September 23, 2004

Bitten


By Mark Hartwig

The anti-intelligent design community has been bitten by its own rhetoric, and is doing all it can to stanch the woundby less than ethical means.

For years, now, the anti-ID party line has been that intelligent design should not be considered legitimate science because it has never been published in peer-reviewed scientific publications. This claim surfaces over and over againwhenever the origins controversy makes the news.

Right now, however, many of them may be regretting that line. In the August 4 issue of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (PBSW), an obscure but respected peer-reviewed journal, appears an article by design theorist Stephen C. Meyer, titled "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories."

In that article Meyer argues that no current naturalistic theory of evolution can account for the massive amounts of complex, multi-level information needed to produce novel animal forms. He further argues that intelligent agents routinely exhibit all the capacities needed to produce such information. He thus proposes intelligent design as an explanation for the origin of biological information and the higher taxa.

Taxa are the particular groups into which organisms have been classified, whether species, genera, families, orders, classes and phyla. The latter of these are called the higher taxa because they are the most general and take in the most organisms. Thus, humans are classed in the genus Homo and the species sapiens, which are both lower taxa. But we also belong to the phylum Chordata, a higher taxon, which includes mammals, reptiles, fish, amphibians and any other organism that has a hollow nerve chord running down its back.

As you might guess, opponents of design are in an uproar. Stories have appeared in The Scientist, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Science and even Nature.

Stung by Meyer's publication, the anti-ID community is responding with smear tactics. In particular, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), a staunch advocate of naturalistic evolution, and the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) are trying to play off the article's publication as a thoroughly underhanded affair by which a substandard article evaded rigorous scrutiny. In a nutshell, the charge is that the PBSW was hijacked to promote a creationist agenda.

Although the article itself has received a share of the abusemostly in the form of a "critique" published on the Panda's Thumb blogthe main target has been the editor who published the piece, Richard Sternberg.

Sternberg is an evolutionary biologist with a Ph.D. in molecular evolution and another in systems theory and theoretical biology. He works for the National Institute of Health as a curator for the National Center for Biotechnology Information's (NCBI's) DNA database and as a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institute's Natural Museum of Natural History. His research and writing areas are evolutionary theory and systematics. He worked as managing editor for PBSW for three years.

Sternberg has been cast as the main villain behind the publication of Meyer's paper. He's essentially been accused of deviating from the journal's established review process to help Meyer score a coup for ID advocates.

So what were the alleged deviations?

1. Sternberg didn't clear the article with the BSW's Council.

On Sept. 7, the BSW issued a statement repudiating the article. In its statement, the Council alleges that the article, "was published without the prior knowledge of the Council, which includes officers, elected Councilors, and past presidents, or the associate editors."

Sounds serious. Problem is, there has never been a policy requiring the editor to show submitted articles to the Council.

On his Web site, Sternberg notes, "At no time during my nearly three years as managing editor did I ever ask the Council for its input on any editorial decision regarding any particular paper. Nor did the Council itself or anyone on the Council intimate to me that the Council ought to be in any way involved in editorial decision-making with regard to particular papers."

He backs it up with the text of the form letter that is sent to article contributors. The relevant portion of the letter reads:

The editorial system of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington is as follows: the Journal (Managing) Editor receives all manuscripts, provides editorial information regarding style, format, and organization, and selects the appropriate Associate Editor to handle the review process. Associate Editors select ad hoc reviewers, render decisions regarding acceptability of manuscripts, define the nature of the revision necessary, and if needed, edit the manuscript to improve precision and clarity. Manuscripts not accepted by the Associate Editors will be returned to authors. The Journal Editor receives accepted manuscripts, marks manuscripts for the printer, provides final editing, and organizes issues of the Proceedings. The Journal Editor is responsible for all matters about the publication of the Proceedings.

Not a word about the Council.

Thats not to mention the fact that Sternberg, as managing editor, was himself a member of the Council. As will be noted later on, another Council member did know about the article.

2. Meyers article was outside the scope of what the journal normally publishes.

The BSWs statement also alleges that Meyers article represents a significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history.

The president of the BSW, Roy W. McDiarmid, repeated the allegation to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which depicted the journal as one that normally publishes papers describing species of plants and animals.

The intimation, of course, is that the paper should have been sent to a journal with editors and reviewers who were better qualified to judge its merits. The Chronicle comments:

[O]pponents of intelligent design and creationism say that Mr. Meyer should have submitted his paper to one of the several journals that normally deal with the origin of animal forms.

"People who would be appropriate to review the paper would be evolutionary biologists, and I doubt that any evolutionary biologists reviewed the paper," said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education.

However, the official description of the journal, found in each issue, is considerably broader than what the BSW has been telling the press. It declares that the journal "contains papers bearing on systematics in the biological sciences ( botany, zoology, and paleontology)."

And, indeed, Sternberg notes that the journal has regularly published articles that go beyond pure taxonomy. The kinds of studies published include:

In addition, says Sternberg, evolutionary scenarios are frequently presented at the end of basic systematic studies. (A sample list of titles from the journal can be found here.)

According to Sternberg, Meyer set forth a reasoned view about an issue of fundamental importance to systematics: the basis of taxa.

Sternberg explains: Darwin set forth common descent with random modification as being the basis for the discipline of systematics (understanding the interrelationships of taxa). In other words, according to Darwin and most subsequent biologists, taxa at all taxonomic ranks (phyla, classes, orders, families, genera, species) can only be understood as historical accidents, the unplanned product of random variation and selection. Evolutionary theory, then, is the basis of modern systematics. Meyer argues that some kind of deep purpose (which he characterizes as intelligent design) underlies living systems; if he is right, the whole basis of systematics would be radically altered. Instead of being a historical record of successful (surviving) accidents, systematics becomes the study of the putative designer's plans and their interrelationships.

Thus, Meyers paper was well within the scope of the journal.

And contrary to what Eugenie Scott claimed, it was also well-refereed. In addition to being an evolutionary biologist himself, Sternberg chose three referees, all of whom are evolutionary and molecular biologists teaching at well-known institutions. Although they all demanded significant revisions, which were made, they thought the article was worth publishing.

3. Sternberg didn't show the paper to the journal's board of associate editors.

In one of its Web reports, the NCSE charges, "According to the PBSW's instructions for contributors, 'Manuscripts are reviewed by a board of Associate Editors and appropriate referees.' It seems, therefore, that Meyer's paper was not published in accordance with the journal's established review procedure."

Again, sounds serious. But it misrepresents the way the process works.

"What the sentence means is that manuscripts are reviewed by some member of the group of associate editors," says Sternberg on his home page. "At no time in the past has the board as a whole (or even more than one associate editor) ever reviewed any paper, nor has that practice and policy changed as a result of the recent controversy."

The above letter to contributors backs him. What's more, associate editors have different areas of expertise and are not qualified to make decisions on every paper that comes down the line. So it wouldn't make sense to require all the associate editors to review a given piece.

4. Sternberg didn't show the paper to any of the associate editors.

Science magazine reported that the PBSWs current editor, ornithologist Richard Banks, says Sternberg deviated from the journal's practice of assigning every submission to an associate editor.

Sternberg counters that sometimes none of the associate editors has the expertise to handle a paper. At such times, he had the option of assigning an ad hoc associate editor or taking the article himself. Since he has two Ph.D.s in evolutionary biology, he took the article himself. This was entirely within the range of acceptable practice.

An e-mail message from McDiarmid backs him up. The e-mail describes a Council meeting in which the Council members discussed Sternbergs handling of Meyers paper. McDiarmid wrote: The question came up as to why you didn't pass the ms on to an associate editor and several examples were mentioned of past editorial activities where a manuscript was dealt with directly by the editor and did not go to an associate editor and no one seemed to be bothered

Moreover, Sternberg didnt go solo: In order to avoid making a unilateral decision on a potentially controversial paper I discussed the paper on at least three occasions with another member of the Council of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW), a scientist at the National Museum of Natural History. Each time, this colleague encouraged me to publish the paper despite possible controversy.

Even if he had failed to consult with the Council member, the fact remains that the article went through peer review. And the peer reviewers approved it. The president of the BSW acknowledged this, also.

As Sternberg recounts, after the controversy arose, Dr. Roy McDiarmid reviewed the peer-review file and concluded that all was in order. As Dr. McDiarmid informed me in an email message on August 25th, 2004, Finally, I got the [peer] reviews and agree that they are in support of your decision [to publish the article].

At every point in the process, then, Sternberg acted ethically and adhered to customary practice at the journal. Because of this, Meyers piece is a bona fide peer-reviewed article.

And thats the real problem.

ID opponents have invested heavily in portraying ID proponents as being unable to publish in peer-reviewed literature, which allegedly proves that ID is inherently bad science. Theyve invested so heavily, and for so long, the actual publication of such an article 1) would inevitably be a big deal and 2) would naturally lead many people to conclude that ID is legitimate science.

The first has already happenedas witnessed by the fact that even Nature and Science have reported on it. The second is what ID opponents are doing their bestor worstto prevent. Hence, the smear tactics, which are aimed at stigmatizing Meyers paper so that they can claim that it doesnt count. They are also aimed at making an example of Sternberg, lest anyone consider publishing another pro-ID paper.

Whether they succeed in stigmatizing Meyers paper and making an example of Sternberg, ID opponents know theyre in trouble. As the ID movement continues to grow, adding new talent to its ranks, there will certainly be more peer-reviewed ID publications.[1] ID opponents understand this and are perhaps backing away from the peer-review gambit.

Biologist Kenneth Miller, listed on the NCSE Web site as one of their supporters, told Nature that more such articles would undoubtedly appear. Nature reports:

Meyers article has attracted a lengthy rebuttal on The Pandas Thumb, a website devoted to evolutionary theory. But Miller says that, despite criticism of the journal, versions of the theory will find their way into the scientific literature at some point. Arguments for it can be written, he says, as reappraisals of certain aspects of evolution rather than outright rejection. Peer review isnt a guarantee of accuracy, he adds. That is especially true of review articles.

So despite the travail, real progress has been made here, and will continue to be made in the future. Theres still a lot of work aheadnot to mention suffering. But the ID movement is gaining ground.

Count on it.


[1] In fact, such publications already exist, including the book, Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA, published by Cambridge University Press. But I wont list off any more because the authors and journals dont need the kind of treatment Sternberg has been receiving.

Copyright 2004 Mark Hartwig. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 09.23.04