Denyse O'Leary on the Meyer controversy

Denyse O’Leary has posted an entry on her weblog at on the controversy surrounding the 2004 Meyer paper titled Darwinism - An Intellectual Scandal in Science?. O’Leary makes several claims and accusations about various critics of Meyer’s 2004 paper as well as some general accusations towards Panda’s Thumb. In this posting I will go through her major claims and show how they are based on various errors, such as getting the order of events wrong. O’Leary is author of the book By Design or by Chance and a freelance writer as well a columnist for various Christian resources.

I recently acquired O’Leary’s book “By Design or by chance” and have started to review the book. My overall impression of the book is that it presents the ID argument without much skepticism, and presents a strawman argument of Darwinism and its supporters. For instance Darwinism is often presented as relying on chance alone, or even as what remains after design is eliminated. The author is clear that she is on the supportive side of intelligent design and considers herself a ‘post-darwinist’, meaning that she accepts evolution but doubts that Darwinism is an adequate explanation. Her stated reasons are that “Darwin did not anticipate the complexity of the problems so his theory is not likely the solution”.

1. O’Leary and Eugenie Scott’s claims

O’Leary suggests that Eugenie Scott (Executive Director of the National Center for Science (NCSE)) made a claim about what the journal’s directors (sic) had stated.

Interestingly, contrary to Eugenie Scott’s claim, the journal’s directors did not claim that Meyer’s article was “substandard science,” but that it was “inappropriate” for the journal.

Denyse O’Leary on

There are various problems with O’Leary’s claim:

First of all, contrary to O’Leary’s claim this statement was made by the Council of the Biological Society of Washington (BSW) not the journal’s directors (sic). A minor error but indicative of the general sloppiness of O’Leary’s article. Secondly, Eugenie Scott never suggested that the council of the BSW had made such claims. What she did say was:

“It’s too bad the Proceedings published it,” Scott said. “The article doesn’t fit the type of content of the journal. The bottom line is that this article is substandard science.”

Eugenie Scott as quoted in The Scientist

No suggestion that Scott was talking about what the journal’s directors (sic) of the journal had to say about about the scientific quality of Meyer’s article.

On a closer reading one may interpret the somewhat ambiguous statement by O’Leary to mean that unlike Eugenie Scott, the Board of Directors stated that the reason for rejection was because of its inappropriate nature. Of course, the fact that the board remained silent on the issue of the quality of the paper should not be seen as a contradiction of Scott’s assertion. Anyway, O’Leary may want to use more precise language in her claim about Scott since it suggests that Scott made a claim about what the journal’s directors (sic) had said.

2. Unsupported accusations about Panda’s Thumb

O’Leary accuses the contributors of the Panda’s Thumb of abusing ID-friendly scholars in an unscholarly manner:

But things got worse. Meyer’s article attracted the attention of the Panda’s Thumb blog. If you want to see the possible demise of science, go to the Panda’s Thumb blog, a site dedicated to protecting Darwinism that has abused ID-friendly scholars in such unscholarly terms that viewing the Thumb can feel like watching thousands of years of civilization rushing down the drain

Denyse O’Leary on

O’Leary however fails to produce any examples of such abuse (unless showing the lack of scientific merrit falls in this category) although in an email she received Tom Curtis challenged O’Leary to document her claim:

I invite you to find, and post on CED the five most offensive ad hominens from any blog dealing with the Myer (sic) article on the Panda’s Thumb. If you are unable, or unwilling to find any comparably offensive ad hominens, or any at all - perhaps you would consider it time to make an apology both on CED and on your own blog for your intemperate and inaccurate comments re the Panda’s Thumb.

Tom Curtis on Anti-CED

Instead O’Leary countered

I myself was referred to as a “pustule” (see also item 6. below) on that site, and have not in fact had any further personal dealings with it, nor do I intend to.

I wonder what science journal would have published THAT?

I would be glad to know that the site has improved, but I am most certainly not going to search through it for evidence that it hasn’t improved.

Denyse O’Leary on CED

Tom Curtis responded noticing that:

Of greater concern to me, however, is your apparent admission to not having read the various blogs in response to the Meyer article before condemning them in such resounding terms. Is that correct? You claim to have not had personal dealings with the Thumb since you were called a “pustule”, and that you see no reason to have personal dealings now to confirm whether or not they have improved there standard. As the only interaction that would have required is reading the primary articles, I can only presume that not having any “personal dealings” means not reading any part of the blog; and by inference, not having read the Thumb’s response to Meyer.

Tom Curtis on anti-CED

In other words, O’Leary has jumped to a conclusion without any supporting evidence. Given O’Leary’s comments a reasonable conclusion is that O’Leary had stopped monitoring the Panda’s Thumb website after the June 10 comment and was thus likely unaware of the more recent contributions on Panda’s Thumb, including the Meyer critique. O’Leary does link to the Panda’s Thumb website but does not discuss in any detail the critique presented by Elsberry et al.

I would be interested to see O’Leary support her claims about the Panda’s Thumb (and the NCSE). I invite the readers of this forum to look at the Panda’s Thumb website and make up their own minds. While Panda’s Thumb is undeniably critical of ID I have found its articles to be mostly quite fair although hard hitting.

3. O’Leary suggests that Meyer has actually proposed an alternative hypothesis

So Meyer reviews the possible explanations and proposes intelligent design as an alternative to Darwinism.

Denyse O’Leary on

However, other than asserting that ID is an alternative to (neo-)Darwinism, Meyer’s argument is purely a negative one namely, that he believes that neo-Darwinism fails to explain the data (something contradicted by actual research and evidence) and that thus ID is a reasonable or at least logical alternative. But Meyer fails to present ANY positive argument for design in his paper.

Interestingly enough Pennock seems to have predicted this in his chapter in Debating Design (edited by Dembski and Ruse, 2004). Pennock writes:

I have not seen the chapter that Meyer is writing on the Cambrian explosion for the present volume, but I encourage readers to check whether he departs from the pattern and offers any specific positive account. If ID is to have even a shot at being a real scientific alternative, one should expect to see some precise testable (and eventually tested) hypotheses that answer the obvious questions:what was designed and what wasn’t; and when, where, how, and by whom was design information supposedly inserted. 7

Pennock in DNA by Design?: Stephen Meyer and the Return of the God Hypothesis. in Debating Design. New York: Cambridge University Press

The lack of any kind of ID model is the real issue and for those interested in the details please see this link where I explore this in more detail.

4. O’Leary states that Sternberg runs the risk of being fired.

Fortunately, Sternberg, who risks being fired, has had the good sense to reply to his critics.

Denyse O’Leary on

Sternberg does not risk being fired since his term as editor already expired. From the website to which O’Leary actually links we read

Following my resignation in October 2003, a new managing editor for the Proceedings was selected in May of 2004, and the transition from my editorship to the new editor has taken place over the past few months. By the time that the controversy emerged I was finishing up my last editorial responsibilities. Thus, my stepping down had nothing to do with the publication of the Meyer paper.

Sternberg on Sternberg’s website

This is another example of extreme sloppiness in O’Leary’s reporting of events.

5. O’Leary gets the chronology wrong

O’Leary suggests a chronology of events which is at odds with the actual chronology. Denyse states that it was first the NCSE who quickly denounced the paper followed by Panda’s Thumb when in fact Panda’s Thumb was the first to publish their critique.

NCSE, a Darwin lobby dedicated, it seems, to shutting down discussion about the failures of Darwinism, was quick to denounce this unprecedented event. “It’s too bad the Proceedings published it,” said executive director Eugenie Scott, “The article doesn’t fit the type of content of the journal. The bottom line is that this article is substandard science.”

But things got worse. Meyer’s article attracted the attention of the Panda’s Thumb blog. If you want to see the possible demise of science, go to the Panda’s Thumb blog, a site dedicated to protecting Darwinism that has abused ID-friendly scholars in such unscholarly terms that viewing the Thumb can feel like watching thousands of years of civilization rushing down the drain.

Denyse O’Leary on

But it was in fact Panda’s Thumb which was the first to respond to the Meyer article, the rest of the commentary followed later. A minor detail but it shows the sloppiness in O’Leary’s arguments and claims.

6. O’Leary objects to being called a ‘pustule’

The only evidence to support her assertions about Panda’s Thumb presented by O’Leary was a statement that someone had called her a “pustule”. I have to agree that this is not a very friendly term but how does this compare with

All you who value freedom of thought, try to make the time to go to Center for Science and Culture and read Meyer’s paper. Read it and pass it on, before today’s intellectual brownshirts find some way to stop you.

Denyse O’Leary on

But contrary to O’Leary’s claims, Panda’s Thumb and others have linked to the paper in question so rather than trying to stop people from seeing the paper. ID Critics, not surprisingly given the quality of the work, are eager to refer to it. O’Leary, to her credit, does link to the Panda’s Thumb critique of Meyer’s paper, but virtually every other pro-ID voice, especially the Discovery Institute, has refused to link to it. They seem to hope that if they ignore the critique, it will go away, or at least not get noticed.

The following notice was briefly posted on the Discovery Institute website but was quickly removed.

On August 26th, a critique of the article authored by Alan Gishlick, Nick Matzke and Wesley Elsberry appeared on the Panda’s Thumb website. For this reason, we have decided to make Dr. Meyer’s article available now in HTML format on this website. (Off prints are also available from Discovery Institute by writing to Keith Pennock at . ..) We trust that the Pandas Thumb critique of Meyer’s article will seem a good deal less persuasive, and less substantive than Meyer’s article itself, once readers have had a chance to read Meyer’s essay. Dr. Meyer will, of course, respond in full to Gishlick et al. in due course.

Discovery Institute CSC website

Note that Discovery Institute did not link to the Pandas Thumb (sic) critique of Meyer’s article.

7. O’Leary confuses the timeline of events when she states the following:

At this point, her [Eugenie Scott’s] group [NCSE] is simply acting against the science community’s interests. If the editors of a journal are right or wrong to publish what they did, let their own subscribers say so. There is really no place for a pressure group like hers.

Denyse O’Leary on CED

But it was PBSW subscribers that complained vociferously to BSW council, and contacted NCSE about the paper in the first place, who were instrumental in the Board’s decision.

Hearing that an ID paper was published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington I informed a colleague that routinely publishes there of the apparent change in editorial policy. Upon hearing this, she immediately contacted several individuals and found that the paper was not sent to any of the associate editors as is the usual procedure. Also, the editor in question is no longer in charge. Also, there will be an explanation and a condemnation of the article being published in the next issue.

Mark A. Grobner on Panda’s Thumb

In fact it was the actions of members of the Biological Society which contacted the NCSE

Eugenie C. Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, told The Scientist that Dr. Meyer’s article came to her attention when members of the Biological Society of Washington contacted her office. “Many members of the society were stunned about the article,” she told The Scientist, and she described the article as “recycled material quite common in the intelligent design community.” Dr. Scott, a well known and ardent defender of evolutionary theory, called Dr. Meyer’s article “substandard science” and argued that the article should never have been published in any scientific journal.

Eugenie Scott as quoted in the Scientist

See also

NCSE has already heard from a number of members of the Biological Society of Washington (which has about 250 members in all), who are concerned about the reputation of the society and its journal after the publication of such a piece of substandard work in the apparent service of a non-scientific ideology.

Glenn Branch in an email to friends of the NCSE

Does this mean that O’Leary accepts the role of the subscribers (members) of the Biological Society of Washington? The timeline of events shows that the subscribers initiated the necessary action resulting in the Board’s decision.

8. An issue of intellectual freedom?

That O’Leary is attempting to portray this issue as intellectual freedom misses the point. Neither NCSE nor anyone at the Panda’s Thumb has been calling for the BSW to retract the paper. Rather, they have criticized the paper on the scientific merits, concluded that the paper is quite poor scientifically, and then questioned how the article got published, given these facts. It is a good thing that the DI has put Meyer’s paper up on the web for all to see, because the dramatic flaws even in ID’s “best shot” are be exposed for all to see.”

Instead of intimidation, Panda’s Thumb contributors have simply been documenting the major shortcomings in Meyer’s ‘review’ article.

In addition, the Council of the BSW looked at the paper and concluded that its content was not in accordance with the stated subject matter of the journal.

The paper by Stephen C. Meyer in the Proceedings (“The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories,” vol. 117, no. 2, pp. 213-239) represents a significant departure from the nearly purely taxonomic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 124-year history. It was published without the prior knowledge of the Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, or the associate editors. We have met and determined that all of us would have deemed this paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.

Press release of the Biological Society of Washington

The claims that there is intimidation or even pressure to suppress ID research is ill supported and distract from the real issues. Why does O’Leary instead not focus on what Panda’s Thumb IS arguing namely that the paper has some fundamental flaws and omissions? The Discovery Institute originally stated that Meyer would address the critique. However, that promise was quickly removed.

The real Intellectual scandal is that ID supporters are focusing exclusively on issues that are either superficial or completely imaginary, rather than dealing with the numerous mistakes and omissions in Meyer’s paper.

I have searched for references asking for suppression or retraction of the paper but found little to support O’Leary’s viewpoint. Among the articles on NCSE Website we find such quotes as

The crew at the Panda’s Thumb blog has already posted a preliminary critique of the paper, under the title “Meyer’s Hopeless Monster”. The critique identifies a large number of errors, confusions, and omissions in the paper, concluding: “There is nothing wrong with challenging conventional wisdom – continuing challenge is a core feature of science. But challengers should at least be aware of, read, cite, and specifically rebut the actual data that supports conventional wisdom, not merely construct a rhetorical edifice out of omission of relevant facts, selective quoting, bad analogies, knocking down strawmen, and tendentious interpretations. Unless and until the ‘intelligent design’ movement does this, they are not seriously in the game. They’re not even playing the same sport.”

NCSE has already heard from a number of members of the Biological Society of Washington (which has about 250 members in all), who are concerned about the reputation of the society and its journal after the publication of such a piece of substandard work in the apparent service of a non-scientific ideology.

In other words the NCSE is focusing on concerns by members of the Biological Society of Washington .

9. Accusations of censorship

O’Leary asserts that Science journals dare not to publish an ID-friendly paper because they will be assaulted from all directions by Darwinists.

Now the sordid truth is revealed: Science journals dare not publish an ID-friendly paper, because they will be assaulted from all directions by Darwinists. Remember this incident, the next time you hear any such claim.

Denyse O’Leary on

In reality the story seems to be quite different.

  • Panda’s Thumb publishes a detailed critique of the paper. Its authors observe that the paper seems to be “out of the journal’s typical sphere of publication” and “dismal scientifically” and speculate as to how the paper passed peer review.
  • Members of the BSW contacted the NCSE and the Council of the BSW voicing their concerns
  • The Council of the BSW released a press-release observing that the paper was “inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings.”

Instead of addressing these issues, O’Leary is observed stating:

If you think I’ve said unkind things about them before, just watch me now.

Denyse O’Leary on CED

I do not mind to hear unkind things but it would help if there were some justification for doing so. So far, we have seen that Denyse has NOT shown that such justification exists.

Let me finish with a somewhat ironic statement made by O’Leary in an interview

Are the miracles of the cell and the eye, and the Cambrian Explosion really the result of blind chance, compelled by law? Darwin knew nothing of these things. He was a clever man, but he had no idea what he was talking about.

Denyse O’Leary in an interview on

Seems that O’Leary is unfamiliar with Darwin’s books in which he does address the Cambrian Explosion and the evolution of the eye.

This Website documents Darwin’s comments on the evolution of the eye. Similarly Darwin discusses the Cambrian in some detail in his written works. To suggest that Darwin did not know what he was talking about seems rather a strenuous conclusion.

Of course to refer to Darwinian evolution as blind chance compelled by law, also misses the point. In the above interview O’Leary makes various additional comments which suggest an unfamiliarity with the scientific method, methodological naturalism and evolutionary theory (hint: design is not ruled out in principle). Read for instance her comments on the evolution of the eye. Her comments on the eye are mind boggling. Compare that with for instance Darwin’s comments and remember Darwin did not have the knowledge we have of the genetics of the eye.

Finally we may wonder at the irony of O’Leary’s parting comments

I’ve never in my life focused on the negative, and don’t intend to start now.

Denyse O’Leary on CED