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Intelligent Design’s Yellow Star: Journal’s Disclaimer Refutes a Common Criticism of ID

Photo: Yellow star, Belgium, 1942, by DRG-fan, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

Critics of intelligent design (ID) often lecture ID proponents that they are free to submit their work to any scientific journal and it will receive a fair consideration, 100 percent free from prejudice. Of course ID researchers frequently do just that and have indeed published over a hundred peer-reviewed scientific papers supporting ID. But the point is to intimate that, since there is supposedly no prejudice in the scientific community, it follows that ID science must be of scant validity. If it were really worth its salt, then we would regularly see ID papers in top journals such as Science and Nature

Does this critique of ID hold up? No, not by a long shot. Here’s the latest illustration of how the system really works, and how it is almost guaranteed to shut down objective investigation of design.

Censors Came After Them

Just read the disclaimer that the editors of the Journal of Theoretical Biology (JTB) appended to the recent peer-reviewed paper they published. This important paper, as we have noted here already, argues for intelligent design in the context of biological fine-tuning. It seems that the censors got hold of the editors, who backed down and repented, claiming they were quite surprised to discover what they themselves had approved and published. Here’s the relevant language from the disclaimer:

Since the publication of the paper it has now become evident that the authors are connected to a creationist group (although their addresses are given on the paper as departments in bona fide universities). We were unaware of this fact while the paper was being reviewed.

Of course the paper isn’t about Biblical “creationism,” which is mentioned nowhere. It is about intelligent design, a very different thing, which is mentioned repeatedly. The editors conflate ID with creationism, a familiar move intended to discredit design arguments before they can get a hearing. Regardless, think about the troubling implications for academic freedom from this statement.

The authors of the JTB article have strong academic credentials. One is a professor of mathematics at Stockholm University (Sweden). The other is a professor of information science at the University of Tromsø (Norway). Even according to the disclaimer, the “bona fide” academic affiliations of the authors are not in question. What’s problematic to the JTB editors is their belief that “the authors are connected to a creationist group.”

So, if scientists with mainstream academic affiliations submit a paper to this prominent journal, but those scientists are “connected to a creationist group,” whatever that means, then that should strongly count against the paper they submit. Otherwise, why require that the fact, if it is a fact, be disclosed? Much as Jews in lands occupied by Nazi Germany were required to wear a yellow star identifying themselves, JTB’s editors apparently feel that scientists with “creationist” connections should be required to reveal this whenever they submit a paper. People who lived under the Soviet Union had similar experiences. Under Communism, members of disfavored groups were theoretically free to work and live as they wished. Yet to have “Jew,” for example, stamped on your passport was a guarantee of punishing discrimination. Such practices have roots going back to Medieval Europe.

JTB’s stance — that scientists with disfavored connections should be required to display what amounts to a yellow star — is unjust and preposterous. The disclaimer’s implication is that the quality of the science doesn’t matter. Aside from the fact that this is close-minded and intolerant, it represents the very definition of the genetic fallacy or the ad hominem fallacy. And it is an obvious science-stopper. Let’s say that someday, someone that JTB thinks is a “creationist” were to submit a paper advocating a major scientific breakthrough. Should that work be rejected simply because the scientist has the wrong type of friends? What if this very paper represents exactly such a case?

The Supreme Court and Freedom of Association

The Journal of Theoretical Biology is a private entity. So if they want to discriminate against “creationists,” they can legally do so. But if they were government-affiliated, the situation would be very different. When the University of Kentucky (UK) refused to hire physicist Martin Gaskell because they believed he was a “creationist” (in fact, Gaskell wasn’t a creationist!), the public university had to pay $125,000 to the scientist for their discriminatory actions. UK had no chance to win in court. Their actions were patently illegal. The U.S. Supreme Court has been very clear that it is illegal for the government to discriminate against a person due to his or her private affiliations. 

When the State of Alabama sought to compel the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to disclose its membership lists, the Supreme Court ruled strongly in favor of freedom of association: 

It is beyond debate that freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the “liberty” assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which embraces freedom of speech. … Of course, it is immaterial whether the beliefs sought to be advanced by association pertain to political, economic, religious or cultural matters, and state action which may have the effect of curtailing the freedom to associate is subject to the closest scrutiny.

NAACP v. Alabama ex rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 460–61 (1958)

Under the law, private membership in a “creationist group” should be no grounds for discrimination. But the laudable protections cited here only shield a person from actions of the U.S. government. They won’t protect European scientists from the actions of an intolerant journal published by a private company. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court’s ruling speaks to us: freedom of speech and freedom of association are foundational to a just and equitable society where science can prosper. JTB’s disclaimer offends important values including freedom of scientific inquiry and academic freedom. 

A Look Toward Europe

Since the authors of the JTB paper are both from Europe, and since the journal’s publisher (Elsevier) is also a European entity, let’s take a look at what three European science organizations — All European Academies (ALLEA), the European University Association (EUA), and Science Europe — have said about protecting academic freedom. According to a statement they issued in 2019, academic freedom is vital to the advancement of scientific knowledge:

[R]esearch can only contribute to a prosperous and sustainable future if it is conducted according to certain fundamental principles. Scholars need freedom of thought and inquiry to advance knowledge, as well as the freedom to communicate the results of their work and educate the next generation of critical thinkers. These principles converge in a central tenet — academic freedom — which must apply to the whole community engaged in research, learning and teaching.

The three European science groups go on to call upon “universities, funding agencies, academies and other research organisations to ensure that all researchers, teachers and students are guaranteed academic freedom, by fostering a culture in which free expression and the open exchange of opinion are valued and by shielding the research and teaching community from sanctions for exercising academic freedom.”

Even though these leading European groups say that academic freedom “must apply to the whole community engaged in research” and must be granted to “all researchers,” according to the JTB editors, authors who are “connected to a creationist group” don’t deserve academic freedom. In JTB’s view, scientists who are thought to belong to a disfavored group must display their badges and be turned away at the door. JTBs actions go directly against definitions of academic freedom adopted within the scientific community. 

The Moral of the Story

One moral of this story is that if you’re a scientist thinking of submitting an article to JTB, be careful about your connections. Of course, the JTB disclaimer doesn’t give you much guidance on that score. It never defines what a “creationist group” is. Presumably, actual creationist groups like Answers in Genesis or Institute for Creation Research would count. But again, we know that ID critics incessantly and indefatigably conflate ID with creationism. Despite the fact that Discovery Institute does not promote creationism, would JTB consider a scientist at Discovery Institute as being “connected to a creationist group”? Evidently so, and they would discriminate accordingly.

The authors of the paper aren’t affiliated with Discovery Institute. But it wouldn’t be surprising if they have links to other groups that doubt Darwin or support intelligent design. The editors of JTB advance an absurd expectation: authors of work favorable to ID should have no private links to other scientists who are favorable to ID.

The paper openly challenges neo-Darwinism and is sympathetic to ID. Likeminded people naturally join together, formally or informally. The authors did nothing wrong. Whether in light of U.S. or European standards, they simply used their freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry to advance scientific knowledge, and then used that freedom to communicate the results of their work and educate the next generation of critical thinkers. JTB didn’t want to hear any of it, and instead adopted intolerant policies grounded in logical fallacies. JTB has the legal right to engage in this distasteful behavior. But that doesn’t mean we have to stay silent about it. 

This is a fascinating episode, and one with important implications for the evolution debate. Critics of intelligent design need to drop the claim that ID gets a fair evaluation from science journals. It certainly does not. That ID scientists have come as far they have, overcoming a wall of discrimination, is a remarkable tribute to the strength of the design evidence.