Sorry to visit the Meyer affair yet again, but a recent letter to Nature makes a point that bears highlighting. The letter, by Vladimir Svetlov, a microbiologist at Ohio State University, chides Nature for making such a big deal out of the fact that a pro-ID article was published in a peer-reviewed journal science journal.
“I cannot in all honesty share in the anxiety surrounding publication of a dubious paper on ‘intelligent design’—regarded by most scientists as a version of creationism—in a journal with an impact factor of less than one,” says Svetlov. “Your News story "Peer-reviewed paper defends theory of intelligent design" (Nature 431, 114; 2004) suggests that getting an intelligent-design paper into a peer-reviewed journal is a huge achievement for creationism.”
To the contrary, he argues, the real surprise is that ID proponents didn’t get such a publication earlier.
Why? Because “one can publish just about anything if one goes far enough down the list of impact factors. There are papers all around us containing problems glaring enough to fail their authors in undergraduate midterm exams.”
Svetlov may not understand why the publication of Meyer’s paper was such a big deal. As I pointed out in my first piece on this topic, it’s a big deal because the anti-ID crowd has invested so much in the claim that ID has never published in peer-reviewed publications (which is a canard to begin with; see “Media Backgrounder: Intelligent Design Article Sparks Controversy” on the Discovery Institute’s Web site). It’s also a big deal because ID proponents are consistently denied a level playing field. And getting published despite the unfairness is a significant accomplishment.
But Svetlov’s point about the ease of publishing bad science is an interesting one. For one thing, it exposes the double standard of those who have dedicated their lives (and livelihoods) to defending the public from the allegedly “bad science” of intelligent design while doing nothing about the genuinely bad science that’s published in many journals. (This is eerily reminiscent, by the way, of what happened with biology textbooks. While the anti-ID folks were out guarding the schools from the “bad science” of intelligent design, they serenely accepted even the most egregious errors, as documented in Jonathan Well’s book, Icons of Evolution, in textbooks used by millions of kids.)
More interesting, however, is the conundrum Svetlov’s letter poses for the anti-ID community. There have been signs that the anti-ID folks want to back away from making publication in peer reviewed journals a touchstone of good science. Not a bad idea. But doing so affirms the likelihood that peer-reviewed journals have published some rubbish—maybe a good deal of it, as Svetlov asserts. And if that’s true, it diminishes the cultural authority that the science establishment has relied on to keep ID and criticisms of Darwinism out of public school science classrooms.
Anti-IDists seem to know this and are working both sides of the street. On the one hand, as I’ve noted elsewhere, they seem to be downplaying the importance and validity of peer review—but only to a limited extent. On the other hand, they’re still trying make it look as if Meyer’s paper was published only through chicanery—and therefore doesn’t count as a peer-reviewed article.
Strategically, this is probably the best thing they can do. But if some enterprising team of young scholars decided to document Svetlov’s claims—the way Jonathan Wells did on a smaller scale with biology textbook errors—the whole issue of ID and peer review could be rendered moot in the ensuing controversy.
Of course, this is just my speculation. But what if it really happened?
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