Posted by Matt Brauer on March 24, 2004 03:35 PM

The battle-cry of the IDists, "teach the controversy!" strongly presupposes that there is a controversy worthy of teaching. It is true that there is a controversy in evolutionary biology, in the political sense. But this is not what legal scholars DeWolf (et al.) mean when they use the term. They would like to convince the majority of citizens (or the minority that sit on school boards) that this is an issue of fairness. According to the truism there are two sides to every coin, why not "teach the controversy" and let the students make reasoned opinions for themselves? Why not use "the controversy" to teach about the process of science?

The best reason not to teach the "origins controversy" is that it simply is nowhere to be found. Genuine scientific controversies -- the important and useful ones -- take up a huge volume of space in the scientific literature. Even the controversies sparked by wrong ideas can be tracked as they generate discussion among the members of the scientific community. If no-one is talking about it, it's not controversial.

And no-one in the scientific literature is talking about "irrecducible complexity" or "complex specified information". A recent search on "irreducible complexity" in the Science Citation Index yielded seven instances of papers using this term (two of these were direct responses from Behe to criticism of his work.) For comparison, the term "face on mars" yielded three papers discussing the proposition that an advanced Martian civilization had built edifices with human features.

But it gets worse.

A comprehensive examination of biology databases in which both ID terms and authors were used in queries yielded the following:

Search term hits directly
hits directly

"Intelligent Design" 20 9 324 3
"Complex Specified Information" 0 0 111 1
"Specified Complexity" 1 0 152 1
"Irreducible Complexity" 5 5 10 3

Any term 23 11 162 6

This is to say that in all of PubMed, only six papers appear in which one of the four terms listed is used as a key phrase.

In comparison, REAL controversies have a substantially larger presence in the literature.

Search term hits directly
hits directly

"Group Selection" 530 261 148 58
"Endosymbiosis" 574 249 182 120
"Punctuated Equilibrium" 195 190 38 31

ID may be claimed as a "new science" (though it's neither), so it may be argued that its anemic presence in the literature indicates the early stages of a controversy. (In which case it's too early to be mandating its teaching in science classes. But whatever.)

How do ID citations look over time, as compared to genuine controversies? Sometimes the source of an idea can be traced to a particular publication. Most often the publication will be a scientific paper, but it can just as well be a scientific or even a popular book. If the idea generates interest, scientists will respond to it in the literature, and cite the seminal publication in their own work. The "citation impact"? or the number of publications that cite a particular work, thus gives a reasonable approximation to the importance of the work in the literature.

To evaluate the impact of seminal ID works in the scientific literature, the ISI Science Citation Index was queried. This database covers over 5600 scientific and technical journals with coverage back to 1965. Six ID-specific publications were marked, and the database was queried to return all publications that cited them.

"Seminal" ID publications were:
Behe, 1996, Darwin's Black Box
Denton, 1985, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis
Dembski, 1998, The Design Inference
Dembski, 2002, No Free Lunch

For comparison, the publications most closely associated with the start of the three genuine controversies above were included. These were:
Margulis, 1970, Origin of Eukaryotic Cells (Endosymbiosis)
Eldredge and Gould, 1972, Punctuated Equilibria: An alternative to phyletic gradualism (Punctuated Equilibrium)
Wynne-Edwards, 1962, Animal Dispersion in Relation to Social Behavior (Group Selection)

Two additional publications were examined for their citation impact. The first of these was Dean Kenyon's 1969 book Biochemical Predestination. The second was Duesberg's Inventing the AIDS Virus, which first claimed that HIV could not be the cause of AIDS, and which led to a controversy that has, like the ID "origins controversy" played out more in the field of public opinion than in the biomedical literature.

Publications were chosen for inclusion before any citation impact data were collected, and all were selected solely on the basis of their roles in the various controversies. For all publications citing a given work the number of citations was tabulated by the number of years elapsed since the publication of the cited publication. All searches were performed on 14 February, 2004.

The results, presented graphically, speak for themselves:


It's clear that the "seminal" ID works have all peaked in their citation impact. They're not just not ready for prime-time, they're past their sell-by date.

What this means is that if there is to be a scientific "origins controversy," it will not be able to depend on these texts already written. That is to say, the founding text of a scientific "origins controversy" has not yet been written.

Which makes "teaching the controversy" a difficult proposition.