05 December 2005

The Discovery Institute and publications

In responding to a recent New York Times article (already discussed in detail here and here), the Discovery Institute's John West once again points to the Discovery Institute's list of "peer-reviewed and peer-edited publications" as evidence that the Discovery Institute really does do science.

That document, like so much that the Discovery Institute puts out, does not paint an accurate picture of what is actually going on. The list has been available in one form or another for quite a while now, and individual entries on the list have been critiqued in a number of locations. I'm going to address the list as a whole here. I will briefly comment on some of the individual entries in the process, but I am not going to take the time to address all of them. For the most part, I will assume, FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT ONLY, that the articles are more or less what they claim to be.

The list contains, by my count, 34 entries. However, upon closer examination it turns out that some of the publications listed in the "Featured Articles" section at the top are duplicated in other places on the list, bringing the number of unique entries down to 31. An additional three books are listed in a section titled, "Books Supportive of Intelligent Design Published by Prominent Trade Presses." These three are neither peer-reviewed nor peer-edited, and therefore should not have been included in the list. This reduces the total to 28.

At this point, it is probably worth discussing the "peer-edited" component of the list. "Peer-edited" is not a term that is in common usage in the sciences. Nobody that I know of considers "peer-editing" to be a meaningful distinction, and it is certainly not viewed as equivalent to peer-review. The use of "peer-edited" serves only to give the Discovery Institute an excuse to increase the number of listed publications slightly.

We will ignore, for the moment, the distinction between peer-reviewed and "peer-edited." We will ignore the fact that the compilers of the list decided to further inflate their numbers by first listing Campbell and Meyer's book Darwinism, Design, and Public Education as a "peer-reviewed book" and then listing each of the book's five chapters as a separate listing. We will even ignore the fact that five of the articles are listed as appearing in "peer-reviewed philosophy journals," rather than in science journals, and that two of those actually appear in books, not journals.

If we do in fact ignore all of the major complaints with the list, and assume that the Discovery Institute folks can actually claim 28 legitimate publications, what does that say for their academic status?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is not much.

To put that figure into perspective, I took a look at the publication lists for two members of my department's graduate faculty: Rob Toonen and Brian Bowen. Both are relatively new faculty, and have been in the department for less than five years. Between the two of them, they have authored 26 peer-reviewed articles since 2000. That's just two fewer articles than the entire body of "peer-reviewed and peer-edited" work claimed as supporting Intelligent Design, and it is five more articles than the ID folks claim for that period of time.

That figure of 26 articles doesn't count book chapters or popular publications. It doesn't count "peer-edited" material. That's just what's appeared in peer-reviewed journals. I didn't pick these two professors because they have authored an unusually high number of articles, either. I picked them because I happened to still have their lab homepage up in a browser tab when I started writing this. In fact, these particular professors had to get their lab set up and running over the last couple of years, which probably reduced their output a bit.

To sum up, the Discovery Institute's list of articles supporting Intelligent Design can best be described as pitiful by any measure. The list includes things that don't belong there, lists some entries twice, inflates the number of publications, adds philosophical articles to the scientific ones, and still fails to match the output from two professors over a five year period. That's why nobody considers them to be serious scientists. If they want scientific respect, they need to set up labs, do research, and get serious about producing and publishing real results.

But at what price?

Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice addressed European leaders today, and told them that they should keep in mind the fact that interrogations of terrorist suspects have produced information that has "saved European lives" before complaining about little things like the possibility that the US was running secret prisons in former Soviet Bloc nations.

I think that most people do understand that it is much, much easier to get information out of people who have been removed from the criminal justice system, cut off from access to lawyers, and given no contact at all with anyone other than their captors. Given enough time and effort, you can convince pretty much anyone that they, too, love Big Brother.

The question at hand is whether or not the price of safety is worth the cost. There is a cost involved here, and it is steep. I'm not talking about the financial, although the Administration is doing its damndest to bankrupt the government. I'm not talking about the cost in respect either, although Bush and his people have taken us as a nation to our lowest international approval ratings ever. What I'm talking about is the cost to our values.

"Freedom Is Not Free" is a slogan that I see on lots of bumper stickers. That's not much of a surprise, of course, since I live on an Army base. The risk and the sacrifice should not be restricted to those in uniform, however. There are radicals out there who do want to see Americans die, and they have proven that they are willing to strike at innocent civilians within the United States. These people do act without support from any one nation, and they are much harder to fight than a conventional enemy would be. If we do everything that we can as a nation to protect ourselves - if we seek to protect ourselves by using secret prisons and coercive interrogation techniques - we sacrifice our commitment to human rights. If we do not, innocent civilians may die.

The American people have been denied the opportunity to have any substantial national discussion about the way that Bush has chosen to fight. The Administration, aided by an inert congress, has managed to dodge any domestic debate on the issue. The European community apparently has not decided to let Bush, Chaney, Rumsfield, and Rice make those decisions on their behalf without putting up a fight.

More power to them.