The following article was copied out of the November, 2000
issue of _The American Spectator_
>THE LYNCHING OF BILL DEMBSKI
>Scientists say the jury is out- so let the hanging begin
>By Fred Heeren
>(FRED HEEREN is a science journalist who writes about modem cos-
>mology, paleontology, and biology. He lives in Wheeling, Illinois.)
>Mathematician William Dembski stands accused
>of bringing shame upon a major university.
>Not only that, say his colleagues, he has man-
>aged to disgrace the entire scientific enterprise.
>Scientists from distant universities wrote letters to the editors
>of his university newspaper, and biologists spoke up through the
>surrounding city papers, telling the public why this man must
>be stopped. When Dembski organized an academic confer-
>ence, one incensed professor from another state sent long
>e-mails to the scheduled speakers, seeking to discredit Demb-
>ski and convincing one famed philosopher to cancel.
>The faculty senate of his own Baylor University voted z6 to z
>to recommend that his research center be dismantled. Eight
>members of Baylor's science departments wrote Congress about
>the dangers of Dembski's project, and several briefings on the
>issues were made before a bipartisan group of congressional
>members and staff.
>So you're wondering: What kind of new and evil science is
>William Dembski practicing? Is he cloning half-humans with-
>out souls to create cheap labor? Several Baylor students inter-
>viewed for this article couldn't pinpoint the exact deed, but
>knew it was immoral because they heard that it had something
>to do with an evil use of the human genome project.
>What does Bill Dembski think of all this? A mild-mannered
>mathematician more at home with probability theory than pol-
>itics, he shakes his head in disbelief. "I've found that when
>people get to know me one-on-one, they think what I'm doing
>is legitimate, or at least worth pursuing. But when they start lis-
>tening to the siren call of the Internet, things get out of control."
>What Dembski has actually done hardly seems nefarious. As
>a scientist with twin Ph.D.'s in mathematics and philosophy,
>Dembski has set about developing mathematical methods for
>detecting intelligent design, should it be discernible, in nature,
>That's all. What's more, he has submitted his work to the scientific
>scrutiny of his peers. So why are all these professors so hysterical?
>Since the 1980's, critics have charged that the intelligent design
>concept is really just "a disguised form of creationism." Accord-
>ing to Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Cen-
>ter for Science Education: "They're really saying God does it,
>but they're not as honest as the Biblical creationists. The intel-
>ligence is really spelled in three letters: G-O-D."
>Not at all, says Dembski. Intelligent design points not to a
>creator, but to a designer -- a crucial distinction. "If you examine
>a piece of furniture," he explains, "you can identify that it is
>designed, but you can't identify who or what is responsible for the
>wood in the first place. Intelligent design just gets you to an
>intelligent cause that works with pre-existing materials, but not
>the source of those materials."
>Neuroscientist Lewis Barker, who left Baylor in protest over
>the administration's "religious" policies, buys none of this: "I see ~
>it as a form of stealth creationism, a very old argument wrapped ."
>in new clothes." Later, however, he adds: "The whole notion
>of using mathematics, that's something new."
>Also novel is the respect many "intelligent design" propo-
>nents have earned in the academic community. "They're real
>academics, not cranks," admits Skeptic magazine publisher
>Michael Shermer, whose editorial board is overwhelmingly
>composed of intelligent design critics such as Stephen Jay
>Gould and Eugenie Scott herself. "They have real degrees and
>tenure," adds Shermer. Not only does William Dembski have
>doctorates in mathematics and philosophy, he has done post-
>doctoral work in mathematics at MIT, physics at the Universi-
>ty of Chicago, and computer science at Princeton University.
>Even Lewis Barker says: "He seems to be a very bright guy."
>Eugenie Scott argues that intelligent design proponents
>don't have a scholarly position because they never submit their
>work for peer review. But each time she brings up the kind of
>scholarly evaluation that's lacking -- the reviewed publications
>or academic conferences -- she stops short when she comes to
>the work of William Dembski.
>Regarding conferences, Scott remembers Dembski's "The
>Nature of Nature" conference (April 12-15 at Baylor) and grudg-
>ingly admits: "They actually did invite some scientists there." In
>fact, the slate of speakers included two Nobel Prize-winning sci-
>entists and several members from the National Academy of Sci-
>ences. The list was weighted toward prominent biologists, physi-
>cists, and philosophers who were critical of intelligent design.
>And when Scott ticks off a list of non-peer-reviewed design
>literature, she hesitates when she recalls that Dembski's book,
>The Design Inference, was written as part of a Cambridge Uni-
>versity philosophy of science series. Published as Dembski's
>doctoral dissertation in philosophy, it became Cambridge's
>best-selling philosophical monograph in recent years. After
>surviving a review of go scholars, and then the standard disser-
>tation defense at the University of Illinois, The Design Inference
>finally underwent corrections and refereed scrutiny for two
>years at Cambridge University Press.
>The great irony is that just as Dembski is proposing to test his
>theory with the help of molecular biologists, the very scientists who
>are challenging intelligent design to pass scientific tests are using
>every means possible to ensure those tests never take place.
>Birth of a Think-Tank
>The brief story of Dembski's Michael Polanyi Center starts with
>its home: Baylor University, the world's largest Baptist institution,
>located in Waco, Texas. For years, Baylor had a reputation among
>conservatives for 'going the way of many once-Christian colleges,
>neglecting its religious heritage and embracing the politically cor-
>rect tenets of secular humanism instead.
>All that began to change when Robert Sloan became pres-
>ident of Baylor University in 1995. Sloan, a New Testament
>scholar with a doctorate in theology from the University of
>Basel, proposed to return the school to its mission of integrat-
>ing academic excellence and Christian commitment. To fos-
>ter this goal, he oversaw the establishment of the university's
>Institute for Faith and Learning, which explores opportunities
>for profitable engagement between faith and academic pur-
>suits like art, history, business -- even science.
>Sloan resisted the urging of fundamentalists to "throw the
>evolutionists out" of the biology department, vowing never to
>bar anyone at Baylor from teaching evolution. He rejects the
>notion of a "creation science" (6-day creation a few thousand
>years ago). But he also believes that "the academic world has
>become far too compartmentalized."
>"Baylor ought to be the kind of place where a student can ask
>a question and not just get the runaround," says Sloan. "He
>shouldn't have to go to the theology department and be told,
>'Oh, that's a scientific question. Don't ask me that.' And then the
>student goes to the science department and they tell him,
>'That's a religious question. Don't ask me that.'"
>So far this doesn't sound too different from many other uni-
>versities nationwide that have recently set up centers to revisit the
>relationship between science and religion. But matters took a fate-
>ful turn in the fall of iqq8 when President Sloan read an article
>by William Dembski and was wowed by his work and creden-
>tials. Others in the administration were also impressed. Michael
>Beaty, director of the Institute for Faith and Learning, says that
>Dembski's work "fit right in with the institute. Bill was fruitful-
>ly dialoging with religion and science."
>When Beaty sounded him out about his interest in join-
>ing the institute, he learned that Dembski was seeking to
>build a research center to test the theory of intelligent design.
>The administration received his ideas with enthusiasm. His
>research would pursue not only intelligent design, but a
>broad range of topics having to do with the foundations of the
>natural and social sciences. Thus was born the Michael
>Polanyi Center, which Dembski named for an eminent phys-
>ical chemist who taught that biology is not reducible to
>chemistry and physics.
>"This was an opportunity to reaffirm that Baylor is a univer-
>sity where controversial issues can be discussed," says Donald
>Schmeltekopf, Baylor's provost. '%'e decided to go ahead and give
>it a chance, believing the university would be a richer and more
>compelling place, knowing that there would be those who would
>have objections." His pleasant expression disappears, and he
>adds: "We didn't anticipate the amount of objection."
>After Dembski brought on board Bruce Gordon (Ph.D. in the
>history and philosophy of physics) as associate director of the
>Polanyi Center, the duo made a good first impression on the fac-
>ulty they met. Gordon led a colloquium reading group, using
>two books about interactions between science and faith. Dis-
>cussion with participating faculty was cordial.
>"The controversy began after our Website debuted in mid-
>January," explains Gordon. "That's what drew more faculty
>attention to the center." While the
>Polanyi site itself was unexceptionable,
>other groups with evolutionist-bashing
>agendas began linking up their Web-
>sites to the center. Many on the biolo-
>gy faculty flashed back to old culture
>battles, when such groups had publicly
>questioned the professors' integrity.
>Gordon is understanding, but
>explains that the realities of the Web
>are such that the Polanyi Center has no
>control over who connects to their site.
>"We don't endorse a connection to
>those sites at all. They didn't ask our
>permission. But we can't spend our time
>policing the Internet."
>Reaction built quickly. One profes-
>sor who had previously been friendly at
>the reading group wrote Gordon an
>insulting letter. An e-mail frenzy began
>between faculty in all departments, call-
>ing special attention to the creationist
>Websites that claimed the Polanyi Cen-
>ter as one of their own.
>News spread to other universities,
>and soon newspapers in Waco and
>Houston were filled with reactions
>from a handful of vocal Baylor pro-
>fessors who were appalled that such a
>monstrosity as the Polanyi Center should be found on their
>By this time, plans were well under way for a large Polanyi
>conference called "The Nature of Nature." Most Baylor biol-
>ogists decided to boycott the event. Even so, the April confer-
>ence drew g~o scholars from around the world whose views
>varied wildly on the conference's central question: "Is the uni-
>verse self-contained or does it require something beyond itself
>to explain its existence and internal function?"
>By all accounts, the conference itself was an outstanding suc-
>cess, drawing attention to Baylor as a place that could attract
>world-class scholars for dialogue on the big questions. In spite of
>one out-of-state professor's campaign to convince all speakers
>to cancel, the conference brought together such luminaries as
>Nobelist/physicist Steven Weinberg, Nobelist/biochemist Chris-
>tian de Duve, big bang cosmologist Alan Guth, paleontologist
>Simon Conway Morris, and philosopher Alvin Plantinga.
>But the conference only focused the Baylor faculty's anger
>more intensely on the Michael Polanyi Center. A few days
>after it ended, the faculty senate met and voted to recommend
>that the administration dissolve the center immediately. The fac-
>ulty claimed that President Sloan had no right to set up such a
>center and choose its head without their involvement.
>"It's rather ironic that people in the scientific community,
>whose rights had to be protected in the face of ideological pres-
>sure [from creationists], now appear to be suppressing others,"
>says President Sloan. "People have always asked questions about
>the relationship of religious views and the natural phenomena
>we see in the world. I think it just borders on McCarthyism to
>call that 'creation science.'"
>The day after the faculty senate vote, President Sloan addressed
>the faculty, telling them that he would not close down the Polanyi
>Center merely because they demanded it. The procedure he
>had used in setting up the center was no different from the one he
>and previous administrators had used to establish other centers.
>Michael Beaty, director of the Institute for Faith and Learn-
>ing, notes that they had used the same procedure for setting up
>the Center for American Jewish Studies, without criticism.
>Recognizing that the faculty's real objections were not
>about procedure, Sloan repeated to the faculty an earlier
>announced plan to form an independent peer review com-
>mittee to evaluate William Dembski's work and the work of the
>Polanyi Center. He said that he sympathized with the science
>faculty over their concern for their reputations, but that the big-
>ger issue is academic freedom. He didn't like the idea of snuff-
>ing out a project without giving it a chance to have its work
>reviewed by peers.
>Assuming the committee would impartially address the
>matter, Dembski welcomed the review. "Academic programs
>need to be held accountable," he said at the time. "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."
>Initially, Baylor spokesman Larry Brumley insisted that the
>committee wouldn't be asked whether the center should be
>dissolved. "It's not a committee to look at whether we should
>reconsider having the Polanyi Center," Brumley said. "They're
>looking at how we can better communicate its purpose and
>address the concerns of faculty members."
>When the committee membership was announced, however,
>Dembski was surprised to find antagonistic biologists in the
>majority. Worse, the committee did not include a single person
>capable of understanding the mathematical arguments made
>in Dembski's The Design inference. (This was partially rectified
>when one statistician was later added to the team.) Neither
>were Dembski's prospects brightened when the committee
>chose as its head William Cooper, a philosophy professor who
>calls the Polanyi Center extremely "polarizing" and doubtless-
>ly connected to the old-style "creationists."
>Lingering anger in the biology department is perhaps an
>understandable reaction after years of ideological assault by
>creationism activists. But the personal outrage against the very
>idea of Dembski's work runs even deeper than that. The resent-
>ment becomes obvious to any outsider who dares to roam the
>halls of the Baylor biology department and ask professors for their
>take on the dispute.
>What exactly is intelligent design (ID), and why do the very
>words incite such fury among some biologists?
>What is Intelligent Design?
>ID depends upon a concept known as specified complexity.
>Say you're out raking leaves in the backyard. If you were to find
>little piles of leaves, equally spaced apart in a long line, the arrange-
>ment would be an example of specificity, but it could be explained
>by what fell out of a rolling barrel. Each time the barrel made a
>revolution, another clump fell out, each spaced apart by about the
>same distance. The pattern is specified, but not complex.
>When you come across thousands of piles of leaves in no par-
>ticular pattern, that's complex, and it may take billions of over-
>turned barrels to produce another pattern just like it. But it's not
>specified. No intelligent design is required to explain it.
>But let's say you come across a thousand leaves arranged as
>letters spelling meaningful words, sentences, paragraphs, even
>a whole story -- that's specified complexity. Specified com-
>plexity creates information and meaning, and that requires
>Many scientific disciplines already use such logic to distin-
>guish between phenomena produced by an intelligence from
>those that are not. The cryptologist, when breaking a code, looks
>for patterns that create meaning and are not due to chance. SETI
>(Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) does the same in its
>search for signals of intelligence from space (think Jodie Foster in
Keith B. Miller
Department of Geology
Kansas State University
Manhattan, KS 66506
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