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Really? Editors Claim They Were “Unaware” of Article’s Intelligent Design Connections

Photo credit: Mimi Thian, via Unsplash.

As John West reported, the co-Chief Editors of the Journal of Theoretical Biology capitulated to intelligent design (ID) critics and added a disclaimer to a groundbreaking peer-reviewed article on intelligent design. They say they were “unaware” that the authors had added the keyword “intelligent design” to the paper. Is this complaint credible? Let’s take a look.

The implication is that the editors — Denise Kirschner, Mark Chaplain, and Akira Sasaki — did not realize the article was about intelligent design. That is three people, working together, all failed to notice the obvious. Further, it’s implied that the authors inappropriately snuck intelligent design into the keywords when, it would seem from the disclaimer, this was unwarranted. But if the paper is about ID, avowedly so, wouldn’t it make sense to put ID in the keywords? After all, that’s how keywords work. More on that in a moment. But the precise details of how and when the keyword was added become trivial when you realize that the entire paper is framed around investigating intelligent design, and trying to determine if a scientific methodology for detecting design can be developed. It is completely non-credible for the journal’s editors to feign surprise that intelligent design is a core concept in the paper. Had any of them simply read the paper, it would have been evident that the paper has a major focus on ID. 

Some Direct Quotes

See our earlier commentary on the science of the paper here. The paper explicitly discusses intelligent design throughout. Here are some direct quotes (emphasis added):

  • Intelligent Design (ID) has gained a lot of interest and attention in recent years, mainly in USA, by creating public attention as well as triggering vivid discussions in the scientific and public world. ID aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other scientific and philosophical enterprises, and it is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique. ID has been criticized, both for its underlying logic and for its various formulations (Olofsson, 2008; Sarkar, 2011).”
  • “William Dembski originally proposed what he called an ‘‘explanatory filter” for distinguishing between events due to chance, lawful regularity or design (Dembski, 1998). Viewed on a sufficiently abstract level, its logics is based on well-established principles and techniques from the theory of statistical hypothesis testing. However, it is hard to apply to many interesting biological applications or contexts, because a huge number of potential but unknown scenarios may exist, which makes it difficult to phrase a null hypothesis for a statistical test (Wilkins and Elsberry, 2001; Olofsson, 2008).”
  • “We believe the model selection approach is very promising for future fine-tuning research. It can be used, for instance, when deciding whether the diversity of life is best explained by Darwinian macroevolution (M2) or a design-inspired model (M1). Examples of design-inspired models are the Dependency Graph of Winston Ewert (2018), and a forest of microevolutionary family trees, where the species within each family tree descend from a designed common ancestral population (Tan, 2015; 2016).”
  • “In this paper we have argued that a statistical analysis of finetuning is a useful and consistent approach to model some of the categories of design: ‘irreducible complexity’ (Michael Behe), and ‘‘specified complexity” (William Dembski).”
  • “However, we have enough evidence to demonstrate that fine-tuning and design deserve attention in the scientific community as a conceptual tool for investigating and understanding the natural world. The main agenda is to explore some fascinating possibilities for science and create room for new ideas and explorations. Biologists need richer conceptual resources than the physical sciences until now have been able to initiate, in terms of complex structures having non-physical information as input (Ratzsch, 2010). Yet researchers have more work to do in order to establish fine-tuning as a sustainable and fully testable scientific hypothesis, and ultimately a Design Science.”

Déjà Vu All Over Again

This reminds us of a past incident with the book Biological Information: New Perspectives (BINP). The editors at the science publisher Springer similarly claimed they were “unaware” of the ID connections in the book. That too was a false claim because Springer had agreed to publish the BINP book based upon a prospectus they had received from the authors. The prospectus explicitly stated and outlined the ID arguments of the book and its contributors. 

Perhaps pro-censorship groups like the National Center for Science Education feed science publishers the same talking point when publishers accidentally forget to blacklist ID-friendly viewpoints: “Don’t worry about the details or the facts. Just claim you were ‘unaware’ of the intelligent design connections, and make it look like those devious ID guys tried to sneak it past the reviewers.” But as we can see, the article’s interest in investigating ID is open, unhidden, and plain to all readers. The only scandal here is on the part of the editors. Either they don’t read what they publish, or they are pretending they were “unaware” of the ID connections in the article. 

Is Intelligent Design an Appropriate Keyword?

Now, back to the question of keywords. Elsevier, which publishes the Journal of Theoretical Biology, explains that choosing the right keywords for an article is important to make the article findable by search engines:

Who do you want to read your article? Put yourself in their shoes: if they were trying to find your article, what would they search for? … Make sure you include keywords naturally to signal that they are key topics covered in your research, increasing the likelihood of your article appearing for search queries related to each term.

Wiley, another publisher, gives similar advice:

Effective keywords for your article portray an accurate representation of what you publish. When someone searches for an article on the latest nutritional studies pertaining to apples, they don’t want to see an article about the relationship between tectonic activity and volcanoes. That’s an extreme example, but if enough keywords about nutrition and apples end up in an article about tectonics and volcanoes, search engines may think the article is about apples.

Elsevier and Wiley both emphasize choosing keywords “naturally to signal that they are key topics covered in your research” and to “portray an accurate representation of what you publish.” Would “intelligent design” as a keyword for this article fit those criteria? Given that the main focus of the article is to ask whether there are statistical methods by which “fine-tuning” and “intelligent design” can be detected, the answer is of course yes. It is absolutely appropriate that “fine-tuning” and “intelligent design” should be listed as keywords. The editors’ complaints are entirely phony.