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Of Pandas and Poor Journalism


RealClearScience is a useful website that curates science articles from around the Internet. They publish some of their own material, too, and the quality can be uneven. Here’s a disappointing article by the site’s Chief Editor, Ross Pomeroy, “‘Of Pandas and People’: A Brief History of the Original Intelligent Design Textbook.”

Do you see what’s coming? I bet you do. Before going on, I’ll state what should be obvious: we oppose pushing intelligent design into public schools. As our Science Education Policy says:

Attempts to require teaching about intelligent design only politicize the theory and will hinder fair and open discussion of the merits of the theory among scholars and within the scientific community. Furthermore, most teachers at the present time do not know enough about intelligent design to teach about it accurately and objectively.

What we do recommend is teaching the scientific controversy over evolution:

Instead of recommending teaching about intelligent design in public K-12 schools, Discovery Institute seeks to increase the coverage of evolution in curricula. It believes that evolution should be fully and completely presented to students, and they should learn more about evolutionary theory, including its unresolved issues. In other words, evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can’t be questioned.

Now that’s out of the way, back to Pomeroy. He writes about the textbook Of Pandas and People, and he manages to pack a lot of misunderstanding into a short article, most of it cribbed from other sources. He writes, in part:

For the vast majority of the book’s 170 pages, the creationist authors spin facts, twist quotes, use oversimplified analogies, and leave out key details in order to support the idea of “intelligent design,” a euphemism for creationism. Their go-to tactic is doubt, and they go to great lengths to set up a scenario where intelligent design is the only alternative to evolution, effectively turning any evidence against evolution into evidence for intelligent design. This is a classic argument from ignorance. For example, as [Carrie] Poppy [writing in 2016 at the Skeptical Inquirer] pointed out, in numerous instances the authors draw attention to gaps in the scientific record for evolution, like missing evidence for the evolution of blood clotting, or scientists’ inability to synthesize life in the lab, or the lack of a fossil showing a fish with legs. In the years following the book’s publication in 1989, scientists filled all of these information gaps. That’s the problem for people making arguments from ignorance — over time, science tends to make us less ignorant.

Notice these issues:

First, Pomeroy offers the often-heard assertion that Of Pandas and People, like ID itself, amounts to a “god-of-the-gaps” argument. ID is not a “gaps”-based argument because it isn’t based on gaps in our knowledge. Listen to Stephen Meyer respond in a three-minute video here, explaining the logic behind intelligent design. “We have independent evidence that intelligent agency, that mind, that creative intelligence can generate information,” he notes.

Second, since when has science demonstrated the evolution of blood clotting? We know scientists can’t synthesize life in the lab. And for fish as well as other groups in the fossil record, there are unexpected periods of stasis and sudden bursts of new form — a lack of transitions. The “fish with legs” he mentions, presumably Tiktaalik, didn’t have legs at all as its fins are completely finlike.

The larger agenda here is to promote the erroneous ideas that intelligent design a) is a form of creationism that b) was designed to infiltrate public schools. Wrong on both counts. We’ve explained many times why ID is not creationism. To start with, ID lacks key features of creationism like appealing to a supernatural creator or appealing to the Bible. ID considers scientific evidence only, taking for granted a standard view of the age of the Earth, and leaves philosophers and theologians to do their own work. The authors of the Pandas textbook went out of their way to make clear that they were not appealing to supernatural or religious doctrines.

As a final punch, Pomeroy proclaims that ID’s nefarious plot has failed:

While creationism and intelligent design have been openly thwarted in public schools, their proponents are now advancing more innovative ways to challenge the teaching of evolution. In Florida, residents are now permitted to challenge what educators teach students and suggest alternatives. In South Dakota, the senate passed a measure effectively encouraging teachers to question established scientific theories. Luckily, that bill later failed.

Wait, why hasn’t he quoted Glenn Branch of the NCSE yet? Articles that wrongly equate ID with creationism and claim ID proponents seek to push ID into public schools always quote Glenn Branch. Ah, here we go:

“They’re no longer trying to ban teaching evolution. They’re no longer trying to balance teaching evolution. They’re now trying to belittle evolution,” Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, told The Hill.

Pomeroy would benefit from reading our Science Education Policy, and the actual text of legislation designed to encourage scientific inquiry on evolution in the classroom — which, by the way, has passed in several states, the latest being Alabama’s House Joint Resolution. See, “State Action on Science Education: 2017 in a Nutshell.” Discovery, wonder, learning, exploration: That’s what we want young people to experience in science class. They do so by considering a range of mainstream scientific evidence, rather than merely being expected to regurgitate stale Darwinism.

Ross Pomeroy dismisses ID as “incredibly unintelligent,” but doesn’t seem to know much about the idea, or what its most prominent advocates say. Pandas was published almost thirty years ago, and the case for ID has advanced dramatically since then, with an abundance of research, publication, and recognition. You wouldn’t know it from his article.

Photo credit: Rob (Original webpage: Website publisher: Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.