Thursday, January 14, 2010

More on Signature in the Cell

Yesterday, I showed how the treatment of information in Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell, contains many misunderstandings and unjustified claims.

Today, I want to focus on what I call the "dishonesty factor" of the book: claims that are misleading or just plain false. The philosopher Thomas Nagel has stated that "Meyer’s book seems to me to be written in good faith." Perhaps, after reading these examples, he might reconsider his assessment.

pp. 1-2: Meyer gives a very misleading account of the events surrounding the dubious publication of his shoddy article in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (footnotes omitted):

First, in August 2004, a technical journal housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., called the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington published the first peer-reviewed article explicitly advancing the theory of intelligent design in a mainstream scientific periodical. After the publication of the article, the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History erupted in internal controversy, as scientists angry with the editor -- an evolutionary biologist with two earned Ph.D.'s -- questioned his editorial judgment and demanded his censure. Soon the controversy spilled over into the scientific press as news stories about the article and editor's decision appeared in Science, Nature, The Scientist, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The media exposure fueled further embarrassment at the Smithsonian, resulting in a second wave of recriminations. The editor, Richard Sternberg, lost his office and his access to scientific samples and was later transferred to a hostile supervisor. After Sternberg's case was investigated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a government watchdog organization, and by the U.S. House Committee on Government Reform, a congressional committee, other questionable actions came to light. Both investigations bound that senior administrators at the museum had interrogated Sternberg's colleagues about Sternberg's religious and political beliefs and fomented a misinformation campaign designed to damage his scientific reputation and encourage his resignation. Sternberg did not resign his research appointment, but he was eventually demoted.


This account is misleading in almost every respect. For the true story, you can consult Ed Brayton's fine article in The Skeptic. Here are some facts that Meyer saw fit to omit:

1. Sternberg arguably engaged in misconduct in publishing the article. The council of the Biological Society of Washington, publishers of the journal, issued a statement saying that "the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history" and "Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process." As Brayton argues, "Sternberg’s decision to publish the paper without the normal peer-review process is a flagrant breach of professional ethics that brought disrepute to the Smithsonian."

2. Meyer's claims about retaliation against Sternberg are bogus. Before the controversy and before the article was published, Sternberg (who only held a courtesy appointment at the Smithsonian and was not employed by them) and others were informed about a reorganization of the department that would require a change of offices. Sternberg later was moved again because he requested the move. It is a falsehood to claim he lost his office as a result of retaliation.

3. There was no campaign against Sternberg. His misconduct in publishing the article was discussed - as it should have been - but ultimately no action was taken. No one was "interrogated".

Let's go on to see other misrepresentations in Signature in the Cell:

p. 5: Meyer overstates the impact of Dembski's work by calling it "groundbreaking". Falsely claims Dembski "established a scientific method for distinguishing the effects of intelligence from the effects of undirected natural processes. His work established rigorous indicators of intelligent design..."

This is in line with the usual tactic of creationists: credential inflation. Dembski's work has received a minuscule number of citations in the scientific literature, while truly important work typically receives hundreds or thousands of citations. So in what sense can Dembski's work fairly be considered "groundbreaking"?

Similar credential inflation can be found on pages 178-9, where Meyer says of one of Dembski's articles that it "broke important new ground in understanding pattern recognition." Yet the pattern recognition literature has somehow ignored this "important new ground".

p. 36: Victorian scientists viewed cells as " "homogeneous and structureless globules of protoplasm," amorphous sacs of chemical jelly, not intricate structures of manifesting the appearance of design."

This claim has been repeated again and again by creationists, but it is not true. Fergodsake, the nucleus was discovered in 1833. Here are more detailed rebuttals by Afarensis and Wesley Elsberry.

p. 120: [About the movie Expelled] "When the producers came to our offices to plan interviews, the told us they wanted to find a way to represent what DNA does visually, so that a genera audience could follow the scientific discussion they planned to incorporate into the film. They commissioned a visually stunning three-dimensional animation of DNA and the inner workings of the cell and retained a team of molecular biologists to work closely with the animators."

Somehow Meyer manages to leave out the inconvenient fact that their "visually stunning" animation of the "inner workings of the cell" was ripped off from XVIVO's Inner Life of the Cell.

I could cite even more examples, but this is enough to give the general idea. Whether it's about the technical details of information theory, or the more prosaic details of controversies, Meyer's accounts simply cannot be relied upon.

23 comments:

Aagcobb said...

I'm shocked that a cdesign proponentist would engage in such dishonesty! Shocked, I tell you!

Blake Stacey said...

Also, Meyer's claims about RNA replicators are, it appears, years out of date.

Dan said...

Can someone tell me why I should be impressed when someone has multiple PhDs? Doesn't that typically mean they couldn't cut it in their original field, or at least that they chose to leave it?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It seems to be common among prominent creationists to have multiple degrees. Professional creationist victim Jerry Bergman is a prominent example.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps diploma mills do a discount if you buy in bulk?

IanW said...

They have multiple degrees to compensate for something - and no, it's not what you might think. Honest scientists have their body of work and published papers to recommend them. Since creationists have no such body of work (indeed, no such science) they're forced to try and win you over by degrees.

Ty said...

I get my degrees from Hollywood Upstairs Medical College. If you get three, you get a side order of fries for 1 penny!

Frank Pettit said...

Your #5 example of Meyer's dishonesty is particularly shocking-- and I thought I was jaded...

Did Meyer really CROW triumphantly about ripping off copyrighted material--that XVIVO animation!? Did he really mention NOTHING about the copyright controversy?

Blake Stacey said...

"This claim has been repeated again and again by creationists, but it is not true. Fergodsake, the nucleus was discovered in 1833."

If cells were just globs of goo and they still did everything we observe them to do — consume food, react to their environment, reproduce — then we'd have ourselves a problem. The presence of internal structure argues against supernatural magic. Harry Potter's broom has no working parts.

Jim Lippard said...

A good history of the scientific discovery and debate over the cell is Jane Maienschein's "Cell Theory and Development" in R.C. Olby et al., _Companion to the History of Modern Science_, 1990, Routledge (which is itself a very handy and wide-ranging book on the history of science--essentially a collection of literature reviews across fields and perspectives).

RichardW said...

You may be pleased to know that Scott Bloch, the then head of the OSC, is now under criminal investigation:
http://www.law.com/jsp/law/sfb/lawArticleSFB.jsp?id=1202433829412&rss=SFB

anonymous said...

What is "dishonesty factor" of Shallit's reply?

It is true that "The council of the Biological Society of Washington, publishers of the journal, issued a statement", but what Shallit omit to mention was that the idea of statement didn't come from the council of BSW. NCSE and other organizations required that BSW should write statement. Normal practice in scientific journals is to publish a rebuttal article, but in the case of BSW it was done.

Even thought in the statement is written that "Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor", Sternberg has told and given evidence that so was done many times in the journal. Both during his editorial time and before that.

"There was no campaign against Sternberg."

According to U.S. office of special counsel, who studied the situation Shallit's claim is not true. They concluded:

"In fact, members of NCSE worked closely with SI and NMNH members in outlining a strategy to have you investigated and discredited within the SI. Members of NCSE, furthermore, e-mailed detailed statements of repudiation of the Meyer article to high level NMNH officials. In turn they sent them to the Society. There are e-mails that are several pages in length that map out their strategy. NCSE recommendations were circulated within the SI and eventually became part of the official public response of the SI to the Meyer article. OSC is not making a statement on whether the SI or NMNH was wrong or right in aligning with the NCSE, although OSC questions the use of appropriated funds to work with an outside advocacy group for this purpose. This is only discussed to show that the actions taken on the part of SI employees clearly had a political and religious component. Therefore, it may lend credence to your allegations that your religious and political affiliations were investigated and made a part of the actions taken against you."

anonymous said...

From Brayton's article:

"Meyer’s article is the first Intelligent Design paper ever published in a peer-reviewed journal, but it deals less with systematics (or taxonomy, Sternberg’s specialty) than it does paleontology, for which many members of the society would have been better qualified than he to peer review the paper (in fact, at least three members were experts on the Cambrian invertebrates discussed in Meyer’s paper)."

There is an error. Brayton speaks about how qualified Sternberg was to review a paper, but does not mention any words about peer review process of the paper. According to Sternberg and BSW's president, the paper was sent to peer reviewers, who required changes to paper. (I don't know who they were, but I can suppose that they were not the most darwinian biologists, but not also ID proponents: maybe some biologist who see that there is at least some possibilities for ID.) Sternberg handled the process (yes, alone in the BSW's editorial staff). But presenting HIM as the (only) peer reviewer is omitting some central points. Brayton didn't say any word about those peer reviewers and he left his readers to believe that Sternberg peer reviewed himself the whole article. Why Brayton presents the situation so?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

the idea of statement didn't come from the council of BSW

So what? I've been trying to get geological organizations to issue a statement about crystal healing. If they do so, does the fact that the idea came from me discredit it, if they endorse it?

NCSE and other organizations required that BSW should write statement.

Ridiculous. NCSE has no power to "require" that BSW do anything at all.

According to U.S. office of special counsel, who studied the situation Shallit's claim is not true.

The office of special counsel under Bush was a partisan right-wing, religious right organization who had no power to investigate the situation and did not examine the facts carefully. Brayton's article - which I cited and you evidently haven't read - shows conclusively that the office of special counsel's report made unwarranted conclusions.

And the head of the OSC, Scott Bloch, a partisan far-right hack, is now under investigation for intimidation.

Mr. Anonymous Coward, learn to look more skeptically at your sources.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous Coward:

I think the problem lies more in your faulty English comprehension than in Brayton's article. I don't take your claimed implication - but then I actually edit a journal, so I know a little about how they work.

(I don't know who they were, but I can suppose that they were not the most darwinian biologists, but not also ID proponents: maybe some biologist who see that there is at least some possibilities for ID.)

I see no use speculating on who the peer-reviewers were when neither you nor I know their identity.

In any event, the reviewers did a poor job, since the article by Gishlick, Matzke, and Elsberry show the paper was a shoddy piece of work that did not deserve publication.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Anonymous Coward:

Be sure to read Brayton's rebuttal to Sternberg and Krauze, too.

James F said...

I'm surprised that more isn't made of the fact that this was a review article, not a research paper. Take away all the other problems with the paper, and it's still a literature review, presenting no new data. Ah, ID "research!"

Anonymous said...

"So what? I've been trying to get geological organizations to issue a statement about crystal healing. If they do so, does the fact that the idea came from me discredit it, if they endorse it?"

No, it does not discredit the statement. But it means that the motive to put statement comes outside of the organization. You claimed:

"There was no campaign against Sternberg."

But the statement is one evidence that there actually WAS campaign against Sternberg. It is not normal scientific practise to publish statements. Now it was done against Sternberf, even thought analogical review process was used also by the previous editors. There was no word about that. The statement was politically motivated. If the motives had been scientific there would have published a rebuttal article. But it was never done.

"Ridiculous. NCSE has no power to "require" that BSW do anything at all."

People from NCSE has never denied that they had a role behind the statement (as far as I know). BSW's statement was done in the pressure by the people outside BSW.

"The office of special counsel under Bush was a partisan right-wing, religious right organization who had no power to investigate the situation and did not examine the facts carefully. Brayton's article - which I cited and you evidently haven't read - shows conclusively that the office of special counsel's report made unwarranted conclusions."

I've read it, as my second comment showed, where I noticed that Brayton had omitted to mention some information. I know that The office of special counsel was not neutral in the situation. But that doesn't mean that they hadn't got anything right.

Anonymous said...

"I see no use speculating on who the peer-reviewers were when neither you nor I know their identity."

My point was not that Brayton should have speculated about peer-reviewers identity, but that Brayton "forgot" to mention in his article so much as that there were peer-reviewers at all.

The reader gets the impression from his article that all peer review was done just by Sternberg. And you didn't mention that point either.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

You seem quite confused. The BSC statement is not a campaign against Sternberg, the person, but against his judgment as editor.

It is not normal scientific practise to publish statements.

It is when there is editorial malfeasance.

BSW's statement was done in the pressure by the people outside BSW.

I'm glad you are backing away from your false claim that NCSE "required" BSW to do anything. And of course, the use of the word "pressure" is loaded. You could just as well have said "BSW's statement came at the suggestion of people outside BSW",

But that doesn't mean that they hadn't got anything right.

All you have to do is read the documentation that accompanied the OSC report, and you can see that their claims are not supported by the evidence.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

The reader gets the impression from his article that all peer review was done just by Sternberg.

By "the reader", you mean you. I didn't get that impression, but then, English is my native language.

And you didn't mention that point either.

False. I said I think the problem lies more in your faulty English comprehension than in Brayton's article. I don't take your claimed implication - but then I actually edit a journal, so I know a little about how they work.

Frank Pettit said...

Whoa Jeffrey, calm down. You're too hopped up when you get to the point of making fun of people's English skills.

Without lousy English-speaking grad students and post-docs, science in this country would be dead.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I didn't "make fun" of anyone's English skills. The guy is evidently not a native speaker, so he may miss some subtleties that are apparent to others, or read something in that is not there. That's just a fact, and pointing it out is not "making fun".