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Intelligent Design, Peer Review and the BBC 


‘While intelligent design, or ID, arguments may be true, a proposition on which the court takes no position, ID is not science.’ So announced Judge Jones in the now famous 2004 Dover Trial in Pennsylvania USA about whether ID could be mentioned in school science. His judgement raises several questions, and not least why a judge is needed to clarify what is or is not science. However, a more profound issue is whether the judgement implies that science is not really interested in what may be true in the area of origins.

So why is Judge Jones and many in the scientific community so sure that ID is not science? One of least convincing reasons given is that ID does not figure in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The inaccuracy of this claim might not be immediately obvious, until you read a recent publication from the Discovery Institute listing some 75 papers in the scientific literature which contain various elaborations of the design hypothesis.

So, just as a matter of plain fact, ID is most certainly found in the peer-reviewed literature. I doubt though that this will be enough to silence the claim that there are no peer reviewed papers about ID. Myths, even ‘scientific’ ones, die hard.

Mind you, being in the peer-reviewed literature is not the be-all and end-all of scientific discourse. Darwin’s influential work, published in the book The Origin of Species in 1859, was not peer-reviewed in any modern sense, and I doubt if Galileo’s work in astronomy would have been reviewed favourably in its time.

An article in the Economist of October 19th 2013 entitled How science goes wrong was scathing about the peer-review process. Here is what it said:

The hallowed process of peer review is not all it is cracked up to be, either. When a prominent medical journal ran research past other experts in the field, it found that most of the reviewers failed to spot mistakes it had deliberately inserted into papers, even after being told they were being tested.

Of course peer-review is a sensible way to assess the work of scientists, but it is certainly not infallible. There is clearly a natural tendency for reviewers to stay within the accepted consensus and to be suspicious of propositions which depart from it. Given the philosophical and religious implications of ID, it’s perhaps not surprising that it gets a hard time from reviewers. Nonetheless 75 papers or so have made it through an often hostile process.

It is also worthy of note that science does not generally advance by ‘consensus’, but by the uncovering of hard, empirical data, sometimes by individual scientists who are brave enough to challenge the accepted view.

And where does the BBC come in? Well, in response to a number of correspondents who objected to the inaccurate treatment of ID in a programme broadcast on Radio 4’s Inside Science for Darwin Day on February 12th, their Audience Services department made the following inaccurate assertions:

Finally, one of the benchmarks of concepts that are recognised as scientifically valid is publication in the literature, via the process of peer review. As far as we are aware, there are no publications in peer reviewed scientific journals that support either creationism or ID. As such, both creationism and ID are scientifically and legally not concepts that refute evolution by natural selection. Therefore, we do not support the need to balance a scientifically verified concept, such as evolution by natural selection, with an ideological position.

So if the BBC cannot get this right and is unaware of the scientific literature about ID, what else does it get wrong? The answer is quite a lot, apparently, from the muddled content of the above. We ought to be able to expect better from our national broadcaster. We will certainly send them a copy of the Discovery Institute’s document. It should at least make them ‘aware’ of the actual situation.

I hope this article helps you to appreciate the scale of the irrational and uninformed opposition to intelligent design which simply asserts, within a wholly scientific framework, that:

‘certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection’.

Dr Alastair Noble
Director, Centre for Intelligent Design UK
April 2015

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