Monday, April 03, 2006

Dembski at KU

This post is originally from late January 2006 and was published in my livejournal.

My venture to see Dembski speak started as I arrived at the center nearly an hour before the presentation was due to start. When it hit 7:00, the lights dimmed and a short video started featuring clips of interviews from students at our campus giving their thoughts on various questions on Intelligent Design. Most seemed to tout the “teach the controversy” idea. The only exception was one girl that dismissed it as pseudoscience and said it should not be taught.

From there, the president of Campus Crusade for Christ (CCC) came out to introduce the speaker, urging audience members to keep an open mind as it was apparent there is much confusion on the matter of Intelligent Design.

Then Dembski emerged. He began his speech by saying “Darwin was undoubtedly a great man, with a great idea,… but evolution is not the whole story.” He then proceeded to outline how evolution was excellent on explaining small-scale changes, but has failed to explain the emergence of species, account for the Cambrian explosion, or predict cellular machines. He labeled evolution as being a “global disciplinary failure”. Next, he discussed Intelligent Design, pointing out that it is misunderstood and that it has been labeled “Creationism in a cheap tuxedo” although the person responsible for that quote has since updated it to an “expensive tuxedo”. Dembski attempted to counter that Intelligent Design sees little to no funding. Around the end of November the NY Times published an article that demonstrated that ID supporters were asked to submit research proposals for grant money, but none were ever turned in. Thus, the claim that ID sees no funding is untrue. Perhaps if they’d take their money and invest in research instead of advertising they’d have a better time of it.

From there, he quickly attempted to explain the evolutionary process. His analogy was of being at a mall with a million other people and playing a game in which everyone flips a coin (why a mall I’m unsure). He also tried to go into detail of a penny, explaining what one was (a “homogeneous disk…with a heads and tails”). However, he stumbled over terminology and made himself look as if he hadn’t bothered to prepare his lecture. In this game, everyone flipping tails sits down. Statistically, after the first round 500,000 would sit down. Generally after 20 rounds, only one person would remain standing. This would be a random process generating favourable results.

For those that have read this thread, or understand how evolution works would realize that this is an oversimplification in order to set up a strawman. Evolution in no way is a random process as Dembski asserts.

Next, Dembski went on to define Intelligent Design. His definition was basically that ID is the “study of processes in nature that imply design”. Dembski then attempted to outline the “design process” that we take saying it has “four or five steps”. His explanation was confused and he tended to backpedal frequently. In the end, he wasn’t able to count the number of steps in his own explanation, which instilled great confidence in his mathematical skills to me.

In effect, his explanation was that first a plan must be conceived, then materials procured, transported to the appropriate places, and assembled (I count that as 4 steps). He then explained that we see this process in cells and compared the structure of a cell to an “automated city”. By this, he inferred that, unless things could be built up by the process of evolution, which can only take “baby steps”, then things such as cells must have been designed.

As with many ID proponents, Dembski’s chief test of whether things could be built gradually, was the bacterial flagellum. He was gracious enough to admit that evolution readily accounts for the gradual construction of many “cellular machines”, however, he asserted, that several objects such as the flagellum have not been accounted for. Dembski fell short of using Behe’s buzzword of “irreducible complexity”. Perhaps this was an attempt to distance himself from Behe’s failure on the stand at Dover.

Dembski explained how the flagellum was a machine in which it had the rotor, drive shaft, mounts to attach it to the cell wall, etc… He was honest enough to mention that a slightly less complex form of the flagellum was the type 3 syringe. Yet at that point, he claimed that since scientists had not laid out a complete evolutionary pathway in which the type 3 syringe had been evolved, then it must be too complex to have evolved (argument from ignorance anyone?).

Additionally, Dembski made the claim that the type 3 syringe had de-evolved from the flagellum. His “proof” was that having the type 3 syringe would be useless unless an organism had a flagellum to propel itself. However, even on a cursory examination, this is a poor argument given that most infectious bacteria and viruses are picked up by the victim making contact. Bacteria don’t need to go hunting when things will inevitably come to them.

Around this time, I came to notice that Dembski had still not made any use of the screen in the background. The CCC had prepared the initial video. This struck me as odd and yet again as if Dembski hadn’t bothered to prepare or put much effort into his talk. Perhaps he thought Kansas was just gullible enough to lap it up without pictures.

At that point, Dembski embarked upon a tangent saying how, if nothing else, Intelligent Design forced “neo-Darwinists” to be honest and account for such things. He then cited a 2001 case in which a scientist had been caught falsifying his evidence. I expected him to also cite the “Piltdown Man” incident in which scientists were caught in creating a false skeleton. I also expected that the recent incident in which a Chinese scientist, researching stem cells, was caught falsifying data. However, Dembski left it at the single case.

However, the important thing to note here is that in all three cases, as well as others, those that have falsified data have always been exposed by other scientists. Thus, saying that Intelligent Design “keeps scientists honest” is another weak argument given that scientists having to compete with each other for grant money will expose each other.

Dembski then quickly returned to his premise saying quickly that evolution was in many cases statistically impossible but would not make an explanation on why.

The next topic Dembski covered was whether or not Intelligent Design was truly “creationism in a cheap/expensive tuxedo”. He stated that creationism starts with a position and then seeks to justify it. Intelligent Design just happens to use the same arguments, and reach many of the same conclusions. It’s also coincidence that ID is widely supported by the “unwashed masses” as opposed to evolution which is upheld by “educated professionals” (his words, not mine). To me, that boils down to ID and creationism being two heads of the same coin in which creationism is a “bottom up” method and ID is “top down”.

Dembski then stated that while opponents of ID argue that it has religious implications, evolution also promotes a religion, namely atheism. To support this argument, he listed several quotes from prominent atheist scientists such as P.Z. Meyers. Yet he conveniently failed to mention that the study of evolution has also lead several scientists in the opposite direction (himself included, if he wasn’t lying earlier when he told the audience that it was these patterns that lead him to his beliefs). Thus, his claim that evolution must be atheistic falls short as well. It’s all about how you want to *gasp* interpret thigns.

Dembski talked in circles for a short time longer but didn’t say anything new. Finally he opened the floor to questions.

The first question was “Exactly what testable and falsifiable hypothesis does Intelligent Design make?” Dembski’s answer was that to disprove ID, evolutionists would have to account for how features such as the flagellum could arise through step-by-step processes. In other words, unless scientists can explain everything, then Intelligent Design is the default answer.

Another notable question was in which a woman asked precisely what evidence was in support of intelligent design (as opposed to just negatives against evolution). Dembski’s initial response was “I thought I’d already stated them but apparently they’ve fallen upon deaf ears.” He then joked that to do so would require a “whole different talk”. Funny, I thought the purpose of this talk was the “case for intelligent design.” From there, he repeated his claim that things were too complex to be the process of evolution and directed the lady in question to read the articles on his website, or perhaps she should buy his book. She then tried to explain that as a biologist she had read his articles and found them devoid of evidence and asked him again to provide some. Instead of answering Dembski brushed her off with a terse “your question is done.”

This refusal to address questions and dance around the actual question characterized the rest of Dembski’s responses with him impolitely demanding that the posers of several more questions state their question immediately without being given a chance to fully explain the context.

So as an overall review:
- Dembski seemed unprepared
- Presented worn arguments
- Presented easily contestable claims
- Either beat around the bush when responding to questions, or refused to answer them outright

It might just be me, but if Dembski is one of ID’s leading movers, I think those that aren’t anti-evolution have little to fear.

Another interesting aspect of this entire event was the response to it. The school newspaper’s headline for the article (which was on page 2 as page 1 was taken up by an article about Dubya visiting nearby college, Kansas University), read “Dembski defends scientific theory”. Apparently they haven’t quite understood that it’s not science. However, their article remained neutral. Similarly the local newspaper (Lawrence Journal World) did not take a position on whether or not Dembski made a convincing argument. The nearby Kansas City Star did not even find the even worth mentioning.

Dembski’s blog repeats the LJW story with a humorous note before it that reads:
In an unsurprising act of cowardice, not a single Darwimpian defender of faith scientist had the balls fiber to stand up to our fearless leader in Kansas yesterday.

Originally, the Campus Crusade for Christ had wanted a debate with Dembski, but no local scientist would agree. Why? Can’t say for sure. Some have speculated that they weren’t about to debate in such a slanted forum as an event hosted by the CCC. However, scientists refused to attend hearings on ID last year because they wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t even worth that much recognition and time. I suspect that’s the same reason. It might also be good to look at Phil Plait’s essay on debating pseudoscientists. Additionally, while Dembki’s compatriots like to shout from the rooftops that scientists won’t debate him, it’s also worth noting that Dembski himself pulled out of a debate that he was already scheduled for at Case Western University against Ken Miller last month.

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