Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Institutional Love Child of Ayn Rand and Jerry Falwell

The New York Times has published a piece about the Discovery Institute (DI), the "think" tank behind most intelligent design creationism (ID) "related activities". There are some instructive passages, apart from the one that made it to the title of this entry -- which invokes an image my brain didn't really need. For example, Thomas H. McCallie III, executive director of the MacLellan Foundation, a major funder of DI, reveals that they "give for religious purposes", and adds: "this is not about science, and Darwin wasn't about science. Darwin was about a metaphysical view of the world." He obviously knows very little about Darwin, but at least he's being honest. Now we know where we stand, don't we? I was also interested to find another reason to dislike Bill Gates: apparently, not only is he behind some terrible software, but he also gives about $1,000,000 a year to DI.

But there is more:
Since its founding in 1996, the science center has spent 39 percent of its $9.3 million on research, Dr. Meyer said, underwriting books or papers, or often just paying universities to release professors from some teaching responsibilities so that they can ponder intelligent design. Over those nine years, $792,585 financed laboratory or field research in biology, paleontology or biophysics, while $93,828 helped graduate students in paleontology, linguistics, history and philosophy.
Carl Zimmer was quick to point out that this is surprising given that:
A search for "Intelligent Design" on PubMed yields 22 results--none of which were published by anyone from the Discovery Institute. There are a few articles about the political controversy about teaching it in public schools, and some papers about constructing databases of proteins in a smart way. But nothing that actually uses intelligent design to reveal something new about nature.
Is that all? A similar search using a more comprehensive database, the Institute for Scientific Information's (ISI) Web of Science, did reveal 227 hits for the expression "intelligent design". Alas, most of these are not about what the DI means by ID. Here are a couple of examples:
  • Strom G (2004) The lack of intelligent design in mobile phones. Lecture Notes in Computer Science 3160: 512-516.
  • Jacob E, et al. (2004) Intelligent design of feeders for castings by augmenting CAD with genetic algorithms. Journal of Intelligent Manufacturing 15: 299-305 .
Most of the hits on ID, are actually not primary research papers in scientific journals, but reviews, letters or news pieces, many in Theology, Philosophy or Law journals. The ISI reveals that the most prominent "scientists" in the ID movement have published remarkably little primary research in peer-reviewed, science journals in the last 10 years. For example, William Dembski (touted as "the Isaac Newton of information theory") has not published a single peer-reviewed scientific paper over that period.

This is confirmed by the DI's own website. Under the category "Articles Supportive of Intelligent Design Published in Peer-Reviewed Scientific Journals" we find 7 articles:
    1. Meyer SC, “The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, 117 (2004): 213-239.
    2. Behe MJ and DW Snoke, “Simulating Evolution by Gene Duplication of Protein Features That Require Multiple Amino Acid Residues,” Protein Science, 13 (2004): 2651-2664.
    3. Lönnig WE & H Saedler, “Chromosome Rearrangements and Transposable Elements,” Annual Review of Genetics, 36 (2002): 389-410.
    4. Chiu DKY & TH Lui, “Integrated Use of Multiple Interdependent Patterns for Biomolecular Sequence Analysis,” International Journal of Fuzzy Systems, 4 (2002): 766-775.
    5. Denton MJ & JC Marshall, “The Laws of Form Revisited,” Nature, 410 (2001): 417.
    6. Denton MJ, JC Marshall & M Legge, (2002) “The Protein Folds as Platonic Forms: New Support for the pre-Darwinian Conception of Evolution by Natural Law,” Journal of Theoretical Biology 219 (2002): 325-342.
    7. Mims SA & FM Mims III, “Fungal spores are transported long distances in smoke from biomass fires,” Atmospheric Environment 38 (2004): 651-655.
    Of the above papers, the first was more of a review and was later retracted by the journal, the third is a review article, and the fifth is an opinion piece. That leaves 4 research papers, although I'm not familiar with all of them. The ISI actually lists another paper by Denton, on a topic similar to that of paper #6:
    • Denton MJ, PK Dearden & SJ Sowerby, “Physical law not natural selection as the major determinant of biological complexity in the subcellular realm: new support for the pre-Darwinian conception of evolution by natural law,” Biosystems 71 (2003): 297-303.
    So let's just say that ID has produced approximately 5 peer-reviewed, primary scientific papers in the last 10 years, after spending $3,600,000 on "research". I wonder how the conservative politicians that keep complaining about federal spending on scientific research would feel about that level of productivity. That much money is equivalent to what the National Science Foundation might give to about 8 biology research laboratories over 3 years. Suffice it to say that if the output, over 3 years, of only one of those 8 hypothetical labs was similar to that of the entire DI over 9 years, it would probably never get federal funding again.

    Of the above papers, Behe & Snoke's is, arguably, the most substantive. Interestingly, it does not contain any of the following words, or their close relatives: intelligent, design, or creation. Carl Zimmer notes that Behe & Snoke's paper has never been cited, and concludes that, therefore, it cannot be very "influential". I believe that this judgement is premature given that the paper has been out for less that a year, and citations typically take a while to get going. First scientists need to "discover" the paper: for example, I only found out about it a few weeks ago, partly because Behe & Snoke chose to publish it in a specialist protein biochemistry journal (albeit a respectable one), and not in one more appropriate to its subject matter (e.g., Molecular Biology and Evolution, Evolution, or Genetics). I also feel that to compare its reception to that of the paper announcing the completion of the human genome project was unfair. A more appropriate comparison would be to a theoretical, evolutionary biology paper:
    • Force A, et al. (1999) Preservation of duplicate genes by complementary, degenerative mutations. Genetics 151: 1531-1545. [pdf]
    This paper, which proposed a new mechanism for the preservation of duplicate genes, has been cited 532 times in 55 different journals, a powerful illustration of the impact of good evolutionary biology on the rest of science.

    We should remember that criticisms of a paper show up as citations as well, so a paper may be influential for the wrong reasons. I suspect that this will be the fate of Behe & Snoke's paper. Musgrave, Reuland and Cartwright were quick to point out some of the paper's major deficiencies, and I would be surprised if they don't publish a version of their critique in the future. I know that other researchers are working on independent responses.

    All this is should not discourage the DI from its mission. I sincerely hope that DI spend more money on primary research in the future.

    Update: For other analyses of this piece see Cosmic Variance, The Light of Reason, Pharyngula and stranger fruit.