I remembered Paul Nelson Day this year!

It helped to have all these people emailing me reminders in advance.

Paul Nelson Day, for you blessed souls who are unaware, is the day we commemorate the failure of a fellow of the Discovery Institute to follow through on his claims. Nelson actually presented a poster at a genuine scientific meeting, the Society for Developmental Biology, in which he proposed a novel metric he called “Ontogenetic Depth”, which supposedly measured the complexity of a lineage or something, producing numbers which he was certain spelled the doom of evolutionary theory. He even had a student, he said, measuring the ontogenetic depth of various species. Data? What? A creationist with data? I had to know how this worked. If I had his protocol, I’d even be willing to try to apply it to my organisms. You know, independent replication.

He was a bit dodgy about his methods, though, and they weren’t on the poster, and he promised to get back to me with a paper in a few days. A few weeks. A few months. A few years. It’s been 16 years now. No paper. Lots of handwaving.

I think we can safely say that ontogenetic depth is dead, and abandoned by its creator. It ought to be an embarrassing failure for Paul Nelson, but creationists never fail, they just bounce on to another delusion.

Paul Nelson has now invented another pseudo-sciencey phrase: Design Triangulation. Oh boy. Behe struck gullibility gold with the two-word mantra, “irreducible complexity”, that every creationist fool loved, because it was two long words that they thought made them sound clever…but it’s an empty claim, and IC has crumbled under even the most casual gaze. They also jumped on the “Design Theory” bandwagon, which fails because there is no Design Theory — it’s a mask over the words “God did it”. Nelson tried to get lightning to strike twice with “Ontogenetic Depth”, which also flopped. His mistake was promising something measurable and testable, which he wasn’t able to do.

Now it’s “Design Triangulation”. What is it? I don’t know. This time he apparently decided to start by writing out a thorough explanation — we weren’t going to be able to ask him to provide a paper he didn’t write this time!


He seems to have written it in PowerPoint — big loud fonts, lots of colors, assertion after assertion, lots of bold claims, clearly he’s thinking he needs to make a splashy, flashy argument. There’s one thing missing, though: data. There is no data in the document. There is lots of sniping at evolutionary theory, which they don’t understand, and bogus arguments about probabilities.

It’s also 243 pages long.

I read the whole thing. It claims to be “Sketches for a Method of Design-Enabled Biological Research”, which sounds familiar — he claimed Ontogenetic Depth was a “method”, too. I read it with an eye towards picking out what bits had utility in research. Give me one thing I could use in a lab or in the field, one thing that could give me a discrete result. It’s not there. Instead, there’s a lot of noise of the sort that gives philosophy (bad philosophy) a bad name among working biologists. It’s tortured philosophy. It’s philosophy abuse. It’s the sort of thing that makes scientists and respectable philosophers scream in pain. It goes on and on, never coming to a point, never providing anything concrete. Like a lot of creationists, Nelson is constantly getting distracted into tedious railing against evolution, asserting that evolution is impossible, and never ever saying anything specific about his magical chant of “Design Triangulation”, which he mentions multiple times but never defines.

I thought I’d illustrate this article with a catchy slide from his overlong presentation, but there aren’t any. Yeah, he steals some lovely biological examples so he can say they couldn’t possibly have evolved, and he’s got a bit about Michael Lynch pointing out that there’s more to the evolutionary process than natural selection (which is not the problem for evolutionary theory that Nelson imagines it to be), and lots of wordy babbling about philosophy, but nothing that captures the guts of Design Triangulation. So the best I can do is give you the culmination of his presentation, the one image he’d leave with those viewing it:

That’s it. Design Triangulation is just…Design. There is no method given, as promised in the subtitle of the file. If you like the fantasy of Design and Designer(s), you’ll lap this crap up — Nelson knows his audience. If you expect some intelligent criticism and useful methodology, you won’t see it at all, because Nelson isn’t writing for you. You aren’t the kind of rubes who’d fall for pompous verbiage and empty promises.

It’s perfectly fitting for Paul Nelson Day!


  1. birgerjohansson says

    “Design Triangulation” reminds me of Beavis and Butt-Head commenting on the big triangular things in Egypt. “I think Moses built them. Really long ago, like, in the sixties or something.”
    And I just realised Paul Nelson is right, he just mistook which speices is the crown of creation!
    “Horses can recognize themselves in a mirror, study finds ” https://sciencex.com/news/2021-04-horses-mirror.html
    BTW, horses are much more impressive than the short-fur primates Nelson is obsessed with.

  2. says

    Give me one thing I could use in a lab or in the field, one thing that could give me a discrete result. It’s not there. Instead, there’s a lot of noise of the sort that gives philosophy (bad philosophy) a bad name among working biologists. It’s tortured philosophy. It’s philosophy abuse.

    So instead of using a hammer, I guess you could say Nelson does his philosophizing with a cross. (ba-dum-ching)

  3. PaulBC says

    Design triangulation already sounds sketchy (and Clintonesque I’ll add). The first association that pops into my head is water divination. Does his method involve dowsing rods?

  4. raven says

    We’ve been watching evolution in action for the past year.
    Where did the Covid-19 virus come from?
    It evolved from an animal virus, most likely a bat virus.

    UK coronavirus variant on course ‘to sweep the world … – CNBChttps://www.cnbc.com › 2021/02/11 › uk-coronavirus-…

    Feb 11, 2021 — The consortium first detected the more infectious mutation, formally known as B1.1.7, in Kent in southeast England in September through …

    It is now evolving more transmissable and virulent descendants which are taking over the world, as we watch.

    We may see more rounds of Covid-19 virus descendants in the coming years. There could be antigen escape variants that are resistant to the immune response provided by our current vaccines. If we develop and use antiviral drugs against Covid-19 virus, we will select for antiviral drug resistant Covid-19 virus.

    Reality and evolution doesn’t care what you believe.

  5. raven says

    Give me one thing I could use in a lab or in the field, one thing that could give me a discrete result.

    That is called a testable hypothesis.
    Creationism has never come up with one that I can recall.

    The universe looks exactly like it does if the gods didn’t exist.

    It’s also 243 pages long.

    That isn’t a good sign at all.
    It’s a sign of strength not weakness for an idea or concept if you can explain it simply and clearly in a few pages.

  6. says

    In related events, Eric Weinstein has evidently finally released a paper explaining his theory of everything, “Geometric Unity,” for which he’s claimed he deserves a Nobel.

    It contains this disclaimer:

    The Author is not a physicist and is no longer an active academician, but is an Entertainer and host of The Portal podcast. This work of entertainment is a draft of work in progress which is the property of the author and thus may not be built upon, renamed, or profited from without express permission of the author….

  7. davidc1 says

    I am shocked ,shocked I tells yer ,that i have missed all this stuff about Mr Nelson ,I have been reading the doc for ten years .
    How did i miss it ?

  8. davidc1 says

    PS ,if it was me ,I would have been sending him emails at least once a week asking him if he had forgotten he was going to send me details .

  9. PaulBC says

    Every time I see “Eric Weinstein” (and it has happened before) I have to double check that he is not Eric Weisstein, who maintains Wolfram MathWorld. I’m happy to see they are still distinct people. Some time I hope to avoid doing this double take.

  10. consciousness razor says

    It’s also 243 pages long.

    That isn’t a good sign at all.

    No, that’s a very good sign. It’s design triangulation all the way down, you see….
    First, note that 243 = 3^5.
    Also, the 243rd triangular number is of course 29646, and its prime factorization is 2 x 3^5 x 61.
    Now, 61 (mod 3) = 4 (mod 3) = 1 (mod 3), which has nothing to do with any of this, but it is an interesting remark that takes you more time to read and may provide a vague sense that I am knowledgeable.
    However, (3, 4, 5) is very well known as the smallest Pythagorean triple (3^2 + 4^2 = 5^2), making it both irreducibly complex and triangular, with a significant degree of ontogenetic depth.
    Thus, this was all perfectly designed by a magnificent intelligence beyond our comprehension.

  11. Chaos Engineer says

    “Design Triangulation” sounds like he’s trying to do a Hegelian Dialectic. I imagine it looks like:

    THESIS: Life was designed by God
    ANTITHESIS: Or, wait, maybe life evolved gradually over time?
    SYNTHESIS: No, it was definitely designed.

    I’d read the paper to find out if I’m right, but I feel like I’ve done enough work already.

  12. larpar says

    “These are preliminary ideas and need refinement via
    critique, which I welcome (paul.alfredp@gmail.com)”

    Just saying……

  13. hillaryrettig1 says

    there’s a lot wrong with fascists, but a lack of self-awareness may be foundational.

  14. birgerjohansson says

    bwc @ 16
    Powerpoint was an important vector for the soul-eating creepy crawlies in the Laundry novels.

  15. brightmoon says

    The last time I read a creationist paper, I facepalmed myself into a headache . “You’re a better man that I am Gunga Din”( even though Im a women)

  16. chrislawson says

    Does Nelson know what triangulation means? Is he moving around design space taking signal measurements to find the location of god?

  17. PaulBC says

    chrislawson@19 That’s kind of what made me think of the dowsing rods. He may not be able to tell you what design is, but he’ll know it when he finds it.

  18. dean56 says

    “It’s also 243 pages long.”

    More design — design to prevent it being read.

  19. davidw says

    I just downloaded and scanned it. Geez! Lots of quotes from other people, with the obvious citing of Galileo (but not Einstein!) and a whole bunch of blither. And he treats the movie “A.I.” as supporting data (not a fiction movie)! To coin a phrase: “What a maroon.”