scientists believe, involving a few proteins that made blood stick together, said Russell F. Doolittle, a professor of molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego.

    Scientists hypothesize that at some point, a mistake during the copying of DNA resulted in the duplication of a gene, increasing the amount of protein produced by cells.

    Most often, such a change would be useless. But in this case the extra protein helped blood clot, and animals with the extra protein were more likely to survive and reproduce. Over time, as higher-order species evolved, other proteins joined the clotting system. For instance, several proteins involved in the clotting of blood appear to have started as digestive enzymes.

    By studying the evolutionary tree and the genetics and biochemistry of living organisms, Dr. Doolittle said, scientists have largely been able to determine the order in which different proteins became involved in helping blood clot, eventually producing the sophisticated clotting mechanisms of humans and other higher animals. The sequencing of animal genomes has provided evidence to support this view.

    For example, scientists had predicted that more primitive animals such as fish would be missing certain blood-clotting proteins. In fact, the recent sequencing of the fish genome has shown just this.

    “The evidence is rock solid,” Dr. Doolittle said.

    …a vast majority of scientists accept evolution…

    Nonetheless, many scientists regard intelligent design as little more than creationism dressed up in pseudoscientific clothing. Despite its use of scientific language and the fact that some design advocates are scientists, they say, the design approach has so far offered only philosophical objections to evolution, not any positive evidence for the intervention of a designer.

    Mainstream scientists say that the scientific method is indeed restricted to the material world, because it is trying to find out how it works. Simply saying, “it must have been designed,” they say, is simply a way of not tackling the hardest problems.

    They say they have no disagreement with studying phenomena for which there are, as yet, no explanations.

    It is the presumption of a designer that mainstream scientists dispute, because there are no artifacts or biological signs – no scientific evidence, in other words – to suggest a designer’s presence.

    Darwin’s theory, in contrast, has over the last century yielded so many solid findings that no mainstream biologist today doubts its basic tenets, though they may argue about particulars.

    The theory has unlocked many of the mysteries of the natural world. For example, by studying the skeletons of whales, evolutionary scientists have been able to trace the history of their descent from small-hoofed land mammals. They made predictions about what the earliest water-dwelling whales might look like. And, in 1994, paleontologists reported discovering two such species, with many of the anatomical features that scientists had predicted.

    Nowhere has evolution been more powerful than in its prediction that there must be a means to pass on information from one generation to another. Darwin did not know the biological mechanism of inheritance, but the theory of evolution required one.

    The discovery of DNA, the sequencing of the human genome, the pinpointing of genetic diseases and the discovery that a continuum of life from a single cell to a human brain can be detected in DNA are all a result of evolutionary theory.

    Darwin may have been the classic scientific observer. He observed that individuals in a given species varied considerably, variations now known to be caused by mutations in their genetic code. He also realized that constraints of food and habitat sharply limited population growth; not every individual could survive and reproduce.

    This competition, he hypothesized, meant that those individuals with helpful traits multiplied, passing on those traits to their numerous offspring. Negative or useless traits did not help individuals reproduce, and those traits faded away, a process that Darwin called natural selection.

    The finches that Darwin observed in the Galápagos Islands provide the most famous example of this process. The species of finch that originally found its way to the Galápagos from South America had a beak shaped in a way that was ideal for eating seeds. But once arrived on the islands, that finch eventually diversified into 13 species. The various Galápagos finches have differently shaped beaks, each fine-tuned to take advantage of a particular food, like fruit, grubs, buds or seeds.

    Such small adaptations can arise within a few generations. Darwin surmised that over millions of years, these small changes would accumulate, giving rise to the myriad of species seen today.

    But molecular biologists have found genes that control the function of other genes, switching them on and off. Small mutations in these controller genes could produce new species. In addition, new fossils are being found and scientists now know that many changes occurred in the era before the Cambrian – a period that may have lasted 100 million years – providing more time for change.

    The Cambrian explosion, said David J. Bottjer, a professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California and president of the Paleontological Society, is “a wonderful mystery in that we don’t know everything yet.”

    “I think it will be just a matter of time before smart people will be able to figure a lot more of this out,” Dr. Bottjer said. “Like any good scientific problem.”

    Intelligent design proponents have been stung by claims that, in contrast to mainstream scientists, they do not form their own theories or conduct original research.

    But other mathematicians have said that Dr. Dembski’s calculations do not work and cannot be applied in the real world.

    Dr. Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University and a frequent sparring partner of design proponents, said that in his study, Dr. Axe did not look at penicillinase “the way evolution looks at the protein.”

    Natural selection, he said, is not random. A small number of mutations, sometimes just one, can change the function of a protein, allowing it to diverge along new evolutionary paths and eventually form a new shape or fold.

    Mainstream scientists say this fuzziness about when and how design supposedly occurred makes the claims impossible to disprove. It is unreasonable, they say, for design advocates to demand that every detail of evolution be filled in.

    Dr. Lenski said his experiment was not intended to explore this aspect of evolution, but nonetheless, “We have recently discovered a pretty dramatic exception, one where a new and surprising function has evolved,” he said.

    Dr. Lenski declined to give any details until the research is published. But, he said, “If anyone is resting his or her faith in God on the outcome that our experiment will not produce some major biological innovation, then I humbly suggest they should rethink the distinction between science and religion.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Kenneth, thanks for commenting. I appreciate that there was a good amount of testimony from mainstream scientists in the article, and that anyone who read closely would not come away favorably disposed to ID. But the real problem is right in the very first paragraph, quoted here in toto:

    At the heart of the debate over intelligent design is this question: Can a scientific explanation of the history of life include the actions of an unseen higher being?

    You see, that is not at the heart of the debate. The relevant debate is “Should the content of high-school science courses be decided by scientists, or by religiously-motivated public-relations campaigns?”

    There isn’t any scientific debate, or at least not one any more serious than the geocentric-heliocentric debate is these days. Certainly, the ID movement is more newsworthy than Ptolemaism, but it’s not more worthy of scientific respect. There may be an interesting theological controversy, but not a scientific one. While I appreciate (as mentioned in my previous post) that there won’t be news articles declaring that ID is simply nonsense, it is perfectly fair to make clear the fact that the debate is purely ideological. There aren’t sessions at biology conferences in which researchers argue over the role of an unseen higher being in the history of life — it’s simply not an issue.

    By relying on constrasting quotes from each side concerning the scientific merits of this proposal, that message is obscured, even if a close reading would reveal that the scientists are making much more sense.

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Yes, and furthermore, the sad fact is that most people will not do a close reading .


  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    You wouldn’t know from the article that ID enjoys the same level of support among biologists as the flat-Earth theory does among astronomers.


  • Kenneth Chang

    O.K., I finally see what the hang-up over the beginning of the story is. In an early draft, the rhetorical question was quickly followed by Doug Erwin’s quote, to make it clear that the standard scientific view is No, of course not. In the course of editing, other material was inserted between the question and the quote, and so that intended connection was lost. Perhaps I should have tried to insert as the second sentence something like, “For most scientists, the answer is an obvious no, and that is the end of the debate.”

    But even so, as I said at Pharyngula, I don’t think the casual reader will conclude from the article that evolution and I.D. are on equal footing. I don’t think it needs that close of a reading. It’s not like I surrepticiously snuck in a few caveats. It’s literally half of the story.

    I’ve had one person email me saying he was confused by the story, that it seemed to give equal weight to both sides. This person said he’s been debating more evangelical friends and reading a lot about I.D. The rest of the feedback has ranged from “Great story” to “I don’t think it was as awful as all those people said it was” to “What an awful story.”

  • collin

    Sean — you said (how does one do the fancy quotes here?):

    You see, that is not at the heart of the debate. The relevant debate is “Should the content of high-school science courses be decided by scientists, or by religiously-motivated public-relations campaigns?”

    I think this is science’s problem in this culture war — you’re not framing the debate properly. We can all agree that ID is not science. It’s not a model, it makes no predictions, and it’s not verifiable. It is certainly a religiously-motivated public relation campaign. By teaching ID in a science classroom, we are teaching our children, our future, that science is not necessarily a worthwhile enterprise. By science here, I don’t mean ‘evolution’ but rather the scientific method. Once we start saying, “hmm… maybe science isn’t right,” we start down a slippery slope where we very quickly reach the conclusion that we shouldn’t fund medical research. Hence, teaching ID leads to no cure for cancer.

    Now, surely a better expositor than myself can phrase this better. I’ve certainly seen parts of this more or less said lots of places. But it should be explicitly laid out: teaching ID to your children means you die earlier than you should because there will be no cure for cancer (or AIDS, or old age, or whatever). That statement resonates more with the average Joe than, “don’t teach ID in science class b/c it’s not science” or “don’t teach ID in science class b/c it’s a religiously-motivated public-relations campaign” does. Sad, but true.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Collin — it’s the blockquote command.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    But Kenneth, the problem is not the lack of an immediate statement of scientists’ position in the debate — it’s the implication that there is a debate, or at least a scientific one. There isn’t any! There may be a political or religious debate, but scientists working on evolution are not discussing intelligent design as a legitimate scientific hypothesis. That’s the message that didn’t come through clearly, not the fact that “mainstream scientists disagree with ID,” which was clear enough.

    The article could have started off with “A search through the program of (pick your favorite biology conference) for sessions on ‘Intelligent Design’ reveals an interesting fact — there aren’t any.” The article could then have describe the attempts of IDers to get their ideas taken seriously as science, and their utter failure on that score, and the telling strategy of working through school boards rather than conventional scientific channels. It would have been strictly factual, non-judgemental, and given the right impression. That’s why so many people feel disappointed.

    What’s frustrating is that this is a common feature of mainstream journalism, at least in the US — the feeling that journalists should simply present both sides, leaving it to the readers to make up their minds. How many times have we read sentences like “Republicans claim that their new plan will lower taxes on most Americans, while Democrats say that it will actually raise their taxes”? Well, which is it? This is a factual question, which should be in the power of a report to actually answer. In this case, simply presenting the IDers view of the biology, and countering with the actual biologists’ view, leads to a dramatically misleading conclusion: that there is a real scientific controversy going on.

  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    I want to add that, while I don’t like the NYT article, I do appreciate Kenneth Chang’s willingness to discuss it.

    Perhaps Kenneth Chang might find it fruitful to see some of the comments in http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2005/08/02/how-are-we-to-make-progress-with-w/

    There, Doug points to a pre-print “General relativity resolves galactic rotation without exotic dark matter” (http://arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0507619). This would be a highly interesting paper if it were correct. Sean replied “Sorry, I meant to reply to this. I haven’t read the paper (astro-ph/0507619) in detail, but there are enough warning signs that I won’t bother. ” Anyway, someone else did look at it (http://xxx.arxiv.org/abs/astro-ph/0508377) and found the mistake in the paper; it is not a mistake in the math. it turns out, it is a mistake of interpretation.

    Now, the authors of the original pre-print are not crackpots; they simply made an error. To a working scientist in the same field, this was not worth more than ten minutes of time, once the symptoms of being wrong were detected. ID as science is even less worth a few minutes of a scientist’s time. Why are so many working scientists (e.g here and on pharyngula.org) then writing so much about ID? Because it is a politically motivated attack on the entire enterprise of science; the pre-print with the error, cited above, is of infinitely more scientific interest than ID, and the authors of the pre-print are committed to the scientific method.

    It bears repeating: ID is of ZERO intrinsic scientific interest. There is no debate on ID as science except that created by the Discovery Institute. As a well-funded and politically backed movement, ID is a danger to the scientific temper of this nation (not of other nations, even in fundamentalist Middle Eastern countries, I doubt there is an attack on science of this sophistication). And that is the only reason scientists are talking about it.

  • tom

    People who believe (and that is what they do) in Intelligent Design think that scientists also BELIEVE in the Scientific Method. Belief frames the IDers’ world view. They can’t imagine that scientists believe their senses (and by extension their instruments) more than what they have been taught by their religions. Belief is stronger than senses for these fundamentalist people.

    Furthermore IDers MUST believe every word of their religious teachings. Selecting from the menu is not allowed and the Pope reiterated that point this week.

    So from the IDers point of view science is a RELIGION that believes in the senses, observations, data, logical conclusions and theories. They see it as a false religion and one to be destroyed at all costs. This is what you (and I) are up against. It’s just one battle of a war that has been raging since long before the time of Roger Bacon. It is just one consequence of the concept of monotheism which has combined a belief in a greater authority and wonder of the natural world with political and economic power.

  • http://journalofdoubt.com mat

    Karl Popper is probably howling in his grave.

    Dr Ray Scott Percival’s essay on Popper clearly helps inform one of the laughbable nature of the “science” behind “Intelligent Design” and “Creationism.”

    …Thus the term “immunizing stratagem” arose in connection with Popper’s attempt to solve the problem of distinguishing scientific from pseudo-scientific theories – the so-called demarcation problem. Popper’s solution was the methodological rule to allow into science only empirically falsifiable hypotheses, and subject these to severe criticism. In addition, theory development was to proceed from less to more testable, i.e., more informative theories. If a theory is refuted and an alternative sought, it had to be more testable, not less, and the more testable the better. For to reduce testability is to reduce knowledge, but in science we desire the growth of knowledge. An immunizing stratagem is a development in theory that reduces testability.

    In other words, ID and Creationism invoke “God” to systematically plug up their untestable logical and theoretical holes, which are all over their ideas; this invoking of God to replace testable (and hence possibly refutable) ideas is clearly an example of Popper’s idea of an immunizing stratagem.

    Any scientist worth his or her salt knows and understands this basic epistemological principle of science that Popper proposed, and THIS is why ID and Creationsim are a joke the scientific community.

    Perhaps our sceince education is failing us all if fully grown and educated–even at university level–adults do not understand the epistemological limits and differences between science and metaphysics.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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