Comments on W.A. Dembski's Press Release of 2002/01/08

by Wesley R. Elsberry (2002/01/16)

William A. Dembski laid out some strong words against Rob Pennock on the topic of fairness, and how Pennock's book, "Intelligent Design Creationists and Their Critics", did not play fair with Dembski. Dembski raised a number of issues which, upon close examination, lead me to believe that Dembski may be irony-deficient.


Imagine if someone critical of Darwinian evolutionary theory decided to publish a book titled _Dogmatic Darwinian Fundamentalists and Their Critics_, managed to obtain copyright permissions for pieces by prominent Darwinists (mostly outdated pieces at that), and then situated their pieces within a collection of critical replies designed to make them look ridiculous. Substitute intelligent design for Darwinism, and that's what Pennock and MIT Press have done.

[End Quote - WA Dembski, dembski_press_release_20020108.htm]

It seems to me that several of the "Intelligent Design" books that are featured as popular offerings do precisely what Dembski has outlined above, except that they are titled somewhat more disingenuously and they omit having more than a few carefully chosen "quotes" from their victims, er, academic opponents. Instead of reading even an outdated but complete essay by an evolutionary biologist, readers of ID books seldom see more than a strawman caricature of the evolutionary biologist's viewpoint. Little imagination is required to see that scientists within the discipline of evolutionary biology have grounds for disgruntlement at their treatment, and the treatment of their ideas, within the literature written by ID proponents. So this objection of Dembski's devolves into a complaint that Pennock has perhaps done as ID proponents treat others, rather than as ID proponents say they wish to be treated themselves.

Let's take, for example, Phillip E. Johnson's charming tome, "Defeating Darwinism by Opening Minds". The title is startlingly similar in content to Dembski's hypothetical. Perhaps the title provided unconscious inspiration for Dembski in forming his critique.

Dembski broaches the topic of books with collections of essays designed to make the opposition look ridiculous. While much is made of the fact that critics do attend and present at conferences put on by the Discovery Institute Center for Renewal of Science and Culture, and that conferences are a normal part of scientific endeavor, it seems that no attention has been paid to the other normal part of the aftermath of a conference: publishing the proceedings. I find it very interesting, and just perhaps revealing, that the ID proponents have been keen to set up conferences with critics invited(1), and keen to publish collections of essays by ID proponents(2), but have somehow failed to print even one proceedings volume from a conference that included critics of ID. If one had even been attempted, I think I would have heard about it. If one wishes to talk about "fairness", what could be more fair than actually publishing the proceedings and letting the rest of the world see what the ID critics had to say at those conferences?(3) It is not as if the vicissitudes of editing a collaborative volume have proved to be beyond the mettle of ID proponents; the list of edited volumes containing pro-ID essays certainly shows that the capability exists. It's just the will that seems to be conspicuously absent.



(3) It should be noted that while the 1997 NTSE had no proceedings volume printed, the essays from all the presenters were made available on the WWW. Also, a pre-DI CRSC conference held in 1992 has a printed proceedings titled, "Darwinism: Science or Philosophy?".


In my case, Pennock chose a popular 2,000 word essay of mine titled "Who's Got the Magic?" and followed it with a 9,000-word rebuttal by him titled "The Wizards of ID." For the other essay of mine, Pennock chose "Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information," which was a popular piece on information theory that's now five years old. I've written much on that topic since then, and the essay itself is now outdated. Moreover, Pennock followed that essay with three critical responses. One of those responses, by Elliott Sober, was a lengthy technical review (from the journal _Philosophy of Science_) of my technical monograph _The Design Inference_ (Cambridge University Press, 1998). No portion of that monograph or anything comparable from my work was included in Pennock's book. Finally, I was given no chance to respond to my critics.

[End Quote - WA Dembski, dembski_press_release_20020108.htm]

Dembski puts five complaints into one paragraph here. Let me "unpack" them.

  1. Unfair: There is a disparity between length of essay and the response.
  2. Unfair: An out-of-date essay was selected for critique.
  3. Unfair: One essay was followed by three critiques.
  4. Unfair: One critique was directed at a monograph which was not quoted within the book.
  5. Unfair: "I was given no chance to respond to my critics."

I will take these issues in order.

1. Unfair: There is a disparity between length of essay and the response.

It has been said that sometimes to answer a simply stated objection will require a disproportionate response. Simple questions may require complex or long answers. A Monty Python sketch involved an interview with a fatuous actor who was asked about his most difficult role from Shakespeare. His reply involved rattling off the names of parts and plays and how many words were required to be memorized, after which he said, "Ah, well, I don't want you to get the impression it's just a question of the number of words... um... I mean, getting them in the right order is just as important." Well, making a critical and scholarly response to an essay is similarly not just a matter of the number of words.

A further point is that concepts from Dembski's essay, "Who's Got the Magic?" appear as part of his preface to the recent ID book, "Signs Of Intelligence", including some pointed criticism of Pennock. However, nowhere within that volume do I see an invited response by Pennock. Did Dembski invite Pennock to make a response in that volume? If not, what sort of connotation does Dembski apply to his use of the word, "fair"?

2. Unfair: An out-of-date essay was selected for critique.

The answers to this and the next two of Dembski's plaints all involve the same essay, "Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information". I'm going to briefly review what I know about this essay. I first encountered it as Dembski's contribution to the 1997 "Naturalism, Theism, and the Scientific Enterprise" conference held in Austin, Texas, under the auspices of the Philosophy Department of the University of Texas (Austin). Variants of this essay have been available online since that time, and continue to be hosted online to this date (2002/01/16). A variant of this essay also appears as Chapter 6 of Dembski's book, "Intelligent Design" (copyright 1999). The preface to this book says nothing about the essay being dated, nor have I seen Dembski issuing press releases to tell prospective purchasers of "Intelligent Design" to ignore Chapter 6, as it is out-of-date. The preface also indicates prior publication of this essay in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49, no. 3 (1997): 180-190.

So the essay that was supposedly five years out of date was printed with just a few alterations as recently as 1999. At worst, the essay is now only three years out of date. Further, it is unclear that any of Dembski's more recent writing supercedes the contents of that essay. Several of the examples used in that essay have been repeated in other, more recent work. And, in fact, chunks of that essay do make an appearance within the pages of Dembski's just-released book, "No Free Lunch". (See this page for instances of correspondence between the text in sections of NFL and that seen in earlier work by Dembski.)

Collaborative works are often some time in the making. Even books that are the product of a single person sometimes take a while to reach the bookstore (or library) shelf. For instance, Dembski himself announced that he was working on the book now titled "No Free Lunch" back in 1999. It is just being published now (January, 2002). If a similar delay between onset of work on Pennock's volume and its publication were charitably granted by Dembski, we effectively have a situation where the essay in question was taken, at the time, "hot off the presses" from its appearance in "Intelligent Design". These considerations jointly serve to greatly reduce the effect of Dembski's complaint concerning selection of an "outdated" essay.

3. Unfair: One essay was followed by three critiques.

Surely the quality of the critiques counts for more than the simple quantity set in opposition. Dembski's original essay covered a lot of ground, sometimes quite rapidly. It seems to me not unreasonable to spread the burden of response across multiple critics.

"I would go further than that and say that I value objective peer review. I always learn more from my critics than from the people who think I'm wonderful."

- William A. Dembski as quoted by Fred Heeren

4. Unfair: One critique was directed at a monograph which was not quoted within the book.

The monograph is specified as "The Design Inference". This complaint of Dembski's would have had more force if Pennock and I had not attended the 1997 NTSE conference. There, Dembski deferred answering questions concerning the essay he presented (the one at issue here) because those questions would be, he assured us, addressed in his forthcoming book, "The Design Inference". This was certainly taken by me to indicate a fairly close linkage between the NTSE essay and the then-unseen "Design Inference". Either Dembski was incorrect to defer those questions (an instance of "promissory designism") or there is less to this complaint of his than is first apparent.

5. Unfair: "I was given no chance to respond to my critics."

It would be nice if books were open-ended and always provided opportunities for those criticized to have a platform to respond to the criticisms made. However, this isn't how books are typically written. Let me offer another example, again that of Dembski's book, "No Free Lunch". At the Haverford conference this summer, Dembski spoke of making responses to certain of my criticisms. However, I have received no offer from Dembski to offer my own responses to his critiques of my ideas within the pages of "No Free Lunch". Again, I am prompted to wonder just what connotation Dembski applies to his use of the word, "fair". It seems to me that "fairness", in Dembski's usage, is a rather one-sided process whereby Dembski reaps benefits and his critics must bear burdens.

Dembski clarifies that the major point of his complaint, though, is the label which has been applied to Dembski by Pennock in the title of the new book. According to Dembski, "creationist" carries a stigma in modern academic circles, and Dembski classifies this as a political tactic rather than simply a matter of academic criticism. It is certainly arguable as to how well Dembski fits the label of "creationist". If we accept Phillip E. Johnson's criterion of who is and is not a creationist spelled out in "Darwin On Trial", Dembski certainly is a creationist. If you construct "creationist" narrowly as a "young-earth creationist", then Dembski has testified that he doesn't belong in that group.

And yet Dembski seems oblivious to the irony of objecting to being called a "creationist" by a critic, when Dembski has no compunction in telling his readers that naturalism inevitably leads to idolatry, thus by implication labelling any and all critics who argue for methodological naturalism as 'idolators'. That is merely one of several derogatory classifications, analogies, or comparisons that can be found in Dembski's writings or interactions with the media. A notable invidious comparison can be found in this article, where we find this:

Dembski, whose recent book, The Design Inference, presents in great detail how the Intelligent Design argument satisfies logic and probability, likes to compare the movement's influence on science to the freedom and democracy movements and their effect on Eastern Europe. Criticism of Darwinism now threatens the hegemony of Darwinism, he says, just as the move toward freedom upset the Soviet empire.

-- Stephen Goode, Insight Magazine,

If that isn't a political rather than academic statement, I'd request Dembski's peculiar one-way connotaton of "political", too.

Dembski is fond of drawing from popular culture. My impression of Dembski's complaint against Rob Pennock can be expressed simply in a popular cliche':

He can dish it out, but he can't take it.

PS to Rob Pennock:

"If we're generating such strong, visceral responses, we must be doing something right."

- William Dembski as quoted by Lynn Vincent