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A Victory over "Intelligent Design" in Oklahoma
I first heard that William Dembski was going to visit the University of Oklahoma quite by accident from one of my technical writing students. I was astonished. People still pay the honoraria of "intelligent design" (ID) advocates even after Kitzmiller v Dover? Apparently, they do, and after two phone calls I found out who was doing the paying: Trinity Baptist Church. On a "Note from the Elders" on its website, I read that they viewed the expense as a "gospel investment" — part of their attempt "to penetrate the university campus with the gospel," especially the science departments. "In case you are wondering, these departments and their teachings are not friends of Christianity."
I quickly contacted every faculty member in our zoology and botany/microbiology departments with news of Dembski's upcoming visit on September 17, 2007. Several of these faculty members — many of them affiliated with the group Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education — worked with me to put together a game plan.
We wrote an advertisement which was to appear in the OU student paper on the day of Dembski's arrival. In this ad, we listed several points showing, first, that evolution is not inherently atheistic, and second, that ID is not a scientific enterprise. Since we put the ad through several drafts to maximize its effectiveness, and since we had to turn in the ad two business days before it was to run, we only had about 48 hours to collect donations to cover the expense of the ad and signatures to appear beneath it. We had expected to get enough money for a half-page ad, along with perhaps a hundred signatures. Instead, we collected 180 signatures and ample money for the ad to cover a full page.
On the morning of Dembski's appearance, our ad was augmented by a guest column on the opinion page by OU biologist Douglas Mock, author of The Evolution of Sibling Rivalry and More than Kin and Less than Kind. Mock's column argued against ID, while a pro-ID counterpoint column was written by a journalism major.
Dembski's talk was held in an auditorium in our student union. Students posted at the building's entrances were passing out copies of mathematician Jeffrey Shallit's expert report in the Kitzmiller v Dover trial. In this brief document, Shallit takes Dembski to task for using flawed and nonsensical methodology which has not been utilized by real scientists and mathematicians. Outside the door of the auditorium, the local Christian bookstore had a table of books for sale by various ID advocates, including several titles by Dembski himself. A pamphlet recycling old ID arguments was also provided.
As the last of the auditorium's 407 seats were filled, an announcer told us that Dembski's talk would last for about an hour, after which there would be an open question-and-answer session. Two microphones had been set up for this purpose. On the screen was Dembski's first slide — a quotation from our full-page advertisement about how ID proponents "refrain from publishing their results in peer-reviewed math and science journals."
Dembski began by saying that no one had ever taken out a full-page ad against him before, and spent the first five or ten minutes of his presentation trying to refute our point about ID's lack of peer-reviewed publications. As though this helped his refutation, he posted a list of eight such peer-reviewed publications — most of which had nothing to do with ID methodology. The remainder of Dembski's presentation had all the usual examples and analogies (the bacterial flagellum, Mount Rushmore, the motorcycle engine), as well as stills and clips from films like This is Spinal Tap and Dumb and Dumber.
Having taught college-level writing classes for several years, and having been a trainer in the corporate world before that, I can tell when a speaker has carefully honed a presentation to razor sharpness and when a speaker is coasting along based on past acquaintance with the material. As far as I could tell, Dembski was phoning in his presentation. This became particularly apparent when Dembski reached the one-hour mark that should have ended his presentation. He began to skip some slides and to skim others. Finally, having gone over on time by fifteen minutes, he skipped virtually all of his last dozen slides to get to his conclusion.
After this, the question-and-answer period started. As lackluster, rushed, and incomplete as the presentation itself was, the question-and-answer period went even more poorly for Dembski. I was first in line to question, and I began by pointing out that there were several tenured science faculty in the room who had, by themselves, exceeded the peer-reviewed publication output for the entire ID movement. A zoology professor pointed out that Dembski had provided no positive evidence for ID and that his analogies for the complexity of living systems were very shabby ones. Then, in the highlight of the evening, a microbiologist on our faculty pointed out numerous errors and distortions in Dembski's treatment of the bacterial flagellum. In all, some 25 or 30 questioners grilled Dembski over the course of more than two hours, most of them undergraduates and grad students. Only two of the questioners were supportive of ID.
I had expected Dembski's talk to get a warm reception, and for many people to be fooled into thinking that ID was a worthwhile scientific enterprise. Instead, the the room had almost a carnival atmosphere. Dembski was heckled repeatedly for evading questions and responded to this heckling with further evasion. The audience laughed and applauded often and at length when a questioner put Dembksi on the spot. As one of our professors with the Oklahoma Biological Survey later told me, "No one could have come away thinking that it was anything but a complete disaster for Dembski."
The lasting impression
This disaster continued even after Dembski finally went home. In the week after his presentation, the OU student paper published one opinion letter by me, another by a zoology professor, and a guest column by the same microbiology professor who took Dembksi to task for his misrepresentation of the bacterial flagellum (see below). During this same period, not a single column or letter to the editor in support of ID appeared in the school paper.
All in all, our preparations were successful, and Dembski's visit to the University of Oklahoma did the "intelligent design" movement more harm than good. There is no doubt in my mind that if all presentations by ID proponents went as poorly as Dembski's did and if evolution supporters can organized and coordinate their efforts, then the support for the "intelligent design" movement would simply evaporate.
[See the September 2007 entries on the blogs ERV (http://endogenousretrovirus.blogspot.com/) and Ontogeny (http://mattdowling.blogspot.com/), as well as the blogs linked on the September 22, 2007, entry of The Panda's Thumb. The Trinity Baptist Church website hosts a copy of a pamphlet entitled "Design versus Dogma: A Brief Introduction to Intelligent Design", which was distributed before Dembski's talk.]