Sciencegeek Fundamentals #3: In Which We Discuss Expert Peer Review with a Bit About a Panda Named Steve.

by David Ng

Section No. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

By DAVID NG

On a cold and miserable evening sometime during the fall of 2006, I found myself sneaking into a 4 star hotel and gate crashing an international science philosophy conference. Yes… I am that wild.

O.K. admittedly, this might not sound like the most thrilling of endeavours, and certainly not something that would beckon a Hollywood screen writer, but it was nevertheless quite exciting to me. Not the least of which was because this act of rebellion led to meeting a minor celebrity. This is someone, who if you took the time to google, you would discover in various photo-ops posing with folks as varied as Steven Pinker, President Jimmy Carter, and even Martha Stewart. As well, the word “posing” doesn’t actually do these photos justice: rather, these well known individuals are literally holding him up.

Specifically, the celebrity I’m referring to goes by the name of Prof. Steve Steve, and the reason why he is always held is because he is, in actual fact, a small stuffed toy panda. True, he not necessarily a well known celebrity, but, he is definitely an inspiration in certain scientific communities for reasons related to an interesting decade long battle of words.

Specifically, these words:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

The above is a statement crafted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle based think tank that primarily acts as a front to push the concept of “Intelligent Design” into public school science curricula. This is essentially the idea that elements of life were consciously “designed and/or created” by something with intelligence (for instance, a God or a tinkering alien, etc).  It is more or less a supposed counterpoint to the science of evolution.

Since the statement’s release in 2001, the institute has also maintained a list of signatories, who are collectively referred to as A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism[1]. In other words, this is a list of folks with advanced degrees who insist that evolution is a scientifically weak concept. As of December 2011, 842 signatures had been collected, and the Discovery Institute has often claimed that this exercise is evidence that evolution is, indeed, highly debatable as science; and that other views, specifically views that ultimately include intelligent design (and ergo creationism) should be entertained and validated within science education.

This, of course, is rather silly – if not altogether disturbing to those who are scientifically inclined. And so in response, the National Centre for Science Education (NCSE) decided to launch its own statement to counter this awkward pseudoscience babble. Released in 2003, this one read:

“Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.”

And like the other statement, signatures were courted, where as of April 25th, 2012, the total number had reached 1208 individuals [2]. Apart from the empirically obvious fact that the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism has fewer signatures, it is also worth pointing out two other significant differences between the two opposing lists.

First, many have questioned the credibility of the Discovery Institute signatures. For instance, some argue that over the years, the signatures have often been inconsistently attributed (many titles are vague, university affiliations may be absent, current involvement in scientific activity suspect), and often signatories were not necessarily aware of the agenda behind the vague statement [3]. In addition, one also notices that only a small proportion of them actually have relevant biology backgrounds. In fact, in an analysis done in 2008, this was calculated to be just shy of 18%. In contrast, the same analysis determined that the robustly labeled NCSE list scored a much higher 27% [4].

Still, it is the second difference that is most noteworthy (in fact, it’s also brilliant).  This is where every signatory in the NCSE list is named Steve… Or Stephen, or Stephanie, or Stefan, or some other first name that takes it root from the name “Steven.”  Yes, even Stephen Hawking is on the list.  Put another way, the list would obviously be much much larger without this restriction [5].

This is why the NCSE list is also known as Project Steve (an affectionate nod to noted evolutionary biologist and author, Steven Jay Gould), and this was also why it was very exciting to meet with Prof. Steve Steve. You see – he is the project’s official mascot, and he is a great reminder of why it is important to invalidate those who would be inclined to create controversy around the science of evolution, be it for political or religion reasons.

He is also a lovely reminder of the importance of another aspect of the scientific method. Specifically, this concerns the part where everyone gets to dump on you, or perhaps more accurately, the part where everyone – who’s an expert – gets to dump on you. It refers to the idea of how “proof” is accessed and validated. In science terms, we call this part of the method, “expert peer review.

This is important because it dictates that scientific knowledge gets to be critiqued in a very particular manner. It gets examined in such a way, where one is left with a scientific opinion that:

(1) is based on the examination of tangible evidence, which is not only made publicly available for all to see, but is also described in enough excruciating detail so that anyone has the option to try to reproduce it (hence the existence of peer reviewed journals);

(2) is formulated by those who actually know what the hell they are talking about;

(3) is backed by the most numbers of people who actually know what the hell they are talking about; and

(4) did I mention the bit about people actually knowing what the hell they are talking about?

In other words, this idea of expert peer review is really really a good way of critiquing evidence and thereby evaluating the claims and the hypotheses they contend to support.  Moreover, it is especially important because it provides a mechanism for general society to check things out – since not everyone in society has the necessary background to evaluate scientific claims and evidence. For instance, a non-geneticist may be hard pressed to fully assess DNA sequencing data; a non-computer scientist may be hard pressed to appraise the relevance of a climate model – but that’s o.k. since this is what expert peer review is set out to do.  It sets out to gather the required community of scientists to check things out for you.

Such a review process is all the more pertinent because the reality is that it’s not that difficult for anyone to be convincing and still disingenuously utter the phrase, “and we have proof!”  A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism is a good example of this.  Which is why the rational protect themselves from such scams by relying on these communities of experts, who in turn are vested in the scientific method, and who strive to objectively and publicly analyze such sentiments for validity.

Which is to say, that clearly, the list of Steves win hands down.


Me (and Janet, John, John, and Ben) with Prof. Steve Steve at an international science philosophy conference.

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NOTES:

[1] A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. (Assessed January 7, 2012)

[2] Project Steve Website. (Assessed January 7, 2012)

[3] Doubting Darwinisms Through Creative License. (Assessed January 7, 2012)

[4] Project Steve: 889 Steves Fight Back Against Anti-Evolution Propoganda. Science Creative Quarterly. (Assessed January 7, 2012)

[5] For instance, on quick examination of the December 2011 edition, there are 10 individuals on the Dissent list who names would fit under the Project Steve criteria (all Stevens or Stephens). Given that this represents 1.19% of all the names on that list, we could then, by analogy, project that the NCSE could have easily produced a list of close to 100,000 names, had they not included the name restriction.

(3rd draft)

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