Why Dembski is speaking at the University of Chicago

As I’ve mentioned before, ID creationist William Dembski is giving a talk in August at the University of Chicago’s “Computations in Science” seminar. As “Censor of the Year,” I could hardly let that rest, though when I protested I never requested that his seminar be canceled. Rather, I called into question the judgement of the seminar’s organizers. I would rarely ask that a seminar invitation at an academic institution be canceled or rescinded.

Dembski’s talk will apparently be some version of his own “No Free Lunch Theorem,” (NFL) which supposedly shows that progressive evolution (aka “specified complexity”) requires a designing intelligence, and cannot be produced by naturalistic evolution. In my previous post on this talk, I pointed out several refutations of Dembki’s theorem. But of course since Dembski’s not a scientist but a believer, he simply ignores the criticisms. (In a comment, reader Jon Herron posted a link to yet another refutation of Dembski’s NFL theorem by population geneticist Joe Felsenstein.)

To express my concern, on Friday I emailed both the organizers and faculty hosts of the Computations in Science Seminar. I’ll give my emails in full, but the responses (multiple emails from one person) I’ll redact, giving only the gist of what was said.  The upshot was that the person who invited Dembski has the view that every opinion must be expressed to procure the “widest possible dialog.”


My initial email:

Date: Fri, 8 Aug 2014 10:15:06 -0500
From: Jerry Coyne
Subject: Creationist seminar

Dear Colleagues,

Just a note to express dismay that your group has invited notorious creationist William Dembski to give a “Computations in Science” seminar on August 15:


Dembski is a major figure in the Intelligent Design movement, and the “no free lunch” theorem he’s going to talk about has been debunked several times. I’m actually quite surprised that any respectable group here on campus would give him this kind of platform and credibility. I have published a note about this on my website:


Jerry Coyne


The response came about two hours later, and was from the person who invited Dembski. It turns out that that person was Dembski’s Ph.D. supervisor, who said he/she invited “Dembsky” (repeatedly misspelled throughout our correspondence) with “full knowledge and aforethought.” The person also noted that “academic audiences should hear intelligent opinion on various sides of issues,” and added that, “You and everyone are invited to come to his seminar and offer questions and opinions in the measured tones appropriate for academic discussion.”


My response to this is below:

On 8/8/14, Jerry Coyne wrote:

Dear Dr. [name redacted]

Thank you for your response about Dembski, although it appears you can’t spell the name of your former Ph.D. student. As for hearing “intelligent opinion on various sides of issues,” that might apply if the views presented
really were rational, if the person’s theories had not already been debunked, and if the speaker were not motivated by belief in Christianity (Dembski has admitted this).

Your rationale, I’d add, would also justify inviting advocates of homeopathy, astrology, and dowsing, which have exactly as much credibility (i.e., none) as Dembski’s claims. Would you invite a Holocaust denier to
speak to a history department? For this is exactly what you are doing by inviting Dembski. Further, you’re giving unwarranted academic credibility to debunked, religiously-motivated science. I should know, because I teach evolutionary biology here at Chicago, am familiar with Dembki’s claims, and have spent much of my career fighting his form of religiously-based creationism, gussied up though it may be with mathematics. His views, and that of his colleagues, are damaging to science education, and have no merit.

I have no intention of going to Dembski’s talk, but I do find this part of your email odd: “You and everyone are invited to come to his seminar and offer questions and opinions in the measured tones appropriate for academic discussion.” I can interpret that only as a warning to me and other critics to behave ourselves and not make a fuss. It’s condescending.

It does not speak well of you or your seminar to invite a purveyor of creationism to speak to an academic audience at Chicago, and then characterize that creationism as an “intelligent opinion.” It is exactly as
intelligent as homeopathy or the view that the Holocaust is a ruse. Your invitation to Dembski is an embarrassment to this University.

Jerry Coyne

Dembski’s invitor responded again, and I quote from that email:

The question you bring up is what constitutes a sufficient degree of academic respectability to merit an invitation to an academic seminar. Should we require that the speaker hold opinions that are also held by
the majority of professionals in his area? Should we demand that the speaker hold views also held by the majority of our fellow citizens? One such requirement would eliminate Dembsky; the other would likely
eliminate the majority of speakers on evolutionary issues. Both criteria are silly. We must choose speakers on the basis of their ability to use the tools of our disciplines to produce likely advance in the state of our knowledge.

Dembsky’s use of the no free lunch theorem points out that, if the fitness landscape is sufficiently rough, and if one depends on a truly random walk through that landscape, evolution will not work. That much of his argument is, I believe, true. It is also potentially apposite for thought about evolution.

But the question is not the truth or falsity of his arguments. Has he used the tools of the math and philosophy trades in such a manner as to provoke further thought about the tools, the disciples, and our modes of thinking? I believe that he has done so.

Some topics, like the holocaust are so painful and so politicized that for the sake of civility we should limit our discussion of these topics. If you include evolution among those topics, then once dialog is prevented, the next recourse is to majority opinion. In this court, creationism wins out.

A truly liberal university must include the widest possible dialog. I hope you continue to join in.

Yours, [name redacted]


At this point I was getting frustrated at the person’s inability to see that long-discredited theories motivated by religion do not constitute fit topics for seminars, and I tried one last time to explain it.

Dear Dr. [name redacted],

This will be my last response on the issue of Dembski. And it will be brief. It is not the job of a “truly liberal university” to pass off discredited science as truth. Dembki’s “science” has indeed been discredited and revealed for what it is: biblical creationism gussied up in the trappings of academia. And yes, seeing lies purveyed as truth, and creationists paraded out as if they were academically respectable researchers, is painful to me, and in similar ways that Holocaust denialists are painful to Jews like me. Both fields are based on lies, and those lies do damage.

The “widest possible dialogue” in a liberal university does not have to include every crackpot idea that comes down the pike. It is in fact illegal to teach Dembski’s ideas in public secondary schools, as Judge Jones ruled in the Dover case on Intelligent Design (a case from which Dembski, as a defense witness who possibly foresaw their defeat, withdrew at the last minute). Judge Jones ruled that Intelligent Design was “not science.” And it isn’t: it’s discredited, religiously based speculation. Why on earth are we going to present something like that as a valid platform for discussion at a good university?

I repeat myself: the “widest possible” dialogue in medicine would include homeopathy, the “widest possible dialogue” in human behavior would include astrology, the “widest possible dialogue” in history would include Holocaust denial, and the “widest possible dialogue” in biology would include creationism. But when the “widest possible dialogue” includes discredited and crackpot ideas, it no longer becomes a useful academic dialogue. Why do you think we don’t teach homeopathy in the medical school, or why we have no course on creationism and Intelligent Design in our biology curriculum? For precisely the same reason that Dembski shouldn’t have been invited: they would be courses based on lies and shoddy “scholarship.”

Dembski’s talk here will look good on his c.v., but it won’t look so good on the University’s record.

What’s next: inviting a person who claims the earth is flat (yes, they exist) to foster the “widest possible dialogue” in geology?

Jerry Coyne

I finish with a Dembki-related cartoon produced by reader Pliny the in Between:

Toon Background.020


  1. Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Wow. Those were tough emails, Jerry. You must be pissed.

    • Posted August 10, 2014 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

      And they were before he found out Dembski doesn’t like cats- you just wait!

    • Hempenstein
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

      Yes, and bravo!

  2. Scott M. Moody
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Jerry, thank you for the good fight; twas understandable when I was fighting the Ohio State Board of Education several years ago since they “represent” local school boards, but the University of Chicago? Oh my!

  3. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    The moon is made of cheese. Velveeta.

    Can I haz lecture now two?

    Full disclosure: I don’t haz PhDembski.

    • Posted August 11, 2014 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      Your Velveeta Theory is flawed, the moon is clearly made of Gouda. Now we get to have a whole panel!!!

  4. rickflick
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    “We must choose speakers on the basis of their ability to use the tools of our disciplines to produce likely advance in the state of our knowledge.”

    This means, I guess, if someone can handle some algebra they get a pass?
    That’s a sieve with some mighty big holes.
    By the sound of this, I strongly suspect this “adviser” is probably a creationist himself. Otherwise, how would referencing religious tracts likely advancing the state of our knowledge?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      I didn’t suspect anything of the sort earlier.

      It is true that Dembski’s quality as mathematician leaves everything to be desired, which is the PhD work that he got advised on at the University of Chicago:

      “To understand how sparse this output is, you need to know that the average research mathematician publishes something like 1-2 research papers each year. Mathematicians at small colleges typically publish less because they have more teaching duties, while those with postdoctoral positions or research positions typically publish more. Dembski received his Ph. D. in mathematics in 1988. By this time, a typical university mathematician would have published something like 15-30 papers in the peer-reviewed mathematical literature; Dembski has published two.”

      He is also a perversely unproductive statistician:

      “Dembski himself states in this interview in Christianity Today that he “became something of an expert in the study of randomness”. But how many original research papers has Dembski published on randomness? According to MathSciNet, none (or one, if you count the survey in the philosophy journal Noûs). By contrast, Avi Wigderson, a colleague of mine who really is an expert in randomness, has 103 entries in MathSciNet (of course, not all of those are specifically about randomness).”

      And of course, what little Dembski has produced has gotten a drubbing like Wolpert taking him on task for misapplying Wolpert’s et al’s NFL.

      But seeing how Dembski’s math PhD supervisor is supportive of the misapplication of math in theology, I am forced to engender in the same suspicions as you have.

      And as always, conspiracy theories explain so much! =D His former supervisor could be really reaching to give “Dembsky” his support. But anything less than that, it could be a Creationist Conspiracy! Luckily, professor Ceiling Cat is on the case.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        I should mention that the review of Dambski’s lack of skilz is from Jeffrey Shallit, a mathematician by profession.

      • Trophy
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        I completley agree. I’m sure we wouldn’t be so pissed if Dembski was a great mathematician with plenty of publications in mathematics and computer science. But as you say, the problem is that his publication record is compeletely ridiculous. There are people working in teaching colleges that put his CV to shame. Why don’t they invite them?

        • Marella
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

          Actually that would make it worse not better IHMO, a great mathematician espousing this crap would be truly depressing.

      • PS
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        Actually, the only living doctoral adviser of Dembski (according to The Mathematics Genealogy project) seems to be U Chicago physicist Leo Kadanoff, who has made several important contributions in condensed matter physics (and statistical physics). Given his published writings, it is very clear that he does not subscribe to ID creationism, though it also appears that he is somewhat sympathetic to using mathematics to study it. Here are some quotes (all from the above linked essay by Leo Kadanoff):

        For me, I won’t look for early life in outer space and I don’t believe in ID. Not yet anyway. I’ll need a lot more evidence to be pushed that way.

        Neither Dembski nor Kaufmann nor Wolpert & Macready can provide theorems which directly deal with the evolution of life. “Specified complexity” is somewhat elusive and, I think, cannot be defined with sufficient specificity to appear in the premise of a strong theorem and the same time describe real life.

        • Kevin
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

          Kadanoff and Dembski? Ceiling cat help me and all Physycists.

          Dembski’s invitation = I want sky daddy to be real and heaven to be my reward.

          • PS
            Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

            Well, it seems pretty clear that scientifically, Kadanoff is as opposed to Dembski’s claims as any other scientist. It is just that he seems to be (much less) less vocal in his public criticism. In fact, he even seems to have given talks showing why Dembski’s arguments are implausible.

            • Posted August 11, 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

              There’s a difference between implausible and crazy, though. Also between implausible and refuted a dozen times over. Dembski’s views on the subject in question are the latter of each pair …

          • PS
            Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

            Also, we are not sure that it was Kadanoff who is the host. The original post does not identify him, and the Mathematical Genealogy Project is hardly 100% accurate.

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 10, 2014 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

              And note that Kadanoff spells Dembski correctly.

            • D. Taylor
              Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

              Still, the seminar is an event at The Kadanoff Center for Theoretical Physics. It is on their calendar for 12:15 August 13, listed as “Computations in Science – William A. Dembski, Discovery Institue [sic].
              That could appear to elevate affiliation with the Discovery Institute as on a par with the affiliations of subsequent speakers: the U of Chgo, Tulane, and The University of Pittsburgh. Not bad fodder for the creationist’s grist mill!

              I looked up Kadanoff on Wikipedia. He is most impressive with a stellar career. But there, on a side bar, is listed William A. Dembski, as one of his doctoral students. I have a hunch that Kadanoff has no idea how out of his field of expertise Dembski is when he launches his assaults on evolutionary biology, nor can he fathom the harm Dembski is doing to science education for the young. Some of us can lose our license or be disbarred for practicing outside our area. Too bad this doesn’t apply here.

              • Kevin
                Posted August 10, 2014 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

                There are a few physicists who would have liked to have seen Brian Josephson’s credentials revised:


                A Nobel Prize does not prevent belief in parapsychology.

              • PS
                Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

                As I have repeatedly pointed out above, the situation with Kadanoff seems entirely different: he is scientifically opposed to ID, and even seems to have given talks showing why Dembski’s ideas are “implausible”.

      • Posted August 10, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        Not defending him, but I don’t think quantity is the ideal measure. In art history, which is my field, quantity isn’t an issue at all. I’m happy with one good project every two years 🙂
        I’d love two per year, but it’s just not feasible.

  5. Matt G
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I see, so a “truly liberal university” should have no quality control, or concern itself with the honesty or integrity of those it invites to speak? Is there something else going on behind the scenes here? Somebody with money and/or power pulling some strings?

    • microraptor
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

      I was wondering the same thing. Inviting someone like Dembski to speak about science is barely a step up from inviting one of those “the world is controlled by Illuminati lizard-people” conspiracy wingnuts to speak about politics or history.

      • Jeffery
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        “…But the question is not the truth or falsity of his arguments.” That statement right there makes it clear what you’re up against: the old “New Age” mantra of, “All ideas are equally valid.”

        You see, all you have to do is to browse through these ideas (all of them being equally valid, of course) like you would shop at a grocery store, and then pick out the one(s) that “resonate” (makes you feel good) with you! The greater the resonation and the “feel-good”, the more valid that particular idea must be! It’s so simple (“simple”, indeed)! I’d be real curious to know what the subject of Dumbski’s doctoral thesis was- if the moron you communicated with was in charge of deciding if it was worthwhile and done correctly, it might be interesting to look into it.

        • Jeffery
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

          I meant to put the above in as a “comment”, but forgot that I hadn’t posted it yet when I clicked on “reply” to microraptor: my reply is, “Then they should have someone speak on how thermite brought down the twin towers, so long as they’re an engineer with a degree and some basic math skills!”

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

          Indeed; reeked of po-mo to me.

          • Matt G
            Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:28 am | Permalink

            They are against post-modernism, except when they are for it.

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 11, 2014 at 7:51 pm | Permalink


              Now, though, I’m leaning toward the hypothesis that the inviter simply does not understand evolution at all.

    • Draken
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Or a PhD advisor with creationist sympathies?

    • michaelfugate
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      Terry Prachett quotes seem appropriate:

      I’ll be more enthusiastic about encouraging thinking outside the box when there’s evidence of any thinking going on inside it.

      The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.

      The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head.

      Stupid men are often capable of things the clever would not dare to contemplate…

      Seeing, contrary to popular wisdom, isn’t believing. It’s where belief stops, because it isn’t needed any more.

      • Jeffery
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

        “If you open your mind too much, your brains fall out!”

      • reasonshark
        Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:14 am | Permalink

        +1 right there for the win. 🙂

  6. alexandra
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    As someone who is grateful for her long ago U of Chicago education, I am appalled and disgusted that it employes someone as dim and resistant to rationality as whoever it was who invited the subject of your several sane and courteous (and exquisitely rational) letters of objection. Are high academic standards in jeopardy there? Hope not and that this serious contretemps is merely a momentary lapse.

  7. Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    Wow – that last sentence of JAC’s last email really sums it up with a bang!

  8. Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Absolutely fantastic response.

    I’m really surprised to learn that your protest is falling on the clogged ears and severed brain neurons of someone who holds a Doctorate at UoC.

    Talk about dense. Someone should nominate that person for dunce of the year.

  9. JimV
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    “Dembsky’s [sic][also sick] use of the no free lunch theorem points out that, if the fitness landscape is sufficiently rough, and if one depends on a truly random walk through that landscape, evolution will not work. That much of his argument is, I believe, true. It is also potentially apposite for thought about evolution.”

    As I recall (there are no doubt details at talkorigins), Dembski’s misuse of the NFL theorem is a lot of years old and has been amply rebutted – but perhaps he has come up with a new twist (or what he imagines is one). There need to be mathematicians and evolutionary biologists skilled in evolutionary algorithms/computations at the presentation to counter whatever he has to say, so that people do not leave the presentation convinced by hocus-pocus. That should be the focus of contrary efforts, since apparently he has convinced at least the responder above that he has something worthwhile to present.

    I am not an expert, nor is the above much to go on, but “a random walk” is not how I would describe the evolutionary algorithm. For one thing, a random walk includes no selection process, and no memory that preserves previous useful locations. For example, once the hox genes evolved, it became much easier to mutate different body types from then on.

    • Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      If you want to make an argument to assure those who already have an emotional predisposition to support your side, you just have to pitch it at a level beyond that which your audience can comprehend (I call this “argument from obfuscation”). You can then gain credibiity by associating with scientists, who are unable to refute your arguments in a manner that is accessible to the public. That then gives the appearance of a controversy. That is the approach that Dembski, Craig, Behe etc. are adopting. They don’t necessarily believe their own arguments, since they are convinced for other reasons – as, for instance, Craig has admitted on numerous occasions.

  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    The “Dembsky” invitor seems oblivious:

    “Dembsky’s use of the no free lunch theorem points out that, if the fitness landscape is sufficiently rough, and if one depends on a truly random walk through that landscape, evolution will not work. That much of his argument is, I believe, true. It is also potentially apposite for thought about evolution.”

    We can run a smell test by exchanging for astrology:

    “NN’s use of causality points out that, if universal speed limit is infinite [so astrological signs at birth affects a child], and if one depends on a truly finite speed of signals, astronomy will not work. That much of his argument is, I believe, true. It is also potentially apposite for thought about astronomy.”

    Apposite? Really!? But evolution works, so creationists including Dembski are wrong!

    Dembski’s talk will apparently be some version of his own “No Free Lunch Theorem,” (NFL) which supposedly shows that progressive evolution (aka “specified complexity”) requires a designing intelligence,

    It is of course not Dembski’s NFL theorem, even if he has derived a version of it. Wolpert is a coauthor of the theorem, which makes his critique of Dembski so interesting.

  11. Rexsalad
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    I had the opportunity to once ask Dembski, who was surrounded by admirers after a Tulane sponsored ID/evolution debate, that should his famous flagellum example or any other “evidence” he believes supports ID (biological, cosmological) be refuted to his satisfaction would he ever concede he was wrong, no design necessary. I was expecting a wiggly answer. What I got was an unapologetic “No”. This minutes after and not ten feet from where he had spent an hour and a half claiming his hypothesis was purely scientific and not religious. Color me gobsmacked.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Dembski has a long track record of intellectual dishonesty. When you make an argument, and that argument is subsequently shown to be fallacious, the intellectually honest person stops making that argument. Dembski does not do this, and for this reason should be disqualified from speaking at any academic institution. This is not about censorship or close-mindedness, it is about integrity. And you don’t provide these people with a forum.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

        Good point!

      • Rexsalad
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        When I wrote unapologetic read emphatic and smug. At the lectern in front of a couple hundred students and profs the dispassionate intellectual claiming his hypothetical designer could be aliens. In front of a dozen Christians their own sciency spiritual warrior. It’s not even just that his arguments are bad, he doesn’t even seem to really believe them or care himself. As you say he’s contradicted hisself publicly often. What’s it even take to get discredited enough to not get those gigs, cause seriously I’ve got no credibility and I’m available!

        • Matt G
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

          You may not have credentials, but you certainly have credibility!

      • Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

        “Dembski has a long track record of intellectual dishonesty.”

        In my experience, all creationists have been intellectually dishonest.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

          You can’t beat those superior Christian morals.

    • Ben
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      When the cameras are off, down comes the mask. Thanks for relating this. Now if only someone could record this kind of thing and post it on Youtube, we could end his dishonest lectures once and for all.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps, rather than have qualified experts attend the lecture and attempt to rebut it right there, it would be more fun and successful to have a video of it, interspliced with appropriate responses from those who see right through his machinations, posted on YouTube.

        • Posted August 10, 2014 at 8:54 pm | Permalink

          It would be fun, but why should knowledgeable people put up with pseudoscience like Dembski’s for longer than necessary? A video response would be appropriate for a creationist talk given to a religious audience. To me it seems better to nip this in the bud in person at an academic institution.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

            If the audience is anything like the inviter, I think quite a few might not be able to absorb a brief exposure to current evolutionary biology, thus leaving them open to seeing both speech and response as on equal ground; or even perhaps favoring Dembski, to the extent that his presentation seems more mathematical.

            Also, the only people who’d hear any rebuttal would be the attendees. A well-done video could go viral. 😉 Or at least be an effective response to anyone who wants to brag about Dembski’s apparently having any imprimatur from the U of C.

            • Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

              Great points. I certainly wouldn’t disagree about the value of such a video.

              “Or at least be an effective response to anyone who wants to brag about Dembski’s apparently having any imprimatur from the U of C.”
              –Especially if the video got top results in searches for the talk!

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

                Great thought!

                Another response might be to hold a separate talk, with plenty of publicity, along the lines of “Why it’s a farce to have a person like Dembski given any credence by a reputable university.” (And video & post that too, of course.)

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

                Also–there must be many others at the U of C who agree this is a travesty and could also be speaking out. Why should Jerry have to do all the heavy lifting?

              • Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

                I certainly do agree and didn’t mean to imply he’s the only one who could/should do it. Jerry already does a great deal. I hope others have decided to take this on.

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 10, 2014 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

                I didn’t mean that to sound as if it were addressed to you, Lynn. Sorry! I was just thinking in general terms.

              • Posted August 10, 2014 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

                s’okay 🙂

    • Kevin
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

      This is a advantage that most atheists have over religious people: god might exist. Nearly all religious people would never want to believe that their faith is wrong. In fact, they are unwilling to believe anything else differently.

      From what I have seen so far, I am pretty sure god is a star sized Skittle hunkering around a quasar at z=1.2, and is now lost to us.

    • groovimus
      Posted August 11, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

      I have to laugh. Ask the same question of Coyne. You don’t really think anything could come along and convince the man that he’s been wrong all these decades about materialism, correct? Darwinian evolution is the classic example of a non-falsifiable “science”.

      See what you guys don’t get is that, by trying all of the last 150 years to prove materialism, scientists have ventured into territory where science is useless, like all of the fantastical multiverse proposals indicate to the non-indoctrinated. The average person knows all of this, but to you guys the average persons are kind of like cute little animals.

      • Posted August 11, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

        I have to bite my tongue from calling you names, but you are a deeply ignorant person. I have in fact published in several places, and talked about repeatedly, the kind of evidence that would dispel my belief in evolution. Evolution certainly is falsifiable, but it has so much evidence supporting it that I doubt that the falsifying evidence will ever appear.

        Now go away, you benighted person.

      • Posted August 11, 2014 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        You are getting muddled here between falsifiable and false: Evolution *is* falsifiable, since evidence could have been found that contradicted it, but since it is probably true, evolution hasn’t and likely won’t actually be falsified.

        • Rexsalad
          Posted August 11, 2014 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

          A huge swath of the debate I attended was Dembski using slides to hammer away at how a bacterial flagellum could not possibly evolve in lesser stages. Evolutionary biology prof Steve Darwin dismantled his arguments admirably, I thought.

          Obviously not to Dembski. But his unwillingness to even contemplate defeat if his primary evidence (that his thesis hinges on…groan!) is overturned is the mark of an ideologue or propogandist, not an empiricist or scientist.

  12. Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sending those messages. It’s extremely important to call this type of thing out when it happens.

    I have to wonder if your correspondent’s recalcitrance is due in no small part to a sense of “protecting one’s academic turf.” If I’m not mistaken, this person is a well-known physicist and may not take kindly to a non-physicist (or non-mathematician) questioning his/her judgment. I’m a bit cynical about this type of stuff for sure, but this general philosophy of “we are above the petty squabbles of the dirty real world” tends to pervade the more mathematically slanted departments, regardless of institution (with the exception of most statistics departments). I get this sense from your correspondent’s messages. Of course, it’s possible I’m misinterpreting things.

    Also, it seems to me that surely a significant amount of nepotism plays into the motivations here as well.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      The thing is, the math per se isn’t being questioned; the applicability of that particular math to evolution is being questioned.

      • Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

        That’s right. But that’s what I mean about the “petty squabbles of the dirty real world.” The math is fine, abstractly speaking, and undoubtedly very interesting to those who work in that particular field. The fact that Dembski tries to apply that math to the concept of evolution (and does so erroneously) is probably considered of minimal importance to those who invited him to speak (and who would care to hear him speak). Anything other than the math can be considered “beneath” them.

        That’s of course all speculation on my part, but it reflects the mentalities of the majority of those in the field that I have witnessed. I could be off-base here, but this narrative would be an unsurprising one from my point of view.

        • Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          That’s precisely why I hope someone who can understand the disconnect between the math and evolution will attend the talk and speak up. If no one does that, what’s the point of academia at all?
          Sadly Jerry’s comments seem to have fallen on deaf ears so the only thing left to do it to provide an appropriate counterpoint at the talk itself. (Like when Leonard Mlodinow spoke up at one of Chopra’s talks.)

          • Hypatias Daughter
            Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

            While the union of disparate sciences, such as mathematics and evolution, can be very fruitful, it has its downside.
            I recall a story that Sagan and an Ancient Middle Eastern scholar attended a talk by Velikovsky. Afterwards, the scholar told Sagan that while he thought Velikovsky’s astronomy was impressive, his knowledge about the history, religion and languages of the Ancient Middle East was crap.
            Sagan replied that Velikovsky’s knowledge about the Ancient Middle East impressed him, but his astronomy was crap.
            It sounds like we have a mathematician who just doesn’t know enough about the theory of evolution.

            • Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

              A great story and very much to the point. That’s why we may need both an expert in evolutionary biology and an expert in the relevant mathematics present at the seminar to counter Dembski’s balderdash.

  13. Ben
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    This should really be brought to the attention of “higher ups” at the university. This is embarrassing. You have to nip this kind of thing in the bud.

  14. Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    Good grief, it is shocking that this person sincerely believes that all opinions are equally valid. He or she has the same understanding of science as the media members who deny climate change because a few people think it is wrong.

    • reasonshark
      Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:33 am | Permalink

      Unfortunate side effect of the “freedom of speech” ethos, I think. Sooner or later, especially if they have a commitment or interest in a particular viewpoint, someone is going to (mis)interpret it as “all views are equal”. After all, we don’t know everything, so it’s “arrogant” to say otherwise, isn’t it?

      Honestly, though, this was the bit that annoyed me more:

      Should we require that the speaker hold opinions that are also held by
      the majority of professionals in his area?

      Well yes, as a matter of fact, if that “opinion” is trying to masquerade as scientifically respectable, that would certainly help. That’s why they have peer review, publicly available papers, and testable (ideally repeatable) claims as criteria for scientific acceptability. And this is making the generous assumption that Dembski has an “area”, given what I’ve seen in comments above mine on his academic credentials.

      And no, I have no issue with more speculative and controversial issues being publicly discussed, (provided that disclaimers are frequently put forwards to that effect), but they have to be actual controversies and speculations from the field, not a bystander’s bag of baloney pretending to be either of these things. Dembski doesn’t even pass this trivial benchmark.

      • Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:59 am | Permalink


        “Of course science doesn’t know everything … else it’d stop” — Dara Ó Briain

        And while science certainly does know everything that *is*, there is much it does know with vanishingly small uncertainty (such as Jerry’s oft-quoted examples of the chemical composition of water, the germ theory of disease, and so on).

        What’s more, it can be equally certain about that some things *are not*, such as caloric, phlogiston, the luminiferous æther, the conjectured fourth-generation of quarks and leptons, and any forces other than those of the Standard Model that are not negligible at the energy scales of everyday life (and a good way beyond).

        *This* should be better understood. But the consequences of the most recent example are anathema anyone with any kind of supernaturalistic beliefs, and are likely to be furiously denied.


  15. Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    I was a graduate student in the Department of History at U of Chicago between 1964-1968. My degree was from this department, though the person who guided my thesis was Dick Lewontin. I have never heard of any such present as Dembski at a seminar in that Department. He would present a seminar at the department who gave me my doctorate: What a total disaster this presentation will be.

  16. Bill P.
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree that the credibility of the University of Chicago will be undermined and used against it.

    I once wrote Dembski when I was bored a year ago: What I wrote and his response:

    “….I have been taught that one of the tenets of science is having a critical open mind. I have followed your work carefully and feel that your ideas, while interesting, are clearly biased away from your objectivity towards science.

    I feel you need to really evaluate if you are a true scientist, and what your scientific and personal legacy will be. You are ignoring the very grounds that science is based on. It discredits both you and the scientific community. I think you have to decide whether you want to be a scientist, or something else, but clearly you are neither now.”


    William A. Dembski


    My first question is who are you to judge my scientific contributions. My second is what exactly have you read of mine to think you can render such a judgment. If you haven’t read the papers on the publications page at http://www.evoinfo.org, then you really are blowing smoke.

  17. Pliny the in Between
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    FYI, I’m posting the link to the follow-up cartoon that goes with the one Jerry used. Roolz check! – I think it is related to the current discussion about the credibility of the arguments likely to be heard at U or C.


    • Heather Hastie
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Love it!

  18. Gordon Hill
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    “…every opinion must be expressed to procure the “widest possible dialog.”… is a classic cop out meaning don’t ask me to think.

  19. Posted August 10, 2014 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to add that the reasoning behind not inviting a holocaust denier to speak is atrocious. Because it is emotional! Really?! That’s the deciding factor? Not that it is BS?

    • Keith
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      Or topics that are politicized? No more talks having anything to do with reproductive biology or climate physics. Dembski’s host should think long and hard about his decision to dig in and craft this untenable position.

  20. Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Such a whirling dance of slick, evasive non-answers probably didn’t even cause any cognitive dizziness for the performer. Practice does makes perfect.

  21. colnago80
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    I would point out that not only is Dumbski a liar, he is also a coward. He chickened out of testifying at the Dover trial when he found out that Jeffrey Shallit would be on hand to refute his nonsense in rebuttal. As someone with a PhD in physics, I find it embarrassing that the clown inviting him to lecture is a physicist, apparently his PhD adviser.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:47 am | Permalink

      Right, he was one of many rats who left the sinking ship of ID at Dover. Was he afraid of being on the losing side? Afraid of begin held legally accountable for his testimony? Afraid of being held professionally accountable by Shallit? Some or all of the above? Other less-than-honorable reasons?

  22. Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    His wife, Jana, also studied at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The “widest possible inviolability” appears to be familial.

  23. Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Bravo on speaking up! You presented logical reasons for not having a debunked theory presented. It sounds as though Dembski’s teacher feels that creationism is legitimate. How very disappointing in this day and age.

  24. Posted August 10, 2014 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I don’t think that Dembski will argue from the No Free Lunch Theorem. That argument against the effectiveness of natural selection was demolished repeatedly, starting in 2001 (on this point my article was just a reasonably clear semi-popular account).

    Lately he has mostly either made Michael-Behe-style arguments about Irreducible Complexity, or has used an argument that he and Robert Marks have that argues that if a fitness surface is smooth enough for evolution to find its way to much better fitness, a Designer must have set up that fitness surface.

    That argument is really a theistic evolution model, as the Designer acts only at the beginning. In some posts at Panda’s Thumb (here and here I argue that ordinary physics and chemistry predispose us to have fitness surfaces much smoother than the infinitely jaggy “white noise” surfaces that Dembski and Marks take as the ones that occur without the Designer.

    Such assumptions of infinitely-jaggy fitness surfaces also appear in Dembski’s use of the NFL, but in the argument with Marks smoothish fitness surfaces are conceded, and then taken as impossible without a Designer.

    • Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink


      Check out Dembski’s precis at https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2014/08/08/creationist-dembski-gives-academic-talk-at-my-university/

      and then let me know what you think. Sounds like the same old stuff to me.


      • Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

        I think the part about “at best redistributes already existing information” indicates that he will use the argument about the presence of smooth fitness surfaces being explicable only by having a Designer. That is also his (and Marks’s) “Search For a Search” argument, which I also addressed in my 2007 article.

        Maybe someone can report here what arguments he actually uses. I’m willing to make one of my 25¢ bets on the matter.

        • Posted August 10, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

          The “Search for a Search” argument seems to be a significant retreat on Dembski’s part. He is essentially admitting that known evolutionary mechanisms do, in fact, work in the environment in which we find ourselves. The people in the pews buying his books aren’t going to like that.

          His claim that the existence of a search space[*] amenable to evolutionary algorithms itself requires an explanation is nothing more than scuttling back to the anthropic argument for the existence of god — hardly cutting edge mathematics.

          [*] Leaving aside, ad arguendo, the problems with modeling evolution as a search in the first place.

          • Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

            I think Dembski’s position on Search For a Search is that even if he admits the efficacy of natural selection, this shows that even in that case a Designer is needed. But that he is not conceding the efficacy of natural selection, just investigating whether a Designer is needed if one supposes it to be efficaceous.

            However this has become his main argument, so that is a de facto concession on his part.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      Variations on a theme, no? There are laws, there must be a lawgiver. There is design, there must be a designer. There is a fitness surface, there must be a fitness surfacer. More appeals to ignorance and more unsupported assertions which they require to prop up their worldview.

  25. Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Let’s hope that there will be some present who have actually read some of Dembski’s stuff. I doubt that anyone who has done so would summarize Dembski’s position as:

    “Dembsky’s use of the no free lunch theorem points out that, if the fitness landscape is sufficiently rough, and if one depends on a truly random walk through that landscape, evolution will not work. “

  26. Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    I’m probably breaking da roolz Jerry, but I am sad and surprised that you aren’t going to attend Dembski’s talk. Your work is so important and this man is about to try to convince the attendees that what you and many others have spent their academic careers on is worthless. What about Neil Shubin or someone else on the U of C faculty?

    If you cannot make it, is there any way you can make sure someone who can appropriately address his comments will attend and speak up (even in “the measured tones appropriate for academic discussion”?

    Perhaps the organizers would allow a counterpoint response to Dembski’s talk? How many of the attendees will be unfamiliar with how thoroughly Dembski’s ideas have been debunked?

    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

      It would be better if someone proficient in the topic at hand attended, this is not directly down Jerry’s alley. It’s too bad that Dembski’s thesis adviser doesn’t seem to fit the description.

  27. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    In keeping with the sort of armchair thought experiment that “Dembsky” favors, say that JHVH were stuck in an airport bar during a layover, having a few drinks. It’s quite possible an appetizer buffet was provided gratis, which would clearly meet any charitable interpretation of “free lunch”.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

      Hmm, the Drunk Deity hypothesis might account for all those examples of unintelligent design. It wasn’t maliciousness or incompetence or apathy, it was insobriety!

      • Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

        Ah, and the classic drunken friend, “I really, really love you!”


  28. D. Taylor
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    May knowledge shrink from less to less and so be human life degraded.

    • George
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Trying to remember my high school latin –
      Horreat Scientia, Vita Inhonestur.

      Actual UofC motto is “Crescat Scientia, Vita Excolatur” – which they translate as “Let knowledge grow from more to more; and so be human life enriched.”

  29. michaelfugate
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    It is in fact illegal to teach Dembski’s ideas in public secondary schools, as Judge Jones ruled in the Dover case on Intelligent Design (a case from which Dembski, as a defense witness who possibly foresaw their defeat, withdrew at the last minute).

    ID emerges from the first three chapters of Genesis – humans were made in God’s image (the only one of God’s creation to be made such) and have dominion over all other living things. This interpretation assumes that how humans think and create explains how God thinks and creates. It requires human exceptionalism – no common ancestry with other animals. It is theology pure and simple.

  30. Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Take him out to eat at the finest restaurant in Chicago, then leave him with the bill. ID deserves NFL vindication.

  31. Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    A truly liberal university must include the widest possible dialog provided it comes from authoritative, intellectually honest sources.

    A respectable university doesn’t enable charlatans to continue disseminating disinformation by vouchsafing them a platform.

    I’m willing to bet the inviter is a religious person who would argue against evolution.

  32. Posted August 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Excellent final response.

  33. docbill1351
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    I sent a note to Kadanoff and urged him to cancel the seminar, apologize, take his licks and move on.

    I told him that Dembski has done and continues to do major harm to science education in this country through the lobbying efforts of the Disco Tute. You only have to listen to Disco Tute flacks testify, unchallenged, before an all too receptive state board of education (Texas in my case) to realize how slick, shallow and deceitful presentations bend votes.

    Furthermore I noted that by giving Dembski the veneer of legitimacy, this will be used in further propaganda efforts by the Disco Tute. In fact, Klinkenklomper has already ballyhooed Dembski’s upcoming talk at the majestic, glorious, oh-so-prestegious ivory tower U of C!

    Kadanoff has acted irresponsibly but he still has three days to EXPELL Dembski. I’ll take pseudo-martyrdom over free publicity any day.

  34. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    But the question is not the truth or falsity of his arguments. Has he used the tools of the math and philosophy trades in such a manner as to provoke further thought about the tools, the disciples, and our modes of thinking? I believe that he has done so.

    When I look up WAD in Web Of Science, his papers are not getting cited much. Not a single paper listed has made it into double digits. The statement by your correspondent appears not to bear up under examination.

    • Hempenstein
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      See Torbjörn’s link up @ his comment to #4, too.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      Also, truth isn’t just chopped liver.

  35. Posted August 10, 2014 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    I hope some of the university community show up to “offer questions and opinions in the measured tones appropriate for academic discussion.”

    If any UofC undergrads with a passion for refuting creationist nonsense and some minimal public speaking skills decide to show up and live blog Dembski’s presentation, I suspect they would find a number of people willing to provide them with arguments and references to counter Dembski’s claims in real time.

    All the material is readily available — let’s make sure he can’t ignore it this time.

  36. Posted August 10, 2014 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    I have to say this is the first time I’ve ever been the least bit embarrassed to have a degree from U of C.

  37. scottoest
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    One thing I noticed, that always instantly irritates me, is that he/she made the same subtle conflation creationists often make. He/she conflated “not wanting to air discredited theories” with “only airing the scientific majority opinion”.

    The problem isn’t that Dembski’s theories stray from the scientific majority – it’s that his theories are completely discredited.

    This silly argument really does mean that they should just invite anyone with a pulse and an opinion, in order to accommodate the “widest” dialogue possible.

    Frankly, I think this person is just as much of an embarrassment to the university.

  38. Hempenstein
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    From his Wikipedia page, it appears that WAD’s an anti-vaxxer, too.

  39. Posted August 10, 2014 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    As a foreigner who likes America and sees how its Academy leads the rest of the academic world, I find this very disturbing.
    The moments Dembski speaks at a respectable University, he will no longer be a religious person using scientific jargon to justify religion, but “a scientist”.

  40. Roger
    Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    “Causal specificity.” Sounds really technical. Presumably whatever it is, it is well-defined and ID has a lot of it. (Hardy har har.)

  41. Posted August 10, 2014 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    If nature is so specifically complex, then how presumptuous is this Dembski character to attempt to calculate its improbability? This seems like the most jargon-rich argument from incredulity yet

    • Matt G
      Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:58 am | Permalink

      I’m sure that minimum probability can be found somewhere in the Bible. That, or God – sorry, the Intelligent Designer – whispered it in his ear.

  42. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted August 11, 2014 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    “he/she invited “Dembsky” … with “full knowledge and aforethought.”

    Ouch. Is that quoted correctly? Misspelling Dembsky isn’t the only mistake.

    Aforethought != forethought.

    For starters, one’s an adjective, other’s a noun.

    (Signed: Your local friendly grammar Nazi 🙂

  43. Posted August 11, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    At what point did people just all together stop drawing a distinction between a speculative if not numinous argument with dubious empirical (or in the case of Dembski, mathematical) support and a grounded argument with factual support? Orr’s debunking of Dembski’s application of NFL theory to evolution isn’t just Orr’s subjective opinion, he objectively defeats Dembski’s argument. But, therein lies the problem. I fear that to most folk, objective fact is no different or more compelling than subjective, unsubstantiated opinion.

  44. Posted August 11, 2014 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Jerry, what can we do? Is there someone at UC with whom we can lodge a protest?

    As a UC alum and donor for 30+ years, I think I have an obligation to do more than rant on your blog.

    • Posted August 11, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      I doubt you can do anything. I don’t advocate trying to get Dembskis invitation revoked, but I do think that the University should know that it’s hosting and funding creationists to give talks. You could write to people who run the seminar, on the page given in my first post,but I doubt that it’ll do much good. But if you’re a donor, you’ll really carry more clout with the University President Robert Zimmer, a smart and savvy guy.

      My own tactic, were I a donor, would be not to urge censorship, but to denigrate the presentation of falsified creationist views such as Dembski’s, which hurts the university’s reputation.

      Zimmer’s contact info is here:


  45. Posted August 11, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    When I was an undergrad, back in the 1960s, my university invited Emmanuel Velikovsky to speak. Everyone knew he was a crackpot, of course, but his talk was marvellously enertaining, as was the bull session in the college commons afterward. Somehow, Jerry, I doubt your crackpot will provide your school with an evening anything even close to that entertaining.

    • colnago80
      Posted August 11, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      When I was a graduate student, one of the physics professors who went to Princeton was a member of the same synagogue as Velikovsky there. He found that Velikovsky was rather a nice fellow who was highly intelligent and totally ignorant of physics.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 12, 2014 at 1:01 am | Permalink

        “totally ignorant of physics”

        That was painfully obvious from Velikovsky’s theories. I’d say Velikovsky’s ignorance of physics was orders of magnitude beyond Dembski’s ignorance of biology.

  46. Jorge Andrade
    Posted August 12, 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    “In cases where prior knowledge is available, the alternative to ‘an open mind’ is not a ‘closed mind’. It is ‘an informed mind’. In such contexts, any appeal to ‘keep an open mind’ is an appeal to prefer ignorance over knowledge. This is not advisable.” – Ian Rowland

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