Lies, Damn Lies, and Surveys

| 92 Comments

In a recent news release, the Discovery Institute trumpets the results of two new surveys conducted by Arnold Steinberg & Associates. These surveys appear to follow along the same lines as an earlier Zogby International survey conducted for the DI.

In both Steinberg surveys and the Zogby survey, respondents were asked whether public school biology teachers should “Teach the scientific evidence for and against [Darwin’s theory of evolution]” or “Teach only the scientific evidence for it.” In all three polls, between seventy and eighty persent of those responding selected the first answer. This question is a very nice example of a question that is intelligently designed to produce the answer that the people commissioning the survey wanted to hear.

The pollsters did not ask whether or not those responding knew of any evidence against evolution. Instead, they asked a question that contained the presumption that such evidence exists. 1 Based on the results of their carefully worded survey, they then claim that this level of public support for teaching “both sides” means that the objections that they have to evolution should be included in public school science curricula. This, of course, adds the assumption that their objections constitute scientific evidence against evolution to the preexisting assumption that there is any such evidence.

For the record, if I was aware of any credible scientific evidence against evolution, I would support teaching about it in the public schools. However, the material that the Discovery Institute presents as evidence against evolution hardly makes the grade. The vast majority of this “evidence” appears to be derived from a single book. Scathing reviews of this book have appeared in the two leading weekly scientific journals 2,3, among other places (see here for a listing of a few of the rebuttals to Wells’ book).

In the recent news release, the Discovery Institute’s Bruce Chapman attempts to deal with that issue indirectly, when he says:

“The only way the Darwin-only lobby can spin these kind of survey results,” added Chapman, “is to claim that the public is just ignorant. But that view is untenable in light of the more than 300 scientists who have publicly expressed their dissent from Darwinism, to say nothing of the many scientific articles that have been published critiquing the theory.”

While I would not use the word “ignorant”, there is good reason to believe that the public is not as well informed on scientific issues as they could be. A 2001 National Science Foundation Survey revealed that less than half of the population is aware that electrons are smaller than atoms, less than half of the population can explain what DNA is, and only 20% can correctly explain what a molecule is. Under those circumstances it does not seem reasonable to assume, as Chapman seems to, that all (or even most) of those responding to the polls commissioned by his organization are well versed in the details of evolutionary theory.

Chapman’s reference to his list of scientists who “dissent from Darwinism” does little to support his position that there is significan evidence against evolution. For comparison, the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve currently has over 400 signatories, all of whom (have PhDs in fields related to evolution, and all of whom are named Steve.

Like Chapman, I will also “say nothing” about “the many scientific articles that have been published critiquing the theory”. There is simply nothing that can be said about those articles except for the basic fact that they don’t exist. (Unless, of course, “scientific articles” is redefined to include articles from sources outside the peer-reviewed journals.)

These latest Discovery Institute surveys are really nothing new. Like those that have gone before them, they contain the presumption that the Discovery Institute’s argument is valid. It is hardly a shock when the Discovery institute concludes as a result of these surveys that their argument really is valid. In the future, one would hope that the Discovery Institute sets a better example when it comes to scientific integrity. Perhaps they could start by conducing surveys that do not depend on the wording of the questions to produce the desired results.

–Mike Dunford

Footnotes

1: (In a 2003 American Prospect article, Chris Mooney discusses the question-writing habits of Zogby; he also has recently commented on this most recent DI press release on his own blog.)

2: Coyne, Jerry A. “Creationism by stealth” Nature 410,745-746 (12 April 2001)

3: Scott, Eugenie C. “Fatally Flawed Iconoclasm.” Science, 292:2257-2258, (22 June 2001)

92 Comments

“While I would not use the word “ignorant””

Why not?

That survey shows that some 30% of respondents think that the Sun goes around the earth!

And there was a survey here in the UK a while back which showed that about the same proportion of people didn’t know that hot air rises.

And during the GM debate over here it emerged that a large minority of people (I can’t remember the exact figure) thought that living things only had genes if they had been interfered with by genetic engineers! Which is quite funny, really… kind of.

If I were to answer such a poll, I’d give the same answer (teach evidence for and against), and I’m a thrice-damned liberal atheist evolutionist. As you note, though, that means finding evidence against it, which the Intelligent Design creationists have not done, and I’d also add that ID is not the scientific alternative to evolution.

Does anyone know off-hand where the “300 scientists who dissent from Darwinism” figure comes from?

I googled and found this list, which proudly features Francis Crick as entry #2, but it has the following caveat higher up on the page:

Please note, though much time and research has gone into this page, it is always possible that there are some inconsistencies and false information on it. It is not intended to be taken as necessarily 100% accurate, although in my unofficial opinion, it is fairly close to it.

This may or may not be the source of the “300+” figure, but if it is, it’s awfully fishy that something with such a strong disclaimer could make it into a press release.

Does anyone know if this is actually the correct list?

There is also the U. of Cincy/Case Western Reserve survey of Ohio science professors, in which 93% responded that they knew of no scientifically valid evidence that challenges the fundamental principles of the theory of evolution and 2% said “Don’t know.” 4% answered “Yes.” Note that the poll included faculty at Bible colleges and institutions associated with evangelical and fundamentalist churches. 91% of the scientists responding said that ID is primarily a religious view.

And it’s not only ignorance about evolutionary theory in the general public that’s rampant. In a poll of the general public in Ohio (described at the same URL) at about the same time as the scientists poll, only 14% of the public answered “yes” to the question “Do you happen to know anything about the concept of ‘intelligent design’?” and 84% responded “No.” It’s noteworthy that the poll was taken when Ohio’s State Board of Education was engaged in a well-publicized dispute about whether to include intelligent design in the state science standards and ID disciples (including Jonathon Wells and Stephen Meyer) were making their pilgrimages to Ohio.

RBH

Hi, I’m conducting a poll.

Do you think that news reports about the Discovery Institute should mention only the good things they do, or do you think the news reports should also note their numerous criminal activities?

Trouble with those surveys is that you can’t complain to the questioner if the question is too complex to answer. They must rigorously ask the same question for each participant, and nothing but.

Paging Paul Nelson.….….paging Paul Nelson.….… your comments on this would be appreciated.…… thanks.….…

Does anyone know off-hand where the “300 scientists who dissent from Darwinism” figure comes from?

It comes from the Discovery Institute, here. It was originally 100 “scientists”, which includes numerous professions with little or no connection to biology, and they’ve since increased it to 300 worldwide, which is still pathetically small. Note that the petition that was signed doesn’t even express dissent from Darwinism; it just says “we are skeptical”, which is a rather noncontroversial statement. As with the poll, they greatly exaggerate what the petition actually says.

Does anyone know off-hand where the “300 scientists who dissent from Darwinism” figure comes from?

It comes from the Discovery Institute, here. It was originally 100 “scientists”, which includes numerous professions with little or no connection to biology, and they’ve since increased it to 300 worldwide, which is still pathetically small. Note that the petition that was signed doesn’t even express dissent from Darwinism; it just says “we are skeptical”, which is a rather noncontroversial statement. As with the poll, they greatly exaggerate what the petition actually says.

Thanks for the link, Steve. I knew about their prior “100 scientists” claim (and on the list you linked to, I note several whose doctorates are in less relevant areas like philosophy). Is there also a list somewhere of the 300 dissenters worldwide (and if so, is it the link I stumbled upon?), or are they pulling the number out of thin air by making some kind of bizarre extrapolation?

Since the poll was directed at the citizens of California, does that mean we can expect a push to include ID at the statewide level here?

The 300+ scientists who are “skeptical” of evolution include some rate scientists from many fields including life sciences. Apart from the terrific trio - Dembski, Wells, and Behe (throw in Johnson and it becomes the fab four) - there are notables such as Dale Schaefer at U.Cincy., the Nobel nominee (the list says so) Schaefer, Rob Kaita-Plasma Physis-Princeton, Walter Bradley-Texas A&M, Daniel Dix-Math-U.S.Carolina, etc. There are 100 names here http://www.discovery.org/articleFil[…]ntistsAd.pdf. I have been through the homepages of some from the list who are practising scientists at universities. There are others who hold a PhD but are not practising scientists (such as Wells) about whom we know little. There are pages and pages to go thru, but already there’s a clear pattern - albeit unscientific. None of these scientists is doing any work on evolution much less ID or against evolution. Nobody has “discovered” much less published on intelligent design. Dale Schaefer for instance has a huge page full of quotes contrasting views of his corner of the social ring with those of the “other side”. For those biologists who have become skeptical about evolution, maybe they need a refresher course on research and theory from the folks of Project Steve. Being good scietists I am sure they will learn from the evidence.

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Brian Leiter http://webapp.utexas.edu/blogs/bleiter/ had a link Friday to Chris Mooney’s examination of an aspect of the phenomenon ww.americanprogress.org/site/pp.asp?c=biJRJ8OVF&b=67755. Briefly, the national news media know that the decibel level goes way down when they are “fair” which means publicizing any dissenting opinion, no matter how self-serving or contrary to the evidence.

Hate to be pedantic here, especially about quantum mechanics, but do electrons even *have* a “size”? Isn’t this question based on “billiard ball” atomic theory?

Doesn’t that “size” change with energy level?

If so, there may be some electrons larger than say, a hydrogen atom.

shiva pennathur Wrote:

The 300+ scientists who are ?skeptical? of evolution include some rate scientists from many fields including life sciences.

Actually the scientists are “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life”, a statement with which many posters to this blog would agree, since the modern synthesis includes other mechanisms that contribute to accounting for the complexity of life. (I doubt that those posters would sign the statement because of it’s obvious propaganda purpose).

That skepticism is a very different thing from being “skeptical of evolution”. It is certain that some of the signers are not at all skeptical of evolution; see Doubting Darwinism through Creative License.

Nonetheless, it’s all just a game; reality is not decided by majority vote.

Free online textbooks look like a really good thing for a number of reasons. I spent $500 this semester on old things which don’t much change (stat mech, fundamentals of economics, etc) But it does make it easier for backwards districts influenced by ID people to cut controvertial things. Click click, “Are you sure you want to send Darwin to the recycle bin?” Perhaps free common bio textbooks could be licensed such that they can’t be edited without permission?

CBS news just did a story on congress investigating degree mills. I wonder if it’ll become illegal nationally? Will we be able to sue Hovind to make him stop calling himself Dr.?

Maybe we could get lucky, and draw one of those judges who likes giving creative shame-based sentences, and the sentence is that Hovind has to identify himself for six months as “I’m Kent Hovind, I used a fake degree to make people think I am educated”

The IDEA Club’s page on Project Steve (http://www-acs.ucsd.edu/~idea/steve.htm) is really an indictment of how sloppy and dumb these ID folks can be when they are preaching to the converted.

For starters, it’s totally schizophrenic about its purpose:

All that matters is the evidence. And if you agree with us that evidence is all that matters, save yourself some time and don’t look at these lists

but only to the extent that it’s comprehensible …

(The main reason for questioning “evolution” (meaning evolution (dramatic change through the history of life) driven by Darwin’s naturalistic mechanism as the drivinfg force) actually get’s to the mechanism often sited as being one of the main driving forces of life’s diversity from an evolutionary perspective: random genetic mutation giving rise to various characteristics upon which natural selection acts.

All parentheses, apostrophes and spelling as in the original. Pathetic and disheartening. I assume that the site authors, Casey Luskin ([Enable javascript to see this email address.]) and Reid Hankins ([Enable javascript to see this email address.]), are adults but I’m afraid to do look further for fear that I’ll discover they are teachers somewhere.

KeithB Wrote:

Hate to be pedantic here, especially about quantum mechanics, but do electrons even *have* a “size”? Isn’t this question based on “billiard ball” atomic theory?

Electrons have a mass. And their mass is much smaller than that of a proton or a neutron. As long as the question used the word “mass”, then there is no ambiguity.

Either way though, I think it’s safe to assume that those who got the question wrong did not do so because they were thinking in terms of quantum theory. ;)

about IDEA’s page about just paying attention to the evidence, like I’ve said before, where do they get off thinking their evaluation of the evidence is worth anything at all? What would particle physicists say if a religious club got together, studied the evidence, and said that Quantum Field Theory is bad science? They’d say, sorry you don’t understand it, but that’s not our problem.

Then their members would spend years arguing on Talk Particles, complaining of being suppressed in journals, asking for direct experimental proof that every particle in the universe obeys general relativity, claiming that “Nobody’s ever witnessed an axial vector current…” etc.

As quoted above it said “size” rather than “mass.”

Regarding the comment by KeithB:

Size is an imprecise word; it is better to talk of the diameter. But never mind.

The diameter of, say, a hydrogen atom is the diameter of the wavefunction of the bound electron. The electron, however, is not the wave function, and the wave function is not the electron. The wave function tells you the probability of finding the electron at any point. The electron itself is presumably a small particle whose radius is roughly equal to the classical radius. Its diameter is therefore less than the diameter of the hydrogen atom.

Electrons are smaller than atoms.

Perhaps a little too far afield, so it may be ignored. The mass of an electron which is about 9.1*10^-31 kg is in fact the mass of a free electron. This damned guy we call electron can make a phisicist go crazy. As soon as an electron is in an electromagnetic field (as, for example, when it is in a crystalline lattice) it behaves in such a way as if its effective mass is rather different from the mass of a free electron. While I see nothing bad in asserting that an electron is smaller than an atom, the very concept of an electron’s size (or diameter - which implies a sperical shape) is quite ambiguous. Atoms, on the other hand, indeed have definite sizes (but not diameters because they more often tnan not are not spherical) - using the scanning tunneling microscope, many atoms have been “seen” and they indeed have a definite shape and size. I don’t believe, though, an electron can be ever “seen.” To see it photons have to be reflected from an electron, but if a photon encounters an electron, often the electron simply jumps to a higher energy level, absorbing the photon (like when an electron is in an atom), or Compton effect takes place wherein both the photon’s and the electron’s energies change, so it is a very tricky thing to devise a method for “seeing” an electron. Size can be in principle determined through scattering experiments (as Rutherford did with atomic nuclei) but I can’t imagine how it can be done with electrons. Of course, predicting what science will come up with in the future is impossible, but I guess to ever be able to define what an electron’s size is may be impossible in principle. Still, since atoms contain a nucleus plus sometimes scores of electrons, the answer to the question at hand can legitimately be given that electron indeed may be said to be smaller than an atom.

Jon: What are you referring to when you write: “…the modern synthesis includes other mechanisms (than random mutation and natural selection) that contribute to accounting for the complexity of life.” ? Does this “modern synthesis” include any ideas borrowed from ID?

Jack Shea Wrote:

What are you referring to when you write: ??the modern synthesis includes other mechanisms (than random mutation and natural selection) that contribute to accounting for the complexity of life.? ?

Things such as neutral drift or horizontal gene transfer. That’s not an exhaustive list, it’s not my area of expertise.

Does this “modern synthesis” include any ideas borrowed from ID?

No. You were kidding, right?

The modern synthesis predates ID by several decades, and ID has made no contributions whatsoever to science.

“Modern Synthesis” was when evolution was given *solid* mathematical footing when it was wedded to genetics. Now they are both essentially the same field of study.

The creationist “science” movement isn’t targeting “Darwinism” alone. There is a thriving “Commonsense Science Movement” as well. Bob Lattimer one of the protagonists of creationist/ID/”science” in Ohio is close to the “creationist cosmology” folks as well and appears to believe in YEC. There was a big “creationist cosmology” confrence in Columbus, Ohio immediately following the Kavli-CERCA cosmology conference at the Case Physics Dept., Cleveland, in October 2003. While the Kavli-CERCA conference is available on streaming video for free, the “creationist cosmology” conference is available only on DVD for sale. Make what you will out of that. Dembski and the other “scientific” luminaries of the ID movement haven’t made known their views on this branch of pseudoscience. Maybe if there is heat to be raised and a similar chorus of “growing scientific evidence against Einsteinism/Bohrism/Heisenbergism” can be trusted to deliver foot-soldiers for assorted causes the folks at ID/DI might just jump on. That will be fun to watch. http://www.creationists.org/Downloa[…]chedules.pdf http://www.youngearth.org/current_speaker.htm http://www.worldbydesign.org/cosmol[…]/review.html http://www.commonsensescience.org/i[…]mainAlthough conservatives have no monopoly on pseudoscience many among them tend to make common cause with the ID/DI folks. There is no shortage of conservative columnists who overestimate their scientific talents. Like this one here http://www.nationalreview.com/kopel[…]el040402.asp

So does ID theory then support the possibility that humans (beings with intelligence), have the ability to design a machine that is considered alive?

As I recall, ID apologist Charlie Wagner doesn’t rule out the possibility that humans designed all the life on earth. Ask him to explain (of course, he’ll first deny ever having said anything of the sort and then you’ll have to search the archives here to “refresh” him).

GWW, I think you’re unfairly attributing something to Charlie that rightly should be laid at the feet of Horatio’s Hypothesis, which pointed out the oversight in Nelson’s Law, and showed that, indeed, in the absence of contrary evidence, humans designed all life on earth (including ourtselves) - and potentially much, much more.

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This page contains a single entry by Mike Dunford published on May 9, 2004 1:35 AM.

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