Thursday, May 06, 2010

BIO-Complexity: A New Journal

The Discovery Institute is promoting a new peer-reviewed journal, BIO-Complexity, which is funded by the Biologic Institute, an arm of the Center for Science and Culture. Here is the mission statement:
BIO-Complexity is a peer-reviewed scientific journal with a unique goal. It aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life. Because questions having to do with the role and origin of information in living systems are at the heart of the scientific controversy over ID, these topics—viewed from all angles and perspectives—are central to the journal's scope.
Jay Richards has written a story about the new journal on the Discovery Institute's main site in which, along the way, they commit another terminological inexactitude.One of the major complaints voiced by those espousing ID is that they cannot get heard. Richards claims that the peer review process is a Catch-22 because, while an article has to face review and revision, if it has a hint of "design" it is rejected. He writes:
But surely, you might ask, there’s an open-minded editor at some journal somewhere who would give ID a fair shake? I do know of one such editor, Richard Sternberg, who several years ago sent out for review an article by some guy defending a design perspective and then, when the article passed peer-review, Sternberg published it. If there are any remaining open-minded editors willing to send out similar articles for peer-review, the Sternberg affair reminds them what will happen if they do.
This account is wholly and completely false. Here, in fact, is what happened.
  • Stephen Meyer (some guy) wrote a paper on the Cambrian Explosion called The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories, which showed up in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington in 2004. The paper was reviewed quite negatively in many places, Panda's Thumb being one, the Paleontological Association being another.
  • Richard Sternberg handled the entire editorial process himself. He claims that he sent the paper out to several individuals to read but has never identified who these people were.
  • A statement issued by the Council of the Biological Society of Washington, the publishers of the journal states that the paper never would have made it through the review process had it been done so correctly. It reads:
    The Council, which includes officers, elected councilors, and past presidents, and the associate editors would have deemed the paper inappropriate for the pages of the Proceedings because the subject matter represents such a significant departure from the nearly purely systematic content for which this journal has been known throughout its 122-year history.

  • The paper was withdrawn subsequent to publication when it was pointed out that the quality of the science was unacceptable.
Following the Sternberg affair, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a statement on Intelligent Design. All the Sternberg affair should tell prospective article writers is what happens when the proper procedures for peer review aren't followed. The whole publication of the article has the appearance of having been done "under the table." It is not encouraging that a writer for the Discovery Institute cannot get the basic facts right regarding so prominent an incident.

Beyond this, however, there is a further, perhaps deeper problem inherent in this whole endeavor. Much of Richards' post (and indeed much of the writings of most ID supporters) laments the fact that intelligent design cannot get a "fair shake" in the academic community as a whole and that, with the advent of this new journal, things will be different.

Why, then, is the editorial board composed almost entirely of Discovery Institute fellows or people that are already known to be sympathetic to the intelligent design argument? The editorial board for the journal consists of thirty individuals. This list includes Michael Behe (Darwin's Black Box, The Edge of Evolution), Scott Minnich, William Dembski (No Free Lunch), Richard Sternberg, Robert Marks, Jonathan Wells (Icons of Evolution) and Douglas Axe to name a few.

This is how the review process is set up:
Manuscripts submitted as Research Articles or Critical Reviews that fall within the stated scope and adhere to the journal's standards of originality, clarity, format, and tone are assigned to a member of the Editorial Board for peer review. Two or more reviewers will be consulted for each reviewed manuscript. Authors are encouraged to suggest suitable reviewers, though the Editor may elect to use other reviewers.
Now here's the real catch-22 situation: in order to gain much needed credibility, the BIO-Complexity editorial board must employ reviewers that are well-known in the biological community and can competently vet (or not) a given paper. Without this assurance, the scientific community will have no way of knowing how any given ID-supportive paper was reviewed and no credibility will have been gained. This is exacerbated by the fact that the Discovery Institute does not have a good track record in published literature supporting intelligent design.

To give up the identity of the reviewers, on the other hand, compromises the "anonymous reviewer" aspect of the process. Compounding this might be the reluctance of many well-respected biologists to want to be known as having reviewed an ID-supportive paper.

This was all gone about the wrong way. One way that this could have worked is if an isolated researcher without ties to the Discovery Institute decided to start a new biocomplexity journal and recruited known experts in the field. Then, and only then, could papers be submitted in an impartial way and only then would ID stand on its own merits. The way BIO-Complexity is currently set up, with a heavily pro-ID editorial board, it already looks like the fix is in.

What would they do with a paper that is sent out to an anonymous reviewer who tears it up? The only paper in recent memory other than the Meyer 2004 paper that has attempted to support intelligent design in an academic setting is the Dembski/Marks paper from a few months back which was criticized (here and here) as having little bearing on biological systems and mathematically unsound.

The only other way that this would work is if competent scholars in biological complexity were to submit papers. Then the journal would probably get a wide variety of papers, some supportive of ID (maybe) and some not. Even if some of them were not supportive, though, the board would be foolish not to publish them. If it only accepted ID friendly papers which were then reviewed by the biological community as a whole and found wanting, it would be another nail in the coffin for the scientific argument for ID.

The Discovery Institute have set themselves up a huge task here and are finally putting their cards on the table. Lets see what kind of hand they have.

1 comment:

  1. It is not encouraging that a writer for the Discovery Institute cannot get the basic facts right regarding so prominent an incident.

    What, and contradict their most prominent supporter Ben Stein?

    So would they accept papers that critiqued ID?

    All they need to do is call it a philosophy of science journal, which is what it would be.