Behe Meets the Peaceful Science Forum

Today Nathan H. Lents authored an article in the Skeptical Inquirer, telling the story of how we responded to Michael Behe’s last book. Specifically, in February of 2019, Michael Behe published the third book in his trilogy critiquing evolutionary science, Darwin Devolves.

In this book, Dr. Behe argues that adaptive evolution proceeds almost entirely by degrading or damaging genes. Even when evolution increases the fitness of organisms, it does so by destroying information in the genome, so evolution is a self-limited process that cannot explain the diversity of life.

The month before his book was published, in January of 2019, Richard Lenski, Nathan Lents, and I published an 800-word review that was critical of Darwin Devolves together in Science.

We expected a reaction from the Discovery Institute (DI).

There certainly was a strong reaction. In the ensuing weeks, the DI published over seventeen articles. In just days, they flooded search engine results with thousands and thousands of words written in response to us. These articles were written by Michael Behe himself and other scientists associated with intelligent design (ID).* Some articles were unsigned without identifying any authors by name.

This sort of “squid ink” response to criticism is surely unorthodox, but do not underestimate its effectiveness. It performs a particular public theater, one that benefits the DI in its quest to promote ID. The cloud of articles attracts attention. The DI and Behe can claim to have “responded” to all the criticism directed at them. Most non-scientists cannot follow the details or assess the quality of the responses. Some might interpret the exchange as a legitimate debate.

This theater is normally where it ends.

Facing this ink cloud, most scientists just do not have the time or platform to respond. Most scientists find the flurry of articles off-putting, but the public might see evolutionary scientists abandoning a scientific debate.

In this particular case, however, Dr. Lents and I anticipated what was coming. We were prepared. We did not have millions of dollars of funding and a team of staff. But we did have the Peaceful Science forum. That forum made all the difference.

The forum is fairly small, with only 50 or so active participants each day, but it is closely watched by several people in the origins debate. It is also an open forum, where anyone can join the conversation, adding information, expertise, and questions. As an open forum, it is also chaotic and unpredictable, not fully under our control. Still, it proved to be an effective platform, turning the tables on the DI’s typical public theater.

The DI had a turnaround time of days, but the forum had a far quicker turnaround, in minutes at best and hours at worst. Many of our contributors are scientists, and that became important. Quick analysis and rebuttal of DI articles was possible, at the moment when the public was watching, and these rebuttals did not depend on just the three co-authors of the Science review.

The DI did technically respond to our review in Science. On the forum, several of us explained in detail why their responses were not “responsive” and why they did not convince us. That response disrupted the story DI wanted to tell. In that way, we interrupted their theater and told a better story.

That is all true, but it doesn’t quite capture the beautiful experience we shared together on the forum. Here we were, a group of scientists with demanding day jobs, participating in several discussion threads and dissecting the science of polar bear evolution together. None of us had closely studied polar bear evolution before, and we may never have done so if not for Darwin Devolves. So, on the forum, we held an impromptu journal club on polar bear evolution.

We began with the specific paper that Behe referenced in his book, but went beyond, doing some of our work with genomic data from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Each of us commented on each other’s contributions in real time, taking questions from the non-scientist readers as we went. There were doubts and disagreements, different expertise brought to bear, and even some messy discussion. The general public was able to look behind the curtain to see how scientists think through and work on questions like these.

In one afternoon and evening, about eight of us did the homework that Behe should have done on polar bear genomics. This wasn’t just a discussion, we were doing science, real science, the same way we would tackle our own research questions, while the public looked on and asked questions.

This stands as a stark contrast to the DI. They did not and do not transparently reveal deliberations or disagreement. Instead, they present a united front, never publicly contradicting or criticizing each other. That is not how science actually works.

As we dug in more and more, a plant biologist, Arthur Hunt, recognized several serious problems with Michael Behe’s analysis of polar bear genetics in his first chapter. What began as a forum post by Dr. Hunt was quickly upgraded to a full-fledged blog post co-authored by Drs. Hunt and Lents.

Dr. Behe responded with a blog post of his own, in which he called us “incompetent.” Surprising all of us, though, he doubled down by presenting data from the polar bear paper in a very misleading way. Just as important, his discussion revealed fundamental misunderstanding of the algorithms used to predict the function of mutations.

This exchange was really important for several reasons. It certainly made it very clear exactly where Dr. Behe’s reasoning had gone wrong in a prominent example in his book. He could have conceded this example, without necessarily destroying his whole argument. But he doubled down instead. If a scientist can’t correct ancillary mistakes, why would anyone trust him to correct more important errors?

Visible on the forum are several entertaining subplots within the larger story, far too much to cover here. The twists and turns were wild.

There were more blog posts, of course, including a few from Richard Lenski and me.

The never-ending debate over ID can tax anyone’s patience and often seems pedantic. But the quick back and forth of a forum was different. With other scientists to help us along, responding to the DI felt more like play than pressure.

The DI still uses this same strategy, so we will not be the last to face the cloud of ink. Next time you are caught in the cloud, come join us at Peaceful Science. Together we might succeed turning the theater around.

If we are lucky, we might even get to explore some interesting science together. It was polar bear evolution this time, but next time? I cannot wait to find out. Whatever comes, I’m sure that we will have far more success tackling it together than alone.

*On March 8th, this article was updated to correct an editing error, replacing a reference to “ID creationism” with a reference to “ID” alone.