Article on Dembski & Polanyi Center

From: Keith B Miller (
Date: Thu Nov 02 2000 - 23:00:43 EST

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    The following article was copied out of the November, 2000
    issue of _The American Spectator_

    >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?
    >Disguised Creationism?
    >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
    >intelligent design.
    >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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