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.
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)
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?