PBS Evolution A Critical Review

National Center for Science Education Falsely Charges Discovery Institute With Misquotation


SEATTLE–In a press release issued September 26, 2001, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) claimed that the Discovery Institute in Seattle had misquoted Arizona State University anthropologist Geoffrey A. Clark a week earlier. But examination of Clark’s original article shows that it is the NCSE, not Discovery Institute, that is guilty of playing fast and loose with the facts.

“We encourage people to read Clark’s original article for themselves,” says Discovery Institute spokesperson Mark Edwards. “We are confident that if they do so, they will see that we accurately described what Clark said, contrary to assertions by the NSCE. It’s unfortunate that the NCSE chooses to ignore the scientific issues we raised and can only respond with personal attacks.”

The Discovery Institute had issued a press release on September 20 criticizing the the WGBH/Clear Blue Sky *Evolution* series on PBS for ignoring scientific disagreements in paleoanthropology (the study of human origins), and for failing to point out the highly subjective nature of the field. Discovery’s press release had quoted Clark as stating that “we select among alternative sets of research conclusions in accordance with our biases and preconceptions–a process that is, at once, both political and subjective,” and that paleoanthropology “has the form but not the substance of a science.”

Asked by the NCSE to comment on Discovery Institute’s use of his statement, Clark alleged that his remarks had been “taken completely out of context.” According to Clark, his remarks were intended merely to make “a technical point to other scientists,” encouraging fellow paleoanthropologists to “pay more attention to collecting data with an explicit conceptual framework firmly in mind.” According to Clark, he “never intended to imply that paleoanthropology is unscientific.”

Skip Evans, NCSE Network Project Director, concluded: “Quoting scientists out of context is one of the anti-evolutionists’ oldest tricks.”

“Responding to legitimate disagreements among scientists with personal attacks is an equally old trick, and it serves neither science nor the public,” responds biologist Jonathan Wells. A Discovery Institute Senior Fellow, Wells holds a doctorate in molecular and cell biology from the University of California at Berkeley.

“The truth is that hypotheses about human origins–even more than hypotheses in other fields of evolutionary biology–are heavily dependent on philosophical assumptions and strongly influenced by personal biases,” says Wells. “Many paleoanthropologists have acknowledged this, and several were quoted in Discovery Institute’s September 20 press release. One of those was Geoffrey Clark.”

“Now Clark claims he was quoted out of context. But let’s look at the context. In his essay, Clark provides ‘a personal account of the preconceptions, biases, and assumptions that underlie my approach to modern human origins (MHO) research,’ and he gives his ‘construal of the status of the debate’ within ‘the three major MHO research foci–archaeology, human paleontology, and molecular biology.’ The paragraph from which the September 20 press release quoted is the conclusion of that essay, and it clearly raises questions about the whole field of human origins research.”

So that those interested in this controversy can judge for themselves, the concluding paragraph of Clark’s essay is reproduced here in its entirety:

“On the surface, the voluminous literature of the MHO debate paints a picture of informed and sophisticated interdisciplinary research in which data are absorbed and digested, arguments assimilated, and methodologies understood, compared, and evaluated. It is the way we all would like to think that paleoanthropology ‘works.’ I suggest, however, that paleoanthropology has the form but not the substance of a science, and that the MHO debate is more of a caricature of science than a ‘portrait from life.’ We are, in effect, consumers of one another’s research conclusions, but we select among alternative sets of research conclusions in accordance with our biases and preconceptions– a process that is, at once, both political and subjective, and to some extent unavoidable in any sciencelike endeavor. The problem with paleoanthropology in general, and MHO research in particular, is that those biases and preconceptions are seldom subjected to critical scrutiny. If there is no explicit concern with the logic of inference –HOW we know what we think we know about the past — there can be no consensus. The result is the kind of interminable discourse that has plagued MHO research for more than a century. All I am suggesting here is that paleoanthropology should pay more attention to the inferential basis for its knowledge claims. Nature does not dictate the meanings we assign to it — that can only come from us. Human origins controversies stem from a failure to consider epistemological issues in the various disciplines involved in the research. The empirical and logical sufficiency of knowledge claims can only be established with reference to a paradigm. Merely acquiring more data won’t resolve anything, for the simple reason that data have no meaning (some would say existence) apart from the conceptual frameworks that define them.”

(G. A. Clark, “Through a Glass Darkly: Conceptual Issues in Modern Human Origins Research,” in G. A. Clark and C. M. Willermet (eds.), *Conceptual Issues in Modern Human Origins Research*, New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1997, p. 76)

“If Clark has changed his mind about what he wrote in 1997, so be it,” says Wells. “The plain language of Clark’s paragraph, however, shows that in 1997 he saw ‘biases and preconceptions’ plaguing human origins research. Like all writers, Clark has the right to retract what he has written. But Discovery Institute did not misquote him.”

For more information on the PBS series, see *Getting the Facts Straight: A Viewer’s Guide to PBS’s “Evolution”*, available at reviewevolution.com.

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