The Design Revolution?

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
The Design Revolution? How William Dembski is Dodging Questions about "Intelligent Design"
Author(s): 
Mark Perakh
Volume: 
27
Issue: 
3–4
Year: 
2007
Date: 
May–August
Page(s): 
35–37
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

Who is William A Dembski? We are told that he has PhD degrees in mathematics and philosophy plus more degrees — in theology and what not — a long list of degrees indeed (Dembski 1998: 461).

We all know, however, that degrees alone do not make a person a scientist. Scientific degrees are not like ranks in the military where a general is always above a mere colonel. Degrees are only a formal indicator of a person's educational status. A scientist's reputation and authority are based only to a negligible extent on his degrees. What really attests to a person's status in science is publications in professional journals and anthologies and references to one's work by colleagues. This is the domain where Dembski has so far remained practically invisible. All his multiple publications have little or nothing to do with science. When he writes about probability theory or information theory — on which he is proclaimed to be an expert — the real experts in these fields (using the words of the prominent mathematician David Wolpert [2003]) "squint, furrow one's brows, and then shrug."

When encountering critique of his work, Dembski is selective in choosing when to reply to and when to ignore his critics. His preferred targets for replies are those critics who do not boast comparable long lists of formal credentials — this enables him to dismiss the critical comments contemptuously by pointing to the alleged lack of qualification of his opponents while avoiding answering the essence of their critical remarks. (See, for example, Dembski's replies to some of his opponents [Dembski 2002b, 2002c, 2002d, 2003a].) These replies provide examples of Dembski's overarching quest for winning debate at any cost rather than striving to arrive at the truth. For example, in his book No Free Lunch (Dembski 2002a), he devoted many pages to a misuse of Wolpert and Macready's (1987) No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems. (Some early critiques of Dembski's interpretation of the NFL theorems appear in Elsberry [1999, 2001]. A detailed analysis of Dembski's misuse of the NFL theorems is given, in particular, in Perakh [2004a].)

Dembski's faulty interpretation of the NFL theorems was strongly criticized by Richard Wein (2002a) and by David Wolpert (2003), the originator of these theorems. Dembski spared no effort in rebutting Wein's critique, devoting to it two lengthy essays (Dembski 2002b, 2002c). However, he did not utter a single word in regard to Wolpert's critique. It is not hard to see why. Wein, as Dembski points out, has only a bachelor's degree in statistics — and Dembski uses this irrelevant factoid to deflect Wein's well-substantiated criticism. He does not, though, really answer the essence of Wein's comments and resorts instead to ad hominem remarks and a contemptuous tone. (Wein 2002b replies.) He cannot do the same with Wolpert who enjoys a sterling reputation as a brilliant mathematician and who is obviously much superior to Dembski in the understanding of the NFL theorems of which he is a co-author. Dembski pretends that Wolpert's critique does not exist.

Dembski has behaved similarly in a number of other situations. For example, the extensive index in his latest book The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Dembski 2004a) completely omits the names of most of the prominent critics of his ideas. Totally absent from the index to the book are the following names of serious critics: Rich Baldwin, Eli Chiprout, Taner Edis, Ellery Eels, Branden Fitelson, Philip Kitcher, Peter Milne, Massimo Pigliucci, Del Ratzsch, Jeff Shallit, Niall Shanks, Jordan H Sobel, Jason Rosenhouse, Christopher Stephenson, Richard Wein, and Matt Young. All these writers have analyzed in detail Dembski's literary output and demonstrated multiple errors, fallacious concepts, and inconsistencies which are a trademark of his prolific production. (I have not mentioned myself in this list although I have extensively criticized Dembski both in web postings [Perakh 2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c] and in print [Perakh 2004a, 2004b]; he never uttered a single word in response to my critique, while it is known for a fact that he is familiar with my critique; the above list shows that I am in good company.)

Thomas D Schneider, another strong critic of Dembski's ideas, is mentioned in the index of The Design Revolution but the extent of the reference is as follows:

Evolutionary biologists regularly claim to obtain specified complexity for free or from scratch. Richard Dawkins and Thomas Schneider are some of the worst offenders in this regard.

Contrary to the subtitle of Dembski's book — Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design — this remark can hardly be construed as an answer to Schneider's questions. But even this is more of a mention than most serious critics get from Dembski.

Essentially, all the critics listed above have asked Dembski a number of specific questions regarding his concepts. The absence of any replies to the listed authors suggest that the title of Dembski's new book should have properly been The Design Revolution? Dodging Questions about Intelligent Design. Is Dembski also of the opinion that selectivity in choosing when to respond to opponents and when to pretend they do not exist is compatible with intellectual honesty?

PREMATURE REPORTS OF THE DEMISE OF "DARWINISM"

One of beloved themes of Dembski's diatribes is his claims that "Darwinism" (the creationists' term for evolutionary biology) is either dying or is already dead ( see for example Dembski 2004a). In that assertion, Dembski joins a long list of "Darwinism"'s deniers who started making such claims almost immediately after Darwin published his magnificent On the Origins of Species. Predictions that "Darwinism" (read: evolutionary biology) will very soon be completely abandoned by the majority of scientists, claims that it has already died, assertions that it cannot withstand new discoveries in science — all this stuff has been a regular staple of the anti-Darwinian crowd for 148 years (see Morton 2002). Despite all these claims, evolutionary biology is alive and well and the evidence in favor of most of the Darwinian ideas is constantly growing.

Dembski asserts time and time again that evidence favoring "Darwinism"was always weak and that new discoveries make it less and less plausible. His claim (bolstered by the Discovery Institute's so-called "Scientific Dissent from Darwinism" advertisement), concludes that this lack of evidence is causing more and more biologists to abandon Darwinian ideas. In fact, he is proclaiming something he desperately wants to be true but that in reality is utterly false — at least if the evidence from the current research literature is any indication. It is hard to believe Dembski himself does not know that his claims are false. Indeed, Dembski is well aware of Project Steve (Dembski 2003b), conducted by the National Center of Science Education (http://ncse.com/taking-action/project-steve).

This endeavor by NCSE has unequivocally demonstrated that the overwhelming majority of scientists, and more specifically of biologists, firmly support evolutionary biology based largely on Darwinian principles. According to these data, the ratio of scientists who are firm supporters of the neo-Darwinian synthesis to those who doubt the main tenets of modern evolutionary biology is estimated, as of March 10, 2004, to be about 142 to 1. Dembski knows about this ratio and even tried to dismiss its significance (Dembski 2003b) by asserting that Project Steve was "an exercise in irrelevance" because the support of evolution by the majority of scientists is "obvious" anyway and was not disputed. It is remarkable that such a statement plainly contradicts Dembski's incessant claims in his other writing about scientists' allegedly abandoning "Darwinism" in droves; this contradiction apparently does not make Dembski uncomfortable. Of course self-contradictory claims in Dembski's output are too common to be surprising.

Dembski is a relatively young man and will most probably continue emanating repetitious philippics against "materialistic science" for many years to come. Science is not impressed, though (and hardly will be), by a relabeled creationism, supported not by evidence but only by casuistry in a pseudo-mathematical guise. (The purely religious motivation underlying Dembski's relentless attacks on evolutionary biology — in which he has no training or relevant experience — and on "materialistic science" in general is obvious from his numerous statements to non-scientific audiences — see, for example, Dembski 2004b, in which he told his audience, "When you are attributing the wonders of nature to these mindless material mechanisms, God's glory is getting robbed").

A SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION?

In his latest book, Dembski (2004a) says:

I take all declarations about the next big revolution in science with a stiff shot of skepticism. Despite that, I grow progressively more convinced that intelligent design will revolutionize science and our conception of the world (p 19).

Is the Design Revolution, so boldly forecast by Dembski, indeed imminent? I suspect that Dembski is in for a deep disappointment. He may continue generating noise within the shadow region underneath science, but at some point in the future all this brouhaha that "intelligent design" allegedly will replace "materialistic science" most probably will result in adding one more item to the amusing collection of absurdities that already contains Barrow and Tipler's Final Anthropic Principle with its prediction of a neverdying intelligence (Barrow and Tipler 1986; Gardner 1986), Tipler's further prediction of the imminent resurrection of the dead as computer-reincarnated entities (Tipler 1994), homeopathic quasi-medicine, and other fads and fallacies that so easily earn cheap popularity among the benighted crowds. Paradoxically, these "scientific revolutions" occur regularly in the same country where efforts by the avant garde of honest scientists and inventors lead the world in the progress of technology and genuine science. Dembski's work may be remarkable among these only in its quantity.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I appreciate helpful comments to the initial draft of this essay by Matt Young, Alec Gindis, Wesley R Elsberry, and Gary S Hurd.

References

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Dembski WA, ed. 1998. Mere Creation: Science, Faith, and Intelligent Design. Downers Grove (IL): InterVarsity Press.

Dembski WA. 2002a. No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot be Purchased Without Intelligence. Lanham (MD): Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

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About the Author(s): 

Mark Perakh
c/o NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
ncseoffice@ncseweb.org

Mark Perakh is an emerius professor of physics at California State University Fullerton. He has to his credit nearly 300 scientific articles, four books, and several patents, and was a recipient of several prizes and awards, including one from the Royal Society of London. After his retirement he became involved in debunking various versions of pseudo- science, in particular in his book Unintelligent Design (Amherst [NY]: Prometheus Books, 2004).