Wednesday, May 5, 2010

BIO-Complexity: Manufacturing the controversy

BIO-Complexity bills itself as a peer-reviewed journal of science. However, close inspection of its policies reveals it to be a website for slapdash dissemination and discussion of articles that have not been vetted by editors and reviewers. And very few scientists would agree that the scope is scientific.
It aims to be the leading forum for testing the scientific merit of the claim that intelligent design (ID) is a credible explanation for life.
The gist of intelligent design is that an immaterial, and hence unobservable, intelligence creates physical information for a purpose. Scientists are virtually unanimous that such godlike action has no place in scientific explanations.

As long as scientists reject ID as supernaturalism, there will be none of the "scientific controversy over ID" referred to at BIO-Complexity. It seems that the forum is designed to get scientists, identified by their real names, to engage in highly restricted exchanges on ID that create the impression of genuine controversy. This could aid the Discovery Institute in its "teach the controversy" campaign, the objective of which is to get ID into the science curricula of public schools.

I'm not spinning a silly conspiracy theory here. The Discovery Institute supports the Biologic Institute, which in turn supports BIO-Complexity. The editorial board of BIO-Complexity is dominated by affiliates of the Biologic Institute and fellows of the Discovery Institute. Douglas Axe, the director of the Biologic Institute, and an editor of the forum, tries to induce debate with a taunt in The Debate Over Design Gains Momentum with a New Peer-Reviewed Science Journal: BIO-Complexity:
[I]f you examine the way scientists on both sides of the ID debate are conducting themselves, which side would you say is generally doing a better job of inviting critical scrutiny? Which side is earnestly seeking the strongest critique that the other side can offer? The answer should be obvious. It has to be the side that is promoting the debate, right? Or conversely, which side has little tolerance for dissent? That’s equally obvious. It’s the conflicted side—the one that is constantly switching between denying that the debate exists, trying to win it, and trying to shut it down.
The Biologic Institute also offers "Our take on the ID controversy", cherry-picking the writing of ID adversaries to create the false impression that they regard ID as scientific. ID propagandists have a long history of turning scientists' remarks on ID into evidence of ID's scientific legitimacy. Scientists stirred to comment at BIO-Complexity should keep this in mind.

I cannot imagine how an adversary of ID could win by submitting a research article to BIO-Complexity. It would say implicitly that scientists believe that the claims of ID can be falsified on naturalistic grounds, contradicting the crucial fact that the claims are intrinsically supernatural. And it would suggest that science is advancing due to the "controversy," even if ID does not explain life on Earth.

Journal publishing without the tears (and blood and sweat)

The conveniently redefined "innovative" peer-review process of BIO-Complexity is much less stringent than is the norm in scientific journals.
The most significant form of peer review begins when a completed work is made publically available for examination and response. The goal of pre-publication peer review should therefore be to decide whether the work in question merits the attention of experts, rather than to predict the final result of that attention. BIO-Complexity uses an innovative approach to pre-publication peer-review in order to achieve this goal.


Two or more reviewers will be consulted for each reviewed manuscript. Authors are encouraged to suggest suitable reviewers, though the Editor may elect to use other reviewers.

Reviewers are asked to comment in fair terms on the work’s limitations, but also on whether they think the expert community would benefit from considering both the merits and the limitations. Taking into consideration the manuscript and the reviewers’ comments, the Editor will use this criterion of benefit to decide whether to take the manuscript forward.


BIO-Complexity aims to communicate decisions to authors within six weeks of submission.

In short, this is a slapdash approach to getting articles posted on a website for debate. There is no requirement that the editor act as advised by the reviewers. At the same time, the editor does not take personal responsibility for the quality of an accepted article.

R - E - S - P - E - C - T, oh, what it means to me

For each published article, the journal publishes one critique, accepted at the sole discretion of the editor of the article. The authors of the article will respond just once to the critique. There are also online comments on articles:
Respectful, open dialog is the most productive way to approach matters of controversy. [emphasis added]
(Watch to see if a double-standard for "respect" emerges at yet another creationist website. Do you think Doug Axe will restrain himself any more than he did in the taunt I quoted above?) If an adversary comments, he or she does so under constraints that lend to the impression that there is a legitimate scientific controversy:
  • Only people willing to use their real names are allowed to post comments.
  • Comments that fail to respect others will be removed (repeat or flagrant offenders being blocked).
  • Comments need to stay on point.

To be registered for posting comments, first register as a reader or author, then send an email from an institutional or corporate account (to establish your identity) with a brief description of your areas of interest to our support address

My point will never be on point according to BIO-Complexity. An intelligent designer is a god by another name, and is outside the scope of scientific investigation. There is no scientific controversy over intelligent design.


  1. Little gadfly that I am, I've put the introduction on the Sidewiki at BIO-Complexity. Those of you with access, please vote it up. If you have a Google account and would like access to the Sidewiki, go here.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Their first experimental paper proves that high frequency mutations happen more often than low frequency mutations - not the sort of stuff a mediocre journal would find interesting.