The Assault of IDists on Professor Gross is unsubstantiated
By Mark Perakh
Posted on November 21, 2003
This is a letter regarding a dispute between Professor Paul R. Gross and a group of ID advocates. The entire exchange of letters can be seen in Science Insights (vol. 7, No 5, 2003) at www.nas.org . Professor Gross's essay which started the dispute as well as the replies from a number of scientists in support of Gross against the letters from IDists attacking Gross, also can be seen at www.talkreason.org/articles/SI_Resp.cfm .
The letters to Science Insights related to Professor Gross's essay can clearly be divided into two groups. Several authors (Jason Rosenhouse, Jeffrey Shallit, Matt Young, Pete Dunkelberg, and Andrea Bottaro) support Dr. Gross's thesis. A number of other writers (William Dembski, Robert Koons, David Berlinski, Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, Jonathan Wells, Ronald Hirsh) have responded to Professor Gross’s essay with emotional rebuttals. Most of the crtitical letters come from the same place – the Discovery institute which is the home of the anti-Darwinian team of which the writers of the letters in question are fellows. The letters of Gross's detractors all contain vitriolic assaults on Gross. All these writers accuse Gross of ad hominem attacks, distortions, lack of impartiality, and attempts to suppress the free expression of such views that are contrary to the allegedly doctrinaire Darwinism in which Gross is supposedly a blind believer.
Given the emotional tone of these letters which are replete with sharp denunciations of Gross’s essay, often suffused with personal innuendoes, all those accusations sound hollow. If these writers are in favor of a calm and impartial discussion, they should have first of all made sure their own escapades were a little less loud.
It would take a very long letter to respond to all this anti-Gross vitriol. Therefore I’ll limit my comments mainly to the letter by Robert Koons, and also a little to that by Hirsch, since these two letters contain arguments also seen in other letters, so replying to Koons and partially to Hirsch will address to some extent the arguments of their colleagues as well.
Koons writes, “It is ironic that leading members of the NAS, including Paul R. Gross, have joined the Inquisition against defenders of ‘intelligent design’ and other dissenters from Darwinian orthodoxy. “ This invective is typical of the manner the Intelligent Design (ID) advocates conduct the discussion. They routinely compare their opponents to inquisition, the Nazis, Himmler, Lysenko and the like (see, for example, a collection of pertinent quotations at http://tinyurl.com/g384 ). It is ironic indeed because the mere fact of the publication of all these anti-Gross letters belies the preposterous assertion that the right of the ID advocates to the free expression of their views is somehow curtailed by the malicious pro-Darwinian inquisition. Koons, Dembski, Wells, Johnson, and their colleagues publish their literary output at a high rate, having their own publishing outlets like InterVarsity Press, their own journals, but also participate in anthologies published by many publishing houses, and fully enjoy the right for a free expression of their views. The inquisition they are fond of talking about is non-existent.
Also telltale is Koons’s reference to the so-called Darwinian orthodoxy. There is no such animal in existence. The modern neo-Darwinian synthesis is characterized by a lively discussion of controversial topics and by an open-end development wherein there are no sacred cows and unorthodox views are suggested and discussed day in and day out.
The mainstream scientists, with a few exceptions, largely ignore the ID advocates, but in that the mainstream scientists exercise their own right to choose what to speak about. The simple fact is that the ID advocates, although lavishly funded, have so far not produced much of what would qualify as a scientific research in support of their ID concept. Instead, they indulge in philosophical and theological discourses (besides polemics and political actions) which they disseminate without any constraints.
The comparison of pro-evolution scientists with the inquisition, or with Lysenko, the Nazis, etc, is a mendacious and shameful device intended to obfuscate the essence of the dispute and to present themselves as underdogs deserving sympathy because of their being allegedly oppressed by the vile materialistic Darwinists. This picture has nothing to do with reality.
On the other hand, since this collection of attacking letters has all signs of a concerted group assault, it, unlike Gross’s critique, indeed may justifiably be viewed as an effort at intimidation and thus silencing Gross and any other potential critics.
Continuing, Koons writes, among other things, that “William Dembski does not claim to have ‘discovered’ the law of the conservation of information. Instead, he simply brings this well-known and widely accepted result of information theory (the ‘no free lunch theorems’) to bear on problems of the origin of biological information.”
This quotation reveals the actual regrettably low level of dispute offered by the ID advocates, in this case by the philosopher Koons. To start with, Koons seems to think that the No Free Lunch (NFL) theorems are part of information theory. In fact, these fine theorems by Wolpert and Macready (which extend the traditional Bayesian analysis into a model-independent "geometry of induction") have little relation to information theory (unless we construe that relation in the fact that both information theory and geometry of induction utilize probabilistic approach, which, of course, is a common feature of many conceptual systems having otherwise nothing in common; likewise we could say, for example, that some concept of agronomy belongs in, say, seismology, since both sciences deal with earth). In fact the NFL theorems belong in the optimization theory (see D. H. Wolpert and W. G. Macready, IEEE Trans. Evol. Comput. 1 (1997), no. 1, 67—82), with which philosopher Koons apparently is familiar about as much as with information theory.
Given thus demonstrated actual level of Koons’s ken in information theory, it is less surprising that he has claimed his colleague Dembski to be the “Isaac Newton of information theory.” (Koons’s blurb on the dust cover of Dembski’s Intelligent Design). Furthermore, contrary to what Koons seems to think, the NFL theorems have no relation to the so-called “law of conservation of information,” persistently propagandized by Dembski, and even less supporting that “law” in any way. The entire attempt by Dembski to use the NFL theorems to support his intelligent design “theory” was a failure. One of the two originators of the NFL theorems, David Wolpert, unequivocally dismissed Dembski’s misuse of the NFL theorems in an essay tellingly titled “William Dembski’s Treatment of the NFL Theorems is Written in Jello” (see www.talkreason.org/articles/jello.cfm ). There are other critical reviews of Dembski’s attempt to utilize the NFL theorems (see articles on www.talkreason.org wherein a further bibliography is available). Moreover, contrary to Dembski’s loud claim in his book No Free Lunch (wherein he tried to use the NFL theorems to prove the impossibility of Darwinian evolution), having encountered a rebuttal of that attempt by a number of critics, Dembski has later changed the tune, now announcing that the use of the NFL theorems was not really his principal thesis but rather just an example, a particular case of what he calls “displacement problem.” Unlike Dembski himself, Koons seems to still adhere to the preposterous notion, stemming from his amateurish understanding of the matter, that Dembski successfully “brings this well-known and widely accepted result of information theory (sic!) to bear on the problems of the origin of biological information.” Rather than making such claims, Koons should have first spent some time and effort on studying the subject he sets out to discuss. Last but not least, if, as Koons now asserts in his letter, Dembski has not discovered the law of conservation of information, but only applied the well known notions, how to reconcile it with Koons’s earlier claim wherein he wrote about Dembski that “his law of conservation of information represents a revolutionary breakthrough.”? (the already mentioned Koons’s blurb on the cover of Dembski’s Intelligent Design). Something is not quite right with philosopher Koons’s consistency.
Regarding the “Isaac Newton of information theory” Dembski himself, it is interesting to note that information theorists have not paid much attention to Dembski’s supposed revolutionary contribution to information theory. There are practically no references in the literature on information theory to Dembski and his theories. The reason for that is simple – Dembski’s contribution to information theory is all but invisible. Moreover, although Dembski has a PhD degree in mathematics, his contribution to any branch of mathematics is not much larger than to information theory. Although he is a prolific writer, all of his literary output contains not a single mathematical theorem proved by him, nor any mathematical formula derived, nor any algorithm developed, but only a multitude of esoteric notations often serving no useful role.
Similar statement can be made about many other letters directed against Gross. Professor Gross had a distinguished career in genuine science, having published many high quality research papers in biology. Lately he has addressed the problems related to the assault of the ID advocates on evolution. The main proponents of Intelligent Design, however, while being very active and loud in asserting their anti-evolution views, have so far produced no genuine scientific results related to their ID theory. Most of them, with a few exceptions, have produced very little of anything scientific in general. For example, David Berlinski, usually referred to as a mathematician, has authored popular books on mathematics, and papers against evolution, but has no known record of his own contribution to the development of mathematics or of any other science.
Another writer of an anti-Gross letter (Hirsh) accuses Gross of referring to Wells’s religious background but ignoring Wells scientific credentials. In fact, both Wells’s religious affiliation and his credentials are a well known secret. Everybody familiar with the ongoing dispute between ID advocates and their opponents knows that Wells has a PhD degree in biology from University of California Berkeley. There are many PhDs who graduated from that fine institution, so there was nothing really unusual in that to specially emphasize it in Gross’s reference to Wells. However, what is indeed unusual is something related to Wells’s religious background. As Wells himself wrote, he set out to study biology being advised to do so by his spiritual “father.” Gross properly mentions this. Moreover, as Wells himself stated, the purpose of his studying biology, set in advance, was to “destroy Darwinism.” Such a goal set prior to having studied the subject is indeed quite unusual (actually unheard of from a scientist) and is also undermining Wells’s status as an objective participant in the dispute. It is only natural that Gross pointed to that fact which is quite relevant to the question at hand. Hirsch further asserts that Wells continues conducting a genuine research in biology, referring to Well’s two published papers. A closer look reveals, though, that these two not very recent papers (apparently stemming from his PhD dissertation) constitute the whole of Wells’ contribution to biology (which therefore seems to be hardly significant). As of late, Wells in fact does not seem to pursue any known genuine research work, unless he is doing it in secret.
Michael Behe, who seems to be one of a few exceptions in the ranks of the most prominent ID advocates, in that he is a real active scientist, does not seem to mix his biochemical research with his pro-ID activities – there seem to be no cross- references in the two separate branches of his endeavors.
Of course, such “greats” of the ID movement as Phillip Johnson or Stephen Meyer, have even less to do with any science.
The vituperative attack on Gross from this group of ID advocates, which in itself makes preposterous their claim of allegedly being silenced by the Darwinian establishment, should be construed for what it actually is – an unsubstantiated polemic designed to drown Gross’s argument in the loud din of an orchestrated vitriol.