25 January 2006

How can you tell it isn't science?

Let's say that you are someone who is interested in science, knows a bit about it, but aren't an expert. You might be someone who reads a lot of popular science books, or who watches a lot of science programs on tv. You might read a lot of science fiction. It's even possible that you are a science fiction author.

You have heard a bit about the whole intelligent design thing, but you may not have been following it closely - particularly when it's not in the news. You are also at least a bit disposed to root for the underdog. It's a better story, and you know that it has been real sometimes. People really did laugh at Fulton and the Wright Brothers, and some scientific theories have faced opposition from entrenched opponents. So how do you know that this isn't the case with Intelligent Design? Why should you trust us when we tell you that the ID people aren't really doing science, and that their real motives are much, much more political than scientific. Why shouldn't you believe the DI's claims that we represent an entrenched "Darwinian orthodoxy?"

There are many different arguments that I could make right now, and many of them are valid. These range from the fairly basic ("Their arguments are just plain unscientific") to the completely obscure ("A simple Bayesian probability analysis can show that it is extremely unlikely that someone whose 'scientific theory' is being mocked is actually right"). Which argument you find to be the most convincing may vary. Personally, I think that the most damning argument can be made just by looking at what the Discovery Institute has published.

I've written about the Discovery Institute's list of documents that they claim as supporting ID before. The last time that I did, they were calling it a list of "peer-reviewed and peer-edited" publications. The last time I talked about their list, I pointed out that not only is "peer-edited" a term without scientific meaning, but that some of the publications on their list didn't even rise to that anaemic standard. The current title of the list is "peer-reviewed, peer-edited, and other scientific publications," but the items on the list are the same. I think that attitude says a little something right there - slap a new label on it, and everything will be fine.

But let's set that aside for a minute, and look at their claims. The list, as I have previously noted, contains some items that are trade press books. It contains some articles that are found in the philosophy literature. It lists a book as one item on the list, then goes on to use every chapter in the book as a separate entry. It even lists some articles both in a "featured articles" section at the start of the list, then lists them again later on. The total number of entries in their list, duplicates included, is thirty-four.

That's not a lot by scientific standards. Last semester, I wrote a review article for a class that discussed the geographic modes of speciation observed in Hawaiian insects and spiders. That's a limited group of organisms, living in a very limited area, and I was only looking at one aspect of evolution in the group. I still wound up citing 124 separate articles - almost four times as many as the DI lists as supporting their position. As a scientist, I do find the lack of publications to be a significant strike against them, but I can understand that a non-scientist might not see the significance as clearly.

So, instead of comparing the scientific output of the Discovery Institute to the scientific output of scientists, I'm going to compare it to something else. Let's see how their scientific output stacks up against their public relations machine.

In addition to containing a list of "scientific articles" supporting ID, the Discovery Institute lists favorable news articles. Some of these are written by reporters or op-ed columnists not affiliated with the Discovery Institute. Others are written by DI fellows. Many are press releases issued by the DI.

Let's see just how their PR output stacks up against their scientific output. To do this, I combed through the list of articles linked above, and counted only those articles that were both related to evolution or ID and that were written by someone affiliated with the Discovery Institute. What I wanted to see is how long it would take for me to reach a total of thirty-four of those articles - that's the same number as the number of items (duplicates included) on their list of "scientific" articles.

The first of the articles is dated today, and the 34th (working backward) is dated 10 November 2005. That's a period of 77 days. That works out to a rate of about 0.44 press releases per day. Now, let's look at the scientific output. The first article in the list of scientific articles is dated in 1985, but I'll be generous and round it to an even twenty years. If you do the math, that puts the scientific article production rate at 0.0046 per day.

Let's look at that again:
Press Releases: 0.44/day
'Scientific' pubs: 0.0046/day

To me, that's the comparison that shows the Intelligent Design Movement's priorities far more clearly than almost anything else. This is a group of people that are pumping out press releases and op-eds at about 100 times the rate that they are producing material that they claim is scientific.

One hundred times more PR than science. Still think Intelligent Design is the noble scientific underdog, fighting against the entrenched orthodoxy? Are they Fulton with a PR firm? Or are they just trying to conceal a political and religious agenda behind a (very) thin veneer of science?

Press releases/op-eds:
(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34)
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