Just under a year ago, I quoted and endorsed Stephen Post’s argument that lack of civility isn’t the problem we face in society, that incivility is a symptom, not an end unto itself.
Civility matters, and there are good reasons to urge people to be more civil in their interactions, and to model that behavior ourselves. It’s no accident that many uncivil styles of discourse are also informal logical errors. And there’s a reason that deliberative venues ‑Â like the Senate floorÂ — impose a standard of decorum and civility. Uncivil discourse often replaces substantive exchanges about ideas with personal reflections or even outright attacks, and that serves no one. As Post argues, incivility often reflects “a vicious ingroup-outgroup demonization that is entirely dysfunctional.”
I’m reminded of that post because Casey Luskin — a staffer at the ID creationist Discovery Institute ‑Â has used the company blog to launch one of his periodic tirades about the supposed incivility of “Darwinists.”
It’s not always clear what code of civility is he’s trying to enforce, or even if there is any clear standard at all. His public silence about the abusive, slanderous, malicious, and misleading language used by fellow staffers at the Discovery Institute undercuts any claim that this is simply an effort to elevate the entire debate. Rather, I think Casey’s goal is to weaponize civility, to use these charges of incivility to silence criticism of his ideas. In his multi-post series, Casey attacks people by name for expressing ideas with which he disagrees. At times, he engages with the underlying substance of the claims (alas, getting it wrong, as we’ll see below), but for the most part, he’s simply trying to shame people into not saying mean-but-true things about the Discovery Institute or creationism.
I would argue that people are inherently worthy of respect and of being treated civilly (though they can lose that respect with concerted effort). With apologies to Mitt Romney, corporations like the Disco. ‘tute are not people, and deserve no inherent respect or civility (though they can earn respect, and civility should be the default behavior); even if the Disco. ‘tute did deserve respect at one time, they forfeited that respect long ago. Ideas (e.g. creationism) do not deserve inherent respect either, though certainly the people who hold those ideas do. An idea either proves itself useful or it falls by the wayside. Various scholarly and lay communities have developed tools for evaluating ideas and separating the wheat from the chaff: unbiased peer review and testability play key roles in the process used in the sciences.
In treating criticism of his corporate master and his pseudoscientific pseudotheology as “uncivil,” Casey essentially tries to shortcircuit the normal processes by which we evaluate ideas and institutions. And in targeting a few of his critics by name and trying to use their allegedly uncivil behavior as an argument against evolution in general, he actually commits the uncivil acts which he wrongly accuses others of.
Let’s talk specifics, particularly his post attacking me. In that case, the personal attacks begin in the title: “Josh Rosenau’s ‘Potemkin’ arguments.” He’s replying to a paragraph I wrote 6 months ago, in which I was arguing against analogies some people were drawing between the Discovery Institute’s pernicious effect on science and the effects they claim the John Templeton Foundation has had. Ophelia Benson had written: “one can see Templeton as in fact interfering with science just as the Discovery Institute does, but in a more subtle fashion.” I responded:
There’s no question that the Discovery Institute is ideologically driven, that their fellowships are wingnut welfare, a way to employ creationists and give them the gloss of respectability. Disco. ‘Tute fellows seem to have lifetime appointments, while [Chris] Mooney’s [journalism] fellowship from Templeton was a single event — a financial award and a series of lectures and discussion which, once ended, entail no ongoing obligation. That’s not how DI fellowships work.
The DI does not fund external research. They have a Potemkin laboratory, and a house journal dedicated to publishing their own staff’s “research.” All of this is oriented towards creating a pseudoscientific infrastructure, the semblance of an active research program and academic community, so that they can convince schools to teach claptrap and can interfere with the administration of colleges and universities, the content of textbooks, and by such means to advance a narrow version of Christianity. Their fellows are chosen because of their support for this ideological agenda, just as papers in their pseudo-journal are selected for their adherence to the Disco. ‘Tute agenda, and so forth.
By contrast, Templeton doesn’t run its own journals. They do help fund societies which run journals, but no one has given any evidence of Templeton interfering in the editorial independence of those journals. They fund research projects, but no one has shown any evidence that they interfere with the research or the researchers’ interpretation of it. While the Templeton folks did provide some funding for IDC-related work, they did so at a time in the 1990s when quite a few people held out hope that there might be some real research program spawned by the movement. In time, they learned better
At the time, I didn’t bother filling those paragraphs with links because my point wasn’t about the DI, it was about Templeton. Folks making an analogy between the Templeton Foundation and Discovery Institute generally already know that background, so I didn’t feel the need to substantiate the claims there.
In Casey’s eye, this post about the John Templeton Foundation was written because I “apparently felt the need … to deal with the fact that Discovery Institute is funding scientific research that challenges neo-Darwinism, and is being published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.” He claims I “suddenly became so concerned about this only in 2011 when he blogged about it.” Both claims are false, the first from the context of the blog post Casey is addressing and quoting, and the second from his own knowledge of my work.
You see, in late 2009, Casey and I took part in a symposium on Intelligent Design and the Law. We both presented our papers at the University of St. Thomas Law School, and we both published papers in their law review. In my law review article, published almost 2 years ago, I wrote about the claimed scientific research from the DI, and even used the same “Potemkin” language (citations omitted here, but you can find them all in the PDF):
Intelligent Design advocates have struggled without success to achieve academic acceptance as scientists. For example, some attempts have been made to create ID-specific journals comparable to those of creation scientists, but they have all become moribund, and an academic society dedicated to ID is similarly defunct. Major academic ID goals set in a fundraising document in 1998 have gone unachieved, such as the promise of a major monograph by Discovery Institute fellow Paul Nelson, which has been reported as nearly ready to print for over a decade. The proceedings of a Discovery Institute conference held in the summer of 2007, supposedly highlighting “the very kind of research our critics say we don’t sponsor,” remain unpublished. William Dembski, once heralded on a book jacket as “the Isaac Newton of Information Theory,” has been reduced to rewriting and analyzing toy computer programs originally written for a TV series and popular books in the 1980s by biologist Richard Dawkins as trivial demonstrations of the power of selection. Dembski explained his poor record of publication in peer-reviewed scientific literature by saying, “I’ve just gotten kind of blaseÌ about submitting things to journals where you often wait two years to get things into print. And I find I can actually get the turnaround faster by writing a book and getting the ideas expressed there. My books sell well.” Alas, they don’t convince mathematicians of his mathematical arguments, prompting Dembski to reply to one critic: “I’m not and never have been in the business of offering a strict mathematical proof for the inability of material mechanisms to generate specified complexity.” This, despite his claim to have developed a “Law of Conservation of Information” about which he states in one book: “The crucial point of the Law of Conservation of Information is that natural causes can at best preserve CSI…, may degrade it, but cannot generate it.”
In 1998, the Discovery Institute explained to its donors that research was crucial stating, “Phase I [described as ‘Research, Writing and Publication’] is the essential component of everything that comes afterward. Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade.” Judges and others seeking to assess the merits of ID going forward need issue no harsher judgment than the Discovery Institute has presented here. By its own standards, ID is intellectually stagnant, and must be regarded as “just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade,” in line with previous creationist movements.
The Kitzmiller ruling cited as “[a] final indicator of how ID has failed to demonstrate scientific warrant… the complete absence of peer-reviewed publications supporting the theory.” The movement, however, did not take this as a call to return to the labs and produce novel results in readiness for future legal challenges [fn: Discovery Institute did create what amounts to a Potemkin laboratory — the Biologic Institute. … Attempts to view the lab spaces or examine their research have been blocked. See Celeste Biever, Intelligent design: The God Lab, THE NEW SCIENTIST, Dec. 15 2006, at 8–11. According to one report, the only research finding offered by Biologic actually contradicts a central claim of ID. …“We shuffled off for a coffee break with the admission hanging in the air that natural processes could not only produce new information, they could produce beneficial new information”).]. Instead, the movement has produced a the third edition of Pandas (renamed Design of Life and no longer aimed at high schools) and a successor to Pandas, called Explore Evolution, which contains even less substance and scientific accuracy than its predecessor. The Intelligent Design documentary, Expelled!: No intelligence Allowed mangled interviews and the history of the Holocaust, and has been called “one of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a very long time.” In addition, Michael Behe published a successor to Darwin’s Black Box, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism, while still failing to address criticism leveled at the earlier work, even those he himself acknowledged.
I specifically considered a document drafted by Casey, claiming to show the strength of pro-ID peer reviewed scientific papers:
To understand a theory’s impact and scientific validity, it is necessary to review how it fares when later researchers examine its claims, and how much new research is generated by insights from a given line of thinking. In the case of those few papers claimed as peer-reviewed defenses of ID, none has met any favorable response, or been cited as generating successful predictions for future researchers.* By contrast, the number of papers building on evolutionary theory and deepening our knowledge of the field has grown rapidly in recent years, due in part to the theory’s ability to generate new insights into the burgeoning fields of molecular biology, genomics, and developmental genetics. This reflects a community-wide consensus among relevant scientists on the merits of evolution, a consensus further strengthened by assessments of scientific bodies. Groups including the National Academy of Sciences and its international counterparts, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and professional societies representing groups with special knowledge of evolution, including biologists of many sorts, geologists, physicists, historians, philosophers, and many others, have issued statements representing their members’ agreement that evolution is foundational to modern biology, is well-supported, and belongs in science classes.
* DISCOVERY INST. THE COLLEGE STUDENT’S BACK TO SCHOOL GUIDE TO INTELLIGENT DESIGN (2009), available at http://www.evolutionnews.org/BacktoSchoolGuide_Sept2009 _FN.pdf. The pamphlet states, “Criticss [sic] often claim that intelligent design proponents do not publish peer-reviewed scientific papers or that they do not do scientific research.” To rebut this claim, 6 papers are cited, none from later than 2004. One of those was discussed at length in testimony by Kitzmiller defense witnesses, with the court describing that paper as “The one article referenced [by defense’s scientific witnesses]… as supporting ID .… A review of the article indicates that it does not mention … ID. In fact, Professor Behe admitted that the study which forms the basis for the article did not rule out many known evolutionary mechanisms and that the research actually might support evolutionary pathways if a biologically realistic population size were used.” Another proffered article was repudiated by the journal which published it, with the editors noting that it “represents a significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history. … We have met and determined that all of us would have deemed this paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.” A review of the other papers listed by the Discovery Institute in Science Citation Index finds two of the papers have no citations at all, and the few citations garnered by the remainder are either self-citation by the same ideologically driven group of authors, or are citations rejecting the paper’s findings. For context, the 254 papers turned up in a search for the narrow topic “evolutionary developmental biology” published in 2004 have been cited an average of 13 times, compared to an average 7 citations for ID’s top papers, some of which have had many more years to accumulate citations. The marketplace of ideas has spoken.
If Casey had read my paper (or paid attention during the symposium, when I read that last passage), he’d know that my interest in the purportedly pro-ID research literature far predates the blog post he cites.
I lay this out at length only to note that from Casey’s first paragraph, he’s trying to make this not about the substance of what I said or the merits of my case, but about whether or not I’m a good and nice person. And to paint as grim a portrait as possible, he’s misstating obvious facts, and is imputing motives to me that are false and which he could have known were false by a) reading the blog post he was responding to, and b) familiarizing himself with the contents of a volume he himself contributed to. That isn’t a pattern that speaks well of Casey’s own civility.
Casey’s submission to the law review ultimately bore the innocuous title “The Constitutionality and Pedagogical Benefits of Teaching Evolution Scientifically.” We can certainly dispute that Casey’s ideas of how evolution should be taught would be scientific, let alone pedagogically or constitutionally appropriate. But instead, I’ll note that the working title for this paper was the rather spicier “Bluffed Into Dogmatism: How the Evolution Lobby Seeks to Block Perfectly Legal and Beneficial Policy Proposals to Teach Neo-Darwinism Scientifically.” Civil? No!
While Casey did catch that title before it went out to the wider world, he did publish a paper with the uncivil, and inaccurate title, “Zeal for Darwin’s House Consumes Them: How Supporters of Evolution Encourage Violations of the Establishment Clause.” That’s a reference to Psalms 69:9, a charge that “supporters of evolution” are idolators, worshipping Darwin (or maybe Down House), and falsely claiming that these groups advocate unconstitutional policies. Regular followers of the creationism/evolution battle know that Casey works for the only side which has actually found its policies declared unconstitutional in courts.
After his ironically uncivil opening, Casey attempts a substantive defense of Disco., of their purported research wing the Biologic Institute, and of their supposedly scientific journal BIO-complexity.
First, Discovery Institute does fund research conducted by people external to Discovery Institute. It funds research by Christians and non-Christians alike.
It’s impossible to review every penny the DI has ever spent, but the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture does not advertise any program for merit-based grants. In official IRS filings, the CRSC’s activities are described as “Production of public service reports, legislative testimony, articles, public conferences and debates, plus media coverage and the Institute’s own publications in the field of Science and Culture.” Nothing about research funding there.
According to DI’s most recently published 990 form (an IRS form which nonprofits file, explaining where their money came from and how they spent it), the Discovery Institute spent about $17,000 on 10 of its fellows in 2009, and they itemize $274,000 in grants for “scientific research” to Biologic, and $11,592 in grants to Grove City College, home of DI Fellow and Biologic staffer Guillermo Gonzalez.
I don’t think that the fellowships (or other funding of fellows) count as “external grants.” Almost all DI fellows and senior fellows have held that status since the founding of the CRSC within the Disco. ‘tute in the 1990s. While various of these fellows work outside DI’s offices, many of their long-term activities were cited in a founding fundraising memo (the famous Wedge Document) as important DI activities, and DI fellows function in public like DI employees. And the Biologic Institute is almost entirely funded by DI (in 2009, their total intake was $317,770, of which $274,000 came from DI, $20,983 came from “rental income” and the remainder came in grants from unspecified sources), and DI staff serve on the Biologic Institute’s board of directors, making it hard to claim that they’re a truly external organization.
If the Discovery Institute funds truly external research, there’s no evidence of it.
Casey adds, regarding Biologic:
Rosenau’s attempt to ridicule the Biologic Institute laboratory as “Potemkin” of course intends to suggest the laboratory is fake. How, then, does Mr. Rosenau explain the multiple scientific papers published by Biologic scientists in the past few years that report research conducted at the lab? (Here’s an impressive recent example.)
The “impressive recent example” is published in the Biologic house journal, BIO-complexity. If my contention is correct that this journal is “pseudoscientific infrastructure,” then the example is irrelevant. Casey offers no other basis for judging Biologic’s merits.
I referred to the Biologic Institute as “Potemkin” partly because if the difficulties Celeste Biever had in 2006 simply getting access to Biologic or anyone who worked there. When I was in Seattle a few years back, I also swung by the publicly listed address for the Institute, and found a few rented rooms in an office building, with the lights off and the windows shut in the middle of a work day. From outside, I saw an empty meeting room, but nothing resembling scientific laboratories, nor did anyone answer the door. Their online list of research publications lists nothing at all after 2008, which may reflect poor web management, but could also indicate a lack of productivity.
Certainly that list omits any of the publications in the house journal BIO-complexity. I don’t emphasize that it is a house journal to disparage BIO-complexity, just to put it in context. NCSE has a house journal, too, and I think it’s pretty darn good. But if I thought I had a paper that would revolutionize science, I wouldn’t publish it in RNCSE, because an independent publisher would be a more trusted outlet than a journal run by my own employer.
Anyway, here’s what Casey says about BIO-complexity in reply to my earlier post:
the journal Rosenau refers to, BIO-Complexity, is anything but “Potemkin.” It has an editorial board with over two dozen PhD scientists and scholars in fields such as biochemistry, evolutionary computing, evolutionary biology, microbiology, cladistics, and physics, from respected academic institutions around the world. Yes Discovery Institute has obvious connections to the journal — some of those members of the editorial board are also our fellows. But many of the editorial board members have no affiliations with Discovery Institute, though they share with us a common conviction that the debate over ID and neo-Darwinism needs to be fostered at the high level of peer-reviewed scientific journals. Thus, the journal invites submissions from both ID proponents and ID-critics, and isn’t committed to publishing papers that only express one viewpoint. Whether affiliated with Discovery Institute or not, BIO-Complexity has an impressive body of scientists that run that show, and they impose high quality peer-review quality control.
First, note that I applied the adjective “Potemkin” not to the journal, but to Biologic itself. Casey didn’t address that charge, instead misreading and misrepresenting my argument.
Second, he’s not actually defending the content of the journal, merely arguing that because people with doctoral degrees are on the editorial board, it must be a legitimate journal. That makes no sense.
Third, the journal makes it clear that they do not “impose high quality peer-review quality control.” Their website’s “Peer Review Process” section explains:
The goal of pre-publication peer review should … be to decide whether the work in question merits the attention of experts, rather than to predict the final result of that attention. BIO-Complexity uses an innovative approach to pre-publication peer-review in order to achieve this goal.
Basically, reviewers and editors are not asked whether the results are right, but whether others “would benefit from considering both the merits and the limitations” of a paper, a much lower standard than generally employed by science journals. There are legitimate reasons to prefer this laxer form of peer review, but Casey’s claim that it’s a rigorous sort of peer review is contrary to the journal’s own stated policies.
Fourth, whether or not they “invite submissions” from opponents of creationism, they haven’t published such papers. And it is far from clear that their editors could give pro-evolution (or anti-creationist) articles a fair shake. As Glenn Branch noted in 2010 in NCSE’s house journal, all but two of the editorial board members have long histories of anti-evolution and creationist advocacy (including advocacy for intelligent design). A third pro-evolution scientist was offered a position on the board, but refused, explaining:
Publishing on this subject in mainstream journals is also better for … the credibility of the eventual answer to this question, as well as for the integrity of the scientific process in general.
Fifth, the content of the journal more than justifies these concerns. In the 2 years the journal has existed, they’ve published exactly 7 papers, with 15 authors listed in the journal’s archive. But Douglas Axe constitutes 3 of those 15 authors, since the editorial board’s rigor apparently didn’t extend to ensuring that author’s names were entered consistently.
Analyzing each of the 7 papers is hardly worth it. Two of the 7 are “critical reviews,” not meant to communicate new research results. Others appear to be minor contributions from graduate students and undergrads associated with Biologic Institute staff and fellows. Every paper has at least one author who is funded at least in part by Biologic or Disco.
I’ll just dig into one of the papers, to point out that these papers are inadequate even by the authors’ own standards. The paper in question is by Ann Gauger, Stephanie Ebnet, Pamela Fahey, and Ralph Seelke, and describes some experiments Seelke described in his testimony to the Kansas Board of Education in 2005.
John Calvert asked: “Can you describe to me a– in more detail a campaign of unsuccessful evolution?” and Seelke replied:
Well, one of the things I’m doing now is one of the– one of my other heroes is Michael Behe. And Behe said that if you have multiple independent events that have to take place you will simply not be able to observe evolution.
And so at this– last year at this time I was a visiting scholar at Stanford University and I basically built some molecules. I made some changes in a gene and I put in one mutation, two mutations, three mutations, and four mutations all in different types of that gene. All mutations inactuate the gene. And so if this– and then– and now I’m in the process– I only have ten– I only have ten billion cells that I’m looking at which is whoosy in this field. I wouldn’t publish this until I had probably 10 to 100 trillion, but– so then I can take– I can take these mutants that I know exactly what they need to do to evolve and I can ask them to evolve and put them in a medium where if they do evolve I would know overnight. Because the selective advantage of being able to make, in this case, the amino acid triptyline [sic, probably tryptophan] is so enormous that I would find that out overnight if that happens.
And so I can ask, what happens when you need two mutations and only get an advantage when you have both. At this point the answer is nothing. And that is actually supported by the literature. What’s different about this is I am specifically asking these questions. Most cases people– these are things that people discover are kind of on the side. You know, you don’t do experiments to test the limits of evolution and particularly my work is designed to actually test that.
Emphasis added. As far as Seelke of 2005 was concerned, anything less than 10–100 trillion cells was “whoosy” and not worth publishing. Guess how many cells his BIO-complexity paper reports?
About 1 trillion. That’s about a tenth of the lower limit Seelke set in 2005. Not only did Seelke of 2010 think it was worth submitting this “whoosy” research to BIO-complexity, but BIO-complexity’s supposedly awesome editorial board agreed to publish this “whoosy” research. (All of this sets aside the fact that the premise of the research is fatally flawed, embodying a trivial misunderstanding of how evolution works, and what it takes to properly test the powers and limits of evolution.)
In short, BIO-complexity shows every sign of being exactly the sort of pseudoscientific apparatus that I said it was. As far as I know, it is now the only venue in which DI and Biologic Institute staff currently publish their supposedly pro-ID research, and it was the only evidence Casey offered for the existence of any research program at Biologic or the Disco. ‘tute. His claims about the journal’s quality control are falsified by simple reference to the journal’s own stated policies, not to mention a look at the journal’s minimal content and the poor quality of the content ‑Â poor qulity by the authors’ own standards.
Casey’s attacks on me — failed attempts to divine my “design,” false charges of inaccuracy, personal attacks charging incivility, etc. — all fail, and do so in ways that highlight Casey’s incivility, and the underlying problem in Casey’s view of the world.
Stephen Post talked about incivility arising from “a vicious ingroup-outgroup demonization.” Casey certainly sees that distinction, speaking of his critics as if they formed some unified “Darwin lobby.” This lobby, to his eyes, is a unified group who he seems to think worship Charles Darwin, and who he holds responsible en masse for the “incivility” of anyone he chooses to place into that outgroup. It’s a view that’s incoherent on its own terms, but that justifies him in these sort of pettifogging attacks. If he can paint all ID’s critics as part of an organized “lobby,” then he can write off that entire lobby by saying they’re rude, and therefore unworthy of “dignifying … with an evidential rebuttal.”
Casey’s goal here is not to elucidate the strengths of ID, and expresses a strong preference for addressing the motives, tone, and character of its critics instead of even try responding substantively. That’s uncivil. Tone matters, civility matters, and indeed, character matters.
But which is less civil: saying mean things about the Discovery Institute, or creating a pseudoscientific apparatus so that one can subvert scientific norms and indoctrinate students?
I say “indoctrinate,” because in 1998, the Discovery Institute stated that their first priority had to be research, because:
Without solid scholarship, research and argument, the project would be just another attempt to indoctrinate instead of persuade.
Since then, they’ve produced nothing of substance. But when people point that out, all we hear in response are accusations of incivility.