14 February 2013

The Discovery Institute feels sorry for my students

Posted by Callan

Periodically, I get requests to use my images in publications. It’s very easy to find my photos, because I publish a lot of them on this blog, or on my NOVA website, and they always rise to the top of a Google image search. I got a distinctive one on Monday:

Dear Mr. Bentley,

My boss Dr. Stephen C. Meyer at the Discovery Institute is finishing up a book that discusses various attempts to explain the Cambrian Explosion. It is called Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosion of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design.

I am in the process of looking for photos for his book and came across your set detailing a trip to the Burgess Shale. I am writing to see if you are open to giving him permission to use one of your photos, a picture of Emerald Lake and the Burgess Shale landscape. You describe the photo on your AGU.org <http://AGU.org>  blog as:

“Emerald Lake and its gorgeous alluvial fan coming off the Presidential Range and filling in the basin.”

I’d like to offer you $100 and a complimentary copy of the book in return for permission to use the photo. The book will be published in June 2013 by HarperOne Publishers San Francisco. If you agree to do this, can you please forward me a high-res version of the photo and your preferred wording for credit?

Our deadline for submitting photos and art is this coming Thursday, Feb. 14th. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Andrew McDiarmid
Media Relations Specialist
Assistant to Dr. Stephen Meyer
Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture
vv  425-296-4574 ext. 306
News: www.evolutionnews.org
Podcast: www.idthefuture.com
Website: www.discovery.org/csc

The Discovery Institute is the creationist think tank in Seattle that serves as the principle promulgator of Intelligent Design creationism: the idea that certain aspects of living organisms are so complex that they cannot be explained by evolution, and must therefore imply being created whole-cloth by God a Creator an Intelligent Designer of Unspecified Provenance. It’s a funny idea: to cling to the idea of a Creator, they imply that he did a job that was (a) almost completely indistinguishable from an evolved system but (b) just sloppy enough that we can find his fingerprints hidden in life’s unexamined details.

So I replied:

Hello Andrew,

Thanks for your interest.

I hold the Discovery Institute in the lowest regard, and it sounds like the new book will be a further perversion of reason in the name of pseudoscience. As a science educator, I could never support such an effort! I will not grant reproduction rights to any of my photos or drawings to any creationist effort such as the one you describe here.

Best wishes for your good health, and the speedy demise of the sham institution that employs you.

Callan Bentley

Andrew might have left it there, as have previous creationists who asked to use my photos when I delivered a similarly pointed response. But he quickly responded:


I’m sorry to learn that you do not support true freedom of scientific inquiry. As Charles Darwin himself stated, “A fair result can be obtained only by fully stating and balancing the facts and arguments on both sides of each question.”

I only hope the materialist, reductionist scales fall off your eyes one day. Until then, I feel sorry for your students.

Andrew McDiarmid

The “scales falling off the eyes” bit is apparently derived from the Bible. I’ve only heard that phrase once previously, when speaking with a devout Christian friend. It’s a curious tactic for him to employ. I certainly can’t say it compelled me: basically it means that someone was deluded or wrong, and that a new piece of information shifts their perspective fundamentally. I might just as easily toss the same sanctimony towards Mr. McDiarmid.

The Darwin quote is a good one, though his playing that card with regards to Intelligent Design is a false dichotomy. It’s not like this issue is contentious within the bounds of science. On the contrary, it could hardly be less controversial – there aren’t two sides to discuss, except within the supernatural cultural confines of the pious & paranoid. This particular accounting was put to the scales long ago (the other kind of scales: the kind we use to weigh things). Hate to break it to you, Mr. McDiarmid, but those scales didn’t balance. The “Life evolved” side had all the evidence. The “Life was designed” side had none. At least back at the Dover trial, ID proponents could still cite the bacterial flagellum as an item of potentially intelligent design. But now we understand it to be yet another example of pre-adaptation, in this case a re-purposing of the Type III secretory apparatus. There is no compelling case for Intelligent Design. Their side of the scale is full of three things: unshakeable faith, the argument from incredulity, and the “God of the Gaps” argument. The science side of the scale is full of more than 150 years of corroboration, hypothesis testing, predictions, observations, fossil evidence, theoretical modeling, and modern experimentation.

It’s no contest.

Anyhow, when I saw his note, I was getting ready for bed, and I felt like I needed to send off a riposte so I could feel like I’d had the last word before settling in for my long winter’s nap.

Inquiry is indeed free, and you guys should be free to think whatever you want! I support that 100%. But if it can’t pass peer review, it ain’t science.

I’ll convey your pity to my students.


Students, please note that the Discovery Institute feels sorry for you.

That felt like conversational closure to me, but of course, not to Mr. McDiarmid. So when I woke up the next morning, I found that he had played the Galileo gambit:


And who “controls” peer review? How easy is it to get new or revolutionary ideas to be peer reviewed and accepted by the scientific majority? A quick glance through scientific history will quickly show you it is difficult indeed! And is peer review really the “gold standard” for science? We are not sure it is:

Intelligent design is peer reviewed, but is peer review a requirement of good science?

Remember, scientific revolutions don’t get welcomed in gladly. Their effects are gradual and reluctantly accepted. Thanks for proving that point!


I’m done playing email tag with Mr. McDiarmid, but now I’ve got a cup of coffee and a sleeping baby, and so I’ve got at least seven minutes to respond.

And who “controls” peer review?

Peers: people with relevant expertise who prioritize factual evidence and value logical argumentation; people who are eager to advance our understanding of the natural world through new insights. Not a conspiracy of goons who work to suppress the truth. And not people who agree with you: skeptical people with an empirical bent, people you have to convince.

How easy is it to get new or revolutionary ideas to be peer reviewed and accepted by the scientific majority?

If the idea is pseudoscience, it won’t pass peer review*, and it won’t get included in the scientific conversation, and it won’t become accepted. So: not so easy, and I’m grateful for that. Otherwise pseudoscientific ideas like the flat Earth, the expanding Earth or Hallettestoneion Sea Zoria Dragons would be written up in geoscience textbooks alongside radioactive decay, Bowen’s reaction series, and Archeopteryx.

If the idea is a good idea, it gets adopted pretty quickly. I think of plate tectonics, isotopic dating, the K-T impact hypothesis, anthropogenic global warming, mantle plumes, the Pleistocene Ice Age, Neoproterozoic low-latitude glaciation: It might take a couple of decades to filter through to wider acceptance, but it gets there eventually. Creationism has been fighting rational inquiry for centuries. While they’re seeing a resurgence in their public numbers in the U.S., that’s not the case among scientists, where creationism is quite low.

So much for McDiarmid’s “revolution”… I’ve got a hunch what Inigo Montoya might say about that.

* The first of the links above about peer review points out correctly that sometimes crap makes it through the filters. This is true, and fortunately fairly uncommon. After review and publication, a wider swath of peers look closely at newly published ideas and scrutinize them. Gibberish is revealed as such; weak ideas are gutted, fraudulent papers are retracted, and strong ideas gain corroboration.

I feel Mr. McDiarmid makes an unfortunate conflation here: confusing publication with acceptance. They aren’t the same thing. Publication follows upon the presentation of  a coherent explanation for a set of observations; passing minimum muster to merit consideration. Just because the idea is worthy of being included in the conversation doesn’t mean that it is sufficiently compelling to convince the entire scientific establishment. That only comes when the idea has been tested: the initial paper reacted to, and reacted to again, and the reactions reacted to, and discussed and debated, and faulty conclusions showed for what they are.

To be clear: not only has Intelligent Design failed to convince the scientific majority, it’s not even worth being mentioned in the conversation. It’s a dud.

Intelligent design is peer reviewed

It’s been peer-reviewed and rejected. The list of peer-reviewed Intelligent Design papers is a laughable gallimaufry of philosophy papers and theistically-infused re-interpretation of small biochemical features, mixed with pouty critiques of Darwinian evolution. It’s like mice nibbling at the dust around the carcass of a whale: where’s the meat of it? I mean, this is a huge, super duper important idea, right? “God’s fingerprints exist!” For such a profound “truth” about the universe, the articles on offer are pretty thin gruel. There’s no peer-reviewed article that showcases unambiguously the Big Scientific Case for Intelligent Design. I’m talking about a paper in Science or Nature that shows that this profound and previously unnoticed aspect of life, of the utmost importance, is quantitatively demonstrated and worthy of study. Where is that article?

I’m sure the answer would invoke the vast materialist conspiracy against the real truth.

So, for the record: I’m open to the idea of an Intelligent Designer, but such an extraordinary claim would require some extraordinary, incontrovertible evidence. Here are a few ideas:

  • “Hey there; it’s me, the Invisible Space Teapot. I made this.” written in nucelotide base pairs of every nucleic acid ever examined.
  • Embossed letters reading (in Aramaic, Esperanto, and Elvish) “Intelligently Designed by Yours Truly” embossed on the side of mitochondria, or for that matter, elephants.
  • The heavens opening, and Goorialla appearing, and saying “Hey – stop arguing about this. In spite of nature having every appearance of having evolved, I mischievously made it look that way when I intelligently designed it, so you all didn’t know whether to trust your minds or your faith. Heh! Good one, eh?”
  • Fossil rabbit blueprints (showing the design process, natch) in the Precambrian.

It would have to be something bold, unambiguous, and not capable of being faked by True Believers with an ideological axe to grind. Simply looking at the world through ID-colored glasses and interpreting everything you see to be the Designer’s handiwork is insufficient. Those who are sympathetic to the impetus for Intelligent Design research should ask themselves: Why is this so difficult to show unambiguously? Why can’t we convince people who are the toughest to convince? Where’s the really compelling evidence we seek?

The Discovery Institute has faith in their cherished conclusion: that the physical world reveals in its obscure details the signature of the Creator. That conclusion is steadfast and absolute. As long as the Discovery Institute exists, they will advocate for greater acceptance of that idea. In contrast, I trust science as a process for sorting through potential explanations of the natural world, and rejecting those lacking evidence or logical coherence. Put in language Mr. McDiarmid might appreciate, science is a way of checking if we have scales on our eyes. True institutions of science do not advocate for any particular conclusion, but only tentatively for the most coherent explanations that science has been able to reveal thus far. Scientists are ever conscious of the fact that today’s conclusions can morph rapidly into yesterday’s moldy antecedents. And what does it take to make that transformation? Just add data! The right facts can overturn a paradigm, and any real scientist welcomes that new insight. But it’s a sad spectacle to watch the Discovery Institute thrashing against our best current understanding with the wet noodles of yesteryear’s fairy tales.

Pseudoscience like Intelligent Design puts the conclusion first, and that’s the easiest way you can tell Intelligent Design creationists apart from scientists.