Project Steve and the Appeal to Authority

About a year ago, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) circulated a statement in support of evolution to a select group of scientists. How select? They only asked scientists named Steve (or Stephanie, or some other variation) to sign it. The purpose? To mock the use of lists, recently put forward by the Discovery Institute (DI), that suggest that significant numbers of scientists questioned evolution. By limiting the eligible signatories to such a small group, it also conveyed to the public just how much more support there was for within the scientific community evolution than against. To celebrate the 1 year anniversary of Project Steve (okay, we missed it by about a month and a half), The Panda's Thumb is revisiting the project. While the NCSE did all the actual work for Project Steve, and rightfully deserves the credit for it, the original idea was spawned from the members of the website (who are closely affiliated with this blog). You can read all about Project Steve at the NCSE website. There you can find links to the actual list, the original press release, newspaper articles, and the Steve-o-meter, which is currently at 431. To read all about the project from its creators, Glenn Branch and Skip Evans, check out this Geotimes article. You can also read Eugenie Scott's take here. The following article relives the joy that was Project Steve, and discusses the appeal to authority. Project Steve and the Appeal to Authority Before I go to a new movie, I usually check out its rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This is a wonderful website which compiles nearly every major movie critic's review of a given movie and spits out a verdict of either "rotten" or "fresh". If you need a little more detail than this binary output, they also give the percentage of positive reviews (60% is the minimum for a "fresh" rating). In addition, they include links to most of the reviews so you can read them yourself. I have yet to find a single movie critic whose taste in movies is similar enough to mine to base my movie-watching choices on alone, especially with the not-so-subtle rise in ticket prices as of late. Roger Ebert comes pretty close, but 4 stars (out of a max of 4) for "Titanic"? C'mon, Rog. Nevertheless, I do find that if you combine all the movie critics' opinions, as Rotten Tomatoes does, you can get a pretty good sense of how good a movie will be. When asked why they "believe" in evolution, most non-scientists would say because the overwhelming majority of the world's scientists do. This may sound like an appeal to authority, but is it really such a bad thing? If 9 out of 10 mechanics think something is wrong with your car, shouldn't you get it fixed? Unlike a movie, a concept like evolution doesn't take $9 and 2 hours of your time to evaluate. Truly understanding the evidence takes years of study. Reading popular books on the topic might save some time, but really, a popular book is just one person's opinion. The information you receive from a book is still filtered through that person's bias. If that person happens to be a crackpot with excellent writing skills, they might influence you more than a brilliant scientist that can't write. The point is, at some level we all have to rely on the opinions of others. You might as well be on the same side that 99% of the people who have dedicated their lives to the study of evolution are on. The DI 100 Lately, the creationists have been trying to utilize the appeal to authority. You might wonder why, since this tactic would clearly not be in their favor. This would be like if Yao Ming said that China was a better basketball nation than the United States. It doesn't matter if Yao is the real deal (which he is), there's a substantial majority of non-chinese NBA players that would disagree with him. Come to think of it, this probably isn't a good analogy. Yao is a pretty decent basketball player. It would be more like Wang Zhizhi saying that China is the better basketball nation, or even better, William Hung. And yet the creationists plug away, creating lists of "scientists" who question the validity of evolution, and printing them as advertisements in newspapers. The most famous example, of recent date, is the Discovery Institute's (DI) 100 "scientific dissenters from Darwinism", generated in response to a claim on the PBS series evolution that evolution is supported by "virtually every reputable scientist in the world." This petition, signed by about 100 "scientists", states:
"I am skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged."
Wow, what a declaration. "I am skeptical of claims. . .." "Careful examination of the evidence. . ..should be encouraged." Hey, thanks for taking a stand. Let me tweak this statement slightly:
I am skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to fully account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the scientific evidence for evolutionary theory should be encouraged.
Would you say the changes I made (in boldface) significantly alter the meaning of this statement? I don't think so. And yet, with those changes I think almost every scientist would agree to it. So is this list, with such a weak statement, signed by mostly non-biologists, really supposed to impress anybody? 100 signatures? There are probably about 150 graduate students currently in UCSD's Biology department. I'm sure I could get two-thirds of them to sign a counterstatement. Of course, if I stopped at 100 that would make each list equal, suggesting that the numbers of "scientists" for and against evolution were also equal. But let me ask you this, how many Universities in the United States are there with Biology Departments? So you see, 100 is a pretty pathetic number to be bragging about. And yet there they go, plugging away their precious list as though it meant something. What's amusing is how they spin it. Since they obviously can't claim that 100 scientists is a significant number (actually some do), they use the phrases like, "a growing number of scientists question evolution" or something like that. Don't believe me? Try googling the term "evolution" with the phrase "growing number of scientists", and you'll see what I mean. Here are a few (and this is just from the first page!):
"Even though the large majority of modern scientists still embrace an evolutionary view of origins, there is a significant and growing number of scientists who have abandoned evolution altogether and have accepted creation instead." "Are students learning the whole truth about Darwin's theory of evolution? According to a growing number of scientists, the surprising answer is no." "There are a growing number of scientists who are skeptical about Darwinism." "a growing number of scientists are forsaking evolutionary theory for creation science" "A growing number of scientists around the world no longer believe that natural selection or chemistry, alone, can explain the origins of life, and while they are still a minority, they are a growing minority," "a growing number of scientists now question that ... transitional fossils really are transitional forms" "But a growing number of serious scientists touting Ivy League credentials, multiple Ph.D.'s, and tenured professorships are challenging Darwin's previously incontrovertible academic standing."
(What's interesting is that it's not very obvious which of these quotes are from self-described creationists and which are from Intelligent Design advocates, who object to being called creationists.) The sad thing about this tactic is, it's working. One of the above quotes is not from a Discovery Institute propagandist, it's from a parent. So apparently the message, though meaningless, is getting out there. And the fact that it's working once again proves my theory that a creationist will listen the most qualified person who's saying exactly what they want to hear. Countering the Appeal to Authority So how does one counter such a tactic? One way is to disregard the appeal to authority altogether and argue based entirely on the scientific evidence. For the most part, this is what evolution supporters do, and would like to continue doing. The reason why evolution is considered the current best explanation for our origins is not because it got the most votes at the last origins theory caucus. The reason is because the theory of evolution can explain almost everything we've observed about our origins. It generates testable predictions which are continually being confirmed, and it can be falsified but hasn't. Scientists can and do use the theory of evolution to better understand nature. There's a reason why the phrase, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution" is so widely quoted. However, it doesn't matter how convincing the arguments for evolution are if Joe Public can't understand them. If there are two scientists, both with Ph.D.s, arguing opposite viewpoints using technospeak that no non-scientist could easily understand, who is going to be believed? The side that keeps touting their credentials or the side that doesn't? The second option is to adopt the appeal to authority. I think certainly those scientists who actually study evolutionary biology, and should therefore know the most about it, are entitled to do so. They should be able to say, "Look, I've spent the last 20 years studying this stuff. I've published over 50 articles in the peer-reviewed literature. I'm sorry, let me rephrase, the real peer-reviewed literature. I barely know my kids because I spend all my time in lab generating and analyzing data, and going to conferences presenting it. And you're telling me this guy, who is not a professor, doesn't have a single first author paper in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, whose non-peer-reviewed book has been ripped apart by every evolutionary biologist that's read it, and has openly said his primary goal of getting a Ph.D. in biology was so that he could say he has a Ph.D. in biology, should be given equal weight to me?" Of course, this should come after they first try to explain, in detail, the mountains of evidence in favor of evolution, and second, after they hand the audience some tissue so they can wipe off their drool and deglaze their eyeballs. Another way to combat their list is to generate a counterlist. If the IDists have a list of 100 scientists, and we want to demonstrate that only about one percent of scientists support ID, then one way to do this is to produce a list of 10,000 scientists that support evolution. I think if a lay person, who didn't understand the evidence for or against evolution, were to hold up the DI list of 100 and the pro-evolution list of 10,000, the point would get across. Simple enough, right? There are, however, a few problems with this idea. On a practical level, this would mean that we would have to get 100 scientists to be on our list for every 1 of theirs. If the DI knew that a counter list was being generated, they would scurry to find anyone they could with any type of credential in science, just to make it more arduous for us. We could complain that their list has people with only a bachelors degree, but what difference would it make, their list already is chock full of people with irrelevant degrees (e.g. dentistry), and yet they proudly display their list whenever the opportunity arises. The main problem, though, is that scientists in general are not fond of advancing theories through popular vote. Sure, most theories gain acceptance by gathering support from an increasing number of scientists, but I can't think of a single instance where a bunch of scientists gathered together and voted for a theory. And why should they even have to vote? Evolution is so fundamental to biology that most scientists would find it insulting to even have their support of it questioned. Would it be appropriate to ask Iraqi-Americans to sign a statement pledging their allegiance to the United States? To create a counter list would send a message to the public that it's okay to argue by petition, and end up validating the DI's list. There is a third option, mockery. And thus began Project Steve. Enter the Steves So how do you convey to the public that the vast, vast, vast majority of scientists support evolution, and only an insignificant minority oppose it? How do you demonstrate that anyone who claims that a "growing number of scientists" question evolution is trying to mislead the public? How do you satisfy the urge of every mainstream biologist who wants to say, "Shut up and get a Ph.D. in biology and do 20 years of research before you tell me that the uniting principle of our field is a fairy tale!" How do you create a list that will end, once and for all, the use of lists? And finally, how do you do all this without giving the creationists any grounds to claim we're taking them seriously? The answer? Project Steve. And thus, our good friends at the NCSE, Glenn Branch and Skip Evans, with a little help from the TalkDesign team, drafted a statement, a strong statement, in support of evolution and in clear opposition to Intelligent Design. The statement was then circulated and signed by a select group of scientists, ones whose research drew from or utilized evolutionary theory. But there was a catch. Only scientists named Steve (or Stephanie, or any other derivation of Steve) were asked to sign. In that way, the counterlist changed from a tone of serious opposition to playful mockery. After all, how can you possibly take seriously a list composed entirely of people named Steve? It's just so silly!
We the Steves, hereby declare, with the force and authority afforded to our namesake, our undying support for the theory of evolution. From this day forward, we solemnly swear to uphold the doctrines of Darwinism, battle the evils of ignorance, and fear the power of natural selection. May the foes of Darwin, and the supporters of pseudoscience everywhere, beware the wrath of the 100 Steves!
All kidding aside, the name Steve was chosen as a tribute to the late Stephen Jay Gould, who passed away shortly before this project began. Personally, I find it touching for so many of his fellow scientists to stand behind him and attest to the veracity of evolution as a theory. For a great story on the background of Project Steve, check out Glenn and Skip's article, All About Steve (and Darwin), published in the May 2003 issue of Geotimes. According to recent census information, about 1% of the population has the name Steve, Stephanie, Stephen, etc. Therefore, a list of Steves represents only about 1% of eligible scientists. So by limiting ourselves to only Steves, we found a way compete with the DI's list without have to put out 100 times their effort. If we found 100 Steves, it would be representative of 10,000 scientists total. So as long as the two lists had an equal number of signatures, we could still make the point that only about 1% of scientists question evolution. The statement began circulation around the end of 2002. As of today (4/5/04), there are 431 Steves on the list, representing about 43,000 scientists. Of course, the DI might think it unfair of us to just multiply our number by 100, which is fine. I don't like dealing with big numbers anyway. Let's just compare Steves on both lists. The Discovery Institute's list of 100 scientists originally had 0 Steves, but Stephen Meyer, who holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy, is now on the list. So basically it's 431 predominantly biologist Steves to 1 Philosopher Steve. Michael Hopkins of the Talk.Origins archive surveyed all the lists put forth by creationist groups, and found a whopping total of 16 Steves. The DI also added 52 scientists in Ohio and 40 more in Texas to their list, adding 1 Steve apiece. So all together, there are 18 Steves on these lists. However, I looked through each list and found several duplicates (one was duplicated 4 times, twice in one list due to a spelling error). So eliminating the duplicates, here is the list of Steves opposed to evolution, in its entirety:
1. Stephen Meyer, Ph.D. Philosophy of Science (Cambridge) Professor of Philosophy at Whitworth College 2. Steven Austin, Ph.D. Geology (Penn State University) 3. Stephen Taylor, Ph.D. Electrical Engineering (University of Liverpool) 4. Stephen Grocott, Ph.D. Organometallic Chemistry (University of Western Austrailia) 5. Stephen Deckard Ed.D. (University of Sarasota), Assistant Professor of Education 6. Stephen Fawl, Ph.D. Chemistry (UC Davis) Professor of Chemistry, Napa Valley College 7. Steven Gollmer, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Physics, Cedarville College 8. Stephen Huxley, Ph.D. Professor of Information and Decision Modelling, University of San Francisco 9. Stephen Crouse, Ph.D. Exercise Physiology (University of New Mexico, Albuquerque) Professor of Kinesiology, Texas A&M
The type of degree, the field it is in, and from what university are listed respectively. If available, their current occupations are also noted. So there are 9 Steves opposed to evolution, and 431 supporting it. Wouldn't you love to see the DI try to circulate a petition to "teach the controversy" with 9 signatures on it? How impressive would that be? Also, I should mention the criteria for their lists are not the same as the Project Steve list. The NCSE statement was initially sent to biology professors at research institutions. However, after that it began circulating through word of mouth, and because there wasn't a rigorous screening process to get on the list, not every Steve is a biology professor. For example, Steve #400, Stephen Hawking, is not a biologist. But most are. At last count, about two-thirds of the Steves are biologists. This is in stark contrast to the DI 100, as exemplified by the 9 Steves. None of those 9 are biologists. So in reality, counting only biology professors, it's more like 300 to 0. Is it unfair to only count biologists? Maybe, but it's very revealing that the closer the subject of the degree is to evolutionary biology, the fewer proportion of dissenters are. Response How have the creationists responded to Project Steve? Here are a few quotes: Agape press:
Jody Sjogren, with the pro-intelligent design group Science Excellence for All Ohioans, says it is clear evolutionists are taking desperate measures to justify their theory. "They've run out of ammunition," she says. "If this is all they can come up with, it doesn't say anything more for their theory -- and it shows a certain amount of fear that students, teachers, parents, and citizens alike are expressing curiosity and interest in intelligent design."
Desperate measures? Who called in the lawyers first, huh? I find it strange that a theory that has a marketing strategy but not a research program would call another theory desperate. I also like how they pretend that no evolution supporter has ever put forth any scientific arguments to "justify" evolution. They have about as much a grasp of the meaning of the word justify as the latest Timberlake album. and also from Agape,
Forrest Turpen, executive director of Christian Educators Association International, says it is obvious the evolution-only advocates feel their ideology and livelihood are being threatened.
Okay. Right. I think they have a word for that. It's called projection. According to Stephen Lawler on the Focus on the Family website, the "Steves" on this list are bowing to peer pressure. However, the Steves were all contacted by email. Is it really so difficult to escape from this type of peer pressure? All they had to do was not reply. UCSD's IDEA club published their own response to Project Steve. In it, they said:
For ID-proponents, the most effective way to rebut the argument to authority and try to shift the discussion back to the particulars of the evidence, is to temporarily fall into the trap and to become distracted from the evidence, and compile a list showing that a lot of intelligent people question Darwinism too.
This makes it sound like the evolution supporters started the appeal to authority. Perhaps I missed the last full-page ad that evolution supporters bought to list themselves and their degrees. The whole purpose of Project Steve was to mock these kinds of lists. It's ironic that the IDEA club would condemn the use of lists while simultaneously publishing their own. However, of all the responses I read, I liked this one the best. They try to argue that the evolution/creation debate should focus entirely on the evidence. I fundamentally agree with this, but the problem I have is that the creationists, by and large, distort the evidence as they see fit. It's much harder to distort a statistic like 99%. But enough of the little fish. Here's William Dembski's response to Project Steve, quoted in it's entirety:
If Project Steve was meant to show that a considerable majority of the scientific community accepts a naturalistic conception of evolution, then the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) could have saved its energies -- that fact was never in question. The more interesting question was whether any serious scientists reject a naturalistic conception of evolution -- that fact has been in question, especially by the NCSE. That it is now a known fact can be credited to Seattle's Discovery Institute, whose list of scientists questioning Darwinian evolution was the impetus for Project Steve. Interestingly, the NCSE has on numerous occasions stressed that science is not decided at the ballot box. If the NCSE still holds that position, then Project Steve is not only a proof of the obvious but also an exercise in irrelevance.
This response is similar to the IDEA club's. Namely, he thinks that Project Steve is meant to demonstrate that a "considerable majority" of scientists support evolution. No, that's not exactly correct. With the publication of the DI 100, the question became, "Do a significant number of scientists question evolution?" The purpose of Project Steve was to show, that if the scientific community thought that lists like these were important (which we don't), and if we wanted to generate our own list of scientists that support evolution (which we don't), then we could easily show that the DI 100 represents only an insignificant minority. Remember, the DI originally objected to the phrase "virtually every reputable scientist in the world." So does 99% count as "virtually every"? I'll leave that for the readers to decide (don't get me started on the "reputable" word either). It's so ironic that Dembski condemns the use of lists while still trying to justify his own. Look, it's simple. Either have a list or don't, but don't say yours is somehow okay while ours isn't. That's just hypocrisy. I also like how Dembski accuses NCSE of arguing from authority with Project Steve. The whole point of Project Steve was to mock arguments from authority. I guess IDists don't do irony. Conclusion So how has Project Steve affected the evolution/creation debate? Well, first of all, it's really hard to take seriously those lists of "scientific dissenters from Darwinism" anymore (not as though we did beforehand). On internet chatrooms, it's become real easy to rebut anyone who pulls out one of those lists. My preferred rejoinder is, "Yeah, but how many are named Steve?" It also provides more tangible evidence that the number of scientists that support evolution vastly exceeds the number that question it. I for one am getting pretty tired of the "well, a growing number of scientists,. . ." line. When the list of Steves was finally announced, a little over a year ago, I honestly thought we'd see the end of lists. Unfortunately, a year later, with the exception of Dembski's little blurb, the DI has basically ignored Project Steve, and continues to tout the DI 100 and new lists in Ohio, Texas, and Georgia. I'm not sure how feasible it would be to present the Steves to one of those states' Boards of Education. Somehow I don't think mockery would go over too well in that setting. So in one sense, Project Steve was a failure. As much as the NCSE and the scientific community would like to stay on the high road and avoid the appeal to authority, they may no longer have a choice. The truth is, in this day and age, I don't think people can avoid relying on the opinions of experts. Personally, I think the public deserves to know what the scientific community's position is on important issues in science before they develop their own opinions. I want to know that the scientific community views global warming as a major environmental threat, and not an overreaction by environmentalists. I want to know that they think cloning technology will lead to great breakthroughs in medicine, but not the successful cloning of human beings. If I was a parent whose children were entering high school, and I kept reading in the news that many scientists thought evolution was a theory in crisis, and that students were being prevented from hearing about this controversy by dogmatic Darwinists, I would want to know that in reality, 99% of scientists support evolution, and only an insignificant minority question it.