Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Project Steve

In 2001 The Discovery Institute, a fundamentalist conservative Christian think tank based in Seattle, Washington, released a document named A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism. This is a list of scientists who were prepared to state that they were 'sceptical about the ability of random mutations and natural selection to account for the complexity of life' and 'dispute that all known scientific evidence supports [Darwinian] evolution'. As of the August 2008 update, it consisted of 761 signatures. The Discovery Institute and other creationist organisations such as Answers In Genesis regularly refer to the document to support their view that intelligent design should be taught as a genuine science.

I think it is one of the more persuasive arguments of creationists, however it is fairly easy to see some fundamental flaws in the tactic of producing a list of supporters to uphold a knowledge claim. Firstly, a list of this size represents only around 0.023 % of the world's scientists (Biology and Ideology from Descartes to Dawkins,  Denis Alexander and Ronald L. Numbers (eds), Chicago University Press, 2001). Secondly, a closer perusal shows that many of the scientists have no affiliation to the biological sciences (although of course one has to be careful not to fall into the trap of authority worship). Thirdly, The Discovery Institute appears to have gathered their signatories under an extremely sweeping statement. Doubting that 'all known scientific evidence supports evolution' does not necessarily equate to a belief in creationism or intelligent design. The wording of the statement itself appears to me to be rather specious, since the modern understanding of evolution includes mechanisms other than random mutations and natural selection (including, for example, genetic drift).

In an effort to counter the impact of A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism, the National Center for Science Education produced its own list of supporters of Darwinism. In a demonstration of 'scientific humour', the list is limited to scientists with the name 'Steve' or variations thereof (it was named in honour of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould). Since Steves represent around only 1% of scientists the pool of signatories is therefore small. Despite this, the list is larger and contains more biologists and more eminent scientists than the original. The 300th signature was that of Stephen Hawking. At the time of writing, the Steve-o-Meter stands at 1271 signatories, and can be accessed here.

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