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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

With the New Mexico Board of Education meeting next month to review science standards, proponents of "Intelligent Design" have launched a new campaign to prevent valid science being taught in schools.

Intelligent Design (ID) is a movement that claims the complexity of the world implies the existence of an intelligent designer who has all the features of a "God". However, the IDers claim their movement is not a form of creationism simply because they refuse to call the "Designer" by the name "God".

Well-funded and vocal campaigns have, in the past, convinced various states to water down their science standards but most of those changes were later overturned.

The IDers' battle moves state-by-state and now it is New Mexico's turn. The Discovery Institute, the institutional home of ID, and the Intelligent Design Network, Inc. have conducted a poll and are pretending that the results show scientists support ID. It is worth looking closely at their claims.

Regardless of what the IDers believe, the fundamental scientific problems with their claims destroy any faith in their ability to reason scientifically.

It is important to note that I do not think that IDers shouldn't be able to hold their beliefs. I personally don't agree with them, it is true, but the bigger issue is that they are beliefs and are in no way science. And that is the reason why they should have no influence over the science curriculum. Let them have their ideas taught in religion classes by all means (although I suspect they would be even less prepared to take on creationists than scientists).

So let's have a look at the poll they had conducted recently by Zogby International, a private polling firm that I am sure does not wish to be associated with the interpretation of the poll that the IDers espouse.

Read the results of the poll (This opens a Word document)

Before commenting on the results, I'll take a look at the questions.

Question 1: Regarding teaching the theory of evolution, which of the following two statements comes closer to your own opinion? Statement A: Biology teachers should teach only Darwin's theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it. Statement B: Biology teachers should teach Darwin's theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.

Scientists should answer B to this question if they take the question literally, and regardless of what they think about ID. Any scientist knows that whenever you consider evidence, you consider all parts of the evidence, not only the parts that agree with your preconceptions. The key point is that statement B contains the phrase "scientific evidence". There is no compulsion for a scientist to consider any other type of evidence when analysing data. In fact, to do so will get in the way of making an informed scientific decision. Specifically, agreeing to Statement B does not say that you should consider ID claims along with evolution because ID claims are not scientific.

Question 2: Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement: "When Darwin's theory of evolution is taught in school, students should also be able to learn about the scientific evidence that points to an intelligent design of life." 

This question is an extremely poor question to ask because it is so ambiguous, primarily because of the word "intelligent" in the last sentence. In this context, "intelligent" has no clear meaning. For example, a scientist could interpret "an intelligent design of life" as something that appears clever. And there is no doubt that the laws of nature appear clever, the way they all fit together consistently, etc.

Notice that this question never explicitly mentions "Intelligent Design" as the particular set of beliefs held by IDers. If you have never heard of ID, the statement does not seem particularly unreasonable because there is enough ambiguity in it that you can feel that it fits with a scientific worldview. So agreeing with this statement doesn't mean that you agree with the principles of Intelligent Design.

We have established that a scientific worldview is consistent with the answer B and it makes no statement whatsoever about ID. The second question does not provide valid data because of its ambiguity. Therefore, we should be suspicious of any conclusions drawn from the answers.

Already you are probably asking yourself what possible use this survey could have for IDers seeing as it says nothing about ID! Well, we'll see their conclusions shortly.

Now to the methodology of the survey.

1) The survey was apparently sent to 16,000 employees of Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. There is no evidence to suggest that the survey was only sent to "laboratory scientists" at the labs, and it would be difficult to even define that group easily, especially seeing as the survey was done without the prior knowledge of the labs. As such, a significant proportion of those to whom the survey was sent were probably in administrative jobs, That confounds any claim that the results from the lab surveys represent the views of scientists.

2) Perhaps the greatest problem with the survey is the response rate. Of the 16,000 employees, a mere 248 replied. This amounts to a 1.5% response rate, far lower than  any other large scale survey I have heard of. Statisticians I have spoken with suggest that you need more than about a 40% response rate before you might begin to consider a survey valid. Even so, the low response rate by itself is not necessarily enough to destroy the validity of the survey. But there is no evidence to suggest that the 248 respondents were representative of the 16,000 employees. There are ways to check that the responsive sample is similar in characteristics to the total sample but none of that data was obtained and there are plenty of reasons to believe that the responders were not representative. Similarly, only 31 employees from universities completed the survey, out of the 500 asked to respond. At least the large uncertainty in the data obtained was mentioned but in the tabulated data, the sample size and what the presented percentages mean in terms of absolute numbers is not presented.

This flaw is enough on its own to completely destroy the validity of the survey.

But now on the interpretation of these data.

One of the main claims of the study is that the survey shows "laboratory scientists" advocate the teaching over intelligent design "by an overwhelming factor of 5 to 1". There is absolutely no evidence for this claim from the survey. First, the group identified is not comprised of laboratory scientists. Second, the actual uncertainty in figures is much greater than claimed because there is no evidence that the responding sample was representative.

So what can we say from the study? That the surveyors found 196 people who agreed to the statement: "When Darwin's theory of evolution is taught in school, students should also be able to learn about the scientific evidence that points to an intelligent design of life." Of 16,000 people asked about the question, this is not a convincing number, especially when we consider that in the past, groups conducting these surveys have been particularly good at mobilizing the few people who agree with them to participate in surveys such as this.

Even when we consider these 196 people who agreed to the statement, we have no evidence that any of them actually agrees that ID should be taught in schools as part of science classes.

I could go on further discussing this data but there seems to be little point seeing as it is so clear, on the basis of these arguments, that the data are meaningless.

However, listen for the IDers to start yelling these results loudly over the next month. Their lies and deception won't stop here.

If only they would learn some basic science (such as how to interpret statistics), then maybe scientists would be more inclined to listen to them, at least. But, as presented, there is no good reason for scientists to pay any attention to their message seeing as they have never presented a single shred of scientific evidence to support their case.


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