Monday, September 12, 2005

Dembski Baffles Me

I try very hard to take the ID folks seriously, but their actions make it clear that they are not serious people.

For example, William Dembski's blog, Uncommon Descent, is one of the first I check out every morning. When he started this blog some months ago, I figured his intention was to present a scholarly and serious public face for ID. I expected that, precisely because people like me are always accusing them of being charlatans desperate to play in the bigs despite their complete lack of talent and insight, he would attempt to show the world just how legitimate ID really was. Since a blog allows you to present your ideas without any editorial inteference or space limitations, I though he might try to respond in a measured, thoughtful way to the various criticisms of his work.

Boy was I wrong. From such promising beginnings, Dembski's blog has descended into a total joke. It seems his main goal nowadays is simply to strut and preen for his small cadre of devoted admirers. People on my side more cynical than myself would say that has always been his goal. But speaking as someone who once wrote, to my eternal shame, that Dembski should be read and taken seriously (note the end of my review of his book Intelligent Design, available here (PDF format)), I feel especially let down.

Let's consider some examples. In this post, from September 9, Dembski asks his readers to send in their favorite quotes from biologist Richard Dawkins. He provides a few examples of quotes he feels reflect especially badly on Dawkins. Here is one of them, exactly as Dembski presents it:

Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory, we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.

Since anyone familiar with Dawkins' work knows it is preposterous to suggest that he thinks we should accept Darwinian theory, or any other scientific theory, for reasons other than the strength of the evidence, one suspects that this quote is out of context. Over at The Panda's Thumb, PvM provided the greusome details in this post. We will consider the details in a moment. For now let me just mention that the Dawkins quote is not simply out of context, it is actually doctored. Dembski removed a phrase from it without providing an ellipsis.

Now, among serious people interested in debating novel ideas and discussing big questions, it is considered highly unethical to distort someone else's words. It is also considered juvenile and vaguely pathetic. But Dembski, by contrast, considers it very clever:

Fast forward to my blog entry yesterday titled “What’s Your Favorite Dawkins Quote.” There I gave as my favorite Dawkins quote “Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory, we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories.” I stated the quote this way on purpose, leaving off a little parenthetical in that sentence that doesn’t at all change its significance. I was waiting how long it would take for kneejerk Darwinists to jump on it. See for yourself at The Panda’s Thumb: “Dembski quote mining Dawkins.”

Very revealing. Here's how Dembski sees this discussion:

DEMBSKI: Here's Richard Dawkins admitting that Darwinism should be accepted regardless of the evidence.

PANDAS THUMB: Actually the quote is both out of context and doctored. Dawkins' point was something else entirely.

DEMBSKI: Ha ha! I deliberately misrepresented the quote just so I could make fun of you when you corrected me.

Charming. Dembski continues:

Now, you may be thinking that I’m just making this all up after the fact. Let me assure you that I’m not. Unlike the evolutionary process with which they are so enamoured, kneejerk Darwinists are supremely predictable. In the future, when I do something like this, I will provide prior confirmation with a date-time stamp elsewhere on the Internet.

Indeed. When I see someone telling lies about the work of people I respect, I do what I can to set the record straight. Shows you what a close-minded, predictable dumbass I am. I'm sure we can look forward to a post in which Dembski insults PvM's mother, and then gloats over the predictable anger it provokes from the other side.

Dembski continues:

By the way, in case you’re wondering what is the point of this exercise, it is to highlight that Dawkins regards evolution as an axiom that does not require empirical confirmation (note that he has made this point in other places and not just in the above quote). What’s gratifying is to see the kneejerk Darwinists at The Panda’s Thumb falling all over themselves trying to justify Dawkins’s ludicrous claim.

After reading this I, predictably, went to my bookshelf, pulled out my copy of The Blind Watchmaker, and looked up the quote. And here I must gently chide PvM. In the post I linked to above, he does not fully expose just how distorted Dembski's use of the quote really is. Here's Dawkins:

The obvious way to decide between rival theories is to examine the evidence. Lamarckian types of theory, for instance, are traditionally rejected - and rightly so - because no good evidence for them has ever been found (not for want of energetic trying, in some cases by zealots prepared to fake evidence). In this chapter I shall take a different tack, largely because so many other books have examined the evidence and concluded in fsvor of Darwinism. Instead of examining the evidence for and against rival theories, I shall adopt a more armchair approach. My argument will be that Darwinism is the only known theory that is in principle capable of explaining certain aspects of life. If I am right it means that, even if there were no actual evidence in favour of the Darwinian theory (there is of course) we should still be justified in preferring it over rival theories. (Emphasis in original)

And later:

First, I must specify what it means to `explain' life. There are, of course, many properties of living things that we could list, and some of them might be explicable by rival theories. Many facts about the distribution of protein molecules, as we have seen, may be due to neutral genetic mutations rather than Darwinian selection. There is one particular property of living things, however, that I want to single out as explicable only by Darwinian selection. This property is the one that has been the recurring topic of this book: adaptive complexity. (Emphasis in original).

No one has ever accused Dawkins of being a bad writer, and it's hard to see how he could have made his point any more clearly. I'll leave it to my readers to decide if Dembski's description of Dawkins, that Dawkins believes Darwinism should be accepted axiomatically, is born out by this quote.

And, in case you're wondering, Dawkins has never expressed the view Dembski attributes to him here. I think I know the quotes Dembski has in mind, but none of them say what Dembski is suggesting.

Incidentally, I have written before about Dembski taking perverse joy in provoking other people to correct his errors and distortions. The gory details are available here.

Okay. So Dembski is making stuff up and other people are correcting him. What else is new? At least with this entry I had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with a portion of Dawkins' writing I had not looked at in a while.

But most of Dembski's recent posts do not even rise to this level of interest. For example, in this post he boasts that since it is his blog he does not have to allow comments if he does not want to. A rare example of Dembski saying something that is true. Of course, bloggers more serious than he allow comments in the (often forlorn) hope of sparking thought-provoking exchanges of ideas, not because they feel they have to. Dembski, apprently, has no interest in such things.

And then there's this post, in which Dembski concocts a little story (attributed to an unnamed colleague) meant to show the callousness of scientists relative to the sensitivity of religious believers. Follow the link if you want the details, but the story is about a scienitst and a rabbi travelling with their grandchildren on an airplane. The rabbi's grandchild constantly checks on him while the scientist's does not. The moral, apparently, is supposed to be that acceptance of evolution causes you to ignore your grandparents.

P. Z. Myers explored the many reasons this is stupid here. For my part, I found it interesting that when Dembski invented a story in which one character is a religious fiugre called upon to say something deep and insightful, he chose a rabbi, not a minister or priest, for that purpose.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. The interesting thing is that even as Dembski wastes every one's time with one juvenile post after another, he somehow never got around to mentioning that the new issue of Progress in Complexity, Information and Design, the ID “research” journal of which he is the general editor, is now available online. As I will discuss in a future post, it is understandable that Dembski would not want to call attention to this embarrassing journal.

So let's settle up. Dembski edits a blog in which he only allows comments from his most fawning lickspittles. He boasts that, merely by telling lies about other people's work, he can provoke angry responses from other bloggers. But he does not boast about the new issue of his professional journal, and does not direct people to the numerous insightful articles contained therein.

This is the best the ID folks have to offer?

In this review of Phillip Johnson's The Wedge of Truth, I commented that Johnson was a sad case. In his early books on this subject he at least tried to be a serious commentator and attempted to make a decent argument for his beliefs. But his later books got so silly and strident, that he revealed himself as just another dopey religious hack (as virtually all critics of evolution eventually do). Dembski, apprently, is following the same course. Stuck in the bowels of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he no longer even aspires to be taken seriously. He is content to rule over his own demented kingdom, desperate for the praise of people the rest of us don't even bother to ignore.

If any of Dembski's supporters are reading this and feel moved to comment, I beg you to stay on the topic at hand. Do not tell me about some post at the Pandas Thumb or Pharyngula or here that you did not like. Do not sieze on Dawkins' reference to faking evidence to lecture me about Piltdown man or Haeckel's embryos. The subject at hand is the way Dembski conducts himself at his blog. In particular, please answer the following question: Do you think Dembski is clever for deliberately misrepresenting other people's words for the purpose of provoking an angry response?


At 9:06 PM, Blogger Jim said...

I was going to comment on Dembski's latest, but you've said everything I wanted to. Perhaps I'm a victim of his fatigue-the-opposition strategy.

At 9:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

He is content to rule over his own demented kingdom, desperate for the praise of people the rest of us don't even bother to ignore.

And not for the first time, either. Something he did earlier this year, I can't remember what, prompted me to comment at Panda's Thumb that Dembski verifies the psychologists' claim that people will seek out negative attention, because it's still attention. He is now world-famous. People talk about him. That wasn't going to come about as a result of his mediocre academic work.

At 6:08 AM, Anonymous vyoma said...

All of this only goes to prove the quality of Neo-Creationist theory. It's most "brilliant mind" is a raving lunatic who engages in tactics one would most commonly associate with a teenage Usenet flame-warrior. This is the BEST that ID theory has to offer.

A seminary is indeed a fitting place for so seedy a character as William Dembski. And what can we call somone who knowingly spreads outright lies other than seedy?

At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Judging from some of his own quotes, I had been leaning towards the conclusion of insanity. Then while reading your piece, I had been considering him as a usenet troll in a suit. But this sort of gleeful malice, this sort of perversion goes a bit beyond that. Reminds me of the psychopaths who deliberately leave clues with their corpses simply in order to taunt police -- in an effort to establish at least to themselves their own superiority.

That many in the creationist movement idolize someone this twisted speaks volumes of their movement.

--Timothy Chase

At 10:52 AM, Blogger Bob Davis said...

Clearly Dembski is not trying to find out what's really going on in the world. Insults fly left and right. This Evolution vs. ID debate needs to be resolved immediately. Therefore I am setting up a far-reaching experiment to prove once and for all the mechanisms of creation - Evolution, or something-intelligent-that-must-remain-unnamed. My experiment is set to begin next month, and will last a year. You can read more about it’s genesis on my website here: a modest experiment.

At 10:58 AM, Anonymous Duane said...

"And what can we call someone who knowingly spreads outright lies other than seedy?" We can also call them someone who believes that "truth is what people let you get away with."

At 10:59 AM, Anonymous Larry Lamb said...

Dembski's pretty much admitted he's acting in bad faith more than once over at the Panda's Thumb, so why take him seriously?
In my modest experience of dealing with net trolls, and WD sounds exactly like one in the bits you quote, the best thing is just to totally ignore them, which produces ever increasingly shrill attempts at provocation. Keep it up long enough and the tops of their heads can come clean off.

Incidentally, as WD's "technical" papers are remarkably underwhelming stuff, has anyone read or seen his maths PhD thesis?

At 11:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Considerably more stunning than his mendacity is his frank admission that it's deliberate. What on earth does he think he'll gain by timestamping his distortions? Does he think people won't believe quite how much of a hack he is? Is he an evolutionist plant intended to discredit ID? Probably not, since ID is perfectly capable of discrediting itself. But this is truly insane.

Ginger Yellow

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple people have compared Dembski (note proper use of vowels) to Internet trolls. It's an odd comparison, considering that trolls usually rely on the anonymity of the net to hide their bad behaviour. Dembski does his capering in the wide open.

Apparently he feels safe in that no amount of bad behaviour is going to jeapordize his new job at the SBTS. You'd think a seminary might have contractual clauses about honesty or prudent behaviour.

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Barron said...

I'm in the "don't take Dembski (or any ID person any more) seriously". They've really forfeited the right to be treated as serious debators.

On top of that the whole quote thing made me think of Pee Wee Herman falling off his bike and saying to the watchnig kids, "I meant to do that".

At 12:45 PM, Anonymous Larry Lamb said...

I've just poked around the new issue of PCID. Gluttons for deranged nonsense should definitely check out the de Jong paper.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...


Dembski described how to view his weblong here:

"Think of this blog as my playground. If you have to take a whiz, do it elsewhere."

His serious work is his unobjectionable mathematics.


At 3:19 PM, Blogger Jason said...


I notice you avoided answering my question: Playground or not, do you think it's appropriate to deliberately distort a person's words so that you can later gloat about provoking a response?

At 3:29 PM, Anonymous Martin said...

What unobjectionable mathematics?

So Dembski takes a whiz all over his playground but doesn't want anyone whizzing back. Childish.

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Martin said...

Here's a better TinyURL link to the page I was trying to link to:

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Salvador T. Cordova said...

Jason wrote:

"I notice you avoided answering my question: Playground or not, do you think it's appropriate to deliberately distort a person's words so that you can later gloat about provoking a response? "

Sorry, I should have responded. My apologies. My answer to your question is, "No regarding distortions, yes for gloating."

However, I don't think that's quite what Bill did (except for the gloating part). I can however, respect that you see it that way, we are, afterall, the "bad guys" in your eyes. My view is Bill was making a pardody (where the supposed distortion is acknowledged, and thus is not really a distortion).

It may seem inappropriate for him to enrage and prank and taunt people, but I can't expect he'll want to do any anything to put happy faces on his "critics and enemies". If he sees them enraged and demoralized, that is his re-assurance the ID cause is moving forward. Is it appropriate to gloat over the mis-steps and calamities of one's enemies? I mean, would you gloat if the leaders of ID get discredited in the Evangelicals eye and go finacially Bankrupt? (Come on Jason, just the thought of it would make you smile).

I think Bill was just having a little fun with his enemies at PandasThumb.....

I should say, I do not view you has having insincere motives, Jason, you are my opponent in a larger war who has been on cordial terms with me. And I do respect your intellect and attempts at fairness...

I can understand you view our side as villains, and thus I would expect you feel morally obligated to oppose us. Thus no matter how badly you may berate us, I know that you do so because you feel it is the moral thing to do. I don't hold it against you personally, as you're doing what you believe is right...

That said, the IDists are doing what they believe is right. They do not view the prevailing orthodoxy as being in the right. The Evangelicals within the ID community view the orthodoxy as enemies of science, free speech, and of the Intelligent Designer, God.

Their disrespect for Darwinian literature and absolute disdain for it's leaders (like Dawkins) comes through occasionally. Dawkin's words do not deserve serious and respectful treatment in their view, but rather should be the object of ridicule and disgust (minus a few sentences here and there as pointed out by nick).

Let's be honest here, both sides are polarized, and both sides think they are the good guys and the other side are the bad guys.

You've probably wondered why I sided with ID. In addition to my personal views, the case of Caroline Crocker (which will be broadcast in about 2 weeks in a not insignifcant news outlet), illustrates what I think is wrong with how business is done. (And hey, there is a chance my IDEA chapter's biology majors will get air time in that story too, woohoo)!

I cannot think well of an academic culture that would treat a thoughtul professor of cellular biology like Dr. Crocker so shamefully. Coupled with the fact we hear from professors in her field calling for "firing and public humilation" and the use of "brass knuckles and steel-toed boots", what are IDist to think?

What ever injury you may claim that Dembski's parodies may cause, I don't think it compares to real world of damaged lives and careers and alienation which the prevailing orthodoxy is willing to inflict on those who disagree with them.

Salvador Cordova

At 7:36 PM, Anonymous Martin said...

Is it appropriate to gloat over the mis-steps and calamities of one's enemies?....I think Bill was just having a little fun with his enemies at PandasThumb.....

What you don't get is that Dembski's "enemies" over at the Panda's Thumb are not the ones who have been committing "mis-steps and calamities". Dembski and the ID crowd are the ones who have been doing that. And in this case, Dembski is deliberately lying and misquoting people, spreading falsehoods, and then admitting he's been doing so just to gloat when people who do know the facts correct him. This is childish behavior unworthy of someone who wishes to be taken seriously as an academic, and reveals the intellectual paucity of the ID movement. This isn't about facts to them, it's about scoring points in the minds of a sympathetic (and conveniently scientifically illiterate) audience and claiming "victories" in a public forum that has nothing to do with how valid science is actually done.

And knock it off with the "prevailing orthodoxy" rhetoric. Evolution is the "prevailing orthodoxy" in biology for the same reason 2+2=4 is the prevailing orthodoxy in mathematics. It's where the facts point you, and if those facts don't happen to flatter your religious ideology of choice, too f**king bad. If the ID'ers have an actual theory, then they should present it, see if it stands up to rigorous peer review, and make with the research and evidence. Hand-waving and childish trolling on blogs is no substitute for doing actual science. Nor is playing "victim" in the news media, as this Crocker person you cite seems to be doing.

At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Ebonmuse said...

I went and checked Dembski's blog, and it seems that he and his followers (howdy, Sal!) are now discussing, in all apparent seriousness, the possibility of marketing talking Charles Darwin dolls that say things "schemeing [sic] to oppress a fair maiden or family", and Richard Dawkins Halloween masks with fangs and red glowing eyes.

I couldn't make up stuff like this if I tried. The ID movement has sunk to a depth of self-parody never anticipated by even science's most fervent defenders.

At 8:41 PM, Anonymous David Holland said...

Bob Davis,
I read your modest experiment. I think it's a great idea. When you're done get 9 women together and have them make a baby in 1 month. :)

By the way, where are you going to get precambrian life to put in your flasks?

At 4:31 PM, Anonymous Stephen Stralka said...

I know this comment is two days late, and probably no one will even read it, but I just read the post, and the other comments, and I wanted to respond to Salvador’s misunderstanding of what parody is. Misrepresenting someone’s views and then sniggering about it is not parody. To be effective, a parody has to bear some meaningful relationship to the original. Literary parody, for example, is a way of saying, “I’ve got your number. I can do what you do, and I don’t even take it seriously.” To pull it off, though, the parodist has to really understand the original. Parody is about exposing some flaw or shortcoming that actually exists in the thing you’re making fun of.

In Dembski’s case, his claim that “Dawkins regards evolution as an axiom that does not require empirical confirmation” is simply false. Thus, his mockery of this position, if it is intended as parody, completely misses the mark, because what he’s sniggering about bears no relationship to anything Richard Dawkins actually thinks. All Dembski is doing is beating up on a straw man, and making a fool of himself in the process.

At 6:12 PM, Blogger Doran said...

I know this is a bit late to the game on this post. Bill has posted an "interesting" flash game on his blog. Once again merely trying to get a rise out of his opponents. Quite sad for the "Newton of Information theory" for Isaac, though arrogant was never this assinine and petty.

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous PaulC said...

My favorite Dembski quote is where he says "I know you are but what am I?" not to mention his colorful and original metaphors. That one about rubber and glue still has me rolling on the floor. (I will now wait smugly for his predictable response.)

In fact, I was unaware of him until the recent NYT article about ID. The article left me with the impression that he had at the very least presented a rigorous algorithm for discerning "design" in an input string. That would be interesting to see; it would almost certainly be wrong, but at least it would be falsifiable and could even act as a benchmark for ALife.

Of course he did no such thing and I've been trying to figure out what to conclude about his methods and motives. What clinches it for me is that he has obviously misapplied the no-free-lunch theorem--a result that averages over a space of objective functions almost all of which are not even computable, let alone a reflection of the optimizations done in evolutionary systems.

Dembski seems to be intelligent enough not to make such a mistake by accident, so I can only conclude that his intention is to fool the layperson.

At 5:47 PM, Blogger Bob Davis said...

David Holland said...

Bob Davis,
I read your modest experiment. I think it's a great idea. When you're done get 9 women together and have them make a baby in 1 month. :)

By the way, where are you going to get precambrian life to put in your flasks?

The list of all the pre-Cambrian necessities are in an email I can send if you would like to volunteer. Or on the website at the Experiment page.

As for the babies, that idea is all yours and you may find it useful to attempt that experiment yourself. By the way, stay away from my sister.

At 8:54 PM, Anonymous badger3k said...

This is a bit late for this post, but it is in similar vein. His latest post on the religion/society study is a fine example of irony ( Of course, he also misreads what the study was showing, but that's about par for the course.


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