Humanist Perspectives: issue 160:

The following three appendices supplement Patrick Walden’s article entitled “the SSHRC & Intelligent Design: Why should we care about the adjudication committee’s statement regarding intelligent design?” which appeared in Humanist Perspectives issue 160, The War on Science & Reason (download the pdf).

Appendix I
by Patrick Walden

Notes on remarks to the media:
The position of the SSHRC with respect to intelligent design
(Does the SSHRC really endorse Intelligent Design?)

The SSHRC’s official position in regard to the committee’s remarks on Intelligent Design has been silence. Chad Gaffield, President of the SSHRC, has stated the “SSHRC remains silent on intelligent design theory-simply because it is not our agency’s mandate to take a position”. Janet Halliwell, Executive Vice-President and Chief Operating Officer, echoes this policy, “We have taken vigorous steps to set the record straight with regard to the Dr. Alters proposal, without entering into the debate over intelligent design. That is a debate in which the Council has no mandate to participate”. Thus in its official position statement of the intelligent design affair, posted on the SSHRC website, the committee’s 3 sentences concerning intelligent design are neither mentioned nor referred to as if they did not exist. However from this silence and from statements to the media a picture of how the SSHRC and its committee view intelligent design can be built up.

In view that intelligent design (ID) is pseudoscience, religious in nature, and has no observation data or peer reviewed journal articles to back up its claim, the SSHRC should have immediately issued a statement distancing itself from the committee’s statements as soon as the matter entered the news media. This action should have been all the more obligatory considering that the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District decision, the most publicized federal case concerning science education in the last quarter-century, was still quite fresh in the public memory. However the SSHRC chose not to do so. Instead, it declared that the committee’s statements were “misinterpreted” or “taken out of context”. However, in the light of the full text of the committee’s remarks, except for the first sentence6, the meaning is clear enough. The second sentence whether in context or out states clearly that intelligent design is considered to be a scientific theory and furthermore could prove to be right. This interpretation has never been refuted by the SSHRC and it is hard to see how to interpret the sentence otherwise. Subsequently, the SSHRC has retreated somewhat and now states that the committee’s statements were “poorly formulated” or “inaccurate” without adding further comment or releasing a corrected text. It is assumed that this policy of intentional ambiguity was taken in order to give the impression that the committee did not endorse ID without actually having to make a statement to that effect. For whatever reason, the SSHRC is reluctant to state that ID is not science.

In further communications with the media, Janet Halliwell and Larry Felt, a committee member, stated with variants on other occasions, “there are limits to what evolutionary biology can explain about the natural world, and that scholarly institutions needed to encourage open-mindedness among researchers toward competing or complementary theories”. William A Dembski, one of intelligent design's leading proponents, issued a similar statement, “There are natural systems that cannot be adequately explained in terms of undirected natural forces and that exhibit features which in any other circumstance we would attribute to intelligence.” In this case ID is named as the competing or complementary theory. Statements like these are used to advance the “Teach the Controversy” (TTC) campaign. This is a ploy, used by the Discovery Institute and other ID advocates, portraying evolution as a theory in crisis that in the interest of fairness and equal time requires ID to be brought to the attention of students. However the ploy is fraudulent. Amongst the scientific community, there are no limits to what evolutionary biology can explain about the natural world, there is no controversy, and there are no competing or complementary theories. The fact that the SSHRC has issued such statements to the media indicates that “Teach the Controversy” scheme has pervaded the SSHRC consciousness without the proper critical assessment.

Thus while the SSHRC has not directly advocated Intelligent Design, it has nevertheless implied doubts about evolution, despite official statements to the contrary, and has wittingly or unwittingly gone along with “Teach the Controversy”, by its seemingly impartial stance within the so-called debate. For example with reference to evolution Halliwell has maintained, “The research council supports critical inquiry that challenges scientific doctrine. We don't make any blanket assumptions.” This is to be compared with “evolution should be taught as a scientific theory that is open to critical scrutiny, not as a sacred dogma that can't be questioned”. The latter statement was lifted right off the Discovery Institute’s website. These and similar variants of “Teach the Controversy” portray science as a monolithic entity jealously guarding its sacred theories and trying to cut off any discussion which contradict them. However what the originators of such statements fail to realise is that the use of the words “doctrine” or “dogma” while applicable to religion and politics are foreign in the scientific world. Scientists are basically iconoclasts and if any scientific theory fails to pass scrutiny they will be the first ones to break it down. The SSHRC fails to understand the basic mechanism by which science works.

If there is any doubt about the SSHRC backing TTC, whether intentionally or not, should be removed by the Halliwell/Felt assertion “intelligent design cannot be easily dismissed as mere ‘religious dogma’ or ‘theocratic garbage’ being foisted upon the world by conservative Christians in the U.S.”, and also the anonymous committee member remark, “ID, stripped of any religious connotations, is an honestly debated issue among scientists”. Here clearly the SSHRC and committee state bluntly that ID is a scientific theory that is debated amongst scientists. This is pure hokum. The matter was hotly contested in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial and “Teach the Controversy” decidedly came up short. Judge John Jones III adroitly summed up the situation, “ID’s backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class”. The SSHRC apparently did not hear the message, or refused to accept it.

Thus we come back to the SSHRC’s silence about the 3 sentences issued by the committee. The silence, insists the SSHRC, is due to its mandate as a granting agency of not taking a position. However there is no position. Evolution is science, secular in nature, and has over 150 years of observational data published in peer-reviewed journals to back up its claim. Intelligent Design is pseudoscience, religious in nature, and no observational data to back up its claim. The two are not to be equated or honestly debated. In history we do not doubt that the holocaust happened and debate the matter against historical facts and evidence that says it did. Equivalently we do not debate evolution and ID. To maintain that there is such a debate is intellectually dishonest. The SSHRC’s silence speaks droves and it comes down clearly on the side of ID and TTC. Does the SSHRC really endorse Intelligent Design? Maybe, maybe not, we cannot tell, but its actions clearly provide sustenance and comfort to the proponents of ID.

Finally I would note that in the fallout over the SSHRC committee statement on intelligent design, the Royal Society of Canada found it necessary to make its position clear on the matter. In part it stated

Intelligent Design is a religious belief, and Evolution is the only credible scientific position that is defensible. The RSC position in support of evolution has been consistent: from a scientific point of view, the teaching of Evolution is a benchmark for legitimacy. Other theories or positions, such as Intelligent Design, are not scientific in basis or nature.

Thus the SSHRC’s position in this matter is clearly untenable. If the SSHRC were a private organization it would be welcome to its position, but it is not. It is the government-granting agency that is the primary source for grants in the field of science education. To maintain its present so-called impartiality and silence on ID cannot be tolerated. To be trusted with the science education portfolio it must clearly and unequivocally state its position with respect to ID.

Appendix II

Quantitative Analysis:
What can be determined from the committee’s statement?

Hannah Hoag in her short editorial concerning the affair of ID and the SSHRC [Nature 440, 720–721 (6 April 2006)] concluded with a remark from Philip Sadler, a board member of the centre1 and director of science education at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “If he (Alters) was trying to answer the question as to whether all this popularization (of ID) had had an impact, he just saved the government $40,000,” said Sadler. “He found the evidence without doing the study.”

The remark was meant to be flippant with a twist of irony, a jab at an organization that has seemingly confused religion with science, and just one of the many irreverent jokes passed along at the SSHRC’s expense. However the remark does hold an element of truth. The adjudication committee’s letter to Alters does indicate that the hold of ID amongst the Canadian academia is far deeper and stronger than previously thought, and this is troubling as the SSHRC appoints these academics to make decisions concerning science education.

Taking the Sadler comment seriously, can the committee statement substitute for the survey that Alters proposed? In short, not really, but some information can be gleaned given a few reasonable assumptions.

It is assumed that the SSHRC chooses its committee members from a pool of notable academics who meet the highest academic standards in their field of study. This pool is divided into two sets, those knowledgeable enough to judge proposals concerning science education and those who are not. It is assumed that if a knowledgeable person sat on the committee the 3 sentences pertaining to intelligent design would never have been issued. The science pundit would not have countenanced the composition of sentences that are clearly incorrect.

Thus all 5 committee members were not sufficiently knowledgeable in science to make decisions concerning science education and their statement reflects this. The consensus that evolution and intelligent design are both scientific theories to be equally considered is appallingly at odds with modern science. The consensus would have to have had at least one principal proponent to which the other committee members concurred or at least did not have any firm objections to go against the majority opinion. All these committee members do not really understand the true nature of scientific knowledge. It is not realised that an opinion or political position no matter how well promoted does not hold any weight as a scientific theory unless it is backed up with empirical observation and experimental confirmation.

It is also assumed that the committee members were chosen at random. By random that is with respect to partiality for either the theory of evolution or the dogma of intelligent design. In other words the selection of the committee was made on the basis of academic excellence in the member’s field of study, and there was no mechanism by which the committee was stacked to favour either evolution or intelligent design.

The last assumption is that the outcome of the committee’s deliberations was not improbable. This means that the outcome was not unusual in the sense that the Alters proposal just happened, by pure chance, to end up with an unusual mix of five committee members not versant about the nature of scientific knowledge. For example, if the uncertainty of scientific knowledge per individual in this pool of highly regarded academic talent was 15%, then getting five of them on a committee would represent a probability7 of 0.0076% and a 0.0076% probability for a similar rejection statement. This is almost an infinitesimally small improbable outcome. We assume that such unusual “luck” was not the case for Alters’ rejection.

If the outcome was not unusual, and not having anything else to go on, the maximum likelihood is that the outcome for the Alters’ proposal represents a 50% probability. This being the case, and the committee members being chosen at random, then the probability7 that an academician in the SSHRC pool is not sufficiently versant in scientific knowledge is 87%. This is a highly alarming number. However other probable outcomes from 10% to 90% give equally alarming numbers. It says that between 63 and 98 percent7 of the SSHRC’s pool of academic talent is not sufficiently versant in science to make decisions concerning science education.

To avoid this conclusion, the assumption that the selection of committee members was random could be relaxed. The initial selection could have been random, but the replacement procedure of departing members could be flawed. For example if a departing member could recommend their own replacement endorsed by other members of the committee with a final decision left to the SSHRC, could, with enough time, and without due safeguards, evolve into a body with a narrow world viewpoint. This is similar to obtaining a straight flush in poker by allowing unlimited discards of unwanted cards and obtaining new ones from the deck. Only the pertinent cards for a straight flush are kept. Getting a straight flush, an infinitesimally small probability from a random deal, by this procedure takes remarkably little time. By this mechanism, similar to natural selection, a committee with 5 members not sufficiently versant in science could have arisen.

The first conclusion indicates a shocking failure of the educational system in Canada, especially in the post secondary education of students in the non-scientific disciplines. It has been said that evolutionary science represents the single biggest failure in science education. These alarming numbers back this up, and seeing the support ID gets in the crude polls conducted by the popular media from time to time, the results do not, on second thought, seem that incredible. Remember the high numbers (63–98%) do not represent support for ID, but just the percent of the pool not knowledgeable enough to make a judgement. It includes those who have the impression that some sort of legitimate debate is going on between evolution and ID, and those with no real opinion, content to go along with a consensus. This brings us to the 4th sentence of the committee’s rejection statement.

In addition, the committee found that the research plans were insufficiently elaborated to allow for an informed evaluation of their merit.

If the high numbers are true, and there is no reason to doubt it, it would not take a very sophisticated survey to stumble upon this result. Almost any crude survey would do. Given the evidence gleaned from the committee’s first three sentences, the committee’s fourth sentence is not applicable.

If the second conclusion applies the SSHRC needs to examine the procedures by which individuals are chosen to sit on committees. The SSHRC has already, according to Gaffield and Halliwell, “committed to review its procedures to ensure that, in future, peer-review committee views are expressed clearly and unequivocally in letters to applicants”. This review will not correct the problem indicated above, and could result in sanitizing committee remarks to the applicant. The first 3 sentences to Alters did not arise out of the blue and loping them off like the SSHRC website would have us accept would hide the problems that such sentences reveal. The 3 sentences are said to be “poorly formulated” and “inaccurate”, however a correction, clearly and unequivocally expressed, has never been sent to Alters.

In all probability, the source of the problem lies with the non-scientific culture at the SSHRC and the high percentage of academics in the pool that lack the necessary scientific literacy to judge proposals in science education. The problem likely does not lie with the selection bias of the adjudication committee, but does not rule it out. The SSHRC needs to be always vigilant in this regard. In view of the non-science culture, the SSHRC should have ensured that at least one scientific literate academic sat on every committee dealing with proposals on science education, or at least ensured there were expert reviews for such proposals. With the present stonewalling approach to avoid commenting on the intelligent design remarks by the Alters’ committee there is no indication the obvious problems facing science education proposals are being met. In view that the SSHRC deals primarily with the non-science areas of academia, and with the present reluctance to rectify the situation concerning intelligent design, it would be best to remove the province of science education entirely from the auspices of the SSHRC.

Appendix III

The first sentence: What does it mean?
The true nature of Intelligent Design

The first sentence of the adjudication committee’s rejection reads:

It (i.e., the grant selection committee) judged that the proposal did not adequately substantiate the premise that the popularizing of Intelligent Design Theory had detrimental effects on Canadian students, teachers, parents, and policy makers.

This sentence has always been something of a stumper. The committee is apparently asking the applicant, Alters, to demonstrate that the popularizing of Intelligent Design (ID) is detrimental before he receives the grant in which he proposes to conduct a study to determine if the popularizing of Intelligent Design (ID) is detrimental. This catch-22 interpretation is laughable because of its twisted logic, and is not a statement you would expect from a peer-review process, which meets the highest standards for academic excellence. Because of the contradictory logic, one wonders if the committee took leave of their senses. However the sentence has a second more disturbing interpretation.

The second interpretation states that the committee does not consider that the displacement of the theory of Evolution with that of ID as being necessarily detrimental and requires from the applicant substantiation of this matter which the applicant did not supply. This is troubling. A committee, which meets the highest standards for academic excellence, should never have needed such substantiation. ID is pseudoscience, and any displacement of a tested scientific theory, such as Evolution, with pseudoscientific nonsense is detrimental, and every member of that committee should have been well aware of this fact.

However this was not information that the committee needed to know in advance. The Alters proposal stated clearly Intelligent Design was pseudoscience, religious in nature, and is being peddled as science in school classrooms. Because of this, the proposal stated ID was clearly detrimental. To comment further, it is necessary to bring up another sentence from the committee that preceded the 4 sentences of the rejection. It said, “The committee found that the candidates were qualified.”

Hence the first sentence in the rejection stated above directly contradicts facts stated by Alters and his collaborators who are all qualified in the field of science education. It is not apparent that anyone on the committee was qualified to contradict them. No one was in the field of science or science education. However it is apparent that Alters and his collaborators were not believed. Why? In contrast to other fields of science, experts in the field of biological evolution are not readily believed perhaps due to cultural prejudices instilled during childhood. On this subject everyone believes they have their own valid ideas.

Larry Felt, a committee member, commented

Credible people are trying to see areas where they (evolution and intelligent design) might come together and not necessarily be in conflict. There is a possibility of synthesis.

This maybe an emotionally gratifying outcome, but it is not going to happen because of the nature of Intelligent Design.

Intelligent Design is a poisoned apple specifically designed as a Trojan horse to undermine science education and bring religion into the classroom. It is part of the Discovery Institute’s wedge strategy. The following is a quote directly from the Wikipedia article.

“Wedge strategy is a political and social action plan authored by the Discovery Institute, the hub of the intelligent design movement. The strategy is a broad social, political, and academic agenda whose ultimate goal is to ‘defeat [scientific] materialism’ represented by evolution, ‘reverse the stifling materialist world view and replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions’ and to ‘affirm the reality of God.’ It essentially aims to ‘renew’ American culture by shaping public policy to reflect conservative Christian values.”

“Intelligent design is the controversial conjecture that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not a naturalistic process such as natural selection. Implicit in the intelligent design conjecture is a redefining of science and how it is conducted (my emphasis). Wedge strategy proponents are dogmatically opposed to materialism, naturalism, and evolution, and have made the removal of each from how science is conducted and taught an explicit goal.”

Therefore any synthesis that is taking place is working to undermine and destroy science. No synthesis is possible. Evolution is science and ID is not, all corroborated by the RSC statement3. ID is not even good theology. It has no reason to exist other than to corrupt science and science education. Intelligent Design is fundamentally and absolutely detrimental. Any institution entertaining the idea that ID is a legitimate intellectual position vis-à-vis evolution is sadly deceived.

This brings us to the following. “Felt recalled there was a general consensus on the panel that the McGill professor’s research framework was flawed (author comment: because they did not believe the premise?) and would have yielded predictable results that ‘dump on the religious right’.” There seems to be more concern with upsetting the sensibilities of the religious intolerant than with the infusion of religious dogma into the science curricula. This environment at the SSHRC does not inspire confidence in the SSHRC being the custodian of the science education portfolio. In its strategic plan the SSHRC states Canada wants to emerge as one of the 21st century’s leaders in research, higher education, and innovation. The SSHRC is pointing the way back to the 18th century.


  1. See appendix III analysis of the first sentence.
  2. If the probability for a person in the pool to not be sufficiently knowledgeable to make a decision concerning science education is A, then the probability for 5 of them to be sitting on the committee is A5 = A×A×A×A×A. This is the probability for the likelihood to issue a similar rejection statement.