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The Smithsonian Inquisition?

I am far from being a competent judge of the science, but I know something about efforts to enforce orthodoxy, of which this seems to be an outstanding example. A scientific community that marginalizes (note I did not say "critically scrutinizes") dissenting or alternative voices will lead some--and should lead more--to question its openness to the new, which I had thought was the very hallmark of modern science.

Here, for my curious readers, is the article in question.

Discussions - 6 Comments

Enh. I’m of two minds on this.

On the one hand, large institutions like the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History do have their own political climates and are prone to institutional biases and politicking that frankly do not belong in or anywhere near science, and it sounds as if there’s certainly an element of this here. Most scientists, like most Americans, are religious; I’m not certain how much bias there is in the Opinion Journal article on the supposed radioactivity of religion of any kind at the Smithsonian, but that’s not really true of the broader community. If it’s true there, my opinion of the place is pooerer, though I’m not really surprised. (As much as we’d like the tribal nature of humanity to go away when it really should, it refuses to.)

On the other, the science in this article is in fact very bad. OpinionJournal states entirely falsely that this is the first ID article published in a peer-reviewed journal- there have been others (the most notable by Michael Behe and William Dembski) and they were pulverized by said peer review. They weren’t shouted down, they were ruthlessly picked apart on their intellectual merits. Meyer’s article isn’t just bad science, it’s bad science that repeats arguments that have already been thoroughly torn apart in the literature before. (It’s mostly a warmed-over rehash of Dembski’s arguments.) Maintaining the quality of accepted articles is part of an editor’s responsibility, and his professional reputation damn well SHOULD suffer as a result. He’s not a martyr- he really did do his job badly, and the suspicion that he let his religious or political agenda affect the quality of his work is justified.

LabRat, sorry, but I don’t understand your comment. You say that articles supporting ID have been published in peer-reviewed journals before even though these selfsame articles were "pulverized" by reviewers (which I take to mean, they could not/did not pass peer review). But if they didn’t pass peer review, how could they have been published in a "peer-reviewed" journal worthy of the name? (What’s the point of peer review if articles that don’t pass it get published anyway?) Are you saying that some peer reviewers (I would guess a minority, again reasoning back from the fact of publication) did not like them and "pulverized" them, thereby implying that other reviewers (a majority) did give them a thumbs-up? If so, what you’re really saying is that there was a split among the reviewers, and that you agree w/ the negative reviewers, even tho’ they got outvoted. That at least is one construction of your somewhat baffling comment.

So at any rate, can you please explain these events more fully? Perhaps it would help if you offered more detail (with links perhaps) on the Dembski and Behe episodes to which you refer. What’s going on at the Smithsonian certainly sounds like a case of "shunning" and "odium theologicum"--hardly the stuff of the scientific spirit, but I’d like to know more before I could form a judgment. Thanks.

"Peer review" refers both to the process of selecting journal articles for publishing and to the discussion that ensues in the literature once they are. Publishing an article that gets talked about a lot is a major goal for a scientist- unless, of course, your ideas/experiment were awful and that’s what’s being commented on. Looking up the citations, I was mildly surprised to see Behe published again last year. I haven’t heard much about it, but then again Behe’s arguments aren’t considered as newsworthy anymore. Anyway, here are the cites:

“Self-Organization and Irreducibly Complex Systems”, By: Michael J. Behe in Philosophy of Science 67 (March 2000), University of Chicago Press
“Reinstating Design within Science”, by William A. Dembski, in Darwinism, Design, and Public Education (Michigan State University Press, 2003)
“Simulating evolution by gene duplication of protein features that require multiple amino acid residues”, by Michael J. Behe and David W. Snoke, in Protein Science, The Protein Society August 2004


The Discovery Institute claims to have the full texts available online, but I wasn’t able to find them. Most of the critiques you’ll find on Behe, Dembski, and others focus on the books they published fleshing out their full arguments; it’s still peer review, just the original source isn’t a journal article.


William Dembski

Michael Behe


Apologies if the formatting on this is badly screwed up. I’m still getting used to the system here, and there doesn’t seem to be a preview function.

LabRat, first, thanks very much for the links. I note with interest that Dembski seems to have reviewed at least one reviewer. You write:

[QUOTE]"Peer review" refers both to the process of selecting journal articles for publishing and to the discussion that ensues in the literature once they are.[end quote]

That’s no small distinction. With all due respect, what you’re basically saying sounds to me a lot like, "There’s been a lot of controversy over these guys’ ideas, and I agree with the critics who say they’re full of it."

Fine. You may well be right--as a layman, I won’t pretend that I can easily evaluate highly technical disputes among scientific specialists. But the substance of the dispute should not be confused with sociological/procedural claims (or equivocations) involving peer review (as if the fact of good or bad peer reviews is a knock-down argument, anyway, as you and I both know it’s not).

And of course the question of whether Sternberg at the Smithsonian is being fairly treated is something else altogether. To point to the mere existence of critical peer reviews of articles by Dembski and Behe in order to establish that Sternberg committed a grave professional dereliction by publishing Meyer seems strained at best, especially given that Klinghoffer’s column doesn’t even say how many peer reviews there were of Meyer, much less what any of them actually argued.

I included the links mainly so you could evaluate for yourself whether Dembski and Behe satisfactorily answered their critics, not so much to prove anything by highlighting that there’s been controversy. (Okay, and also I admit I included that particular one for Dembski mainly because the titles of the exchanges between Dembski and Wein made me laugh out loud.) I do understand the science, and I think they haven’t, but I also understand that my opinion is just that. The substance is there if you have the time and the interest, though I understand if you don’t; if it were significantly outside my field I doubt I’d care enough to wade through it. (Not having a deep understanding of biology won’t necessarily keep you from judging the merits of their arguments- most of the criticisms, as well as the original arguments themselves, are on logical grounds rather than technical.)


As for Sternberg, the way science works is that if you want to overturn accepted theory (and I’ll assume I don’t have to go into my side lecture on how "theory" has a very different meaning in science than in everyday parlance), you have to provide compelling evidence and argument. Meyer’s article rehashed arguments that compelled no one and convinced no one who wasn’t already convinced the first time. If it were an uncontroversial topic, it’d be boring filler that’d only make it into a good journal if they were having a dry month in terms of submissions; since it’s challenging the entire foundational theory of biology, it doesn’t belong in publication. It might if it had a truly new angle, arguments, or evidence, but it doesn’t. Sternberg’s professional reputation deserves to come into question for that reason, and his bosses have the right to be angry with him, but I have no trouble believing that he’s also suffering excessive backlash for reasons of institutional politics.

I skimmed thru some of the linked material, and hope to read more thoroughly when I have time--I appreciate the links (obviously from an anti-Behe/Dembski website, but they do give space for responses).

Your remark that many of the arguments are logical rather than scientific/technical gives me confidence that reading this material will be helpful to me. OTOH, it also makes me wonder why Dembski and Behe’s critics seem to engage in so much huffing and puffing about academic-guild credentials--who belongs to what specialized field, who has formally presented their research to which audiences, etc (all of which seems to be pretty closely related to questions like "peer review"). The lay reader might begin to suspect that all the table-pounding about who has "standing" in these debates is a bit of a red herring. But I withhold judgment on that.

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