Peer Review -- Response to Eugenie Scott and the NCSE

By William A. Dembski

October 10, 2003



Eugenie Scott’s letter of September 30, 2003 to members of the Texas State Board of Education purports to show that intelligent design research is not published in the peer-reviewed literature. But in fact, Scott has purposely failed to disclose certain key items of information which demonstrate that intelligent design research is in fact now part of the mainstream peer-reviewed scientific literature.


I can substantiate the charge that Scott has purposely failed to disclose key information in this regard. Scott and I have met at several conferences and debates, and we correspond typically a few times a year by email. Here is a paragraph from an email she sent me on December 3, 2002 (in context, Scott is disparaging my work on intelligent design because, so she claims, it has not been cited in the appropriate peer-reviewed literature):


“It would perhaps be more interesting (and something for you to take rather more pride in) if it were the case that the scientific, engineering, and mathematical applications of evolutionary algorithms, fuzzy logic and evolution, etc., referenced TDI or your other publications and criticisms. In a quick survey of a few of the more scholarly works, I didn’t see any, but perhaps you or someone else might know of them.”


The abbreviation “TDI” here refers to my book The Design Inference (more about this book in a moment because Scott disparages it also in her letter of September 30, 2003). Now the fact is that this book has been cited in precisely the literature that Scott claims has ignored it. I pointed this out to her in an email dated December 6, 2002. Here is the key bibliographic reference, along with the annotation, that I sent her:


Chiu, D.K.Y. and Lui, T.H. Integrated use of multiple interdependent patterns for biomolecular sequence analysis. International Journal of Fuzzy Systems. Vol.4, No.3, Sept. 2002, pp.766-775.

The article begins:

“Detection of complex specified information is introduced to infer unknown underlying causes for observed patterns [10]. By complex information, it refers to information obtained from observed pattern or patterns that are highly improbable by random chance alone. We evaluate here the complex pattern corresponding to multiple observations of statistical interdependency such that they all deviate significantly from the prior or null hypothesis [8]. Such multiple interdependent patterns when consistently observed can be a powerful indication of common underlying causes. That is, detection of significant multiple interdependent patterns in a consistent way can lead to the discovery of possible new or hidden knowledge.”
Reference number [10] here is to The Design Inference.


Not only does this article cite my work favorably, but it makes my work in The Design Inference the basis for the entire article. When I sent Scott this information by email, she never got back to me. Interestingly, though, she has since that exchange dropped a line of criticism that she had previously adopted; namely, she had claimed that intelligent design is unscientific because intelligent design research is not cited in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. There’s no question that it is cited (and favorably at that) in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.


What about actual intelligent design research being published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature? Scott doesn’t want to allow that my book The Design Inference properly belongs to this literature. In her letter of September 30, 2003, she remarks that this book “may have undergone a degree of editorial review” but it “did not undergo peer-review in the sense in which scientific research articles are peer-reviewed.” She then adds that The Design Inference “does not present scientific research -- Dembski’s book was published as a philosophy book.”


Every one of these remarks is false. What’s more, their falsity is readily established. Editorial review refers to a book submitted to a publisher for which the editors, who are employees of the publisher and in the business of trying to acquire, produce, and market books that are profitable, decide whether or not to accept the book for publication. Editorial review may look to expert advice regarding the accuracy, merit, or originality of the book, but the decision to publish rests solely with the editors and publishers. Peer-review, on the other hand, refers to journal articles and academic monographs (these are articles that are too long to be published in a journal and which therefore appear in book form) that are submitted to referees who are experts in the topic being addressed and who must give a positive review of the article or monograph if it is to be published at all. The Design Inference went through peer-review and not merely editorial review.


To see this, it is enough to note that The Design Inference was published by Cambridge University Press as part of a Cambridge monograph series: Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory. Scott doesn’t point this out in her letter of September 30, 2003 because if she had, her claim that my book was editorially reviewed but not peer-reviewed would have instantly collapsed. Academic monograph series, like the Cambridge series that published my book, have an academic review board that is structured and functions identically to the review boards of academic journals. At the time of my book’s publication, the review board for Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory included members of the National Academy of Sciences as well as one Nobel laureate, John Harsanyi, who shared the prize in 1994 with John Nash, the protagonist in the film A Beautiful Mind. As it is, The Design Inference had to pass peer-review with three anonymous referees before Brian Skyrms, who heads the academic review board for this Cambridge series, would recommend it for publication to the Cambridge University Press editors in New York. Brian Skyrms is on the faculty of the University of California at Irvine as well as a member of the National Academic of Sciences. It is easy enough to confirm what I’m saying here by contacting him. Scott either got her facts wrong or never bothered to check them in the first place.


What about Scott’s claim that The Design Inference “does not present scientific research -- Dembski’s book was published as a philosophy book.” It is true that Cambridge University Press officially lists this book as a philosophy monograph. But why should how the book is listed by its publisher be relevant to deciding whether it does or does not contain genuine scientific content? The Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) for The Design Inference is QA279.D455. As any mathematician knows, QA refers to mathematics and the 270s refer to probability and statistics. Is Scott therefore willing to accept that The Design Inference does present scientific research after all because the Library of Congress treats it as a mathematical and statistical monograph rather than as a philosophical monograph?


How this book is listed is beside the point. I submit that the book makes a genuine contribution to the statistical literature, laying out in full technical detail a method of design detection applicable to biology. Scott can dispute this if she likes, but to do so she needs to engage the actual content of my book and not dismiss it simply because the publisher lists it one way or another. Also, it’s worth noting that up until I pointed out to her that The Design Inference is cited in the peer-reviewed mathematical and biological literature, her main line of argument against the scientific merit of my work was that it wasn’t being cited in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. As I showed above, this line of criticism is no longer tenable.


I’ve discussed at length Scott’s treatment of my own work because this is where I’m best qualified to speak to the issue of  peer review in relation to intelligent design. As for the other claims in her letter of September 30, 2003, let me briefly offer three remarks:


**Discovery Institute is only the tip of the iceberg for scientists who support intelligent design. Intelligent design research is being published in precisely the places Scott claims it is not being published. What’s more, intelligent design has a developing research program. For some details, see the ID FAQ that I handed out on September 10, 2003 at the textbook hearings in Austin. It is also available on my website:


**Scott’s charge that critics of Darwinian evolution, like me and my colleagues at Discovery Institute, “misquote” or “quote-mine” the work of scientists has degenerated into a slogan. As a slogan, its effect is to shut down discussion before it can get started. Scientists have no special privileges over anyone else. If they say things that are false, inaccurate, or stupid, they need to be called to account. Reasoned discourse in a free society demands that people, and that includes scientists, confront the record of their words. One can dispute what the words meant in context, but it is not enough merely to assert that the words were quoted out of context.


**Finally, in her letter of September 30, 2003, Scott objects to my use of a statement she made in an interview with Salon. I am supposed to have implied that “Scott believes that textbooks should not discuss arguments about how evolution occurs.” She protests that she “was not discussing doubts about how evolution happened but rather doubts about whether evolution happened.” (Emphasis hers.) But if she really believes that there are many views of how evolution occurred, why does she and her lobbying group the NCSE support only one view on how evolution occurred, namely, the Darwinian view? Why, for instance, isn’t she demanding that the biology textbooks describe the controversy between neo-Darwinists (like John Maynard Smith) and self-organizational theorists (like Stuart Kauffman)? Neither disputes whether evolution has happened. Yet the self-organizational theorists strongly dispute that the Darwinian view adequately explains how evolution occurred. All the textbooks ignore the self-organizational challenge to Darwinism. If Scott is such a champion of pluralism concerning how evolution happened, why isn’t she pressing for the inclusion of self-organizational theory in the biology textbooks? Why do all her lobbying efforts promote neo-Darwinism as the only view of how evolution occurred that’s appropriate for the textbooks? I submit it is because, as she said in her Salon interview, to do otherwise will only “confuse kids about the soundness of evolution as a science.” In other words, to ensure that kids are not confused about whether evolution occurred, textbooks need to tell them only one story about how evolution occurred, namely, the Darwinian story. This isn’t education. It’s indoctrination.