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Why do Scientists Get So Angry when Dealing with ID Proponents?

Jason Rosenhouse

August 26, 2005

I am sometimes asked why supporters of evolution get so angry when addressing proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). My answer is that if the evolution/ID dispute were simply a discussion of rival scientific claims, say about whether known evolutionary mechanisms are capable of explaining the formation of complex systems, then the discussion would be far less acrimonious. In reality, however, ID proponents spend most of their time leveling bogus charges against evolution. Professionals in the relevant fields possess the expertise to see immediately that the charges are scientifically untrue, but the lay audiences to which these charges are directed are unlikely to be similarly equipped. The result is that ID proponents present a picture of modern biology that is completely unsupported scientifically and disingenuous. And this is what causes ID proponents to be so reviled by scientists.

In this essay I will document one specific example of blatant ID duplicity. It provides a useful study of the depths to which ID proponents must sink in order to make their case.

One of the most prolific ID proponents is William Dembski. On April 26, 2005 he published an essay at his blog in which he addressed the charge that ID proponents present quotations inaccurately. The essay began as follows:

Unlike the serious sciences (e.g., quantum electrodynamics, which is accurate up to 14 decimal places), evolution has become an exercise in filling holes by digging others. Fortunately, the cognitive dissonance associated with this exercise can’t be suppressed indefinitely, so occasionally evolutionists fess-up that some gaping hole really is there and can’t be filled simply by digging another hole. Such admissions, of course, provide ready material for evolution critics like me. Indeed, it’s one of the few pleasures in this business sticking it to the evolutionists when they make some particularly egregious admission. Consider the following admission by Peter Ward (Ward is a well-known expert on ammonite fossils and does not favor a ID-based view):

The swaggering tone of these sentences is SOP for design proponents, who must allow the arrogance of their writing to fill the hole left by their total lack of scientific results. But that is not the subject before us today.

Instead notice that Dembski is about to present a quotation from paleontologist Peter Ward to support his contention that there are gaping holes in evolutionary biology. Dembski tells us that the quotation he is about to present is the product of the cognitive dissonance created when scientists must suppress what they know to be true about the deficiencies of evolution.

We will come to the quotation in a moment, but first there is some history to recount. As described by Dembski, he first used Ward’s statement in an essay entitled “Five Questions Evolutionists Would Rather Dodge,” posted at his website on April 14, 2004. Shortly after this essay was posted, two contributors to “The Panda’s Thumb” blog, Gary Hurd and Dave Mullenix, wrote a rebuttal taking Dembski to task for, among other things, misusing Ward’s statement. Dembski’s blog entry, quoted above, was to be a belated reply to Hurd and Mullenix.

Prior to reading Dembski’s blog entry, I had not read his “Five Questions” essay. Likewise, I had not read the reply by Hurd and Mullenix. I also had never heard of Peter Ward, had not read the book from which the quote was taken, and did not know anything about Ward’s scientific opinions. Consequently, I was able to investigate the situation with no preconceived notions about who was telling me the truth. I knew that the facts of the matter would be easy enough to obtain, and that they would allow me to determine who was providing the straight story.

I began by reading Dembski’s essay. The relevant statement is the following:

The challenge that here confronts evolution is not isolated but pervasive, and comes up most flagrantly in what’s called the Cambrian Explosion. In a very brief window of time during the geological period known as the Cambrian, virtually all the basic animal types appeared suddenly in the fossil record with no trace of evolutionary ancestors. The Cambrian explosion so flies in the face of evolution that paleontologist Peter Ward wrote, “If ever there was evidence suggesting Divine Creation, surely the Precambrian and Cambrian transition, known from numerous localities across the face of the earth, is it.” Note that Ward is not a creationist.

Already a question emerges. Taken at face value, Ward’s statement above seems to affirm the idea that the Cambrian Explosion is strong evidence for Divine Creation. If that is an accurate presentation of Ward’s opinion on this subject, then why isn’t Ward a creationist?

Ward made his statement in his 1992 book On Methuselah’s Trail. I obtained a copy of the book, flipped to page 29, and found that Ward had indeed written the words being attributed to him. The quoted line comes at the beginning of a ten-page section entitled “The Base of the Cambrian.” In this section Ward provides a brief history of what is known about the Precambrian to Cambrian transition.

So I decided to read the rest of the section. After the line Dembski quoted, Ward goes on to describe Darwin’s own concerns about the Cambrian explosion (though that term did not exist in Darwin’s time). He also discusses various explanations offered by some of Darwin’s contemporaries, such as Roger Murchison and Adam Sedgwick, and shows how those explanations fared in the face of subsequent discoveries.

This goes on for several pages. Eventually Ward comes to more modern views of the subject. And this, sadly, is where Dembski’s creative use of quotations becomes obvious.

On page 35 Ward writes this:

Until almost 1950 the absence of metazoan fossils older than Cambrian age continued to puzzle evolutionists and earth historians alike. Other than the remains of single-celled creatures and the matlike stromatolites, it did indeed look as if larger creatures had arisen with a swiftness that made a mockery of Darwin’s theory of evolution. This notion was finally put to rest, however, by the discovery of the Ediacarian and Vendian fossil faunas of latest Precambrian age.

On page 36 we find:

Intensive searching of strata immediately underlying the well-known basal Cambrian deposits in the years between 1950 and 1980 showed that the larger skeletonized fossils (such as the trilobites and brachiopods) that supposedly appeared so suddenly were in fact preceded by skeletonized forms so small as to be easily overlooked by the pioneering geologists.

And just in case there is still any doubt, Ward closes the section with the following statement:

The long-accepted theory of the sudden appearance of skeletal metazoans at the base of the Cambrian was incorrect: the basal Cambrian boundary marked only the first appearance of relatively large skeleton-bearing forms, such as the brachipods and trilobites, rather than the first appearance of skeletonized metazoans. Darwin would have been satisfied. The fossil record bore out his conviction that the trilobites and brachipods appeared only after a long period of evolution of ancestral forms. (pages 36-37)

From these statements it is obvious that Ward does not believe the Cambrian explosion is an insoluble problem for evolution. Quite the contrary. He states clearly that recent fossil discoveries pertaining to the Cambrian explosion have been a vindication of Darwin.

So what about that “Divine Creation” remark? In context it is obviously a framing sentence intended to set-up the ensuing discussion. Ward was not stating his own opinion or the opinion of any particular modern paleontologist. Instead he was merely describing the way things seemed to many people prior to Darwin, and for many years after Darwin.

The next step was to read what Hurd and Mullinex had to say on this subject. They began with a lengthy discussion in which they showed that Dembski’s assertions about the Cambrian explosion, quoted above, are quite false. They next discuss the Ward quote, and come to the same conclusion I did. They even used two of the same quotes that I found. They concluded by showing that after distorting Ward’s clearly stated intention, Dembski went on to misrepresent a statement from Stephen Jay Gould.

Let’s review. Dembski tried to imply that the non-creationist Peter Ward nonetheless agrees with Dembski’s view that the Cambrian explosion is a problem for evolution. In reality, Ward’s clearly stated view is that while the Cambrian explosion used to be viewed as a problem for evolution, recent fossil discoveries actually show that it is a vindication for Darwin. Hurd and Mullenix pointed this out, showing in great detail that Dembski had not only distorted Ward, but had done likewise to Gould. They also showed that Dembski’s version of the facts was simply wrong. Dembski ignored what Hurd and Mullinex had said and repeated his earlier error about Ward’s intentions.

And that brings us back to Dembski’s blog entry. We resume the action from the point where my opening quote left off. He quotes Ward as saying:

“The seemingly sudden appearance of skeleonized life has been one of the most perplexing puzzles of the fossil record. How is it that animals as complex as trilobites and brachipods could spring forth so suddenly, completely formed, without a trace of their ancestors in the underlying strata? If ever there was evidence suggesting Divine Creation, surely the Precambrian and Cambrian transition, known from numerous localities across the face of the earth, is it.”

— Peter Douglas Ward, On Methuselah’s Trail: Living Fossils and the Great Extinctions (New York: W. H. Freeman), 1992, 29.

And goes on to say:

Pretty convincing indicator that the Cambrian explosion poses a challenge to conventional evolutionary theory, wouldn’t you say? Note that this is not a misquote: I indicate clearly that Ward does not support ID and there’s sufficient unedited material here to make clear that he really is saying that the Cambrian explosion poses a challenge to conventional evolutionary theory.

Unlike in his original essay, Dembski now gives the entire paragraph from which the “Divine Creation” statement appeared. Even those few extra sentences are enough to make one suspect that Ward was not saying anything useful to ID folks. The phrases “seemingly” and “has been,” suggest that Ward is setting up his readers for the eventual resolution to the problem.

Dembski asserts that this is not a misquote on the grounds that (a) he indicates clearly that Ward does not support ID and (b) he includes enough material here to show Ward’s true intention.

Alas, (a) is totally irrelevant. At issue here is not whether Ward is an evolutionist or a creationist. Rather, the issue is what Ward thinks about the Cambrian explosion. And we have already seen that (b) is false. This paragraph by itself does not reflect Ward’s intention. Please note, incidentally, that Ward’s opinion, as stated in his book, could not have been clearer. This is not a situation where Ward intended one thing, but because of sloppy writing could be plausibly interpreted as saying something else. Nor is this a situation where Ward believes that on balance the evidence supports evolution, but that there are certain holes nonetheless in the current theory.

This is hardly an isolated case. When I first started investigating the evolution/creationism issue I noticed that anti-evolutionists were constantly quoting scientists in ways that made it appear they had grave reservations about modern theory. I knew for a fact that the people being quoted were themselves passionate defenders of evolution. Initially I found it difficult to understand why these scientists would defend a theory they apparently had deep reservations about.

So I investigated dozens of cases like the one described in this essay. In every case I found that the quotation was badly out of context. Sometimes what was presented as a minor revision of an esoteric part of evolutionary theory was exaggerated into a criticism of the theory as a whole. Other times, like the situation described here, the meaning of a statement was so twisted that it was made to seem to be saying the precise opposite of the author’s clearly stated intention. In every case the quotation was made to appear to mean something different from the writer’s actual opinion.

This explains why scientists become so angry when dealing with this subject. If the issue were simply that mainstream science says, for example, that current theory is fully capable of accounting for information growth in the genome, while a handful of dissenters claimed otherwise, then I would be all in favor of engaging in polite debate. The reality, however, is that ID proponents are entirely shameless in presenting the most malicious caricatures of modern science. In response to such behavior, anger is entirely appropriate.

This also explains why ID proponents rarely make any attempt to present their case to professionals. In front of such an audience their distortions would be immediately obvious. They are on far safer ground in lobbying school boards and state legislatures. When making your case in front of audiences that do not know the facts of the situation, it is easier to lie with impunity.

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Jason Rosenhouse

Jason Rosenhouse is the author of EvolutionBlog, providing commentary on developments in the endless dispute between evolution and creationism.