Saturday, November 19, 2011

Encomiums for Incompetence: The Case of Phillip Johnson

It's been 20 years since the publication of that exemplar of religiously-motivated incompetence, Darwin on Trial, by lawyer Phillip Johnson, and the creationists are salivating over the anniversary.

Johnson, who had no training or expertise in biology, but did have a recent conversion to Christianity following a divorce, penned a book that was widely panned. And with good reason: Johnson had nothing new to say, preferring to trot out the old creationist canards such as gaps in the fossil record, natural selection is a tautology, and many others.

Johnson's book had basically no effect whatsoever on the scientific debate about evolution. To see this, one only need look at Web of Science (previously called Science Citation Index). I searched for references to Darwin on Trial and found exactly 6 citations. Three were reviews of the book in La Recherche, Nature, and Zygon. Two were articles in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion and Theology Today. Finally, there was a citation in the book Does God Belong in Public Schools?

To illustrate the contrast, I also searched for Dawkins' The Selfish Gene on Web of Science, and found 3,954 citations in dozens of fields: ethology, biology, genetics, engineering, modeling, computer science, and economics, just to name a few.

Google Scholar provides another example of the disparity. Darwin on Trial gets 393 citations, while The Selfish Gene gets 12,727 citations. Looking at the citations themselves is also quite revealing: Darwin on Trial is cited primarily as a negative example (in books such as Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism) and there are only 12 citations in the primary biological literature, largely negative -- such as this article by Forrest and Gross.

So Johnson's book had little impact. But if you think that's going to stop creationists from hagiography, you're wrong. Tom Bethell, a reliably blathering buffoon, has emerged to produce this encomium (no comments allowed, of course). The single funniest line: "Phil Johnson was a highly skilled and tactful electronic correspondent".

Yes, I remember very well when Johnson visited the Usenet newsgroup He, a recent convert to evangelical Christianity (oh! the irony!), liked to say things such as "My purpose is not to insult anyone, however, but to free minds. Many of you have been indoctrinated not to question assumptions that are based on ideology rather than evidence. You can be free of that indoctrination if you wish to be." He also claimed, "It is my practice always to respond to well-informed and intelligent criticism", but when well-informed and intelligent commenters pointed out that Johnson's doubts about whale evolution were ill-founded, they were surprised to find that Johnson never responded to them at all.

Ultimately, it turned out to be a pretty brief visit: Johnson's ignorance of biology was quickly exposed, and he left in a huff. So much for his "skilled and tactful" e-correspondence.

So, creationists, enjoy your 20-year anniversary of more religiously-inspired foolishness masquerading as scholarship. Anyone who's willing to dig into the record can see how pathetic it is.


Eamon Knight said...

I enjoyed the reviews of DOT I read from Christian (but non-Creationist) biologists. They tended to follow a pattern of: "Rah-rah for PJ's attack on materialism! Too bad the stuff he says about biology is so ignorant..."

John Pieret said...

As I noted over at the Sensuous Curmudgeon about Luskin's article, it was funny that Casey (and now Bethell) have managed to leave out this quote by Johnson:

“I also don’t think that there is really a theory of intelligent design at the present time to propose as a comparable alternative to the Darwinian theory, which is, whatever errors it might contain, a fully worked out scheme. There is no intelligent design theory that’s comparable. Working out a positive theory is the job of the scientific people that we have affiliated with the movement. Some of them are quite convinced that it’s doable, but that’s for them to prove…No product is ready for competition in the educational world.”

- The Berkeley Science Review, “In the matter of Berkeley v. Berkeley,” Spring 2006

Glen Davidson said...

If they didn't celebrate incompetence, what would they celebrate?

Glen Davidson

Argon said...

In addition to his 15 minutes of fame, I also enjoyed his forays in

SLC said...

Mr. Bethell is an equal opportunity denier. He also denies the Theory of Relativity. I am still waiting for someone (anyone) to explain how quantum electrodynamics (the special relativistic extension of quantum mechanics) can compute the anomalous magnetic moment of the electron which agrees with observed values to 10 significant digits if relativity is all wrong.

Frank said...

SLC, does Bethell "deny" the ToR, or does he just challenge or doubt it? Or does "challenge and doubt" = "deny"?

Les Lane said...

Johnson and Bethell represent the two most common groups of evolution deniers. The former is hostile on religious grounds and the latter is anti science (from a bad educational experience?)

Hawks said...

If they didn't celebrate incompetence, what would they celebrate?


Frank said...

Les Lane, I wrote "ToR", not "ToE".