The Big Picture

This article in the New York Times is a pretty useful overview of the political and financial support behind the Discovery Institute, the main anti-evolution think tank. It describes how the Institute has spent $3.6 million dollars to support fellowships that include scientific research in areas such as "laboratory or field research in biology, paleontology or biophysics."

So what has that investment yielded, scientifically speaking? I’m not talking about the number of appearances on cable TV news or on the op-ed page, but about scientific achievement. I’m talking about how many papers have appeared in peer-reviewed biology journals, their quality, and their usefulness to other scientists. Peer review isn’t perfect–some bad papers get through, and some good papers may get rejected–but every major idea in modern biology has met the challenge.

It’s pretty easy to get a sense of this by perusing two of the biggest publically available databases, PubMed (from the National Library of Medicine) and Science Direct (from the publishing giant Reed Elsevier). They don’t cover the entire scientific literature, but between them, you can search thousands of journals covering everything from geochronology to genetic engineering. Look for the topics that have won people Nobel Prizes–the structure of DNA, the genes that govern animal development, and the like–and you quickly come up with hundreds or thousands of papers.

A search for "Intelligent Design" on PubMed yields 22 results–none of which were published by anyone from the Discovery Insittute. There are a few articles about the political controversy about teaching it in public schools, and some papers about constructing databases of proteins in a smart way. But nothing that actually uses intelligent design to reveal something new about nature. ScienceDirect offers the same picture. (I’m not clever enough with html to link to my search result lists, but try them yourself if you wish.)

Here’s another search: "Discovery Institute" and "Seattle" (where the institute is located). One result comes up: a paper by Jonathan Wells proposing that animal cells have turbine-like structures inside them. It describes no experiments, only a hypothesis.

Perhaps the other prominent fellows of the Discovery Institute (Michael Behe, Stephen Meyer, and William Dembski) have published scientific papers that have a bearing on intelligent design, without identifying their affiliation. Aside from a couple letters to the editor, the databases yielded only one paper, in which Behe offers a simple model of gene duplication and expresses doubt that new genes could evolve by this process. Given that other scientists have published 2266 papers exploring gene duplication’s role in evolution, it’s safe to say that his is not a view held by most experts.

PubMed has a very nice feature that lets you get a rough gauge of how influential a paper has been. If you select "Cited in PMD" from the display option list, you get a list of papers in PudMed that have cited the paper you’re looking at. The 2001 paper revealing the rough draft of the human genome has already been cited 777 times in the past four years.

Try it on the Behe and Wells papers. Total citations? Zero.

Here’s one more way to put these results in perspective: compare the two papers I turned up to the work of a single evolutionary biologist. From the thousands I could choose from, I’ll pick Douglas Emlen, a young biologist at the University of Montana. He studies horns on beetles as an example of how embryonic development changes during evolution (a fascinating topic I blogged on a couple months back). I visited his publication web site and counted the papers that dealt directly with evolution (leaving out the book chapters and the papers on straight physiology and such). The total so far comes to 23. Over ten times the output I found from the entire Discovery Institute staff.

Someone’s not getting their money’s worth.

Update: Quallitative directs my attention to the Discovery Institute’s list of peer-review literature. The first item on the rather short list is a paper that has been retracted by the journal that published it, which stated that “contrary to typical editorial practices, the paper was published without review by an associate editor.” Their statement also added that “there is no credible scientific evidence supporting ID [Intelligent Design] as a testable hypothesis to explain the origin of organic diversity.” I don’t see much more that I could add.

Update, 8/23 11pm:Steven Smith reports on his own search on another scientific database, Biosys. An independent test of my hypothesis, in true scientific spirit–and with the same results.