Do creationism and intelligent design qualify as peer-reviewed science?


Creationist and intelligent design writers insist that their writings constitute full-fledged scientific research. Creationists, for instance, hold that their notion that the earth and its living things (or even the entire universe) were created out of nothing a few thousand years ago is a scientific theory, every bit as much as evolution is a scientific theory. Similarly, leading spokespersons of the intelligent design movement have asserted that their movement is primarily a scientific movement, not a religious movement, and that “intelligent design theory” deserves a place in public school classrooms [Jones2005, pg. 24-35].

But scientists argue otherwise, pointing out that creationist and intelligent design material has not passed peer review.

Peer review in scientific research

For centuries the process of peer review has been recognized as an integral part of the scientific enterprise. In fact, nowadays a technical finding is not considered a bona fide scientific result unless and until it has passed peer review. This is an important point — there is no such thing as non-peer-reviewed science. In fact, most scientific research institutions, as a matter of strict policy, do not announce a research finding until it not only has passed peer review, but has actually appeared in the scientific journal or conference proceedings to which it was submitted.

Along this line, note that whenever scientific issues are “debated” in any other forum — blogs, discussion forums, news columns, political campaigns, legislative bodies, television and radio, etc. — such discussions are not to be taken seriously, particularly when the writers or speakers are not highly qualified research scientists.

It is also keep important to keep in mind a principle popularized by Carl Sagan: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence [Sagan1998, pg. 60]. Thus manuscripts that make strong claims, such as that some long-standing theory is fundamentally faulty, or that a long-standing mystery has been resolved, or that long-sought experimental evidence has been found, then such manuscripts are scrutinized particularly carefully, and the authors are expected to provide exceptionally convincing reasoning and documentation.

The scientific peer review process

The scientific peer review system operates as follows. When a scientist or team of scientists completes a research project, they document their methodology, results and analysis in a manuscript, which is then submitted to a journal or refereed conference for peer review. The editor (if sent to a journal) or technical papers chair (if sent to a conference) then privately distributes the manuscript, electronically in most cases, to at least three other persons, chosen due to their knowledge and expertise in the manuscript’s topic. In selecting referees, editors typically take pains to avoid persons who are at the same institution or who otherwise may have a significant conflict of interest, either professionally or financially, with the manuscript’s authors. These anonymous referees rate the paper on criteria such as:

  1. Relevance to the journal or conference’s charter. If the topic of the manuscript is judged not appropriate for the venue to which it was submitted, it may be rejected without serious review of its contents.
  2. Clarity of exposition. Almost all scientific research paper are now written in English, which is the de facto universal language for science. A manuscript submitted to a journal should be written with the highest quality English prose, which often is a challenge, particularly for the growing community of international, non-native-English-speaking scientists. If the manuscript is murkily written, or if it has too many English errors, it may be rejected for this reason alone.
  3. Objectivity of style. Proper scientific research papers must be written in a highly objective, modest, almost self-effacing style, openly acknowledging both sides of underlying issues. If referees of a submitted manuscript find any bluster, hyperbole, chest-thumping, prejudice, unprofessional criticisms of other researchers or their work, or other indications that the authors are not approaching their material in an entirely objective fashion, the manuscript will be rejected immediately.
  4. Acknowledgement of prior work. It is essential that the authors of the manuscript exhibit that they are fully familiar with the state-of-the-art research in the field, and have properly credited related work. Indeed, deficient documentation of prior work on the authors’ topic is one of the most common reasons for rejection. Authors may choose to differ with the conclusions of earlier works, but if so they must explain in detail why they believe the earlier works were faulty or incomplete. Sweeping dismissals of previous research or consensus theories, especially when the manuscript does not back up these claims up with very compelling data and analysis, are usually seen as evidence that the authors are not qualified to be addressing the issue in question.
  5. Freedom from plagiarism. The usage of other researchers’ text or ideas without explicit citation is considered a serious breach of scientific ethics, and, in most cases, is immediate cause for rejection. In sufficiently egregious cases, the authors may be permanently banished from the journal or conference to which their manuscript was submitted. Nowadays leading journals and conferences employ sophisticated plagiarism-detecting software, which often can detect overlap of even a few consecutive words of text with previously published papers. Along this line, it is generally considered inappropriate for authors to include text from their own earlier papers, except for introductory material — each paper must include significant new material.
  6. Theoretical background. The authors must lay a firm theoretical foundation for their work. What precisely is the theory that is to be tested? What is the proposed methodology to test the theory?
  7. Experimental procedures and data analysis. Modern scientific research is all about the details, and this portion of the manuscript is often scrutinized the most carefully of all. If the experimental procedures are sloppy or poorly documented, the manuscript may be rejected regardless of its other merits.
  8. Statistical methods. Given the importance of quantitative data in modern science, it is essential that the researchers use the very best statistical methods appropriate for their research. Many researchers nowadays take courses in statistical methods as part of their training.
  9. Conclusions. Given all of the above procedures and results, are the conclusions truly justified, based on the results presented? If the authors have read too much into their results, or if there are more prosaic explanations of their results, or if there is any indication that the authors are “inflating” their results, the manuscript will be rejected.
  10. Originality and importance. Even if all of the above items are satisfactory, if the manuscript’s results are judged not particularly useful or important to the field, the manuscript may be rejected.

When the editor (or chair) receives these reports, he/she decides whether: (a) to accept the manuscript as-is, (b) to accept the manuscript, provided that some relatively minor items identified by the referees are corrected, (c) not to accept the paper as-is, but to reconsider if some relatively significant items are corrected or improved, or (d) to reject the manuscript. For many scientific journals and conferences, fewer than 25% of submissions are initially accepted or accepted pending minor revision. The others are rejected, require major revision (sometimes more than once), are subsequently submitted to another, more relevant journal or conference, or are never formally published.

In spite of these daunting obstacles, hundreds of thousands of peer-reviewed scientific articles are published each year in many thousands of journals and conference proceedings. This massive and rapidly growing body of work constitutes the core of what is properly referred to as “scientific research.”

Is the process of peer review foolproof?

Obviously the process of peer review is not foolproof — no human endeavor could ever be foolproof. Some highly questionable papers have been published, and some important papers were initially rejected. Obviously the reputations of journal managers, editors and reviewers are on the line: none of these people wants to be embarrassed when a paper is published that is subsequently ridiculed by knowledgeable researchers in the field. But by the same token, none of them wants to be the one responsible for having rejected a paper that was later recognized to be a seminal contribution to its field.

Have creationist and/or intelligent design writers subjected their work to peer review?

Along this line, while creationist and intelligent design writers have published their arguments dissenting from conventional science in various books and online articles, they have not, as far as anyone can determine, even seriously submitted these writings, much less have them published, in any reputable peer-reviewed scientific journal. There are only a handful of exceptions; for additional details, see Creationism peer review.

This lack of peer-reviewed publications, or even serious attempts at submitting material for peer review, presents a severe obstacle to creationism and intelligent design being taken seriously in the scientific world. If creationist and intelligent design writers (individually or collectively) believe that any of their technical issues have significant merit on purely scientific grounds, why do they not compose them into well-researched and well-analyzed articles and submit these articles to recognized peer-reviewed scientific journals?

After all, as emphasized in a recent Science letter signed by numerous prominent scientists (after brief mention of the prevailing theories of geology, big bang cosmology and evolution), “Even as these are overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community, fame still awaits anyone who could show these theories to be wrong.” [Gleick2010]. The only reasonable inference from the lack of publications is that these writers themselves recognize that the arguments and data that they have presented to date would not meet the rigorous standards required of serious peer-reviewed scientific literature.


The process of peer review has been an essential part of scientific research for centuries. It requires a huge amount of time and effort on the part of scientific researchers, both to prepare manuscripts for peer review and also to review manuscripts written by other scientists. But the resulting peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings are of significantly higher quality as a result. While the process is certainly not foolproof, and lapses have occurred of both types (accepting bad papers and rejecting good papers), it has demonstrated itself to be a highly effective means of uncovering truth about the physical world.

With regards to creationism and intelligent design, it is very significant and telling to note that, as far as anyone can determine, these writers have not even seriously attempted, much less succeeded, in publishing their work in reputable peer-reviewed scientific journals. So this fact by itself is a persuasive reason to reject these writings. This literature is often cast in scientific terminology, and may be persuasive to those who lack professional training in the particular fields of science in question, but it is not real science.

For additional details and references, see Peer review and Creationism peer review.

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