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 I would rarely ask that a seminar invitation at an academic institution be canceled or rescinded.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
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:
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.
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?
I finish with a Dembki-related cartoon produced by reader Pliny the in Between: