Counting the Nobel laureates... Does it prove what the Discovery Institute says it does?

by Wesley R. Elsberry

In their viewer's guide pretentiously (and erroneously, as I will demonstrate below) titled, "Getting the Facts Straight", the Discovery Institute gives us this discussion:

The narrator says that anti-evolution efforts following the Scopes trial "had a chilling effect on the teaching of evolution and the publishers of science textbooks. For decades, Darwin seemed to be locked out of America's public schools. But then evolution received an unexpected boost from a very unlikely source -- the Soviet Union." When the Soviets launched the first man-made satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, Americans were goaded into action. The narrator continues: "As long-neglected science programs were revived in America's classrooms, evolution was, too. Biblical literalists have been doing their best to discredit Darwin's theory ever since."

This takes the distortion of history one giant step further. It is blatantly false that U.S. science education was "neglected" after the Scopes trial because Darwinism was "locked out of America's public schools." During those supposedly benighted decades, American schools produced more Nobel Prize-winners than the rest of the world put together. And in physiology and medicine -- the fields that should have been most stunted by a neglect of Darwinism -- the U.S. produced fully twice as many Nobel laureates as all other countries combined.

How about the U.S. space program? Was it harmed by the supposed neglect of Darwinism in public schools? Contrary to what Evolution implies, the U.S. space program in 1957 was in good shape. The Soviet Union won the race to launch the first satellite because it had made that one of its highest national priorities. The U.S., on the other hand, had other priorities -- such as caring for its citizens and rebuilding a war-torn world. When Sputnik prodded Americans to put more emphasis on space exploration, the U.S. quickly surpassed the Soviet Union and landed men on the Moon. The necessary resources and personnel were already in place; the U.S. didn't have to wait for a new generation of rocket scientists trained in evolution.

The history of 20th-century American science and technology is one of the greatest success stories of all time. Evolution's claim that American science education was "neglected" because of the Scopes trial is completely unjustified. In fact, the claim is so preposterous that it raises serious questions about the integrity of the entire series.

-- "Getting the Facts Straight", Anonymous, Discovery Institute Press, 2001.

It's been at least a couple of decades since I read John Stormer's "None Dare Call It Treason", but memories of the very special logic Stormer employed in his tome come back to me as I read this passage. One might almost suppose that the authors of this viewer's guide lacked Stormer's intestinal fortitude: they chose to remain anonymous.

So, what does the nameless Discovery Institute (DI) sniper offer us here? We have a quote from the PBS series narrator that tells us that mention of evolution in classrooms declined after the Scopes trial, but returned when other sciences also received more attention following the Soviet's launch of the Sputnik I satellite. Then, the DI writer launches into a full-blown attack on the assertion that science education in general suffered because of the aftermath of the Scopes trial. From the quotation given, the argument that the DI writer so forcefully takes issue with was never made by the narrator. Both Carl Sagan and Phillip Johnson have urged people to tune up their baloney detectors, and mine pegged on this use of the strawman fallacy by the DI writer. Apparently unsatisfied with the slim pickings afforded by the actual statements made in the program, the DI writer invented a causal statement in no wise present or implied within what was quoted.

What about the grounding of what the PBS "Evolution" narrator did say? The part about Darwin being apparently locked out of the classroom is supported by no less an authority than the Discovery Institute's own Edward J. Larson, who devotes several pages (84-88) in his book, "Trial and Error", to commentary on the decline in textbooks discussing evolution in the three and a half decades following the Scopes trial. Larson confirms the content of the PBS "Evolution" program on that point. There is a citation of one quantitative and one qualitative survey of textbooks backing up the statement.

But Larson's further commentary confirms even more of the narrator's points. Larson quotes from a mid-1950's Congressional study about the fear "that the Soviet Union rapidly was overtaking the United States in its training of technical manpower." (p.91) Larson also identifies the Sputnik I launch as a catalyst for increased funding for science education. It is clear that the necessity of improving science education in general was apparent to our government at the time, even if historical revisionists at the Discovery Institute are ignorant of this fact.

The Discovery Institute writer ignores certain inconvenient facts about the US space program, like its long-term reliance upon personnel who had originally been trained off-shore. So where did many of these rocket scientists get their theoretic and practical education? In Nazi Germany, where they designed and implemented such wonders as the V1 and V2 rockets. That's not to say that all of NASA was German, but the core rocket design team did comprise a disproportionate number of Germans collected after World War II. The DI sniper is right that we did not have to wait for them, but he is wrong if he thinks or implies that NASA was a completely home-grown outfit.

And what sort of argument does toting up Nobel laureates serve? One might as well attempt to assess general nutrition in Warsaw Pact nations in the 1960's and 1970's by what proportion of gold medals they took home from the Olympic games. It is useless to try to make arguments about norms out of data about extremes of a distribution, and the awarding of Nobel prizes is certainly about as extreme as it gets in science.

The DI sniper makes a bland assertion that the USA "produced" fully twice as many Nobel laureates as all other countries combined in the fields of physiology and medicine over the interval of 1967-1997. A handy table at the end of the viewer's guide gives some numbers: USA 48, others 24. But all it would take is one naturalized rather than native Nobel laureate to make the DI sniper's assertion an outright falsehood, and it happens that many of the USA's Nobel laureates are, indeed, naturalized citizens who did not get their elementary and secondary schooling in the post-Scopes USA. See Appendix A for examples. I used the Nobel Prize web site to come up with my own count, and it is odd that I came up with only 47 recipients in the period where the DI writer claims that there are 48. One of us is off by one. In any case, I count at least 13 recipients whom the DI sniper included in his tally who did not receive their initial education (and in several cases not even their advanced education) within the USA. Even assuming that the DI sniper's counts are correct, this gives a comparison tally of 35 likely USA educated recipients versus 37 non-USA educated recipients. That's well short of the claimed doubling; all that remains to be determined is whether the DI writer's obfuscation was deliberate or not.

Simple innumeracy lies behind the selection of the period examined by the DI writer.

There would have been a slight delay in the effect of the Scopes trial on high school students -- the first graduating class after the trial was Spring 1926, and the claimed effect would presumably have increased thereafter; so the thirty years from 1927 to 1957 are the crucial ones.

-- "Getting the Facts Straight", Anonymous, Discovery Institute Press, 2001.

When one counts the years in the interval 1927 to 1957 one finds not thirty, but thirty-one years. This is known in the software design trade as a "fencepost error". It seems odd that in both cases of counting that I've examined in detail, the DI writer appears to be one off.

There is much irony to be savored here. We have the irony of one (anonymous) Discovery Institute scholar (I use the term here in the loosest sense) being flatly contradicted by another (well-regarded) Discovery Institute scholar. We have the irony of "systematic omission" of relevant facts being charged against PBS elsewhere in the viewer's guide juxtaposed with the jingoistic account of NASA's competent personnel which somehow overlooks the German complement. Another convenient omission is that the DI sniper does not note the support that Nobel laureates have given to good education on the topic of evolutionary biology, as documented in the amicus curiae brief filed in Edwards v. Aguillard. Then the DI sniper mentioned integrity. His preposterous fallacies, pretzel logic, blatant hypocrisy, and historical revisionism certainly do make me seriously question whether he has any. Unfortunately, the "research" so far undertaken by the Discovery Institute appears to share in the sloppiness exhibited in this example.


Larson, Edward J. 1989. Trial And Error. Oxford University Press.

Appendix A: A list of names of USA recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, 1967-1997 (see the Nobel Prize web site). An "(n)" indicates that the person is known to be a naturalized citizen. [Note: If one browses the biographical information, as I have done, one will see New York City and its boroughs mentioned over and over again. For USA-born Nobel winners in this sample, New York appears to be the most common birthplace.]

Haldan Keffer Hartline, George Wald
Robert W. Holley, Har Gobind Khorana (n), Marshall W. Nirenberg
Max Delbruck (n), Alfred D. Hershey, Salvador E. Luria (n)
Julius Axelrod
Earl W. Sutherland, Jr.
Gerald M. Edelman
No USA winners
George E. Palade (n)
David Baltimore, Renato Dulbecco (n), Howard Martin Temin
Baruch S. Blumberg, D. Carleton Gajdusek
Roger Guillemin (n), Andrew V. Schally (n), Rosalyn Yalow
Daniel Nathans, Hamilton O. Smith
Allan M. Cormack (n)
Baruj Benacerraf (n), George D. Snell
Roger W. Sperry, David H. Hubel (dual citizenship, schooled in Canada)
No USA winners
Barbara McClintock
No USA winners
Michael S. Brown, Joseph L. Goldstein
Stanley Cohen, Rita Levi-Montalcini (dual citizenship)
No USA winners
Gertrude B. Elion, George H. Hitchings
J. Michael Bishop, Harold E. Varmus
Joseph E. Murray, E. Donnall Thomas
No USA winners
Edmond H. Fischer (n), Edwin G. Krebs
Richard J. Roberts (n), Phillip A. Sharp
Alfred G. Gilman, Martin Rodbell
Edward B. Lewis, Eric F. Wieschaus
No USA winners
Stanley B. Prusiner

Appendix B: Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine who were signatories to the amicus curiae brief filed in support of evolution education in Edwards v. Aguillard (see full text).

NameYearField of Study
Michael S. Brown & Joseph L. Goldstein 1985Discovery of receptors that control body cholesterol
Barbara McClintock1983Discovery of mobile genes in chromosomes of corn
David H. Hubel & Roger Sperry1981Studies on the organization and local functions of brain areas
George D. Snell1980Discovery of the role of antigens in organ transplants
Allan Cormack1979Invention of computerized axial tomography (CAT scan)
Daniel Nathans &1978Discovery and use of restriction enzymes for DNA
Roger Guillemin1977Discovery and molecular structures of brain hormones
Rosalyn Yalow1977Development of radioimmunoassays of peptide hormones
David Baltimore, Renato Dulbecco & Howard M. Temin1975Discovery of reverse transcriptase and work with the interaction between viruses and host cells
George E. Palade1974Analysis of structure, chemistry and function of cell organelles
Julius Axelrod1970Discoveries in the chemical transmission of nerve impulses
Salvador E. Luria1969Discoveries in the workings and reproduction of viruses
Robert W. Holley, H. Gobind Khorana & Marshall Nirenberg1968Understanding and deciphering the genetic code that determines cell function
Charles B. Huggins1966Research on causes and treatment of cancer
Konrad Bloch1964Work on cholesterol and fatty acid metabolism
Francis Crick & James D. Watson1962Determination of molecular structure of DNA
Arthur Kornberg & Severo Ochoa1959Artificial production of nucleic acids with enzymes
Andre Cournand1956Use of catheter for study of the interior of the heart and circulatory system
Frederick Robbins & Thomas H. Weller1954Discovery of a method of cultivating viruses in tissue culture

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