Mooney Gets the Treatment

Welcome to the club, Chris Mooney…

Chris Mooney is the author of the excellent book, The Republican War on Science. He examines big hot-button scientific issues of the day such as global warming, stem cell research, and, of course, evolution. It’s a polemic, to be sure, but a well-researched one. Over the past couple weeks I’ve been meaning to write a post here to let readers know that it has just come out in paperback, with some great updates since the hardback. But it’s been hard enough for me to find time to blog, period, and it seemed like Mooney was enjoying a good reception without the little help I might offer.

I finally got roused to write about Chris this morning, because he’s now experiencing that weirdest of experiences, an attack from the Discovery Institute. In the course of his book, Mooney chronicles how the Discovery Institute has promoted intelligent design. This morning the Institute came out with a 31-page document (pdf) written by one of their “program officers,” Casey Luskin. Luskin claims to expose Mooney’s “factual and logical errors,” and demands that he retract or rewrite his chapter on Intelligent Design.


Is Mooney guilty of the charges? I don’t see the evidence here. It’s tricky, in fact, to pin down the actual complaints. “Factual and logical errors” sounds quite cut and dried, but if you actually look at the list of Luskin’s charges, you find him claiming Mooney “implied” this or “insinuated” that. On the other hand, if you look at what Mooney actually said, Luskin’s case for a rebuttal doesn’t hold up.

Luskin says, for example, that Mooney “overpraises” Darwin by calling evolution “the linchpin of modern biology” and such. Mooney is saying things that are in keeping with statements from scientific societies representing many thousands of scientists, such as the American Association of the Advancement of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences. But we’re supposed to believe that the AAAS issued their statements about the importance of evolution–as opposed to intelligent design–due to “political bias.” In other words, to believe that Mooney overpraised evolution, you have to believe that a few members of the AAAS hijacked the entire society, and that its entire membership remained silent. Or perhaps the entire society is too foolish to understand the importance of intelligent design.

As for the National Academy of Sciences–Luskin would like us to know that they’re just a bunch of atheists.

Luskin drops this assertion into the middle of his account of the controversy over school standards in Ohio. The Academy objected to “criticism” of evolution, which they argued was just a veiled maneuver to undermine the teaching of biology. Well, their objection doesn’t matter, apparently, because of the Academy’s supposed atheism, which makes them “potentially-biased authorities,” in Luskin’s words. Luskin sprinkles many references to the supposed atheism of evolution or evolutionists or opponents of ID throughout his piece. Yet he also says that Mooney is wrong to write about the religious dimension of intelligent design, because it’s irrelevant to the “science” of intelligent design. One set of rules for Mooney, another set for Luskin.

Luskin claims that Mooney not only overpraises evolution but mischaracterizes intelligent design. For one thing, Mooney says that “literature searches have failed to turn up scientific papers published in peer-reviewed journals that explicitly present research that supports the ID hypothesis.” Luskin is astonished. He points to a paper by Stephen Meyer of the Discovery Institute in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington that Mooney critiques later in the chapter, along with a few other papers.

“Perhaps the searches weren’t looking in the right places,” Luskin concludes, “or perhaps they were conducted by people who weren’t willing to accept the reality that ID has published peer-reviewed publications.”

It would have been very easy for Luskin to demonstrate that Mooney was wrong, as opposed to simply asserting that he was wrong. Luskin could have done a literature search. My search engine of choice is Pubmed from the National Library of Medicine, because it is huge (14 million records) and free. But if you search for the sort of papers Mooney describes, you come up dry. Luskin does not mention that the Meyer paper he offered as his prime example of Intelligent Design’s scientific publications was retracted by the Biological Society of Washington, which stated that the paper was published improperly. The other papers that Luskin do not refute Mooney’s statement. One paper by Jonathan Wells offers a hypothesis about some structures in the cell but no experimental data. Other people published data that refuted his claim. Another paper listed by Luskin, co-authored by Michael Behe, tries to raise doubts about whether gene duplication could produce new functions. Neither mentions intelligent design, let alone providing experimental results that they say supports intelligent design. Despite all this, Luskin wants us to believe that Mooney is wrong–so grievously wrong, in fact, that he needs to retract his entire chapter.

I could go on, but I hope that’s enough to give you a flavor of whole document. This sort of attack is, I should add, nothing new for the Discovery Institute. I first encountered this tactic five years ago, when I wrote the companion book to the PBS series Evolution. The Discovery Institute came out with a 154-page attack on the show two weeks before the show aired. As far as I know, no one at the show figured out how they got their hands on a copy in advance. For all the work that went into it, however, it didn’t have much bearing on the facts. For example, the Discovery Institute claimed that the television show misled viewers by claiming that all living things shared a genetic code. Brown University biologist Ken Miller responded by pointing out that their argument made as much sense as saying that Americans and Canadians speak different languages because we say “color” and they say “colour.”

Five years later, little seems to have changed.