More on Signature in the Cell
By Jeffrey Shallit
Posted on January 20, 2010
Yesterday, I showed how the treatment of information in Stephen Meyer's book, Signature in the Cell, contains many misunderstandings and unjustified claims.
I want to focus on what I call the "dishonesty factor" of the book:
claims that are misleading or just plain false. The philosopher Thomas
Nagel has stated that
"Meyer’s book seems to me to be written in good faith." Perhaps, after
reading these examples, he might reconsider his assessment.
pp. 1-2: Meyer gives a very misleading account of the events surrounding the dubious publication of his shoddy article in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington (footnotes omitted):
First, in August 2004, a technical journal housed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., called the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington
published the first peer-reviewed article explicitly advancing the
theory of intelligent design in a mainstream scientific periodical.
After the publication of the article, the Smithsonian's Museum of
Natural History erupted in internal controversy, as scientists angry
with the editor -- an evolutionary biologist with two earned Ph.D.'s --
questioned his editorial judgment and demanded his censure. Soon the
controversy spilled over into the scientific press as news stories
about the article and editor's decision appeared in Science, Nature, The Scientist, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
media exposure fueled further embarrassment at the Smithsonian,
resulting in a second wave of recriminations. The editor, Richard
Sternberg, lost his office and his access to scientific samples and was
later transferred to a hostile supervisor. After Sternberg's case was
investigated by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, a government
watchdog organization, and by the U.S. House Committee on Government
Reform, a congressional committee, other questionable actions came to
light. Both investigations bound that senior administrators at the
museum had interrogated Sternberg's colleagues about Sternberg's
religious and political beliefs and fomented a misinformation campaign
designed to damage his scientific reputation and encourage his
resignation. Sternberg did not resign his research appointment, but he
was eventually demoted.
This account is misleading in almost every respect. For the true story, you can consult Ed Brayton's fine article in The Skeptic. Here are some facts that Meyer saw fit to omit:
1. Sternberg arguably engaged in misconduct in publishing the article.
The council of the Biological Society of Washington, publishers of the
journal, issued a statement saying that "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" and "Contrary to typical
editorial practices, the paper was published without review by any
associate editor; Sternberg handled the entire review process." As
Brayton argues, "Sternberg’s decision to publish the paper without the
normal peer-review process is a flagrant breach of professional ethics
that brought disrepute to the Smithsonian."
2. Meyer's claims about retaliation against Sternberg are bogus. Before
the controversy and before the article was published, Sternberg (who
only held a courtesy appointment at the Smithsonian and was not
employed by them) and others were informed about a reorganization of
the department that would require a change of offices. Sternberg later
was moved again because he requested the move. It is a falsehood to claim he lost his office as a result of retaliation.
3. There was no campaign against Sternberg.
His misconduct in publishing the article was discussed - as it should
have been - but ultimately no action was taken. No one was
Let's go on to see other misrepresentations in Signature in the Cell:
5: Meyer overstates the impact of Dembski's work by calling it
"groundbreaking". Falsely claims Dembski "established a scientific
method for distinguishing the effects of intelligence from the effects
of undirected natural processes. His work established rigorous
indicators of intelligent design..."
This is in line with the usual tactic of creationists: credential inflation.
Dembski's work has received a minuscule number of citations in the
scientific literature, while truly important work typically receives
hundreds or thousands of citations. So in what sense can Dembski's work
fairly be considered "groundbreaking"?
inflation can be found on pages 178-9, where Meyer says of one of
Dembski's articles that it "broke important new ground in understanding
pattern recognition." Yet the pattern recognition literature has
somehow ignored this "important new ground".
p. 36: Victorian scientists viewed cells as "
"homogeneous and structureless globules of protoplasm," amorphous sacs
of chemical jelly, not intricate structures of manifesting the
appearance of design."
This claim has been repeated again
and again by creationists, but it is not true. Fergodsake, the nucleus
was discovered in 1833. Here are more detailed rebuttals by Afarensis and Wesley Elsberry.
p. 120: [About the movie Expelled]
"When the producers came to our offices to plan interviews, the told us
they wanted to find a way to represent what DNA does visually, so that
a genera audience could follow the scientific discussion they planned
to incorporate into the film. They commissioned a visually stunning
three-dimensional animation of DNA and the inner workings of the cell
and retained a team of molecular biologists to work closely with the
Somehow Meyer manages to leave out the inconvenient
fact that their "visually stunning" animation of the "inner workings of
the cell" was ripped off from XVIVO's Inner Life of the Cell.
could cite even more examples, but this is enough to give the general
idea. Whether it's about the technical details of information theory,
or the more prosaic details of controversies, Meyer's accounts simply
cannot be relied upon.