Taking Questions from Students

William Demsbki includes credit in his course for students for participating in online exchanges. Someone claiming to be a student of his has shown up at AtBC and asked some questions. I felt moved to provide some answers.




Dembski has in fact mentioned “respectful treatment” in so many words. From my class experience thus far, he is very respectful and seeks to explain the various viewpoints many mainstream scientists hold (ie: Francis Collins, Dawkins, Behe, Gould, etc.).

It's nice that Dembski's demeanor in class is sanguine. However, he isn't always so reserved. Check out his Intelligent Design Coming Clean essay, where he refers to yours truly as an "Internet stalker". Those of us who have seen this aspect of Dembski's behavior aren't so quick to give him a pass on it.




Unfortunately I cannot comment on your second question as I am not as read-up on the Kitzmiller v Dover case as I should. My assumption would be that Dembski has perfectly good reason for the action he took (if you’d like I can ask him :) ).

One of my treasured memories from 2005 is when Stephen Harvey called on Friday to say that Bill Dembski was withdrawn as a witness and would not be deposed as planned the following Monday. He told us that the last communication Pepper Hamilton had with the Thomas More Law Center was to inform them that Jeff Shallit and myself would be coming to assist Harvey in deposing Dembski. Coincidence? Perhaps, but also perhaps not.




Why is there such an irrational disgust for scientific data or theories that might combat evolutionary theory? For example, just this past week I was listening to a radio broadcast taking questions/comments on the Texas textbook issues. A gentleman phoned in and suggested that evolution be the only theory taught (period). When the broadcaster questioned, why not teach theistic evolution, creationism, intelligent design, and evolution? The man erupted and was distraught at the idea of any separate (inaccurate – the man’s wording) theory being taught other than evolution. He confidently asserted that evolution was the ONLY and wholly ACCURATE theory. Why be so dogmatic against other views?

There is quite rational disgust for the unseemly way that the socio-political religious antievolution movement seeks to undermine science education in this country. Perhaps you have been misinformed about this?

Some explanations have gone through a process of having hypotheses generated, tested against empirical data, published in the technical literature, discussions concerning the ideas leading to refinement and further tests, and eventually the scientific community comes to accept the idea as having merit if it consistently passes tests, and discarded as implausible if it fails to consistently pass those tests. These are the concepts worthy of being taught in a science class. Evolutionary science meets that standard. The other conjectures you list (not theories; they are not anywhere close to having the status of theory) have not been through that process and do not have that status, and thus are not suitable to bring up in science class. After all, treating something that isn't science as if it were science is a recipe for sowing confusion about what science is.

In 2006, I had the opportunity to ask Dembski himself about whether "intelligent design" should get a pass on this process. I pointed that that "cold fusion", the archetypal not-ready-for-prime-time physics theory, had over 900 peer-reviewed articles on the topic, while the Discovery Institute's list of articles was still in the double digits. Nobody claims that public school K-12 students should be "taught the controversy" over cold fusion. Should ID get a pass? I transcribed Dembski's response, which is long but works out to be the same as Michael Ruse's immediate, "No."



Most mainstream scientists that I have read so far would all agree to something of this effect: Creationists are irrational and fail to objectively look at scientific evidence. Help me understand how this might be true and if evolution proponents can live up to the same scrutiny?

Religious antievolutionists are not always irrational; they quite commonly show areas where they perform quite well. Forrest Mims III is an excellent electronics engineer. John Baumgardner writes good modeling code for a national lab. But when it comes to the topic of evolution, religious antievolutionists seem not to be able to process the information in any way that can be considered scholarly. They make the most egregious misrepresentations repeatedly, which either indicates that they don't know what they criticize or that they are choosing to tell falsehoods knowingly. There is a tendency for religious antievolutionists to pass on and exaggerate material from other religious antievolutionists.

As for scientists living up to the sort of scrutiny that we'd hold religious antievolutionists to, please do check out the scientific literature. It is pretty common there to find extended debate over methodology and interpretation, and the amazing thing is that you can join in if you can get up to speed. However, getting up to speed often requires years of study and preparation in the field of interest, not just a weekend reading the latest propaganda book from the Discovery Institute crew.



Why do you automatically suspect that what his students have to say might be inherently false and what you (or others) have to say is truth?

Part A: Past experience is not a perfect predictor of future performance, but it often works well as a guide.

Part B: I'm only speaking of science, not "truth" in the abstract. Science delivers knowledge with a degree of uncertainty. It is a limited enterprise, and gains much of its power because it is a limited enterprise.

On the other hand, I have no reservation in pointing out the rampant falsehoods promulgated from the religious antievolution movement. Correcting what is obviously wrong is a worthwhile endeavor in my opinion. You mileage may vary.

If you are interested in even more information about Dembski's ideas, you should read this. It is likely that you would get no response from Dembski other than a dismissal that the essay is somehow "out of date", even though he has not bothered to retract any of the stuff criticized there. Don't you think that if a claim has been made that is wrong, that an author should acknowledge the error and seek to correct it?

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

7 thoughts on “Taking Questions from Students

  • 2010/03/16 at 10:40 am

    An excellent exchange. Should be a handout in every freshman biology class.

  • 2010/03/16 at 12:23 pm

    Very interesting! What was BJRay’s final reply, or is this exchange still going on?

  • 2010/03/16 at 3:09 pm

    Your 3rd and 4th responses actually dovetail quite nicely into a single point: scientists value participation in the peer review process because we accept that people behave somewhat irrationally, are biased and make mistakes.

  • 2010/03/16 at 8:02 pm

    The exchange is continuing. BJRay has acknowledged responses and has promised a reply.

  • 2010/03/17 at 5:52 am

    On the other hand, I have no reservation in pointing out the rampant falsehoods promulgated from the religious antievolution movement.

    I don’t think that can be stressed enough: That people, coming from a tradition that theoretically prefers truth and despises lies and deception, continually lie about science and evidence. You can’t call it a “mistake”, because they’ll acknowledge an error in a debate and then repeat it at a later time as if it had never been challenged. Oh, and I believe we should stop calling them “falsehoods” and insist on “lies”.

  • 2010/03/19 at 5:25 pm

    > Dembski has in fact mentioned “respectful treatment” in so many words.

    I couldn’t get past this. You wouldn’t have a link to the Dover fart video Demski produced? Or any of his other petulant childish outbursts?

  • 2010/03/20 at 8:33 am

    There’s the less flatulent version at the “Overwhelming Evidence” site. There’s Ed Brayton’s on-target commentary about Dembski’s “street theater” episode.

    Yeah, Dembski complaining about “respectful treatment” is quite a stretch.

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