August 22, 2005

Scientists or Creationists - On the Correct Order of Presentation

Much has already been said about Kenneth Chang's unfortunate article, "In Explaining Life's Complexity, Darwinists and Doubters Clash" in today's New York Times . This free publicity for Intelligent Design creationism makes Jodi Wilgoren's piece in yesterday's Times look like shear genius.

PZ Myers, Arther Silber, Chris Mooney, Stranger Fruit and Brian Leiter and likely others have all commented on Chang's disingenuous article. Most have condemned much of its content and the "he say/she said" style. I applaud these criticisms. There is one additional stylistic abuse that, as far as I have seen, has gone unmentioned. And, in my way of thinking, it goes the farthest to confuse the general reader as to the actual state of contemporary biology.

This stylistic device involves the order of the "he said/she said" pseudo-dialog. But it starts with framing a debate that may be going on at the political level but not at the scientific level.

At the heart of the debate over intelligent design is this question: Can a scientific explanation of the history of life include the actions of an unseen higher being?

And from then on, the general structure of the article is to offer a claim by an Intelligent Design creationist and then offer the scientific defense. Here is a very clear example of this stylistic device,

For example, while Dr. Behe and other leading design proponents see the blood clotting system as a product of design, mainstream scientists see it as a result of a coherent sequence of evolutionary events.

Early vertebrates like jawless fish had a simple clotting system, scientists believe, involving a few proteins that made blood stick together, said Russell F. Doolittle, a professor of molecular biology at the University of California, San Diego.

This makes it look like the scientists are some how on the defensive and not so sure. They believe. The structure is an Intelligent Design creationist claim followed by a counter claim from a scientist. This happens at the micro structural level throughout the article but in the larger structure as well. The article begins with eight paragraphs, in other words half of the first online page, describing the Intelligent Designs creationist's position and then focusing on Behe's thought before we are told,

But mainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science.

With the following interesting exception,

Intelligent design proponents have been stung by claims that, in contrast to mainstream scientists, they do not form their own theories or conduct original research. They say they are doing the mathematical work and biological experiments needed to put their ideas on firm scientific ground,

I could not find a single example where Chang put the views of mainstream scientists first and had the Intelligent Design creationists reacting to them. It was always ID first with some scientist reacting. The last line of the article is not really an exception. The article ends with a final long discourse quoting heavily from Behe that has a brief rebuttal by Richard E. Lenski whose work Behe apparently misuses. But our author makes it look like Lenski has something to hide. And Behe gets the last word.

. . . [this ellipsis is a long paragraph] Dr. Behe said that if he was correct, then the E. coli in Dr. Lenski's lab would evolve in small ways but never change in such a way that the bacteria would develop entirely new abilities.

In fact, such an ability seems to have developed. Dr. Lenski said his experiment was not intended to explore this aspect of evolution, but nonetheless, "We have recently discovered a pretty dramatic exception, one where a new and surprising function has evolved," he said.

Dr. Lenski declined to give any details until the research is published. But, he said, "If anyone is resting his or her faith in God on the outcome that our experiment will not produce some major biological innovation, then I humbly suggest they should rethink the distinction between science and religion."

Dr. Behe said, "I'll wait and see."

And as far as I can tell, this is the only place where an Intelligent Design creationist speaks last and it is hardly on the defensive.

In the seeming exception that I noted above three long paragraphs attempt to show that mainstream scientists are wrong. William A. Dembski's statistical meanderings are given as an example. Much of the actual appeal is to naive intuition not mathematics. This section is ended with this all too causal note,

But other mathematicians have said that Dr. Dembski's calculations do not work and cannot be applied in the real world.

How many other mathematicians? Which other mathematicians? We are not told. The whole thing makes it sound like a few, perhaps renegade, mathematicians are holding out, when in fact it is just the opposite. Even here, the scientific community comes up short within the stylistic framework of the article.

Now what is wrong with all this? Well, it turns the world exactly upside down. It is Intelligent Design creationism that has tried and failed to challenge mainstream science. The burden of proof is on Intelligent Design creationism and not mainstream science. If this article had been written in the mid-nineteenth century then perhaps the order of the "he said/she said" segments might have been appropriate in this kind of a journalistic piece.

While I agree with those who are critical of the he "said/she said" style and effort to be balanced where no balance is due, this article went well beyond the abuses of this all too familiar style. The structure of the article and the structure of the individual subsections make it appear that Intelligent Design creationism is in the driver's seat when the fact is science is at the controls.

I sure hope the Discover Institute sends Mr. Chang a thank you note. He earned it.

Posted by DuaneSmith at August 22, 2005 08:47 PM | Read more on Evolution |

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Tracked on August 23, 2005 07:33 AM


You need to send this analysis to Cheng AND his editor!

Posted by: coturnix at August 22, 2005 10:06 PM

Excellent analysis, thanks for fleshing it out for me. This national discussion is long overdue, but through it's "fair and balanced" treatment of ID vs Science, treating each side as if ID 'theory' had any substantive evidence on its side, Cheng's article does a great disservice to NY Times' readers. As Coturnix suggests, Cheng's editor should be called to task, as well.

As for the NYTimes generally, the paper was bailed out by the concurrent publication of VERLYN KLINKENBORG's essay "Grasping the Depth of Time as a First Step in Understanding Evolution". Easily one of the best contributions to the discussion that I've read. While Mr. Klinkenborg ceded no intellectual ground to ID proponents, his essay provided a perspective that allows, at least for me, some bit of sympathy for the anti-evolutionists/creationists whose world view is increasingly untenable in the light of scientific discovery.

Posted by: Scott Woody at August 23, 2005 08:16 PM

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