THE SKEPTIC ON DEMBSKI
By Mark Perakh
The latest issue of the Skeptic journal is now available (2005, vol. 11, No 4). It contains, among other things, two articles pertaining to the Intelligent Design and its critique. One of them (pages 54-65) is my article titled “The Dream World of William Dembski’s Creationism.” The other article (pages 66-69) “Creationism’s Holy Grail: The Intelligent Design of a Peer-Reviewed Paper” is by Robert Weitzel.
Given Dembski’s protestations regarding the term “creationism” when applied to his and his cohorts’ views (with some exceptions, like Dembski’s armour-bearer, Salvador Cordova who has frankly referred to himself as a creationist), perhaps it can be expected that Dembski will reject the very title of my paper as well as the reference to his ideas as a dream.
Weitzel’s paper is about S. Meyer’s infamous article in June 2004 issue of The Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington. Weitzel shows the lack of merits in Meyer’s article and favorably quotes the article by Gishlick, Matzke, and Elsberry which was posted both on Panda’s Thumb (http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2004/08/meyers_hopeless_monster.html ) and Talk Reason (http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Meyer.cfm ).
I am posting this brief entry in order to explain why I’ve written one more article on Dembski’s already discredited pseudo-theory. Some denizens of The Panda’s Thumb’s and readers of Talk Reason probably know that I have authored a book Unintelligent Design (Prometheus Books, 2004) with a chapter about 100 pages long dealing in detail with Dembski’s literary output (as the latter existed at the time I was writing my book, in the first half of 2002). Furthermore, I have also authored a chapter in the anthology Why Intelligent Design Fails (Rutgers U. Press, 2004, eds Matt Young and Taner Edis) which specifically deals with Dembski’s misinterpretation and misuse of the No Free Lunch theorems. Why, then, have I written one more paper, which contains a concise critique of the main points of Dembski’s output?
Perhaps it is proper to point out that the article for Skeptic was written in March of 2004, before Dembski posted to the web some papers allegedly providing the “mathematical foundation of intelligent design.” Thus Dembski’s recent “mathematical” papers have not been covered in the Skeptic’s article. My brief critical discussions of those “mathematical” papers by Dembski can be found at www.talkreason.org/articles/math.cfm and www.talkreason.org/articles/newmath.cfm ; it was posted much later than the article for Skeptic was written. Other critiques of Dembski’s “mathematical” papers were suggested by Elsberry – see http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2005/03/dembski_and_no_free_lunch_reprise.htm (March 15, 2005), and by Tom English (posted on ARN website in March 2005).
Having published the above book and chapter in the Rutgers anthology (besides a number of posts on the web) dealing with Dembski’s publications , I had no reason to return to discussing his output. Of course it was rather obvious that Dembski most probably would continue shooting out multiple articles, posts, and books at a machine-gun rate, but the experience with his output up to 2004 provided a good basis for not expecting from him any material of a greater interest than his production had up to that date.
So, why did I write the paper for Skeptic? The answer is simple. The editor of the Skeptic journal, Michael Shermer suggested that I write a paper for him succinctly analyzing Dembski’s output. In other words, Shermer had in fact commissioned me to write such a paper, asking though to limit it to not more than about 7,500 words.
However strong the aversion on my part to once again dealing with the literary production of Dembski, I just felt I could not afford not to go along with Shermer’s suggestion.
In the paper I submitted to Shermer in March 2004 I tried to analyze as succinctly as reasonably possible the most salient points of Dembski’s output, omitting many details and ignoring his often unethical behavior, but covering his most loudly acclaimed results.
Up to now, Dembski has never responded to the essence of my earlier critique. All his response boiled down to a couple of sentences, none of which in any way touched on the substance of my critique. On one such occasion Dembski wrote (in a post on the ARN website on March 13, 2004) that he has not replied to my critique because I just was
“recycling other criticisms and doing a poor job in the process.”
I think that for anybody who is familiar with my critique of Dembski it is obvious that the quoted “reply” displays Dembski’s arrogance and perhaps also his inability to offer counter-arguments to my critique. My book Unintelligent Design has been rather widely reviewed, both in press and on the web. While most of the reviews evaluated my book positively, there were, as could be expected, several quite negative reviews (mostly anonymous) obviously written by adherents of ID. However, in none of these negative reviews (not to mention the positive ones) was there even a hint at the notion that my arguments were not my own. There is little doubt that Dembski knows that my critical comments in no way “recycled” arguments of other critics. His disdainful dismissal of my critique as allegedly “recycling other criticisms” speaks more about his intellectual integrity than about the essence of my critique.
On another occasion, Dembski (see http://www.arn.org/cgi-bin/ubb/ultimatebb.cgi/ubb/get_profile/u/00000861 ) similarly dismissed my critical comments (as well as those by Wesley Elsberry) which addressed his article where he claimed to have mathematically “disproved” evolution theory. Again, without uttering a single word related to the substance of my (and Elsberry’s) critique, Dembski, in his habitual supercilious manner, wrote that answering my and Elsberry’s critique is rather low on his priority list since we (Elsberry and I) cannot even respond to his great math “in plain English” not to mention relating to his sophisticated mathematics (see Note 2 at the end of this post). (This was Dembski’s attempt at a pun, as another critic of Dembski’s article was named Tom English and in his critique Tom analyzed some details of Dembski’s mathematical exercise, while Elsberry and I avoided delving into Dembski’s math formalism because all his math exercise was irrelevant both to evolution theory and to the supposed foundation of intelligent design.)
I have no idea whether Dembski chooses not to respond to my article in Skeptic, as he chose so far to do regarding my previous critique of his output, or whether this time he will try to repudiate some parts of the substance of my critique. It does not matter, though. From previous experience with Dembski’s replies to critique (as to that by Richard Wein, H. Allen Orr, Jeffrey Shallit, Robert Pennock, and others -- see some details at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/eandp.cfm ) a pattern seems to emerge: in his replies Dembski avoids addressing the crucial parts of the critical remarks, pointing instead to irrelevant details such as the formal credentials of his critics, distorting the critic’s arguments, triumphantly asserting, without any factual basis for it, the alleged imminent victory of ID etc. Therefore, even if Dembski chooses (as he has not yet) to “respond” to my article in Skeptic, there is no reason to expect that his possible response will have substance.
Anyway, I am hardly concerned with Dembski’s opinion of my critique. I view him as a pseudo-scientist whose prolific output, either as his own discourse or as replies to critics, is largely worthless. Moreover, the documented instances of Dembski’s unethical behavior provide an additional reason for not attaching much significance to his possible replies to critique. (For cases illustrating Dembski’s unethical behavior, see, for example http://www.talkreason.org/articles/reviews.cfm or http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2004/03/creative_ideas_of_idists_as_reviewers.html (posted on March 26, 2004).
After having published my book Unintelligent Design and the chapter in the Rutgers anthology, I had no plans to ever again write any detailed analysis of Dembski’s output, previous or subsequent. Shermer’s suggestion made me change my plans and write the article which appeared in Skeptic, v. 11, No 4. Also, some recent posts by Dembski led to my brief responses, posted on Talk Reason and Panda’s Thumb. Perhaps I’ll have to write about Dembski again in the future, but I’ll do it reluctantly; hopefully such cases will be quite rare, leaving this rather nauseating task to our younger colleagues whose own age is closer to Dembski’s.
While Dembski’s output has been extensively critiqued by many experts in relevant fields of inquiry (including information theory, biology, end others) one of the reasons for his contemptuous and supercilious attitude to critics may be the abundance of exaggerated acclaims of his publications by sycophants like Salvador Cordova and such philosophers as Robert Koons. Apparently Dembski is inclined to give much more weight to those acclaims than to critique, as the acclaims jibe well with his own well documented self-admiration. To judge, however, what the reliability of the loud praise for Dembski’s alleged breakthroughs is, let us look at just one example.
In the much derided example, philosopher Robert Koons of Texas wrote (in the blurb on the dust cover of Dembski’s book Intelligent Design, InterVarsity Press 1999):
William Dembski is the Isaac Newton of information theory, and since this is the Age of information, that makes Dembski one of the most important thinkers of our time. His law of conservation of information represents a revolutionary breakthrough.
This super-inflated acclaim apparently did not embarrass Dembski. Were his behavior typical of a scientist, he certainly would have objected to having such a laughable blurb printed, or at least expressed his discomfort after the fact. He never did, thus testifying to his apparent agreement with Koons’s obsequious lines. Now, however, I am interested not so much in Dembski’s self-admiration as in the actual level of Koons’s understanding of what he was writing about. In the Science Insight journal, a publication of the National Association of Scholars (v.7, No 5, 2003 – see www.nas.org ) there is a letter by that same philosopher Robert Koons who, just a few years after his comparison of Dembski to Newton and acclaiming Dembski’s “law of conservation of information” now 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.
The 2003 statement by Koons, which utterly negates his previous claim of 1999, appeared after Dembski’s alleged law was shown to be non-existent by a number of critics. This example illustrates that acclaims of Dembski’s work by his admirers more often than not are worthless. (By the way, Koons’s second claim also demonstrates his ignorance of the matter he endeavors to judge. The “no free lunch theorems” by Wolpert and Macready have no relation whatsoever to Dembski’s alleged law of conservation of information, and even less support it in any way. Moreover, these theorems have little to do with information theory in general. They are part of optimization theory, but philosopher Koons seems to have an equally nebulous understanding of what constitutes both information and optimization theories. Such is the level of authority of Dembski’s multiple admirers and sycophants.)
In a post at http://www.arn.org/cgi-bin/ubb/ultimatebb.cgi/ubb/get_profile/u/00000861, Dembski wrote:
I'm happy to acknowledge my critics where I think they are being insightful. There tends to be a disconnect, however, between the criticisms I regard as insightful and those that my critics regard as insightful. I'm afraid that Wesley Elsberry and Mark Perakh do not rank high among those I regard as insightful critics. Since I'm quite busy and have plenty of critics, they tend to fall low in the queue. Consider, for instance, that Tom English on this board at least engaged the mathematics in my article. I've seen no indication that Elsberry or Perakh could even state the gist of it in plain English.
I cannot speak for Elsberry, who surely is fully capable of repudiating Dembski’s arrogant claim in regard to Elsberry’s critique (in my view Elsberry’s critique of Dembski has been quite insightful and well substantiated). As to my own alleged lack of understanding of Dembski’s “mathematical” paper, perhaps it is relevant to point out that unlike Dembski, who has a rather unimpressive history of publishing peer-reviewed papers, I have to my credit nearly 300 scientific papers printed in international journals, as well as several scientific monographs. I also was granted a number of patents in several countries. For example, any one of my published papers on stress calculation contains more formulae (all of which I derived) than Dembski’s entire mathematical output. (For example, just one paper printed in Surface Technology, v. 8, 1979, pp. 265-309, contains 131 formulae I derived). Regarding my inability to express my view of Dembski’s mathematical exercise “even in plain English,” in fact I have expressed my ideas in published papers which I wrote in five languages. There seems to be little doubt that Dembski would hardly be capable of even reading most of those languages, or of comprehending the gist of most of those papers, such as those dealing with computation of electric fields in cells of complex shape, with calculation of stress, with kinetics of photodeposition, with electrosorption hysteresis, and with other subjects I used to deal with. It is advisable that Dembski weigh more carefully his disdainful utterances if he wants to be taken seriously beyond the narrow circle of his lickspittles. Of course all this is hardly relevant to the critique of Dembski’s output, and I’d prefer not to have said all of this, but Dembski’s arrogant remarks regarding “plain English” (which are rather typical of his overall attitude to his critics) called for providing, at least once, some reply in a similar vein, at least as a footnote.