Nathan Lents: My Experience With Discovery

Yes, looking forward to the eye discussion. In the meantime, would you be willing to open a new topic on your experiences with Discovery Institute. I am sure it will be an interesting discussion.


For sure! My experience was quite negative and it, somehow, lowered my opinion of them even further. They want so badly to be taken seriously, but they can’t manage to behave in a serious way. They are their own worst enemies with their nastiness and their amateurish approach to science.

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I think you handled yourself quite well. Overall do you think that DI does science at all?

Let him tell his story first. Then take shots.

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In my opinion, what they do is nowhere near what we think of as science. The DI is a conservative political group, first and foremost, and it really shows. When an organization is founded with a particular political agenda, no amount of rhetoric about “dissent” and “keeping an open mind” can overcome that. They have an agenda and a posture, and that is completely antithetical to science. Ask them what would change their mind and watch them scramble. Ask me what would change my mind and there is one simple answer: evidence.


Can you recap for those here, what they challenged you on and how the discussion went?

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I agree @NLENTS, please give us the story before getting into the assessment. I’m curious to hear it.

Eek! Bad timing! I would be happy to, but right at the moment I am waiting to board my flight to Austria. I’m speaking at the Ars Electronica Festival on Friday morning. I will try to pick this up again tomorrow afternoon but if I forget, go ahead and ping me and I’ll pick it up again. The articles about me were bad enough, but the Twitter exchange with them was truly remarkable. As I said before, they want desperately to be taken seriously but they can’t muster even a modicum of adult conversation about science. It’s like a weird mix of arrogance and insecurity expressed as rhetorical foot-stomping

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In fairness, just about all public conversation is like this, and most of us scientists are just not accustomed to it. The good news for you is that it drew a lot of attention to your book. That is a good thing, right?

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Did it? I am not aware of any publicity or book sales that came from it.

It is part of what brought you here :smile:. Also, how could you know if and how it impacted sales?

I got your book well before from Amazon Prime.

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Oh, you’re the one! :wink:

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Of course you can’t, but publisher seems to think it usually doesn’t. The DI picks on Ken Miller a lot and he said the same. That community does not read the books and articles they criticize. They admitted not reading mine which didn’t stop them from all those articles about me. And they tried to use an article against a claim I made about the sinuses when the title of the article made it clear that it wasn’t about what they tried to say it was. This is what I mean about them not being serious.


They first “pinged” me back in 2012, in response to a very benign WSJ article. It was my first experience with this sort of thing. It shook me.

I grabbed a beer with David Klinghoffer latter (2015?) and was surprised to hear his perspective. He comes from the political reporting world, where things are rough and tumble. There wasn’t animosity on his end. Rather, he saw it as a sign of respect that they thought I had to be answered. He rightfully advised me to take it less personally, and to recognize that it only raised my profile. In his view, this was all just public theatre.

That is not an excuse for personal attacks, mind you, nor is it how normal communication works. He is, however, right. This is just public theatre. When we enter the public sphere, we need to get used to it, even if we are going to rise above it. I’m honestly thankful for that conversation, and think he was essentially right in this advice (though not on the science). It is not what we are used to, and we can dislike it, but it is how public engagement works now days in quite a bit of things, not just origins.

That is bad form. Show us those quotes.

I do not usually agree with how science is engaged on ENV. To be clear, though, they are doing a public performance for their base. Their base is watching. It is an opportunity to surprise them with something that appeals to them. You have to understand their base to succeed at this though.

In the end, it is important to remember that being right is not enough. We also have to be trusted.


@NLENTS, when you get back, you’ll have to tell us this story:

[Note: This post has been substantially edited since it was first published because my mom was upset that I was too harsh, dismissive, and mean. Although I don’t agree, if I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s to listen to my mother.]

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It all began with an article that I published in the WSJ that acted as a teaser of my book. Quickly thereafter, the DI posted an article from an engineer with absolutely no background in biology attacking my views as “ignorant and arrogant.” Nothing in my article can be construed as mean or as an attack, but they came out swinging anyway. The book hadn’t even come out at this point. The author of that first article then went on the DI podcast and admitted that he hadn’t read the book, and, at about the 2m mark, he say something like, “I’m not going to get into any of the specific examples he mentions.” (I’m not kidding - he says that!) Instead, he goes on about how design is often about tradeoffs and compromises, something a biologist wouldn’t know, but an engineer would, I guess trying to overcome his obvious lack of any credentials in biology. Nevermind that many branches of biology are intimately involved with design, the issue of tradeoffs and compromises is, in many ways, WHAT MY BOOK IS ALL ABOUT! So it was beyond frustrating that they would attack my book without reading it using arguments against it that are actually part and parcel to the conceit of the book. The only thing that they ever say that I agree with is their old favorite, “we might just not know everything about this yet.” That’s correct, we might not. I don’t see how that leads you to dismiss the entire “argument from poor design” out of hand, except if that is the conclusion that you need to end up with in the first place. And that’s why I don’t consider what they do science. Science is the objective, if imperfect, pursuit of truth and knowledge. Not an attempt to more fully describe the truth and knowledge that we already need to believe about the world (that it was created by supernatural means). It’s not science, it’s religion. Doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, but it does place it outside the discipline (and classroom) of science, imo.


Here is the article that he used to “shellack me” about my claims about drainage in the maxillary sinuses. 04%20PM

You will notice that the article is all about the paranasal sinuses not the maxillary sinuses. Totally different structures! But since he’s an MD and this is a scientific article, this had the air of authority, but it was completely off-topic. I suppose that could have been mistake (but one that cripples their whole article), but when I pointed it out to them, they never corrected, never backed down, never responded. They kept going on attacking in other ways. That’s why there is no point taking them seriously. They made an obvious error, got caught, and then just pretend it didn’t happen.

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This is important to pick apart and be clear on.

Everyone makes mistakes. Even big mistakes. Even scientist get things wrong. If you had made this mistake, what would you have done in this situation? What would you have hoped they would have done?

Correct it! Remove the article! I’ve made mistakes, some I caught, others someone else caught. I always correct it the best I can. That’s what honest people do.