October 12, 2004

The Stricture of Scientific Resolutions


By Mark Hartwig

The Biological Society of Washington (BSW) has come up with a "new and improved" statement about the Stephen Meyer article that it published in its August 4, 2004 issue. The statement is reproduced below:

The paper by Stephen C. Meyer, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," in vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 213-239 of the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, was published at the discretion of the former editor, Richard v. Sternberg. Contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process. The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history. For the same reason, the journal will not publish a rebuttal to the thesis of the paper, the superiority of intelligent design (ID) over evolution as an explanation of the emergence of Cambrian body-plan diversity. The Council endorses a resolution on ID published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/news/releases/2002/1106id2.shtml), which observes that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity. Accordingly, the Meyer paper does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings

 

We have reviewed and revised editorial policies to ensure that the goals of the Society, as reflected in its journal, are clearly understood by all. Through a web presence (http://www.biolsocwash.org) and improvements in the journal, the Society hopes not only to continue but to increase its service to the world community of systematic biologists.

This statement mainly makes explicit what was implicit in the previous statement (though the president and current managing editor had been pretty explicit in their comments to the press). Since I covered the accusations against Sternberg in my previous Wedge Update, I won't rehash that material here.

Most interesting about the statement is the logic it employs. Near the end of the first paragraph it reads: "The Council endorses a resolution on ID published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, ... which observes that there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity. Accordingly, the Meyer paper does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings."

In other words, because a resolution by the AAAS board "observes" that there is "no credible scientific evidence" supporting intelligent design, the BSW has determined that Meyer's article "does not meet the scientific standards of the Proceedings." And that's despite the (apparently irrelevant) fact that three independent reviewers said it did.[1]

It's also despite the fact that the AAAS resolution is a politically motivated document, put together by people who know relatively little about ID. Indeed, after the AAAS board initially released its resolution, the Discovery Institute's John West contacted board members by e-mail and found that the resolution was essentially based on a couple of books read by staffers and a few Web documents. The board members who responded indicated that they themselves had read nothing—except for one who said she’d read some stuff on the Web but couldn’t remember what it was[2]

These facts notwithstanding, the Council has announced that it has "reviewed and revised editorial policies," presumably to make sure that no paper like Meyer's is published in the journal again, no matter what its actual relevance or scientific merits.

Ironically, though, by publishing and then repudiating the Meyer paper, the BSW has done the seemingly impossible. Not only has it given ID proponents a publication in a peer-reviewed biology journal, it has also handed a smoking gun to those ID proponents who argue that the peer-review process is unfairly stacked against them.

Quite a feat for a single journal.

There's no telling how the controversy over Meyer's paper will shake out. But whether the anti-design camp wins or loses, the BSW has tarnished its image—not by publishing Meyer's paper, but by the bumbling, disingenuous way it has handled the fallout.

If I were them, I'd have to wonder: Was it really worth it?


[1] Note: Some may claim that I am taking these last two sentences out of context. However, the previous sentences of the paragraph concern only the alleged "inappropriateness" of Meyer's article. That standard is also cited as the reason the journal will not run any rebuttals to the piece. Yet it's doubtful that the BSW would claim that such a rebuttal would fail to meet the scientific (as opposed to the relevancy) standards of the journal.

[2] John West, personal communication

Copyright 2004 Mark Hartwig. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 10.12.04