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When It Comes to Origins Science, Is PNAS Really “Ready When You Are”?


Recently, David Klinghoffer debated with National Review’s Kevin Williamson. Williamson had called the theory of intelligent design “daft-rube bait.” He thinks that ID cannot be science because the majority of evolutionary biologists and prominent scientific organizations reject it. 

Williamson, a political journalist and college English major, imagines that scientists are free to “slug it out” in journals and other academic settings, so that the truth reliably emerges. In other words, intelligent design would have been heralded already if it represented a “breakthrough.”

Really? Is he imagining correctly? 

Of course not. It’s not nearly that simple. 

Pushback and Persecution

Scientists face pushback when they present research that contradicts the naturalistic views of the evolutionary biology community. Many times, this leads to career repercussions. 

Did I say they face “pushback”? I meant outright persecution.

Williamson has great confidence in the scientific community, rather than in the scientific method itself. He advises: “Again, if you have a great scientific breakthrough, PNAS [Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences] is ready when you are.”

Is PNAS – representative of the majority scientific community — really willing to pursue the evidence wherever it leads? Or are they only ready for findings that line up with materialism? The latter, clearly. Here are a few cases in point.

Biochemist Michael Behe’s name came up in the exchange with Williamson. Behe is the author of Darwin’s Black Box and The Edge of Evolution, as well as over 40 peer-reviewed papers in biology journals. He is a tenured professor at Lehigh University – but his own biology department gives him the cold shoulder, with an official statement on their website that “that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.” That is not only flat out inaccurate — ID is based exclusively on science — but a clear warning to anyone on the campus, students or scientists, to steer clear of dangerous ideas like Behe’s.

Forbidden on Principle

Conclusions at variance with materialism are forbidden on principle. Behe brings this up in Lecture 14 of his recent 40-lecture video course — which you can get for free now by pre-ordering his new book, Darwin Devolves. Eugene Koonin, a prominent evolutionary biologist and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, thinks that the multiverse is the only way to explain such an improbable event as the origin of the first life. In talking about the difficulty of obtaining a eukaryotic cell, Koonin wrote in his book The Logic of Chance, “When one looks closer, however, the problem of evolving these systems still uncomfortably reminds one of ‘irreducible complexity.’” 

That’s the term Behe coined. It seems that to avoid the taint of design thinking, Koonin is willing to invent a whole multiverse from nothing! And we’re supposed to believe that PNAS would freely consider research with the same taint? Maybe in some alternative universe, Mr. Williamson, but not in this one.

Minnich and Sternberg

Or how about Scott Minnich, Associate Professor of Microbiology at the University of Idaho? Read his story over at Free Science. So a biologist decides to accept an invitation to testify about his research in court. All of a sudden, the president of his university issues an official statement labeling his research as unscientific, and stating that only materialism can be taught in science classes. Hmmm.

And one more example — this time, the biologist was as an editor and researcher, not a professor. Richard Sternberg holds two PhD degrees in molecular evolution and in systems science (theoretical biology), and served as editor of The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Stephen Meyer submitted an article on intelligent design to the journal. Here’s more from Free Science. If you don’t know the Sternberg story, it’s worth reading in full.

[Sternberg] sent it through the normal peer review process. This was confirmed later by the president of the BSW both in an email to Sternberg and in an email to an official at the [Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History].1 Meyer’s article, “Intelligent Design: The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories,” was published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington on August 4, 2004.2

At the time, Sternberg did not consider himself an intelligent design proponent. He told NPR, “Why publish it? Because evolutionary biologists are thinking about this. So I thought that by putting this on the table, there could be some reasoned discourse. That’s what I thought, and I was dead wrong.”

Amid uproar from the Smithsonian, the Council of the Biological Society of Washington decided to retract the article.

But that wasn’t all. Sternberg lost access to specimens, and his master key to the Museum. Rumors went around that he wasn’t even a scientist, despite his holding two PhDs in biology. His Research Associateship was not renewed; he was demoted to research collaborator. He was transferred to a hostile supervisor. His office was taken away. Sternberg also notes that the National Center for Biotechnology Information (part of the National Institutes of Health) was pressured to fire him.

Sternberg filed a complaint with the US Office of Special Counsel. Unfortunately, they were unable to complete the investigation due to jurisdictional issues. But they did tell him in a letter, “It is also clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing you out of the SI.”3

Facing an unbearable environment, Sternberg resigned.

“Ready When You Are”

Only someone who hasn’t informed himself either about the evidence for design in biology, or about the fierce pressures to conform in academia, could blithely write that “if you have a great scientific breakthrough, PNAS is ready when you are.”

I recently interviewed protein chemist Douglas Axe for a video project. Axe himself was pushed out of his research position after being outed as a design proponent. I asked him what advice he would give to young people interested in going into a STEM field. What would he want them to learn about science? He observed: 

Science is not about arrogance and saying this is the way it is, don’t ask any questions. It’s the opposite of that. It’s supposed to be a humble pursuit where we’re always open to new information and we’re always open to dialogue over explanations. 

That’s right. What’s unscientific is the refusal of the mainstream scientific community to consider fundamental challenges like ID. Real science assumes a willingness to hear and seriously weigh alternative evidence-based arguments. There should be no sacred cows. Do you hear that, PNAS? No, I didn’t think so.

Photo: Albert Einstein Memorial, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., by G0T0 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.