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Evolutionary Anthropologist's Advice: Reject Research Papers if Results Come from Discovery Institute Authors

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At her blog called Violent Metaphors, University of Texas Austin anthropologist Jennifer Raff offers tips on "How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists." Most of the tips are pretty good -- things like "Identify the BIG QUESTION," or don't forget to read a paper's introduction in addition to the abstract. For an undergraduate student learning how to read a scientific paper, many of the more detailed steps she recommends, like writing a summary of the paper's background in five sentences or less, or sketching out the experiments, would be helpful exercises.

But before getting to all that, she offers this odd preliminary piece of advice:

Before you begin reading, take note of the authors and their institutional affiliations. Some institutions (e.g. University of Texas) are well-respected; others (e.g. the Discovery Institute) may appear to be legitimate research institutions but are actually agenda-driven. Tip: google "Discovery Institute" to see why you don't want to use it as a scientific authority on evolutionary theory.
In other words, study a paper carefully, but if the authors work with Discovery Institute, disregard everything they are saying from the outset. That's the ground rule that comes before any other tips. It's a great way to keep yourself carefully in the dark about things you know nothing about.

And she calls us "agenda-driven"?

Imagine how journal editors would behave if they followed Raff's advice. Or better yet, imagine what would happen if Raff herself were a journal editor. Someone affiliated with Discovery Institute (or any group friendly to ID) submits a paper, and you immediately toss it in the trash without even taking it seriously. More than a few such editors probably share her philosophy. That doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the peer-review system, even though of course there are already plenty of reasons to lack such confidence.

Raff's advice reminds me a lot of how methodological naturalism aims to protect "science" from certain conclusions. This rule says that the scientific method is a great tool for obtaining knowledge about our world (which indeed, it is!), but if scientific methods take you to non-material causes, then those results must be rejected. Non-material explanations are never allowed. Never. It's a great way to limit your empirically based search for truth to pre-determined outcomes.

So here's my tip to add to Raff's list:

If you're reading a paper that deals with a controversial topic (like neo-Darwinian evolution or intelligent design), be sure to investigate both sides of the debate.

Indeed do "Google 'Discovery Institute'," or Google "intelligent design." See what the critics have to say. But if you're serious about understanding the issue, be sure to investigate Discovery Institute's websites, or other pro-ID writings, for yourself.

Don't just read what critics say about Discovery Institute or ID, but read what proponents say as well, then consider for yourself which side has the better arguments. Believe it or not, relying on the first hit the Internet gives you (e.g., Wikipedia) when you're Googling a topic can sometimes produce biased results that ignore crucial arguments and evidence. So investigate both sides of an issue instead of just disregarding one particular viewpoint from the outset, as Dr. Raff would suggest you do.

If you want to see responses to critics of Discovery Institute and intelligent design, here are a few places to start reading:

FAQs on Discovery Institute and ID:

ID Science Resources:

Discovery Institute and Law and Education:

ID and Religion:

One final suggestion. If you're one of Dr. Raff's students, don't tell her you're reading these sources and taking them seriously, or you too might be labeled "agenda-driven."

Photo credit: Mokolabs/Flickr.