Bad Science Reporting

Why must we be saddled with reporters who don’t understand basic scientific terminology?

The school board has ordered that biology teachers at Dover Area High School make students “aware of gaps/problems” in the theory of evolution. Their ninth-grade curriculum now must include the theory of “intelligent design,” which posits that life is so complex and elaborate that some greater wisdom has to be behind it.

Theory of Intelligent Design (ID)? ID is not a theory. A theory should explain observed phenomena. Failure to do so means that whatever notion/concept one is working on is not a theory. ID is not a theory for precisely the reason noted by this reporter.

The intelligent-design theory makes no reference to the Bible, and its proponents do not say who or what the greater force is behind the design.

I find it simply stunning that a reporter can write such a misleading column. You cannot have a theory that simply points to the short comings in the current dominant theory. It is the first step in the process of displacing the current theory, but it sure isn’t a theory in-and-of-itself.

Patricia Nason at the Institute for Creation Research, the world leader in creation science, said her organization and other activist groups are encouraging people who share conservative religious beliefs to seek positions on local school boards.

Creation science? Is that like Creation math that has pi = 3? Just curious if we should be redefining our number system. Personally, I want to redefine 1 = 0.

FILED UNDER: Education, Science & Technology,
Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. Anjin-San says:

    Welcome to the Bush revolution…

  2. McGehee says:

    Steve, you do know, don’t you, that the story of some Southern state defining pi as equalling 3, was an urban legend and been debunked?

    You get a little more worked up on this kind of thing than I’m comfortable with, and it makes me shy away from giving your opinion on it the consideration it may very well deserve.

  3. melvin toast says:

    I happen to be a Caltech graduate who doesn’t believe in evolution. People that use evolution as proof that the bible can’t be accurate don’t understand what carbon dating and evolution amount to. Philosophically speaking, there’s no more proof that evolution is truer than the bible. It’s not an observed phenomenon.

    I’m not saying that scientifically or philosophically speaking, evolution can’t be true. There just isn’t any conclusive evidence as compared to the evidence that supports Schrodinger’s equation or the General Theory of Relativity.

    Most people put evolution on the same level of certainty as basic laws of physics which as Rumsfeld would say, is to misunderstand what you’re talking about.

  4. Go Melvin Go! – The idea of evolution (to be specific macroevolution – the creation of new species) is so flawed it takes more blind faith to believe in it than in other religion (and yes, I equate Darwinism with a religion and most of its defenders cannot rationally defend it).

    The big debate in 50 years will be ID vs ID (Who created us? A supernatural power (i.e., God) or aliens (Crick, one of the co-discoverers of DNA believed aliens created life on Earth – he did not believe in God, but he knew better than most how flawed the idea of evolution really is). While I disagree with Crick, his theory is far more viable than Darwin’s old theory.

    If you are actually interested in hearing both sides, some scientists who believe in the Biblical view of creation are mentioned here in a criticism of Crick.

  5. Kevin Drum says:

    Steve: Of course ID is a theory. It explains the observed phenomenon of life on Earth by saying that God or some other higher power created it.

    Now, it happens to be a bad theory, because, among other things, it’s not falsifiable, it doesn’t make any testable predictions, and it doesn’t rely on known laws of nature, but it’s still a theory.

    McGehee: the “pi = 3” thing isn’t quite an urban legend, but it’s not quite true either. Details here:

  6. Steve says:


    No, it literally offers no explanation. The ID types are quite cagey in that they never officially invoke God. They leave it totally open-ended and provide no explanation for how it happened. That is there is just as much validity as me saying it is invisible bunnies with lollipop whiskers. No theory leaves the gate completely open in terms of an explanation.


    I believe I made no mention of any southern state defining pi = 3. However, IIRC there is a passage in the bible that defines a circle as being 10 cubits in diameter and 30 cubits in circumfrence. From that you get pi = 3. Now, the reality is that the cubits were probably not exact and the 3 was an approximation, but it does underscore that the bible is not infallible.

    Melvin toast,

    Sorry evolution is a fact. Evolution is a change. Organisms change all the time at a genetic level. It is called random mutation. There are mutations taking place all the time.

    As for there being no proof, you have set the bar too high. Proof is never achieved in science, but instead you go with the explanation that has the highest probability of being true given the evidence. As a CalTech grad. you should be familiar with the scientific method. It should be applied to biology just as with any science.

    The fact that some things are yet to be explained is not evidence in favor of Creationism, but is merely a shortcoming of the current theory. Taking the position that evolution is not the best scientific explanation out there is simply wrong.

    The big debate in 50 years will be ID vs ID (Who created us? A supernatural power (i.e., God) or aliens (Crick, one of the co-discoverers of DNA believed aliens created life on Earth – he did not believe in God, but he knew better than most how flawed the idea of evolution really is). While I disagree with Crick, his theory is far more viable than Darwin’s old theory.

    Oh please. This is just a load of baloney. If aliens created us, then who created the aliens? That answer leads either to infinite regress or concluding that something beyond explanation did it–i.e., something supernatural. In that case I say it is invisible bunnies with lollipops for whiskers. You can’t prove it wrong, since the bunnies are invisible so therefore you have to at least accept the possiblity of my “theory” being true.

  7. Kathy K says:

    It was not invisible bunnies with lollipops for whiskers. It was invisible and intangible elves with (invisible but tangible) little microsurgery tools. They come around every once in a while and do some genetic engineering.

    Also, the world was created just a split second ago. You only remember it because you were created with memories.

    So there.

    Yes, I know I’m being silly. I’m just tired of the argument. I used to hang around UseNet’s Talking to proponents of ‘Intelligent Design’ about evolutionary facts is just about as useful as talking to the Bush=Hitler crowd about the definition of National Socialism.

  8. > Sorry evolution is a fact

    Steve, for a theory to be scientific – or a fact – it has to accurately predict the outcome of any more observations that are gathered. This means that if evolution were “fact”, it would accurately predict whatever is dug up next.

    It doesn’t. Every time a new bone is found the theory has to be changed (remember the dwarf that was dug up last month, or the new “link” in Europe that stands the “we are all from Africa” theory” on its head?)

    Evolution is a hypothesis that has to kept being modified as new data comes in. Some of us may believe in it, but let’s call it what it is.

    As for James’ jihad against teaching anything that has something like a “prime mover” or “original source”, then he must want to eliminate Aristotle and certain other philosophers from schools as well (no Kierkegaard for you! Just Nietzsche!)

  9. Steve says:


    No, you are a bit confused. Evolution is a fact, the Theory of Evolution is just a theory. Evolution is basically that organisms change. This is an observed fact. Bacteria evolve resistance to anti-biotics. Granted that isn’t speciation, but it is evolution. Various insects evolve resistance to insecticides. Again, not speciation, but it is evolution.

    Evolution is a fact. Life forms evolve in that their is a random mutation of their genes.

    Now, your observations are correct about the Theory of Evolution. Applying your comments to evolution itself is like saying the data for any theory is itself just a theory. That is just simply wrongheaded.

    As for the dwarf (hobbit?) that was recently found that does not change the theory for the mechanism–i.e., that random mutation and natural selection produce change. What it does change is the cladiograms.

  10. Anjin-San says:

    Seems to me that God’s canvas is far greater, far more complex, and far more beautiful then we are able to comprehend. My view of the universe (probably far more then one of them!) includes God and evolution.

    Reality is a gumbo that is always cooking, always changing, never standing still. The smallest shavings from God’s pencils are greater then the works of man. Open your minds & think big. Darwin did…

  11. A Scott Crawford says:

    It’s insincere to hold journalists to a higher standard of scientific clarity and definition than practiced by the majority of scientists themselves (especially physicists). It was not the popular press that invented such things as “thought experiments”, or adopted the use of logically deductive mathematical descriptions as a means to explain logically inductive experimental science. Nor should it surprise the scientific community when reporters sensationalize scientific conclusions that are already over-extended and/or vague or contradictory. The aphorism that it’s wise to tend ones own garden before pointing out the weeds in anothers is good advice for scientists to consider.

    As far as this relates to the old debate between creationism and evolution, the fact that the widespread belief in a literal reading of genesis persists suggests a patent failure by the scientific community in educating the general public. It should be obvious that demonstrating contempt for anothers level of intelligence is a poor way to convince them to better educate themselves. Likewise, by placing mathematical hypothesis on the same level of empirical experiment, a dubious practice at best, the scientific community has rushed headlong into metaphysics, an intellectual discipline it isn’t trained in. This in turn causes scientists to abandon their own area of authority and thus defend their positions poorly. (For example: mathematical singularities are mental concepts that lack existential import within physical systems. To claim that a thing which exists outside the material, physical universe is the origin of the physical universe is the basis of both biblical creationism AND the big bang theory. Kind of ironic, no?)

  12. I think this is a fruitless discussion since I doubt your mind is open on this subject, but I’ll try a few comments before I reach that conclusion.

    First, let me reiterate the alien theory is not mine. This was Crick’s theory, but you can’t just dismiss it as you did. For all his faults, Crick was not stupid. Crick believed in macroevolution, but was intellectually honest enough to realize the evidence on Earth did not support the theory of evolution. Being a vehement naturalist, Crick simply thought that conditions for evolution must have been more favorable somewhere else. At this hypothetical place, intelligent life evolved and these aliens created life in places such as Earth. Crick’s theory has the advantage of being less easily falsifiable than Darwin’s theory, but that is about it as far as I’m concerned.

    You must know a bit about science since you brought up the concept of needing to falsify something (Popper’s contribution to Science) in order for it to be Scientific. This view has fallen into disfavor over the last century (mostly as people realized scientists rarely change their minds on big issues, progress is made as the old farts die off and young minds make their reputations with different theories – read Kuhn sometime if you have not).

    So I offer you (and anyone else) Quixote’s Challenge. What evidence would falsify Darwin’s Theory of (Macro) Evolution? (or any other version that you may have faith in). Come up with a decent sized list – with as many items as possible. If you can’t come up with a realistic list, then you may as well admit Darwinism is unscientific by your own criteria.

    In return, I’ll come up with my own list of items that would falsify my concept of Intelligent Design (along with anyone else who wishes to help).

    And we are specifically debating macro-evolution – the creation of new species.


  13. McGehee says:

    My view of the universe (probably far more then one of them!) includes God and evolution.

    Once again I find myself in agreement with Anjin.

    How many more of these before the space-time continuum suffers irreparable harm? 😉

  14. Anjin-San says:


    Have you heard about the m-theorists who think the big bang was the result of a collision between universes in 11th dimensional space? We had better be careful!


  15. Steve says:

    A. Scott,

    I’m not a scientist, yet somehow I managed to clue into what a theory is. I don’t see why I should expect less from a journalist writing on this.


    I don’t have to have an open mind, if by that you mean I have to give all hypotheses equal weight. That has been what I’ve been trying to demonstrate with the silly references to the invisible bunnies with lollipop whiskers. It is a ridiculous hypothesis and we should give it a low probabability of being true. In fact, we could probably set it to zero since it offers no testable predictions.

    As for your views on Crick’s theory I find them less than persuasive. Smart people sometimes believe in weird and even kooky ideas. Hell I probably have a few many people would consider weird as well. Just because one is right on one topic does not mean they are automatically right on all others.

    Actually I didn’t bring up falsifibility, that was Kevin Drum. I take a rather different view of science than the Popperian. I think that we can determine probabilities for hypotheses given the evidence using Bayesian inference. Thus, I don’t have to worry about falsifibility, but how a piece of evidence affects the conditional probability of the hypothesis being true.

    Still, I would say that finding the skeleton of the modern day rabbit in pre-cambrian rock would probably be pretty devastating for the theory of evolution. For example rabbits have teeth and a skeletal structure unlike tha exhibit by most fossils found from that time period.

    Also, your attempt to draw a distinction between Macro and Micro evolution is a false distinction. The driver behind both Micro and Macro evolution is the same, random genetic mutation and natural selection. It is actually a somewhat dishonest debating tactic in that nature is not neat and tidy, and yet humans have a tendency to try and draw neat and tidy dividing lines. The distinction between species is a fuzzy one.

    As for evidence indicating ID is “false” that is not possible as it offers no explanation. It simply points to a short coming in the current theory and then says, something supernatural did it. By the way, all the gaps that have been pointed to, such as Behe’s flagellum have been discredited. Not a single example has withstood scrutiny. Similarly for Dembski’s rather pathetic mathematical flailings. One has to admit when one gets caught misapplying a particular theorem by one of the men who proved the theorem, yet Dembski is unable to do this. It was rather fun reading Wolpert’s brutal take down of Dembski’s misapplication of the No Free Lunch theorems.

    Mcgehee & Anjin-san,

    I agree with both of you. There is no reason why belief in evolution has to imply non-belief in a God.

  16. Greg D says:


    The first problem we’re facing here is a need to define terms. You say “Evolution is a fact.” Could you please define exactly what you mean by that? “Evolution” has been used to “describe” both the creation of humans from amphibians, and the appearance of drug resistant microbes. If you think those two things are equal, we have one problem. If you don’t, then you need to more carefully define define the words you’re using.

    As someone with a strong background in molecular biology, I am cheerfully willing to defend the following claim:

    There is no currently existing scientific way to explain the development of humans, or of species in general.

    The reson for this is because the differences in DNA and protein sequences between species do not happen as we expected they would. The current “theory” to explain them is that, for each protein / DNA sequence, all species mutate at the same rate per unit time. Which is to say that humans (with a 20 year generation time) and yeast (which can have a generation time of hours) still see the same mutation rate per 10,000 years, both in proteins, and in DNA, including in bits of DNA that aren’t believed to be significant.

    Or, to get even more ludicrous, humans and sharks are claimed to have had their proteins and DNA undergo the same amount of mutations over the last 100 million years (even though sharks supposedly haven’t changed in that time, and the ancestors of humans were amphibians).

    Before you whine about the mote in your brother’s eye, look to the plank in your own.

  17. Steve,

    I agree that all hypotheses should not be given equal weight. But I believe it wrong to make strong claims about an issue (as you did with ID) and then refuse to consider the other side. This is especially true you when you expect us to believe that your theory, which more and more scientists are abandoning, should be given much weight and that you are free to make fun of all theories with which you disagree. If everyone did that, we would never have discussions. For example, you say that Smart people sometimes believe in weird and even kooky ideas. That is how I feel about your non-scientific beliefs about evolution 😉

    I say non-scientific because you told Melvin Toast that he should be familiar with the scientific method. It should be applied to biology just as with any science. This is good advice for all of us. Whether you lean toward Popperian or Bayesian views of science, both have points in common. The hallmark of the scientific method is replication. If you cannot perform an experiment (and allow other scientists to replicate the experiment), you are not using the scientific method. The scientific method has been responsible for dramatic progress where it has been applied, but, by definition, it cannot be applied to events that cannot be readily tested and retested. This is why it is laughable to compare Darwin’s theory to the theory of gravity. The theory of gravity leads to many experiments that can test itself and these experiments can be replicated by other scientists. This also explains why some fields of science show rapid progress and others do not.

    I vehemently disagree with this claim of yours:

    Also, your attempt to draw a distinction between Macro and Micro evolution is a false distinction. The driver behind both Micro and Macro evolution is the same, random genetic mutation and natural selection. It is actually a somewhat dishonest debating tactic in that nature is not neat and tidy, and yet humans have a tendency to try and draw neat and tidy dividing lines. The distinction between species is a fuzzy one.

    I have refrained from personally attacking you – calling my logic dishonest is a sign of weakness on your part and rude as well. Furthermore, you are in error on all counts. Any biologist will tell you the definition of species is a group whose members may interbreed. It is one of the least fuzzy distinctions in biology… Micro-evolution is variation within a species. I do not know of a single scientist who finds micro-evolution controversial. The only real controversy is whether or not random mutation and natural selection simply reinforce traits that are already in the genome or if they create new information.

    On the other hand, macro-evolution, the creation of new species, is very controversial. Many scientists doubt that natural selection and mutations could ever result in a new species. Can you provide a single example of where scientists agree that this has occurred?