As many scientists and science educators are aware, the Discovery Institute, a conservative Christian think tank based in Seattle, Washington, maintains a list of signatories — the Institute calls them scientists, and calls the list “A Scientific Dissent From Darwinism” — under the following claim:

“We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

In short, it’s a list of people with advanced science degrees that think evolution isn’t true.[1]

Not to be outdone, the National Center for Science Education maintains its own list of signatories who disagree, instead asserting:

“Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.” [2]

The NCSE’s list of names differs from the Discovery Institute’s in four important respects.

One: The NCSE list consists almost entirely of people with advanced degrees in the physical or medical sciences, with 27% in biology or closely related fields.[3] The Discovery Institute’s signatories include people with degrees in fields well removed from the physical or biological sciences (including some whose most relevant training is in areas like computer science, anthropology, meteorology, civil engineering, and aviation); fewer than 18% have biology-related degrees.[4]

Two: The NCSE list includes current affiliations for every name, demonstrating in each case that these are current practicing scientists or science educators. In contrast, the Discovery Institute is deliberately inconsistent in its presentation, often listing only the degree-granting institution and failing to specify that an individual hasn’t actually practised science for years.[5] (For example, Dr. Leonard Loose is affiliated with the University of Leeds, but he left there in 1935 and hasn’t done research since.[6])

Three: The NCSE list limits itself exclusively to individuals named “Steve”. (Or non-English and feminine variants, such as Stephanie, Istvan, Esteban, and so forth.)

Four: The NCSE signatories get a t-shirt.

In a way, this effort, called Project Steve[7] is just meant to be funny, and to parody the Discovery Institute’s approach. “Since 2001, we’ve collected over 700 people who think evolution is false! Hah!” “Well, since 2003, we’ve got over 800 that say you’re silly, and that’s only guys named Steve! So pthththththt.” After all, creationism is silly, and intelligent design is silly, and the only reasonable response to advocates of such things, other than ignoring them, is to laugh at them.[8] And obviously, neither list of names says anything about the relative scientific merits of either evolution or its so-called alternatives. Science isn’t determined by a majority vote, and appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, so simply getting more people on your side of a debate does not mean that your argument is the stronger one.


There’s an important issue at the core of this. The Scientific Dissent From Darwinism document does not, in and of itself, advocate creationism or ID, and it’s not explicitly trying to demonstrate that you should take those things seriously because hey, look at the all the people with PhDs who say you should. (I expect that this a conscious implicit intention, as suggested by the deliberate obfuscation of the signatories’ credentials to make them sound more impressive, but I can’t believe such a list could convince anybody not already predisposed to their position.)

Instead, the explicit intention is to provide evidence in support of the DI’s “Teach the Controversy” strategy. Having failed to promote the teaching of creation “science” in public schools, and having recently seen intelligent design slapped down in the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial[9], the creationist movement and the Discovery Institute has turned increasingly to this strategy as its best hope of seeing religious ideas promoted in science classrooms. If it can be established that evolution is a theory with meaningful opposition among scientists, and that a controversy exists, then it is reasonable to advocate for the discussion of that controversy in a science classroom. In other words, the Scientific Dissent From Darwinism document is crafted in an attempt to mislead the public into believing that overwhelming scientific consensus for evolution does not exist. The Discovery Institute claims that their signatories “stand as living testimony in contradiction” to the assertion that “virtually every scientist in the world believes the theory [of evolution] to be true.”[1]

Which is clearly nonsense, but it is subversive and potentially powerful nonsense, and not to be laughed off so quickly. Bill Maher has said “You don’t have to teach both sides of a debate if one side is a load of crap”,[10] which, though true, misses the more fundamental point: you don’t have to teach both sides of a debate if there is no debate. And there is none, at least no scientific one. The so-called evolution controversy is not scientific, it is entirely political, and — more importantly — it is entirely manufactured and promoted by groups like the Discovery Institute, not by scientists. So in fact the Steve Project serves a very important and very serious purpose despite its whimsical approach, because it demonstrates that the Dissent from Darwinism list in no way reflects or detracts from the opinion of “virtually every scientist”.

NCSE interprets US Census data to suggest that approximately 1% of the general population has a sufficiently Steveish name to qualify for inclusion on the list. If we accept this, then each signatory can be considered to represent 100 scientists. With no further consideration, Project Steve indicates that at best, fewer than 1% of scientists disagree with the principles of evolution – DI has fewer than 750 while than NCSE has 889, representing the views of 88900, so 750/89650 = 0.84%. Taking into account the relative numbers of signatories who are actually practising scientists, as opposed merely to those who have a degree (which is to say “all of them” on the NCSE list, and “considerably less than all of them” on the DI list), it drops to a much smaller fraction of 1%.[11] Taking into account the relative numbers of signatories who have degrees directly relevant to the biological sciences, it becomes a fraction of a fraction.[12] In other words, among the people who are actually involved in the day to day process of doing scientific research on the issue, there is no controversy whatsoever, there is only overwhelming consensus, because 99.6+% of such individuals believe that evolution is true and that creationism and ID have no place in any science classroom.

William Dembski, a fellow at the Discovery Institute, has noted

“If Project Steve was meant to show that a considerable majority of the scientific community accepts a naturalistic conception of evolution, then the National Center for Science Education could have saved its energies—that fact was never in question.”[13]

Which (probably deliberately) misses the point. The Discovery Institute advocates teaching the controversy. The Discovery Institute has a list of “scientists”, many non-practising, expressing skepticism that evolution is true, and cites that list as evidence of the controversy. Indeed, it created the list for the sole purpose of demonstrating such a controversy. But if the NCSE can assemble an opposing list of names with greater expertise, and can find more names in less time with a self imposed restriction that they all have to be named “Steve”, then there simply is no controversy to be taught. Project Steve doesn’t demonstrate a “considerable majority”, Mr. Dembski, it demonstrates an unbelievably overwhelming majority, it’s 99.6+%, it is, in fact, “virtually every scientist”. Project Steve therefore demonstrates that the DI list is wholly insignificant and “stand[s] as living testimony” to absolutely nothing (except, perhaps, the intellectual bankruptcy of creationism). Because, c’mon, the Steves alone outnumber you.

I am Steve #854 of NCSE Project Steve. I share a professional affiliation membership with Stephen Hawking. And I’m getting a t-shirt that proves it. If your name is Steven, Stephen, Stephanie, Stefan, Stefano, Istvan, Etienne, or Esteban; if you have an advanced degree in the physical or biological sciences; and if you want to defend public school science curricula against creationism and intelligent design, then you should sign up. If not, you don’t have to worry. The Steves have your back.


[1] link

[2] link

[3] A search of the list for degrees including the words biology, biochemistry, zoology, botany, genetics, ecology, or biological turned up 228 of 852 as of December 2007.

[4] The same search terms yielded 133 of 742, again in December 2007.

[5] link

[6] link

[7] In honour of Stephen Jay Gould. But you could have guessed that.

[8] Hey, that’s pretty strong, Steve. Have a citation to back up the assertion that “creationism is silly”? Well, I’m not a theologian, so let’s ask one. Saint Augustine of Hippo, co-founder of the medieval Christian Church, effective architect of all Western theological thought, and one of the greatest philosophical minds of all time, wrote in the fifth century that a literal interpretation of Genesis, when it conflicted with reason or experience, was not only invalid but also unnecessary for it to convey spiritual truth. He has been quoted by countless sources over the intervening 1600 years to this effect. For example: “It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are.” Ah, my mistake, then. Creationism isn’t silly. Creationism is disgraceful, ruinous, idiotic, and laughable. According to, you know, Saint Augustine.

[9] Judge John E. Jones’ written decision in this trial is a brilliant exposure of ID’s lack of scientific basis and its true nature as nothing more than stealth creationism. It should be required reading for any university student of science, law, or education; for any science educator; and for anybody even contemplating running for a local school board. link

[10] link

[11] If we take the fraction of practising scientists and science educators on the DI list to be 2/3, which I would guess to be highly generous, it falls to 0.56%.

[12] Using the December 2007 numbers, DI has 2/3*133 = 87, and NCSE has 228 Steves, so 87/(2280+87) = only 0.37%. Again, probably generous.

[13] link