Project Steve

Ken AshfordGodstuffLeave a Comment

I’ve known about this for some time [UPDATE: it appears that I blogged about it, too], but a recent post at Pandagon reminded me again of this.

The Discovery Institute, the conservative think tank at the forefront of the Intelligent Design scientific political movement, likes to talk about all the "scientists" who support creationism/intelligent design.  They, along with other groups, publish on their website huge lists of "scientists" who doubt evolution.  One such example is here — it includes eminent scientists like Dr. Jack Cuozzo, a creationist orthodontist.

Hawking_steven1In response to this nonsense, the National Center for Science Education started its own list of scientists who support evolution, but in order to make the competition fair, the NCSE limited it to scientists named "Steve" (or Stephen, Stefanie, Stefan, etc.).   

Hence, Project Steve.  Even with that limitation, the number of Steve scientists in favor of evolution far exceeds the number of scientists that the wingnut claim doubt evolution.  As of today, there are 584 Steves on the list.

Here’s a somewhat editted excerpt from Project Steve’s FAQ page:

Project Steve: FAQs

Is this for real?

Yes. The signatories of the Project Steve statement are indeed 220 (and counting — 577 as of July 8, 2005) scientists, whose degrees and institutions are as represented, who have indicated their agreement with and endorsement of the statement, and who have consented for their names to be used.

Well, is this some kind of joke, then?

Yes and no. Creationists are fond of circulating statements denouncing evolution signed by as many scientists as they can muster, with the intention of conveying the impression that evolution is a theory in crisis. The point of Project Steve is to demonstrate, in a lighthearted manner, that, on the contrary, the status of evolution within the scientific community is secure. But the signatories realize that science is not conducted by voting.

Who circulates these statements denouncing evolution?

These statements are circulated by the three most important antievolution organizations in the United States, among others: the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, the Institute for Creation Research, and Answers in Genesis. For their statements or lists of scientists, see the web sites of the DI, the ICR, and AiG.

Who is sponsoring Project Steve?

The National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science that defends the teaching of evolution in the public schools.

Is it just Steves who signed NCSE’s statement?

Not only Steves, but also Stephens, Stevens, Stephanies, Stefans, and so forth. Etiennes and Estebans would have been welcome.

Are all of the Steves biologists? Are they all scientists? Are they all Ph.D.s?

About two thirds are biologists (when we last counted, at any rate). (There are, unsurprisingly, few biologists to be found on the creationist lists.) Most are scientists; there are a few borderline cases (economists, philosophers, psychiatrists, science educators, medical researchers, computer scientists, and so forth). Nearly all are Ph.D.s; there are a few M.D.s and Ed.D.s.

Did it take a long time to collect the signatures?

No. It took about a month to collect most of the original 220. Originally the plan was to stop at 100, but they kept on coming.

Why Steve?

In honor of the late Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), a supporter of NCSE and a valiant opponent of creationism.

Is NCSE going to circulate a similar statement for Janes, Johns, and so on?

No. It’s only funny once.

Is this the only statement of support for evolution education?

As far as we know, it is the only general statement signed by individual scientists. (There have been statements signed by individual scientists in reaction to local threats to evolution education.) For a collection of statements by scientific, as well as educational, civil liberties, and religious, organizations, see NCSE’s publication Voices for Evolution.

What can be inferred about the scientific community’s acceptance of evolution from the fact that 220 Steves signed the statement?

According to data from the U.S. Census, approximately 1.6% of males and approximately 0.4% of females — so approximately 1% of U.S. residents — have first names that would qualify them to sign the statement. So it is reasonable to infer that at least 22,000 scientists would agree with the statement. ("At least" because the statement was quietly circulated to a limited number of people.) As of July 8, 2005, there were 577 signatories, corresponding to 57,700 scientists.

I’m a scientist named Steve. Can I endorse the statement?

Certainly. The more the merrier. Send an e-mail to Glenn Branch, indicating your name, the institution from which and the discipline in which you received your degree, your present institution, company, or organization, and (optionally) any one achievement or publication that you would like to be mentioned.

The statement says that "evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences." Did you forget that it is vital to the geological sciences too?

Regrettably, we did. Unfortunately, by the time that Steve Semken pointed out our mistake, the statement was so widely circulated that it would have been difficult to rectify it. For the record, then, NCSE’s position is that evolution is vital to the geological sciences too; we confidently expect that the signatories would agree if asked, but we unfortunately failed to ask.

The statement says that "the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry." Aren’t you neglecting recent work (by, for example, Carl Woese) that suggests otherwise?

Woese argues (e.g., in his "On the evolution of cells," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 2002 Jun 25; 99 [13]: 8742-8747) that "horizontal" transfer of DNA, proteins, and other cellular components was more important in the evolution of the basic cellular components at the root of the evolutionary tree — about 3.5 billion years ago — than was "vertical" intergenerational transfer. His research suggests that it may be impossible for us ever to resolve the connection between the three domains of living organisms and the earliest life on earth. It also implies that the phrase "common ancestry" — which emphasizes vertical transfer — is somewhat misleading when applied near the root of the phylogenetic tree. Above the root, there is no doubt about common ancestry. Woese’s work ought not to be of any comfort to creationists.

The statement refers to "creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to ‘intelligent design’." But the proponents of "intelligent design" say that it isn’t creationism.

The issue of whether "intelligent design" is creationism is largely semantic. What matters is whether "intelligent design" is good science. It simply isn’t: as surveys of the peer-reviewed scientific literature repeatedly reveal, there is no published scientific work providing any evidence for any of the claims of "intelligent design."

There are a couple of signatories whose middle name is Steven or Stephen. Is that fair?

They’ve assured us that they habitually don’t use their first name and go by Steven or Stephen instead.