Wrong-headed on evolution

Among the articles delivered by OWL (omnipresent Wisconsin librarian) Dave Lull this weekend, and posted on Librarian’s Place, is a piece about "intelligent design". See here for the Librarian’s Place posting.

If I have understood it correctly, the self-described "tomeboy the ‘right’-minded liberrian" has analysed the collections of various US libraries and finds that books favourable to "intelligent design" are outnumbered by books not favourable to the concept. He also notes that fewer "pro" books are reviewed than "anti". He concludes that the American library service is failing in its mission to protect the diversity of ideas, while at the same time unconvincingly claiming not to be an apologist for intelligent design.

I completely disagree with tomeboy’s arguments.

First, what is factually correct is not decided by voting, but by the quality of the argument. You could fill a library with books stating that water flows uphill, but that would not mean that water does flow uphill.

Second (a corollary of the first point, which says it all really), the books listed as "not favourable" to intelligent design omit a number of authors (Ridley, Steve Jones, Conway Morris et al.) who have written excellent books on evolution and Darwinism. Richard Dawkins’ considerable output is represented by only one title. Because lots of books "unfavourable" to intelligent design do not figure in tomeboy’s analyses, his case that the library system is "biased" seems more to do with stock issues than anything else.

Finally, tomeboy makes the interesting point that "Continental Drift, Cloning, Osteopathy, String Theory, Cold Fusion, Cosmology, Electromagnetism, Meteors, Big Bang Theory, Black Holes" were all once considered pseudoscience and, tomeboy extrapolates, "presumably" not worth collecting in a "balanced fashion" as he calls it. (An aside: of tomeboy’s list, cold fusion remains pseudoscience until there is some credible evidence for it, and I’m unsure of the status of osteopathy but I believe there is not any objective evidence for it to date — I hastily add that this doesn’t mean I don’t think it can be useful.)

Intelligent design, or any other form of creationism, is not a credible theory because there is better, indeed overwhelming, evidence for evolution. So why libraries should provide "balanced" representation of them, as tomeboy concludes, beats me.

Of course, it can certainly be hard for theories to gain general acceptance. Like every other profession or walk of life, science is conservative. From the selection on tomeboy’s list, Clare Dudman has written an excellent scientific novel called Wegener’s Jigsaw about the considerable difficulties Wegener had in gaining general acceptance for his continental drift theory by the scientific establishment. Nobel prizewinners frequently had enormous difficulty in getting their ideas published or taken seriously. Examples include Marshall and Warren’s discovery that peptic ulcers are caused by a bacterium, and Lauterbur and Mansfield’s discovery of magnetic resonance imaging. Our favourite example at Nature is how the journal rejected Hans Krebs’ paper outlining the TCA (citric acid, or Krebs) cycle, by which sugars are metabolised, which won the Nobel in 1953. Nature did offer to reconsider the article when it had more space available, though ;-)

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5 thoughts on “Wrong-headed on evolution

  1. Good post, Maxine. Tomeboy is basing an argument on a faulty premise: Intelligent design and evolution are not equally valid theories; the premise that there should be an “equal” number of books representing the two subjects in the library is, thus, erroneous.

  2. Petrona – I was referred to respond to your thoughts here.
    First, thanks for reading my piece. In the interest of time I’ll just respond to a couple items.
    First, my issue here is with books selected for review, namely by ALA publications such as BookList, Choice and LJ. I would hope we would agree that books reviewed, favorable or otherwise, are much more likely to be purchased for collections than those not selected in these resources.
    If we assume ID to be pseudoscience, then any title discussing this is by definition a pseudoscience book, position re the topic notwithstanding. As I state clearly in my piece, I am not comparing Darwinism or evolution to ID. I am comparing only those titles that have ID listed as a LCSH or descriptor. This is critical to remember.
    Published since 2000, I identified 68 titles that meet this last criterion of which 21 were Not Favorable, 39 Favorable and 8 Balanced (presenting both sides of ID). Of the 21 titles Not Favorable, 15 were reviewed by an ALA publication while only 6 of 39 of those Favorable were reviewed. Now if we, and ALA’s editorial committees agree that ID is pseudoscience, then why bother reviewing books that only present one side of this issue? Better, why even engage the topic for review at all?
    To my surprise the feedback from this piece from librarians of all stripes has been overwhelmingly positive. I do find it interesting when my colleagues argue for preclusion of material, in this case based on “pseudoscience”. Do you think our patrons would agree with our conclusions?
    regards
    tomeboy

  3. Dear Maxine,
    Library collections are not put together just for people who already “know” that evolution or Darwinism is true. They are also put together for those of us who don’t know that that is so. By adding to a library collection books, such as Mr Dawkins’, that are anti-ID, the librarians have already decided that ID is a legitimate or appropriate topic to be covered by books in that library collection. And I take it, you wouldn’t object to their doing so. To add only, or predominantly, anti-ID books seems to me, not only unbalanced, but also unfair— unfair to those of us who’d like to make up our own minds about the topic. How are we to judge the criticism of ID books with only the critics’ books to go by: even science writers, perhaps even writers of the stature of Mr Dawkins, can be subject to the effects of bias, and thus may use selective quotation, the setting up of strawmen, and the distortion in other ways of the criticized writers’ positions, as they make their case. How are those of us who want to judge for ourselves to know whether this is happening in any particular book if we don’t also have access to the books that are being criticized? If Michael Behe’s argument as presented in his book, for example, is included in the library collection as a legitimate topic of criticism, why shouldn’t the book itself be included?
    Best,
    Dave

  4. Thanks, tomeboy and Dave, for your comments and clarifications.
    I understand what is being described better now.
    But, ID and other forms of creationism are discredited as science. Could they not be collected under a different category, eg “religion” or “fiction”? (Sorry, that second is me being ironic again, which doesn’t travel I realise). But “religion”, surely? Because ID et al. are belief systems, not science in any sense of the word.
    Even so, from tomeboy’s post and kind response above, there do seem to be books on ID filed in libraries — you aren’t saying there are none, I think? (15 “anti” against 6 “pro” were reviewed).
    My point is that we would not treat a book as science that tried to say you could make gold out of other metals — that isn’t science (though earlier generations thought it was). Put the ID books in the same section as alchemy and review as many as you like, that would be fine by me. Just don’t call it science.

  5. I agree with you, Maxine. Same goes for all discredited theories that once were considered “science”: phrenology, etc.

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